A high-revving V12 engine and a five-speed manual gearbox with a dogleg first gear might seem bizarre in a hulking SUV that dishes up hardcore off-road capabilities. Yet, here we are, rolling along hills in the oddball Lamborghini LM002 an hour from Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy.
Several manufacturers claim to have invented the super-SUV, but the “Rambo Lambo,” as it was nicknamed in its day, arrived almost two decades before Porsche, BMW or Mercedes delivered their first high-performance all-terrainers.
A Lamborghini LM002 was recently sold through Nostalgia Classic Cars in Dubai to an unknown mystery buyer but there is also one on display at the Off-Road History Museum tucked away in Al Shuwaib, deep in the Sharjah desert.
Originally conceived for military use (LM stands for Lamborghini Militaria), the LM002 was predated by two prototypes – the Cheetah and LM001. The original design had the engine housed behind the cabin – as per Lamborghini’s V12 supercars – but the production vehicle switched to a front-engine format as it made for more predictable handling, especially on loose surfaces.
The car I’m driving today was built as a special order for a customer in Japan and its paintwork, dubbed “Special Green” (even though it looks more like a shade of turquoise), is a one-off colour.
Its boxy, utilitarian bodyshell looks distinctly agricultural, yet the LM002 is genuinely exotic. Stuffed under its lumpy bonnet is a 5.2-litre V12 purloined from the manufacturer's Countach of the era. The 450hp motor was largely similar to its supercar sibling; apart from it was spun 180 degrees so the five-speed ZF gearbox could be mounted behind it – in the mid-engined Countach the transmission sat ahead of the motor.
It’s clear the LM002 I’m in was built for anything but military use as its cockpit is trimmed in plush leather and wood, and there’s plenty of soft padding around the huge transmission tunnel that runs through the centre of the cabin.
The Lamborghini has all the kit I'd expect in a purpose-built off-roader – low-range gearing, a locking centre differential and bespoke Pirelli Scorpion tyres designed specifically for the vehicle. Lamborghini claims the LM002 can ascend 60-degree inclines, but what elevates it far above any off-roader of the era is its ability to sit at 200 kph all day – twice the top speed of most of its peers.
Underpinned by a steel tubular frame chassis cloaked in bodywork made of aluminium and fibreglass, the LM002 has a sizeable footprint on the road as it’s a tad under five metres in length and exactly two metres wide – not ideal for the narrow, hairpin-strewn roads we’re traversing today.
The LM002 isn’t nimble by any stretch, but power steering makes it far easier to rotate through tight hairpins than a Miura or Countach. I am given the opportunity to drive both these folkloric supercars earlier in the day, and steering either entails a solid workout for the shoulders and forearms.
All in all, the LM002 proves much easier to drive. The five-speed ZF manual gearbox is surprisingly slick and user-friendly, the big V12 has plenty of lowdown torque and ride quality is cosseting. That said, its huge bonnet bulges protrude directly into the line of sight, so I have to guesstimate where the passenger-side wheels are relative to the edge of the road.
I don’t know if it’s the heady experience of driving such a rare vehicle or the strong petrol fumes wafting through the cabin, but I begin to feel a bit euphoric after covering 10 to 15km.
There’s much to like about the LM002 despite its many shortcomings. Try finding a mechanic who knows his way around a quad-cam V12 with six carburettors when you’re stranded out in the dunes. Apart from its complexity, there is also the fact the Lamborghini off-roader was fiendishly expensive at $120,000 in the 1980s. It was, therefore, no surprise Lamborghini discontinued the vehicle after building a mere 328 units.
It may not have been the hit Lamborghini hoped for in its day, but LM002s are now highly sought-after collector cars, with pristine examples changing hands for $300,000-plus.
There’s also the fact that the LM002 provided Lamborghini with an off-road legacy that it could leverage when launching the hugely successful Urus, which now accounts for almost 60 per cent of the marque’s sales.