A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30

| 28 Jan 2019
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30

Even without the towering optional rear wing of its later, Pirelli P7-shod incarnation, the Lamborghini Countach casts a long shadow over its successor.

Sandwiched between that Gandini original and the Murciélago, the first fully new car built under the Audi regime, the Diablo was tasked with modernising the Italian car maker during one of its most turbulent periods.

That turbulence didn’t only come from within the company, thanks to various ownership changes – first the Mimran Brothers to Chrysler, and then to Indonesia’s MegaTech – because the entire supercar market Lamborghini had helped create was being turned on its head.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
The Diablo Special Edition was created to commemorate the Sant’Agata firm’s first three decades

The Diablo had been launched to acclaim in 1990, grabbing headlines with its genuine 200mph performance. But by 1993 its maker, the one-time enfant terrible, had hit 30 and was looking at a different supercar landscape. 

First, there was an entirely new breed of beyond-supercar creations, the first germs of today’s 1000bhp, £2m hypercars. The Jaguar XJ220 and Bugatti EB110 had both raised the bar, taking a lead from the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40 the decade before, and the McLaren F1 was about to send it into orbit.

But even if Lamborghini couldn’t hope to sock it to the F1, it was not about to lie down quietly. For one thing, there was the matter of the marque’s 30th anniversary to celebrate.

The firm’s previous birthday present to itself and its fans had been well received, though in truth it wasn’t the gift originally envisaged.

Lamborghini had intended to celebrate its 25th anniversary by revealing the Diablo, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to be ready in time, the Countach was given one last refresh, including new bumpers, side skirts and a fat set of OZ split-rim wheels, the visual update overseen by Argentinian Horacio Pagani, who would later go on to form his own supercar company a handful of miles away.

Visually, the Anniversary stood out – and arguably not for the right reasons – but under the skin it was little changed from a regular 5000QV.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
The drama of the trademark scissor doors is undimmed after 25 years

The new commemorative machine would be an altogether more serious affair, tapping into a second trend in supercars: lighter, harder, faster variants that blurred the line between track and road.

That car was the Diablo SE30, SE standing for Special Edition, a name more suited to tarted-up end-of-line family motors than a Lamborghini pseudo-racer.

SE30s were available in various hues including red and yellow, but none is more closely associated with the model than this car’s violet metallic, called Lambo Thirty. Perhaps it’s because this was the colour most commonly seen on SE30s in magazines at the time. Perhaps it’s simply the unlikely pairing of a 525bhp V12 supercar, Lamborghini’s most extreme yet, with a colour that more likely makes you think of the Queen Mum’s petticoats.

But quite possibly it’s down to a certain music video accompanying a song by the ’90s jazz-funk outfit Jamiroquai.

Filmed in Andalusia, southern Spain, the video for Cosmic Girl features a purple SE30, a Ferrari F355 and a Ferrari F40 racing along some twisty Spanish country roads after sunset for no discernible reason beyond indulging Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay’s well-known passion for supercars.

A quick scan of the lyrics reveals no mention of Lamborghini or even cars of any sort, but few growing up in an age of worthy TV motoring shows and before widespread internet availability were going to complain about the chance to ogle a V12 supercar being driven as Lamborghini intended.

Though the concept of the video was incredibly simple, the production turned out to be anything but, as Kay explains in a video on Jamiroquai’s YouTube channel: “I was on the tour bus in Germany and my manager comes up to me and says, ‘You know your Lamborghini, it was off to be put on the truck to go to Spain? The guy moving it has crashed it.’”

Kay secured a second, identical SE30 and pushed back the shoot, but this Diablo only fared slightly better: “I flew in, got out of the jet and everyone looked ashen-faced. My manager said, ‘We don’t know how to tell you this, but they’ve smashed the second Lamborghini and it’s now got no windscreen.’ They’d slid on a corner and hit the camera on the edge of the cliff we were driving on. I just hit the roof.”

But without enough footage in the can before the accident, the crew, led by director Adrian Moat, had no option but to continue filming. In certain exterior angles you can see that the ’screen is missing, and for the in-car shots Kay’s hair is blowing as if he’s driving a Series One Landie with the front glass folded.

“If you’ve ever tried to drive a Lamborghini…trying to also sing a song on a demanding Spanish road to a camera strapped to the bonnet is really hard,” says Kay.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
Aerospace-style fuel filler on the car’s right-hand flank and strangely sectioned door glass hint that this is an SE

Contrary to some reports, this particular car – number 142 of 150 built – is not the Diablo used in the Cosmic Girl video. It does, however, have a Jamiroquai connection, having originally been sold to Jay Kay after his first car was destroyed. It was supplied by Sheik Amari, whose family was the official UK distributor for Lamborghini in the 1990s, who now runs Amari Super Cars of Preston – and whose black F355 does appear in the Cosmic Girl video.

It’s easy to see why Kay was so smitten with the SE30. Against the odds, the unusual colour perfectly sets off the long, smooth lines drawn by Chrysler’s Tom Gale after Marcello Gandini’s original design proposal had been deemed too dated.

Compared with the ‘standard’ production Diablo, there’s a more angular front spoiler featuring air intakes to cool the slotted brake discs, and a matching one at the rear, the latter lower and more curved at its edges than the optional wing on lesser models, and sporting an adjustable-angle central section.

The air intakes in the sill panels are wider, segmented by a pair of vertical, body-colour fins on each side, and each wheelarch is stuffed full of elegant one-piece, five-hole OZ Racing alloy wheel, an elegant counter to the launch Diablo’s fussy (and very 1980s) split-rims.

But there are two clues that this celebration is more than skin-deep: an aerospace-style fuel filler on the right-hand flank of this rare right-hand drive car and, less obviously – but more importantly – some strangely sectioned door glass.

The reason for that is because most of the window consists of a fixed pane of Plexiglas, a knurled wheel on the door allowing the smaller inset section to roll down, though barely far enough to feed a parking ticket into a machine. Try tackling a McDonald’s drive-thru in an SE30 and you might just have to receive your chips one fry at a time.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
Simple interior blends swathes of rather sudden blue Alcantara with racy carbonfibre sill covers

This was part of Lamborghini’s mission to slash weight from the Diablo as it attempted to inject its supercar with something of cross-town rival Ferrari’s F40. But it was far from the only weight-saving measure. Those handsome OZ wheels – 17in at the front as on a standard Diablo, but 18in at the rear – were crafted from magnesium, the interior was pared of electrical niceties and body parts including the sill cover and engine lid were fashioned from carbonfibre.

When Lamborghini’s engineers had finished, they allowed themselves the luxury of fitting a numbered plaque in the rear quarter-window of each car, perfectly placed to catch your eye as you reach down to push the button that sends the scissor door arcing upwards, revealing an interior awash with blue Alcantara.

You need to be drawn like Mick Jagger to fit comfortably in the elegant, but surprisingly slim seats, and then be prepared for their modest lateral support. More expected is the way the pronounced wheelarch intrusion kicks the pedal box hard left of centre, making you sit like a ’50s debutante trying not to give too much away.

The seatbelts fasten from the centre outwards, and by the time you’ve buckled up you’ll have noticed the aggressive tumblehome that forces your head uncomfortably close to the cant rail. Straight ahead, though, it’s a different matter: the ’screen is so steeply raked and the base of it so far away that you could have a nose penned by Gerald Scarfe and not feel claustrophobic.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
Magnificent 5707cc V12 musters 525bhp at 7100rpm

Twist the key and the V12 behind your head awakens almost apologetically. In honouring Lamborghini’s birthday, the SE30 celebrates the iconic engine’s, too, though with the electronic fuel injection, double the number of valves and nearly twice the power, the 5.7-litre thug behind the SE30’s seats is far removed from the 3.5-litre version Giotto Bizzarrini created for Ferruccio’s first car, the 350GT, back in 1963.

As with all mid-engined V12 Lambos after the Miura, the Diablo’s engine is longitudinally mounted, but 180º round from the norm, placing the transmission ahead of the engine. Think 911 that’s been shunted up the back in a traffic jam, pushing the engine across the rear-axle line.

Select first in the dogleg five-speed ’box, ease out the long-travel clutch, smartly feed in some right foot and you get a similar sensation of being walloped from behind. There’s a barrel-chested coarseness, both intimidating and appealing, to this generation of V12 that was lost when Lamborghini finally called time on Bizzarrini’s design in 2010.

It sounds angry – and feels it, too, sending micro vibrations through the structure that you pick up through the seat and controls as you spin the rev counter’s needle right round to 7500rpm.

And the performance, like the noise, is brutal. A standard Diablo produced a solid 495bhp from its all-aluminium 5707cc unit, itself a useful improvement on the final four-valve Countach’s 455. But the SE30’s breathing mods pushed that to 525bhp; 0-60mph took 4.2 secs, and top speed climbed from 200 to 207mph.

Nothing to cause a McLaren F1 to lose sleep, but a classic Italian chin-flick to Ferrari, which had finished production of its F40, was yet to start building the F50, and had nothing comparable in its brochures.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
Gandini’s original design was reworked by Chrysler’s Tom Gale

Unlike most SE30s, this one is fitted with power steering, though the assistance does little to dampen the steady stream of feedback from front wheels tasked only with turning, and not driving the car. Lamborghini had introduced the user-friendly VT, a four-wheel-drive companion to the original rear-drive Diablo, in 1993, but the system added weight and understeer to the chassis.

Neither would have been welcome on the SE30, serving only to blunt its performance and ability to connect the driver to the road. Instead, Sant’Agata blew its technology budget on an adjustable anti-roll-bar set-up you could tweak via a controller on the centre console.

Of 150 SE30s, 28 were given a package of upgrades to make them competitive in GT racing and called Jota, after the legendary stillborn Miura racer whose spirit the SE30 channels. Jotas received twin roof snorkels to feed air to a V12 modified with a lighter crankshaft, new cams, a free-flowing exhaust and a reprogrammed ECU.

With an additional 70bhp over the SE30, the Jota would be only the next in a series of increasingly driver-focused variants of Lamborghini’s mainstream production cars that continues to this day.

A less powerful, more affordable Diablo SV appeared in 1995, and in 1999, a year after Audi’s takeover and two years before the arrival of the all-new Murciélago, Lamborghini would release the 80-strong run of GTs, the most desirable Diablo of all.

A beauty and a beast: driving the Lamborghini Diablo SE30
Diablo GT is the most sought after, but the SE is also a mighty fine car

Having spent the first part of the classic boom overlooked while Countach prices rocketed, the Diablo has become increasingly sought-after as the market acknowledges both its importance as the last Lamborghini before Audi’s steadying influence and, in the case of the SE30, a fine car in its own right.

Sometimes, despite the funding and boardroom chaos of the middle years, the stars above Sant’Agata really did align.

Images: Tony Baker. Thanks to Amari Super Cars


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