CHEETAH! Like the cat for which it was named, this high-performance vehicle has explosive acceleration, high speed, and sure footed agility over virtually all terrain. This spirited machine combines rugged multi-purpose utility with the latest technology developed during years of tough, record-breaking racing and torturous North and Central American desert and mountain regions, Cheetah’s strong simplified design utilizes a minimum number of parts and provides convenient accessibility. The result is a tough, hard-working vehicle that is easy to operate and maintain. Only by personally experiencing Cheetah can you fully comprehend this new definition of agility, mobility and utility. We call it Cheetah… you’ll call it MIRACULOUS!
–Lamborghini Cheetah brochure introduction (1977)
One of my earliest automotive exploits on the World Wide Web was to find out about this mythical Lamborghini off-roader. Use your kid-brain: the company that made a low-slung car and had the audacity to indirectly name it after the devil made an off-roader. The results must’ve been downright demonic!
My search led me to a page that talked about the Cheetah. The fact that Lamborghini used such a cool name that evoked thoughts of speed and agility made by pulse race. But just as I felt that I discovered the Lost Ark of the Covenant, my hopes were dashed when further reading revealed not only that it didn’t progress beyond prototype stage, it was a handful to drive to say the least. To rub salt on the wound, it’s said that the rig was destroyed.
It’s been a long time since I’ve revisited the Cheetah. For one thing there are far more pictures now. Not a huge variety, but far more than back then.
Overviewing quickly the Cheetah’s place in Lamborghini history, one come’s away that its role was rather minute in the grand scheme of the company’s, well, schemes. It was a commissioned off-road rig mostly designed and developed by a third-party company that didn’t make it to production. But in the case of the Cheetah, there’s more to it than that.
You ask yourself: why would a sports car company delve into such matters building an off-roader and go fishing for military contracts with it? The stretch isn’t as farfetched as it seems: the company was founded on the backs of tractors, not exactly what one would expect from the makers of the Espada. But the real answer is quite simple: money. Founder Ferruccio Lamborghini sold the company and retired. Keep in mind that this was when Italy was going through social-economic straits ranging from new fuel economy laws (♪Hello, 1973 oil crisis, my old friend… ♫) to highly-publicized kidnappings and assassinations. This was when Lamborghini was struggling under the ownership and management of Georges-Henri Rossetti and René Leimer as they tried to keep the company’s act together (or where they?). It was decided that not only would Lamborghini venture out in co-developing a military vehicle with U.S.-based MTI (Mobility Technology International) with maybe a possible civilian version too, but at the same time develop and help build the recently penned BMW M1. Given that there were brochures printed in Arabic, the Cheetah wasn’t just a U.S. military exclusive.
While the brochure’s opening paragraph (quoted at the beginning) pretty much lied about the Cheetah’s abilities and development (Years of development? Record-breaking racing?), it’s not as if it was a glorified dune-buggy. The rear-mounted engine was waterproofed, with heat dissipation techniques used to minimize its presence towards infrared. Tires had run-flat technology. There’s a low-quality promo video of it being puts through its paces on YouTube. It’s water-performing abilities were quite impressive. The brochure mentions extras from such extremes like convenience options (tilt steering column or air conditioning) to performance upgrades. One source said that these were supposed to retail for around $25,000 (around $100,000 today, with no mention of extra equipment costs), so I don’t know if people were willing to spend that kind of dough on a light off-road vehicle.
The documents were signed, the partnership was formed, and the rig was built. What could possibly go wrong?
FMC XR311 vs. Lamborghini Cheetah. Both have canvas roofs. Both have impressive all-terrain capabilities. Both are rear-engined. Both have front-mounted winches. Both have Chrysler transmissions. Both wouldn’t look out of place in the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! franchise. Both have production vehicle lineage. And of course, both have model kits made by Tamiya. The biggest differences between them are that the Cheetah seats four.
How about the fact that the Cheetah’s final design (by MTI’s Rodney Pharis) looked a lot like a competing design (this was said to be MTI’s doing, but legal action threats for patents infringement hit a dumbfounded Lamborghini as well), the FMC Corporation’s FMC XR311 -an impressive piece of kit itself- whose descendants were the HMMV and Hummer H1? How about the fact that funds destined for the M1 development were used to develop the Cheetah? How about the fact that the Cheetah handled poorly due to the rear-engine placement (come to think of it, those rear fuel canisters didn’t help)? How about that when it was all said and done, MTI sold the Cheetah to the Teledyne Continental company, who would use it as the basis of their own military contract-chasing contenders?
Then there are the conflicting stories: some say that the original Cheetah was wrecked. Some say it wasn’t. There are rumors that it still exists. Teledyne, who had 3-5 unfinished prototypes (without Lamborghini’s help, they were out of the picture by then), could’ve parted out and destroyed the Cheetah. There is one unfinished Teledyne Cheetah known to exist. FerrariChat.com (that alone was a surprise) has a 50+ page forum about the rig. Under all the mud-slinging and topic derailment is a lot of interesting information that I believe it’s worth mentioning:
- There’s the claim that a number of engineers from MTI were former FMC employees, said to have banded together after being convinced by Lamborghini when a direct, improved version of the FMC XR311 for Lamborghini was denied by FMC after supplier Chrysler and Lamborghini themselves asked them. This explains the uncanny similarities of designs inside and out and the lawsuits that were thrown at each other, though it’s said that it was all dropped. This makes too much sense for me to not mention it.
- Paperwork states that the original Cheetah was identified as CHE 77-1001.
- The use of a 360ci/5.9L Chrysler engine (that caught my attention) could’ve foreshadowed the Chrysler/Lambo relation that would come to pass some years after the Cheetah’s demise. Coincidence? I think not! The restorer claims to have documents that Chrysler supplied the automatic transmissions. It’s not stretch to the imagination that they could’ve supplied the engine as well. Unfortunately, this drivetrain didn’t even produce 200HP to move around two tons. You’d think that a company that tinkered with V-12s would’ve gotten more horsepower out of a simple V8. Then again, the first prototype was built in San Jose, California by MTI, though one source claims that engine choice was Lamborghini’s (which doesn’t help the company’s case). BTW, the XC311 has an engine displacement that sounds like a Chrysler unit.
- After the Geneva Auto Show, the Cheetah was returned to MTI after Lamborghini didn’t finalize the payments on the contract and withheld it for far longer than agreed upon, pretty much forced MTI to pry it out of them. Other contract breaches on Lamborghini’s part didn’t help. Many speculate that Lamborghini reverse-engineered the Cheetah during this time, which could’ve come in handy when they’d decide to build their own off-roader. Rumors of the Cheetah being driven (with Swiss license plates fitted) as well as a small accident abound. Ultimately, Lamborghini’s involvement with the Cheetah ended before it was eventually sold to Teledyne.
- There’s supposed to be evidence that legendary Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni drove the Cheetah to be loaded on the cargo plane.
- The Cheetah was never tested by the military.
- The promo video doesn’t mention Lamborghini anywhere; this could mean that their agreements were over and MTI was peddling the Cheetah themselves.
- The promo material was made in Arizona after its return from Geneva. BTW, There’s photographical evidence of it with topless women said to be from a nearby “gentleman’s club”. Here’s the censored version.
- John Z. DeLorean showed interest in the Cheetah, though he wished for it to be more efficient.
- The rumor of the Cheetah’s destruction might come from the destruction of a Teledyne prototype(s) that were actually tested by the military, but this is just a rumor.
- As seen in a pic above, there are Cheetah toys out there. Companies like Tamiya, Otaki, Bburago (those last two really went to town with the molds), Diapet, Tomica, etc. made Cheetah toys. Another rumor was that Lamborghini gave the go-ahead to make the toys, though this wasn’t in agreement with MTI.
- When Teledyne themselves packed it in, they sold their dismantled prototypes (for legal reasons) to employees. One of them is said to be the original Cheetah.
The “Cheetah”, shooting the bull (pun intended) with a relative.
Look at the pic above. Let it sink in. I’ll wait. Did you get a shock of seeing the Lamborghini Cheetah, completely restored? I did. News of its reappearance should’ve made the waves… except it didn’t. That’s because the jury’s still out on this rig: the aforementioned FerrariChat.com thread revealed that the discovered rig in question is pretty much a mix of Teledyne/Pioneer Mfg. bits with what many believe are a couple of legitimate MTI/Lamborghini Cheetah parts: a roughly original Cheetah this is not. Then the thread dies and later on a fully restored “Cheetah” appears, with next to no evidence if it’s the same one furiously discussed about on earlier pages. It doesn’t help that throughout the thread those with the information have withheld it for a number of reasons and that the webpage itself doesn’t let you see the pics unless you’re a member.
This could probably mean that out there somewhere there is a wheeled tub that might be the original Lamborghini Cheetah missing key components. If it’s not actually resting in peace, hopefully the Cheetah is living happily on a California farm somewhere with a Kubota tractor and Polaris side-by-side adoptive son.
In case you were wondering where Lamborghini fit into this project –where it seems rather easy to believe that even Chrysler had more of a say in the project- the company was responsible in making the Cheetah production ready, aside from paying for it to be built. It’s something, though you’d be forgiven to think this isn’t a real Lamborghini; you’re not alone, unless you believe that MTI was formed because Lamborghini convinced a couple of FMC engineers, which would further deepen the bond. But there’s no denying that the Cheetah would become a stepping stone for future Lambo off-roaders.
The failure of the Cheetah was yet another significant drop in Lamborghini’s bucket of economic woes. It’s said that because of this, the plan to have the Italian firm develop the legendary BMW M1 didn’t happen. Some even go as far to say that the Cheetah/M1 fiasco tarnished the Lamborghini name. Part of me doubts if Lamborghini would’ve pulled it out if all the work was done in-house (outside of tractors, Lamborghini didn’t know where to start). But think about this: in a parallel-universe, the U.S. army would be driving around in U.S.-built (by MTI as per agreement, though how poetic would it have been if they were built under license by Chrysler?) Cheetahs.
The Cheetah wouldn’t be the company’s only attempt in acquiring a juicy military contract, not if Lamborghini’s new bosses –the Mimran Bros. – had anything to say about it. The Cheetah would birth a son, the LM001, a bigger, more enclosed brute that still had the engine in the back. This machine would in turn produce the LMA002, who would bring into this world Lamborghini’s first –and so far only- production luxury SUV, the LM002. While a preppy spoiled brat when compared with its predecessors, the LM002 carried on the torch for off-road outrageousness in its fuel lines. But its ancestor the Cheetah carried the better name.
Opening pic: Facebook
Photo compilation: Pinterest
Tamiya models: eBay and www.tamiyaclub.com
“Cheetah” and LM002: Imgur