Overshadowed by the extrovert Countach and built in perishingly small numbers, the little-known Silhouette of 1976 could be the car that saved Lamborghini

by HENRY CATCHPOLE
PHOTOGRAPHY by DEAN SMITH

he bathroom suite, resplendent in a shade of sludgy avocado, was probably the thing that most obviously dated the cottage, but the colour scheme in the rest of the rooms was redolent of a different era, too. A Neapolitan theme to interior decorating saw a mocha brown hallway fading into a primrose yellow kitchen, while the floor-to-ceiling pink bedroom was like sleeping inside a marshmallow. The oven next to the steel sink had one of those high grills above the hob and there should have been an Apple II on a desk. If I’d turned on the television (Trinitron, obviously), I would have expected to see Gilles Villeneuve wrestling a 312, or the Jam on Top of the Pops.

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If you haven’t guessed, the first time I set foot in my house five years ago, it really was like stepping back into the 1970s. And when I walked back outside the dilapidated time warp, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this Lamborghini Silhouette had been parked up at the kerb. Apart from being in far better condition than the house, it would have fitted in perfectly because I really can’t think of a more ’70s car.

For a start there is the colour: Rame Colorado simply couldn’t be more perfect for the period that gave us Saturday Night Fever. And yet perhaps surprisingly, this is the only Silhouette known to have been painted this hue; most were Rosso Siviglia (red) or Bianco Labrador (white). This might also be only the third occasion in the history of the motorcar where gold wheels have looked good. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these are not only some of the best gold (the actual colour is Perlgold, which is German for Pearl Gold) wheels, but just some of the best wheels ever. The way the rears dish so deeply is gorgeous and I love the contrast between the overtly curvaceous design of the telephone-dial holes and the straight lines on the rest of the car. Campagnolo might be better known for making iconic components for racing bicycles, but these 15-inch alloys must be some of its best work.

The interior is arguably even better. It just needs a glitter ball swinging from the rear-view mirror. But we’ll get to that in a minute, because I’m getting ahead of myself. I should really explain what the Silhouette is before we go any further.

The mid-’70s were not the happiest of times for Lamborghini, and indeed 1977, when this car rolled out of Sant’Agata, was a time of distinct unrest for the whole of Italy. The Left were revolting and there were riots as close to home as Bologna, where one man was shot. Perhaps more pertinent to a manufacturer of supercars (although the genre was still in its infancy) was the oil crisis that had hit sales hard.

With all his companies struggling, Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold his final shares in Automobili Lamborghini in 1974, giving control to Georges-Henri Rossetti and René Leimer. Bob Wallace, Lamborghini’s famous test driver, had also left in 1975. The product line-up consisted of the Countach and the Urraco (of which more in a moment), neither of which was homologated for the huge US market. In short, Lamborghini was a small independent company with something of a cash-flow problem.

The board of directors looked at the lucrative targa market being exploited by Porsche and Ferrari in America and decided that they needed to add Lamborghini’s first open-top car to the line-up. The obvious car to convert was the Urraco, a 2+2 coupe that had debuted at the Turin motor show in 1970. The Urraco’s shape was created by Lamborghini’s go-to designer, Marcello Gandini at Bertone, while its sheet-steel platform chassis was built in Modena by Marchesi. The initial Urraco P250 wasn’t great, with its L240 transverse V8 feeling underpowered and displaying a propensity for breaking timing belts. However, the subsequent P300 that arrived in 1975 fixed this with a more powerful, 247bhp 3-litre V8 complete with timing chains. This was the engine that would be used for the Silhouette.

The interior is arguably even better. It just needs a glitter ball swinging from the rear-view mirror. But we’ll get to that in a minute, because I’m getting ahead of myself. I should really explain what the Silhouette is before we go any further.

The mid-’70s were not the happiest of times for Lamborghini, and indeed 1977, when this car rolled out of Sant’Agata, was a time of distinct unrest for the whole of Italy. The Left were revolting and there were riots as close to home as Bologna, where one man was shot. Perhaps more pertinent to a manufacturer of supercars (although the genre was still in its infancy) was the oil crisis that had hit sales hard.

With all his companies struggling, Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold his final shares in Automobili Lamborghini in 1974, giving control to Georges-Henri Rossetti and René Leimer. Bob Wallace, Lamborghini’s famous test driver, had also left in 1975. The product line-up consisted of the Countach and the Urraco (of which more in a moment), neither of which was homologated for the huge US market. In short, Lamborghini was a small independent company with something of a cash-flow problem.

The board of directors looked at the lucrative targa market being exploited by Porsche and Ferrari in America and decided that they needed to add Lamborghini’s first open-top car to the line-up. The obvious car to convert was the Urraco, a 2+2 coupe that had debuted at the Turin motor show in 1970. The Urraco’s shape was created by Lamborghini’s go-to designer, Marcello Gandini at Bertone, while its sheet-steel platform chassis was built in Modena by Marchesi. The initial Urraco P250 wasn’t great, with its L240 transverse V8 feeling underpowered and displaying a propensity for breaking timing belts. However, the subsequent P300 that arrived in 1975 fixed this with a more powerful, 247bhp 3-litre V8 complete with timing chains. This was the engine that would be used for the Silhouette.

Now, it might seem like a relatively short, even cheap development process to simply lop the roof off a Urraco P300, and in some ways it was, as the Urraco chassis didn’t need much strengthening, but the Silhouette, or P118 as it was known internally, had a crucial difference. The chassis development was masterminded by Gian Paolo Dallara (who was on the board of Lamborghini) and much of the focus was directed towards the new Pirelli P7 tyre. Dallara actually said at the time that the P7 was ‘the greatest single component breakthrough in the history of the car’. The tyre’s new low-profile design allowed a bigger contact patch and larger diameter rims. For comparison, the contemporary LP400 Countach has 215/70 tyres mounted on 14-inch rims at the rear, while the Silhouette (a car much the Countach’s junior) has 285/40 tyres mounted on 15-inch rims.

The distinctive flat-top arches (attached to existing Urraco pressings to save money) were a direct result of the new tyres, as these were not only wider but their low profile also gave the car a significantly different look. Initially the Silhouette, which had MacPherson struts all round, was very sensitive to bump-steer on the new tyres, but modifications were made to the steering arms and the lower suspension arms. The lost ground clearance was also compensated for with spacers above the top mounts. Interestingly, at the same time as Lamborghini and Dallara were developing the Silhouette, they were also creating the BMW M1 around the same P7 tyres (although of a more conservative size). The Silhouette is even named after the Group 5 racing cars Dallara so loved and which the M1 was being designed to compete with.

On 25 September 1976 the first Silhouette was completed, but during its four-year production run just 52 would be built and the company would go into receivership. Prospective buyers had to be pretty keen on the car, too, as cash-strapped Lamborghini asked them to pay up front. Around 40 are still thought to exist today and this car, one of only two known Silhouettes on the road in the UK, is owned by Richard Head (who also has other interesting things such as a BMW 3.0 CSL). The car originally left the factory about a week before Christmas in 1977 and went to Hubert Hahne, a dealer in Germany. By the mid-’80s, however, it was in a collection in the USA and painted red. It’s worth noting that despite the Silhouette being partly built to cash-in on the convertible-hungry American market, the car was never sold over there because the V8 didn’t meet Californian emissions regulations – partly explaining the small production run. Anyway, this car was eventually liberated from the collection in 2007 and, via a few other owners, arrived back in the UK in 2010. Richard had it repainted in its original colour earlier this year.

With the grey summer skies threatening but not promising rain, we decide to risk removing the targa top. It’s a two-person job, and the single panel goes in a large pouch behind the seats. There is actually a surprising amount of storage space and the boot behind the engine is plenty big enough for a few squashy bags. The door handles are shared with a Fiat X1/9 (the Fiat also had MacPherson struts all round), but to be honest your eyes are looking elsewhere as you get in.

‘I assume those aren’t really speakers in the headrests of the seats?’ I ask Richard incredulously. ‘Oh yes they are!’ he replies with a grin.

I’m almost tempted to question the identity of the round thing in front of me as I drop down onto the tech-packed driver’s seat, because the hugely dished four-spoke steering wheel looks like it’s been stretched during the last jump to hyperspace.

Twist the key while holding the throttle open a touch and the engine comes to life. Richard suggests that double declutching might be necessary when things are cold and I give the left-hand pedal a couple of exploratory prods before sliding a small metal barrier across the northwest prong of the open gate and selecting reverse on the dog-leg five-speed ’box. There’s plenty of torque from tickover, so manoeuvring is relatively easy, although the big buttresses obscure your rearward vision a bit.

The first few gearchanges are tentative, but the ’box actually proves very sweet, with a lovely positive shift around the gate. The pedals have that pleasing resistance that you no longer find in anything modern, and soon my slight trepidation has melted into a much more relaxed enjoyment of all the weights and sensations. The cabin feels quite comfortably spacious and, despite the roof being off, there is almost no buffeting. So often you get into older cars and feel that a short journey is all that you could manage, but the Silhouette instantly feels like it wants to settle in for a long haul. Undertaking a trip to Le Mans or even further down through France and into Spain feels like something it was born to do.

The biggest surprise is the engine, which is an absolute joy. A 3-litre V8 seems just right somehow: large enough to have decent torque but small enough to rev quickly and sweetly. And that’s exactly how it feels. Crack open the throttle low down in second or third gear and you get instant response that then builds and builds with the revs rising so cleanly and quickly that you feel like it will just keep going. Richard says 7000rpm is where he generally shifts up (500rpm before the limiter), but it’s easy to go beyond that if you’re not concentrating because there’s no sense of the V8 tying up. It’s one of the sweetest engines I’ve ever experienced and a real surprise.

Despite the open roof, the best place to actually hear the engine is from a following car, or standing at the side of the road. In this day and age of manufactured pops and crackles on overrunning engines, it’s nice to hear the genuine article. The best sound, however, is when the engine is under load. It has the deep growl of a much larger V8 and there’s that slight rawness that you never get with modern cars. If you’re on the verge or pavement as it goes past then there’s something of the low-flying P-51 Mustang about the experience and you can’t help but smile.

The engine is not without its foibles, though, as the row of spare spark plugs in the engine bay attests. Richard says that Lamborghini decided that the cheaper option of providing a place for spare plugs was preferable to building a better, more reliable engine. Of course, the transverse layout means that it’s easy enough to change the plugs on the rear bank of the V8, but the ones facing the bulkhead are a bit more of a pain to get at. And while we’ve got the louvred cover open, you might notice that the fuel filler cap is under here. For a start, this makes it look like you’ve broken down every time you go to fill up with petrol. It also seems rather inadvisable to have to slosh petrol around quite so near hot metal…

As I increase the pace while repeating a few bends for the sake of Dean Smith’s Nikon, it becomes clear that the cornering grip from those big tyres (Yokohama now rather than Pirelli) is prodigious. In fact, it has the sort of tenacity that makes you wonder what would happen if it ever got away from you… I imagine a lot of space would be required. That’s not to say you can’t finesse the Silhouette through corners, because you can really alter the weighting of the steering depending on how you tackle things, and there is a lovely sense of connection through that slightly bonkers-looking wheel. It all feels remarkably stiff in the body, too.

By today’s standards, it’s not quick (although all that traction would no doubt help it get close to its claimed 6.4sec 0-60mph time), but the Silhouette is a very lovely thing. I had expected it to be incredibly cool to look at and then rather flimsily disappointing to drive, but that engine is something else, and I could happily imagine taking a Silhouette on a big trip. Perhaps a tour of 1970s architecture…

Valuing the Silhouette is tricky because it’s rare that one ever comes up for sale. Richard reckons they are probably similar in value to glassfibre-bodied Ferrari 308s, which would put them at upwards of £150,000. The value that the Silhouette has to Lamborghini, however, is much harder to gauge. Although it had a very limited production run, it brought in much-needed funds during a period so lean that the company eventually went bankrupt. On the far side of that bankruptcy, the Silhouette also provided the basis for the Jalpa, which would help to drag Lamborghini on through the ’80s until it was sold to Chrysler. In short, without this car’s input it is entirely possible we wouldn’t have Lamborghini with us today.

Lamborghini Silhouette
Engine V8, 2996cc  Power 247bhp @ 7500rpm  Torque 195lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar  
Wheels 8 x 15in front, 11 x 15in rear  Tyres 195/15 VR15 front, 285/40 VR15 rear  Weight 1200kg Power-to-weight 209bhp/ton  0-60mph 6.4sec (claimed)  Top speed 162mph+ (claimed)
On sale 1976-79  Value today £150,000+

evo rating: ★★★★☆

‘as it goes past there’s something of the low-flying mustang p-51 about it’

‘Crack open the throttle low down in second or third gear and you get instant response’

‘I could happily imagine taking a silhouette on a big trip’