Lamborghini Tried To Break Into The Military Market With Its G.I. Joe Toy Looking “Cheetah”

When you hear Lamborghini and the 1970s in the same sentence, you probably think about the origins of the iconic Countach luxury sports car. What you might not know is that, just three years after introducing the Countach, the Italian car maker went in a completely different direction, developing an off-road vehicle called the Cheetah that looks like it could have had a starring role in the cult-classic Death Race 2000. Able to carry machine guns or TOW anti-tank missiles, the company even tried to pitch it to the U.S. military.

Lamborghini publicly unveiled the futuristic-looking Cheetah at the 1977 Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. Mobility Technology International (MTI), situated in San Jose, California, had developed the vehicle under contract to the Italian firm. The 4×4 vehicle featured a dune buggy-like design with an open center area with a simple roll cage to protect the occupants.

It had a rear-mounted Chrysler V8 engine producing 180 brake horsepower attached to a three-speed automatic transmission. The 4,500-pound vehicle could reportedly hit speeds up over 100 miles per hour on paved roads and had seating for the driver and three passengers, one in the front and two in the back.

Lamborghini promoted the design’s low profile and independent suspension as being ideal for military use. The vehicle came with low-pressure tires to better navigate sand and other loose terrain. These also had a higher-pressure inner tube that the Cheetah could run on if the outer tire wall burst, offering sort of run-flat capability.

The Cheetah., Teledyne Continental Motors via

Though the initial design featured a lightweight fiberglass body, the decision was made to switch to a sheet steel construction for the final prototype. This gave it the ability to drive over various obstacles without risking breaking the fiberglass body.  The engine compartment was waterproofed, too, allowing it to ford water up to three feet deep. 

Cheetah’s “performance uniquely qualifies it for duty in the combat zone where it can serve in many capacities,” the narrator in a marketing video, seen below, which opens with a musical score reminiscent of many later 1980s action television shows, explains. “As a TOW missile system carrier, a reconnaissance vehicle, a command and control vehicle, a prime mover for light artillery, or on convoy escort duty and security patrols.”

If these mission sets seem particularly specific, this is because these were the roles the U.S. Army was looking to fill with a new family of light tactical vehicles at the time. The service was looking to replace the mix of Ford M151 Jeeps and LTV M561 Gama Goats it was then using to perform these tasks.

But Army troops were not destined to take Lamborghini trucks into battle. The rear-mounted engine reportedly threw off the vehicle’s balance, giving it poor turning and other handling characteristics, even on improved surfaces.

Despite it’s name, the Cheetah was underpowered, as well, without any specialized military equipment added on top of the basic curb weight. Fully loaded with weapons and gear, with four fully-equipped soldiers inside, the performance would have been far worse.

To make matter’s worse, MTI’s Cheetah design was at best influenced by, and at worst outright copied, an earlier vehicle known as the XR311 that FMC had developed as a private venture in 1969. Over the next few years, the Army eventually obtained around 10 XR311s in a number of slightly different configurations and evaluated them in a variety of roles, including as scout and patrol vehicles armed with machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, recoilless rifles, TOW missiles, and even the 30mm cannon from the then still-in-development AH-64 Apache gunship helicopter.

An experimental XR311 armed with the same 30mm cannon found in the Apache gunship helicopter., US Army

As with the Cheetah, the XR311s were low-profile, high-speed vehicles. With their 187-horsepower V8s, they could do 0-60 in 12 seconds and hit top speeds between 80 to 90 miles on the road, according to Fourwheeler Network.

By 1978, the Army was still experimenting with the vehicles, but had declined to purchase large numbers, primarily due to concerns about whether the vehicles would be suitably survivable in the scout and anti-tank roles. That year, the service’s Ballistic Research Laboratory produced a study with a number of different concepts for using lightweight and flexible nylon or Kevlar “armor” to shield its crew.

A line drawing of a notional XR311 TOW missile carrier with flexible nylon or Kevlar side panels, windscreen, and bonnet over the gunner’s position., US Army

The Cheetah was so similar to the XR311, that FMC sued MTI and Lamborghini for infringing on their design. It is unclear what the result of that legal action was, but MTI’s lead designer Rodney Pharis did manage to demonstrate his vehicle for the Army.

The Army passed on Cheetah, just as it had with the XR311. Lambroghini, already reeling from a string of financial difficulties beginning in the early 1970s, and unable to find any other military buyers, abandoned the entire project. The company subsequently sold the rights and lone prototype to Teledyne Continental Motors.

Teledyne Continental Motors had no better luck with the Cheetah. In 1979, the Army put out its final requirements for new light tactical vehicles as part of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) program. 

Two years later, it awarded AM General the contract to build hundreds of what would become widely known as “Humvees” or “Hummers.” The most recent iterations of this iconic design remain in service with the U.S. military and in dozens of countries around the world.

Lamborghini’s 4×4 ambitions didn’t die with the Cheetah project, though. At the 1981 Geneva Auto Show, the company, reinvigorated by a burst of outside investment, revealed the LM001, which it had derived from the earlier design. The LM stood for Lamborghini Militaria and reflected the company’s continuing desire to produce a light tactical military vehicle.

The Lambroghini LM001., Lamborghini

Swapping the Chrsyler engine for an AMC V8, the LM001 reportedly had many of the same performance and handling problems as the Cheetah. Lamborghini had planned to use its own proprietary V12, found on the Countach, in subsequent models to provide extra power, but discontinued the entire project after building the first prototype.

In 1982, Lamborghini abandoned the rear-mounted engine configuration and various other features from the Cheetah completely, further evolving the LM001 into a much more conventional 4×4 truck with a front-mounted engine. This vehicle, the LMA001, eventually transformed into the LM002, which did enter limited production.

An LM002., Detectandpreserve via Wikimedia

The LM002 featured the company’s iconic V12 engine, which provided more than ample power for the truck, but retailed for around $120,000. The vehicle eventually gained the nickname “Rambo Lambo,” but still failed to find any military buyers. Lamborghini offered civilian versions with luxurious interiors, including full leather trim and then-state-of-the-art stereo systems. Italian race car and rally car driver Sandro Munari also drove modified versions in a number of off-road races.

In a bizarre twist of fate, in 2004, American troops in Iraq blew up an LM002 that had once belonged to Uday Hussein, son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, as part of an experiment to determine the effects of a car bomb on concrete blast walls. This seems to be the extent of the U.S. military’s use of any of Lamborghini’s LM-series vehicles.

Uday’s LM002 before getting blown up in 2004., via Motorpasión
           via Motorpasión
Sticks of explosives in the back of the LM002., via Motorpasión
The remnants of the Rambo Lambo after the detonation., via Motorpasión

Between 1987 and 1993, Lamborghini made two more truck prototypes based on the LM002, the LM003 and LM004, but neither entered production. With less than 330 LM002s ever made, they’re highly sought after by collectors and command prices to match their rarity, often around $400,000 at least. Guzzling gas at between 8 and 12 miles per gallon on the highway, and only having tanks able to hold between 45 to 70 gallons in total, its an expensive vehicle to drive at all. A single one of the original run-flat tires will set you back around $5,000.

The company has made a number of attempts to get into the SUV market since then. These projects finally bore fruit in February 2018, when the Urus entered production. This vehicle, which has a sticker price starting at around $200,000, has proven to be a relatively big seller for Lamborghini already. 

But the Urus, with a design more reminiscent of an oversized luxury sedan, has, at best, a spiritual connection to the Cheetah and subsequent LM-series vehicles. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Urus from going on display next to an LM002 in the Lamborghini museum in Italy. But the company seems to have put the idea of the Lamborghini Militaria, which began with the obscure, but futuristic looking Cheetah, to rest for good.

A Lamborghini Urus next to an LM002 at the Lamborghini in Italy., Y.Leclercq via Wikimedia

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.