The first off-road car that was related to Lamborghini without being a tractor, was the 1977 Cheetah, starting out as an attempt to get a contract from the US military to buy it in large numbers, the Cheetah was designed by Rodney Pharis, president of US based defense contractor Mobility Technology International, or MTI, who built the first rolling prototype of an all-terrain vehicle that would end up with a Raging Bull logo up front.
Ultimately MTI would be in charge of selling the Cheetah in the United States while it would be built in the factory at Sant'Agata, Lamborghini didn't want to spend time on the design of an off-road vehicle so they had MTI do the development work on it, the resulting design did show a lot of similarities to another military intended model, the XR311 from FMC. This resulted in threats of legal action by FMC against MTI and Lamborghini when the final prototype was presented to the people on the Lamborghini stand during the 1977 Geneva Auto Show.
So the first Cheetah prototype was designed and built in San José, California, not in Sant’Agata Italy, it was finished in a satin desert sand shade … after completing the off-road concept MTI shipped it to Sant'Agata. Lamborghini had the Cheetah shown to the public for the first time at the 1977 Geneva show, after which the car returned to the United States in late 1977 … and was taken to a desert in Nevada where a commercial was actually put together (check out the video below this article).
The Lamborghini Cheetah was never actually tested or even owned by the military, but Mr Pharis did conduct demonstration runs for military personnel … note the Cheetah managed to reach top speeds of 105 mph (that’s 170Km/h) in the late Seventies, which was rather impressive for an off-road vehicle.
Due to the well-known financial issues at Lamborghini during development of the Cheetah at one point MTI decided to sell the entire project to Teledyne Continental Motors, including this original prototype … at the time Lamborghini was still involved. Teledyne actually started building three more prototypes in the Cheetah project, but when Lamborghini decided to cancel their Cheetah project because a military related customer couldn’t be found, these additional units were left unfinished.
The photos of a dark painted Cheetah prototype show in fact one of the three latter units, this one was the closest to completion, but still lacked rear view mirrors, the front winch, windshield … and only two seats were installed instead of the four in the original sand finished prototype … which contrary to common believe still exists today!
Back to the dark painted Cheetah, it was originally sold during an employee sale at Teledyne in the late Eighties, a friend of Mr Carl J. Van Raalte (who kindly supplied the photos and information on this additional Cheetah) bought it in 1989 and had it stored in his garage without even doing any research or restoration on it … until late 2011.
As mentioned earlier the original Cheetah prototype was sold to Teledyne by MTI, and despite mentioned by multiple sources the one of a kind Geneva show car was never lost in an accident or destroyed beyond repair … it still exists today. Rumor has it the actual 1977 Lamborghini Cheetah prototype that was shown in Geneva is now located in the United States … in fact we’ve red Automobili Lamborghini SpA is eager to get it back to be displayed at the factory museum in Sant’Agata.
However the Lamborghini Cheetah showed a few flaws right from the start, a massive V8 360 Chrysler engine was installed behind the rear seats, coupled to a 3-speed automatic gearbox and continually driving all four wheels.
Note the Cheetah used a kind of ‘run-flat’ tires back in those days, the outer tire is a ‘low lbs’ version that allows additional traction in loose sand, while a second, inner tube is installed that would allow you to keep driving, even when the outer tire was damaged.
With the engine being mounted so far back on the chassis the weight balance went completely wrong, resulting in rather poor road-manners, especially in curbs. The Cheetah was initially designed to carry four armed people and a driver, sources state the initial prototype had a fiberglass body, however the dark painted car has a full steel body … which other sources also state as being mounted on the initial prototype, still with less than 190hp the Cheetah was still too heavy and overall performance was not up to the required specs. The V8 engine was still waterproofed and the radiator was protected by an infrared detection system.
The decision to use an American made engine was naturally made to improve chances of gaining an US Army contract, but it soon became obvious the US Army wouldn't invest in anything built outside the United States, and the Cheetah was rejected for military use early in the process, many sources state the prototype was tested in various desert runs, and subsequently crashed during one of those test … but we now know it was only demonstrated and never lost in a crash.
Still the development and construction of the Cheetah took a lot of money, albeit not done in Sant’Agata the invoices still had to be paid, and unfortunately this was done with money destined for the design and development of a BMW E-26 prototype, which would ultimately become the successful mid-engine BMW M-1, but money ran out too quickly and the production of the BMW couldn't be started on the agreed date, resulting in the loss of the contract and BMW turning to Baur to build their M1 super car.
Rumor has it the Lamborghini Cheetah would be available for $25,000 and a very nice brochure was put together for it to attract attention for both military use and private use, an off-road Lamborghini could be interesting for customers in the Middle-East … that is probably the reason why the Cheetah was shown at the 1977 Geneva Auto Show (without a chassis number mind you), to ‘feel the market’ for a totally different Raging Bull … but firm orders never materialized and when Lamborghini finally sent the Cheetah prototype back to the United States without investing any further in the development they already faced some serious financial troubles.
Lamborghini was not able to put together a new model lineup based on the Cheetah back in the late Seventies, the Cheetah got sold to another company and slowly got forgotten … but the off-road adventure was far from over for Automobili Lamborghini, the Raging Bull would be back with the impressive LM002.