Lamborghini is most known for their ridiculous mid-engined supercars, but people forget that they’ve dabbled in all sorts of genres over the decades. The first Lambos were front-engined GTs; there was the famous Hummer-esque LM002; and then there was this.
This is the Lamborghini Portofino. It’s a sedan, but it has four scissor doors in case there’s any doubt as to its Lamborghini heritage. It also has a 3.5-liter V8 stuffed behind the back seats.
And if you take a close look at it, you might start to think, “Huh… that looks a lot like the Dodge Intrepid and the other Chrysler LH cars from the 90s.” There’s a reason for that!
(Welcome to Long Lost Concept Cars, our semi-regular series on Fridays where we highlight amazing concepts from years past that never made it to production — but maybe should have.)
You could say that technically, the Portofino never really should have had a Lamborghini badge at all, since it started life as a Chrysler. Though the Portofino debuted at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, it started life a year earlier under Chrysler designer Kevin Verduyn. He called it the Chrysler Navajo, but it never moved beyond the clay model stage.
Then in 1987, for reasons known only to him and perhaps his spiritual advisor, Chrysler head honcho Lee Iacocca spearheaded the company’s purchase of the perpetually financially troubled Lamborghini. (Actually, the word at the time was that Iacocca wanted Chrysler to shed its blue collar image and go more international; these days, it’s the Italians that own them.)
According to Car Design News, then-Chrysler executive vice president Bob Lutz saw a lot of potential in Verduyn’s design and ordered a few tweaks to be made so it could show up as a Lamborghini concept in Frankfurt.
The design may have been all-Chrysler, but it had Lamborghini guts through and through. While it never saw production in this form, its eventual final version would have a huge impact on the way cars were designed.
What was it? A four door, four seat, concept car built on a stretched Lamborghini Jalpa chassis.
What were the specs? The Portofino was mid-engined and rear-wheel drive and boasted the 3.5-liter SOHC V8 also borrowed from the Jalpa. It also had a five-speed manual gearbox. It’s not clear if any zero to 60 mph times or other specs were ever quoted.
What else made it special? The car is most significant because its design featured a cabin that was stretched to the front and rear with wheels moved close to the corners, maximizing interior space in a way that was later termed “cab forward.” This design would form the genesis of the Chrysler LH-platform cars of the 90s and 2000s like the Intrepid, Chrysler LHS and Eagle Vision (Bonus points to anyone who remembers the Eagle Vision.)
What did it look like on the inside? Roomy, thanks to the cab forward design! The long center console didn’t make it to the later cars, but the rest of it looks very handsome and progressive for its time.
Did it actually run? No clue. Given that it was based on a Jalpa chassis and had that car’s engine, maybe.
Was it ever planned for production? Car Design News reports that the folks within Lamborghini were unimpressed with the design and called it the “Big Potato.” That’s mean. But it didn’t matter what they thought, because Chrysler loved the design and so did the auto industry as a whole. The Portofino garnered several awards and was greenlit for production as a Chrysler.
Should it have been produced? As a Lamborghini, with the mid-engine layout, scissor doors and the manual? Who knows. It certainly would have been outrageous enough for the time. If Lamborghini could make their crazy 4×4 military-looking LM002, then why not this?
But then again, the Portofino did see the light of day in 1993, just with drastic changes to make it palatable and produceable as a mainstream, midsize family car. The mid-engine architecture was dumped in favor of a front-engine, front-wheel drive platform developed from AMC/Renault/Eagle.
I feel like the LH cars sometimes don’t get enough credit. They were sleek, high-tech and extremely innovative for their time, and they were enough of a sales success to help Chrysler through some tough financial times in the 1990s. The platform stuck around until the mid-2000s too, so they got some mileage out of it.
It is kind of funny to think that the Dodge Intrepid driven by your middle-manager dad back in the day started life with a Lamborghini engine behind its seats. Those cars ended up with a more interesting heritage than most family sedans get.