April 23, 1987: Chrysler buys Lamborghini

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Lamborghini Diablo front Lamborghini

Lamborghini built some of the most gorgeous cars in the world in the 1960s, and also the Espada. (We’re kidding. Mostly.) In 1974, Lamborghini debuted the quintessential wedge-shaped car, the Countach. Thirteen years later, the Countach was still in production and Lamborghini was in a rut. Seeking to capitalize on the Italian company’s panache and engineering know-how, Chrysler purchased Lamborghini for the paltry sum of 25 million dollars.

Knowing that the Countach was in desperate need of a replacement Chrysler bankrolled the development of the Diablo, which was in its infancy at the time. When that new raging bull went on sale in 1990 the Italian wedge shape remained, although Chrysler’s input did soften the lines, much to the ire of its original designer, Marcello Gandini. In fact, Gandini was so exasperated he took his original design elsewhere.

Lamborghini Diablo front 3/4
Lamborghini

Regardless of the design decisions and the bruised egos it left behind, Chrysler didn’t soften the Diablo’s performance, as it was the first Lamborghini capable of 200-mph speeds. The car’s looks and performance made Diablo a hot seller, at least as far as Lamborghini was concerned. Over the course of its 17-year run, Lamborghini sold just over 2000 copies of the Countach. In five fewer years, 3000 Diablos were sold.

Chrysler also benefited from the purchase, as the Viper development occurred during the same span, after it was first unveiled as a concept in 1989. Tom Gale, the same Chrysler designer who knocked the corners off the Diablo, penned the curvy Viper roadster. With its racy looks and long hood, it needed a suitable engine. Chrysler didn’t have a performance V-8 at the time, and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t drop the Ram truck’s V-10 into the car. Ram trucks didn’t get a V-10 until two years after the Viper debuted in 1992, and the all-aluminum Viper V-10 is a entirely different animal. While both are odd-fire V-10s with 90 degrees between banks, they have little in common, save their 4.46-inch bore spacing they inherited from Mopar’s LA-series V-8s and the Polyspherical V-8s before that.

Dodge Viper concept 1989
1989 Dodge Viper concept FCA

Chrysler wanted a small-block-based V-10 and, after testing an iron-block prototype, knew it would give Viper the driving characteristics of a lawn dart, only less fun. Developing an aluminum engine block is more difficult than pouring molten aluminum into the mold for an iron engine block. A completely new design was required. Chrysler turned to its recent acquisition, which had plenty of experience casting big aluminum engine blocks.

The resulting 8.0-liter V-10 sounded nothing like a V-12 Lamborghini, and we were all grateful for it. It produced 400 hp while contemporary Mustang GTs were making half that, and the Viper made waves throughout the industry, igniting a rivalry with Corvette that spurred a budget supercar arms race.

Chrysler’s ownership of Lamborghini lasted until 1994, when it sold the brand to Megatech, which (to the best of our knowledge) was never the villain in an ’80s sci-fi B-movie. Although Chrysler’s fling with the Italian automaker was brief, it buoyed Lamborghini and helped make the Viper the torquey beast that we’ve always loved.

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