What does the family man do when he simply must own a Lamborghini? Compromise on his car dreams? NEVER! Sell the family then? Usually not a popular decision in these politically correct times. But back in 1987 we were just about given the perfect solution to this problem…
As an automotive manufacturer, Lamborghini truly got off to a flying start with the achingly beautiful 350GT and not least the astonishing Miura being launched a mere three years after the company had been established. Today it seems entirely surreal that they were able pull off such an accomplishment. They continued to gain much acclaim, but ten years in – like everyone else – they suffered under the oil crisis. From then on, the charismatic Italian sportscar producer seemingly lingered in constant financial despair. With it came bankruptcy, receivership and various constellations of external cash injections and foreign ownership.
Long before the Audi ownership which we’ve now grown accustomed to, one such slightly peculiar ownership was that of the American Chrysler Group who purchased Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. in 1987. They didn’t hesitate long before they showed the world their intentions for the famous Italian marque.
It was certainly different! Granted, Lamborghini had tried their luck with a 4-door GT once before when they presented the huge Lamborghini Faena back in 1978. It however remained a one-off prototype. Now, nine years later, and in the midst of eighties fashion and excess, Chrysler seemed to believe that the time was ripe for another attempt.
They did however cheat a little bit to get the car ready for the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show by dusting off a Chrysler design from the year before. One of Chrysler’s chief designers, Kevin Verduyn, had created the Chrysler Navajo which however never moved beyond a clay model. The design was given a few tweaks here and there and then relaunched the year after as the family friendly Lamborghini Portofino.
While the design hardly screamed Lamborghini and arguably didn’t even have a particularly Italian feel to it, they at least hadn’t spared anything when it came to the mechanical specifications. It might not have had the famous V12 engine, but they didn’t cheat by simply giving it a Chrysler V8 with accompanying drivetrain. Instead they stretched the mid-engined chassis of a Lamborghini Jalpa so it could accommodate the larger body of the Portofino and even retained the mid-mounted 3.5-litre V8 engine as well. The Jalpa’s 5-speed manual transmission provided drive to the rear wheels. It might have been designed by the Americans, but under the skin this was still a proper Lamborghini.
At least Chrysler gave the Lamborghini version of this concept car a set of whacky scissor doors – just to create some sort of a visual link to the famous Countach. That’s all of four scissor doors (!) – the fronts opening forward and the rears opening backward. With no B-pillar, they opened up to a spacious and quite airy cabin with four individual seats and a host of gadgets. Just imagine grabbing the keys for your Lamborghini Portofino only take the whole family to a drive-in movie…
After its launch at Frankfurt, the Portofino did the rounds at various other International motor shows. It was positively received by most, but the Italians back home in Sant’Agata turned their thumbs down and only the one example was ever built.
Yet the Portofino didn’t live entirely in vein though, as many of its design features found their way onto future models. Uhmm… future Chrysler models, that is. Up through the nineties and early naughts, the profound cab forward design became a signature of Chryslers and arguably gave their ordinary family saloons a fresh and prolific look when compared to their period American competitors. It’s amusing to think that these rep mobiles were inspired by a design which was almost deemed good enough to be a Lamborghini.
But in the clarity of hindsight, should the Portofino have been put into full production? Considering that Lamborghini will now happily sell you a full-size SUV, perhaps Chrysler simply showed immense foresight. Could they have beaten everyone else to the game by bringing the Lamborghini Portofino into the late eighties showrooms? What say you dear reader?