The Lamborghini men had some amazing adventures during the first, top-secret tests on the Diablo prototype. Years later, Luigi Marmiroli recalls what incredible lengths they had to go to, to avoid the lenses of the photographers chasing a scoop.
Photos courtesy of Luigi Marmiroli Archive
As explained in previous articles, I was hired by Automobili Lamborghini with a mission: to design a new supercar to replace the legendary but now obsolete Countach. Having studied all the designs of my illustrious predecessors, engineers of the calibre of Bizzarrini, Dallara, Stanzani, Alfieri, and having met the founder himself, Ferruccio Lamborghini, I threw myself whole-heartedly into the P132 project, the future Diablo.
The first thing I did was send the mechanical layout of the car to two of the most important stylists of the period: Giorgietto Giugiaro and Marcello Gandini. Traditionally, at any car manufacturers the burden and honour of the choice of style lay with the shareholder. And Patrick Mimran, the young shareholder, with all my support and approval, chose Marcello Gandini. I think readers will be pleased to see Gandini’s first P132 rendering, which he kindly dedicated to me.
In April 1987, the P132 prototype was rolled out into the factory courtyard for the first time, for the tests on the road and in the wind tunnel. And no-one could have imagined that the moon could have influenced the development of the design...!
Episode One: the real moon. The news that Lamborghini was working on a new prototype had reached the press, and outside the factory gates we began to see photographers with their telephoto lenses, trying to steal a few shots and be the first to publish a photo of the new car.
Today, specially designed skins are applied to the bodywork to completely hide the shape of the car. But at that time, they didn’t exist, and we decided to paint the P132 in an anonymous “mousy grey” colour and add improbable air intakes using adhesive tape. We had also decided to do the road tests at night: both to hide the prototype from prying eyes, and to avoid any speeding fines, as it was fundamental to test a high-performance car at high speed.
Not far from Sant’Agata, there was a petrol station on a long straight road, and at night it was closed, but kept a few dim lights switched on. It immediately became our control and support base. I remember perfectly how, in the dark, you could hear the roaring engine in the distance, and then suddenly when the grey car flashed past the station it caused a huge thrill.
The test driver was almost always Valentino Balboni. One night, in the car with him was an engineer from the ‘Esperienze’ department who was recording the vehicle data. Suddenly, the – clearly still experimental – electrical system broke down, and the car, at high speed on a rather narrow road, found itself with no engine and no headlights.
Luckily, there was a bright full moon that night, and Valentino was able to stop the car without hitting any ditches, bollards or trees. So, the moon saved Valentino, the engineer and the newborn P132 prototype.
Episode Two: that same moon brought us luck. Obviously, I was anxious to test the aerodynamics of the P132 in the wind tunnel. The nearest tunnel to the Lamborghini factory was at Pininfarina in Turin, but I thought we should avoid that one because Ferrari used it for both their competition and road cars: I was worried that the results could fall into the hands of Ferrari, potentially our competitor.
So I decided to go to the St Cyr tunnel in Paris. To save money and keep things under wraps, we decided not to appoint a professional haulier but to transport the prototype ourselves. So we put the prototype on a trailer. Of course, we covered it with a waterproof canvas, and used polyurethane blocks to make the cargo unrecognisable. Then we hitched the trailer to my company car, without thinking that its front-wheel drive wasn’t suited to towing a heavy trailer.
And we realised this immediately, when one Sunday morning we set off for Paris. There were four people in the tow car, all involved in the tests in the wind tunnel. I was half asleep in the back, and as we were driving along the A1 motorway near Parma, a terrible thing happened.
I woke up with a jolt as the convoy, heading north, suddenly found itself in the fast lane, but heading in the opposite direction. The prototype on the trailer was resting heavily against the guardrail, but luckily was undamaged thanks to the polyurethane masking.
All four of us in the car were unscathed, but our hearts were pounding, and we were terrorised by the thought of a truck coming at high speed towards us, which would have caused an inevitable and disastrous head-on collision. With a cool head, the driver did a U-turn to face the right direction and move onto the hard shoulder, as many cars continued to fly past.
We were all safe, us and the prototype. A miracle. The only problem was that the drawbar on the trailer had broken: we fixed it and set off once more for Paris. However, at speeds of more than 50 km/h, the convoy would sway awfully, and we were worried that we would find ourselves in that same dangerous situation we had narrowly escaped.
At that speed, it took us a whole day to get to Paris. Our nerves in tatters from the hazardous journey, and worn out, we were welcomed by a Frenchman, whose words I will never forget: “Les italiens sont toujours en retard”. The Italians are always late. I didn’t even have the strength to retort. However, immediately afterwards, the positive aerodynamic tests made me forget the fatigue and fear of the journey.
But in any case, I took the plane home.