Lamborghini kicked-off the supercar boom in the late sixties with its Miura, but it was only in the following decade that the high-performance arms race really got into its stride. Wedge-shaped styling was a given, V8s and V12s were common, while turbocharging was notable for its absence, as was any semblance of either practicality or reliability.
Lamborghini and Ferrari became established players in the rarified supercar world pretty much overnight, with the Countach and the GT4 BB swiftly becoming the sector’s ‘halo cars.’
The eighties brought a modicum of refinement and usability (though only in comparison to what had come before), but supercars remained tricky, rarefied and temperamental beasts, both to own and drive. The Countach grew ever wider and more overblown, to the point where it was little more than a pastiche of Gandini’s crisp, sharply styled original.
Then, come the tail end of the decade, the economy decided to do its best impression of the Titanic, forcing purveyors of high-end exotica to confront reality. Dozens of fledgling supercar makers folded as the eighties gave way to the nineties, while even the established ‘heavy hitters’ of the genre – the Italians who’d kick-started the whole concept – were forced to tone down their offerings.
The tumultuous timeline outlined above means that for every established supercar icon like the Miura or the Countach, there are half a dozen Urracos or Espadas, machines forgotten by all but the most committed of car folk. This being Retropower and our reputation for admiring left-field automotive offerings, we think it’s pretty easy to guess which of the cars outlined above we’re more drawn to!
This, then, is our rundown of the greatest forgotten supercars of seventies and eighties, plus a smattering of nineties entries to keep things varied. The desire to showcase as many weird and wonderful automotive loons also explains the inclusion of a smattering of high-end GTs and tourers like the Espada, though we’re sure you’ll forgive us playing fast and loose with the definition of ‘supercar.’
1 – Lamborghini Urraco
Lamborghini spent much of the seventies and eighties struggling to create cars able to support its runaway hits, the Miura and the Countach, and the Urraco was one such attempt.
More of a Dino rival than a pure-bred supercar the Urraco was a potent bit of kit nonetheless, at least by the standards of the early seventies. The range began with a tiny, 1994cc V8 intended to circumvent Italy’s punitive tax regulations, and topped out at a larger, 2996cc version good for a handy 247bhp.
The Urraco shown here is actually a one-off, the Rally. It was built by Lamborghini’s chief test driver and development guru, Bob Wallace, with one eye on an aborted Group 4 race programme – a category the Urraco would never have been eligible for homologation into as not enough were ever produced. Still, it’s hard to argue with split rims that wide, a rear wing that rudimentary and rear window louvres that cool.
2 – Maserati Khamsin
The Khamsin hailed from the brief period when Maserati had a stab at becoming the maker of the least reliable supercars in the world, what with it having been acquired by Citroen (itself hardly flush with cash at the time) in 1968. As such the Khamsin featured Citroen hydraulics for the brakes, clutch, steering – even the seat height control.
The upside to all of this high-pressure fluid-based wizardry everything worked almost instantaneously when warmed up, while the downside was that nothing worked at all when cold. Or, as was often the case, when it broke, with a sudden loss of pressure having the potential to rob the driver of all braking capability. Good thing French and Italian cars of the early seventies were famously well-built, right?
Khamsin buyers did at least get a car with a silky smooth 4.9l V8, a stunningly off the wall interior and a glass panel – ideal for promoting the contents of your ‘boot’ to the ‘sticky fingered,’ morally dubious elements of society.
3 – Maserati Ghibli Cup
Post-Citroen Maserati offerings weren’t exactly the definition of reliability, either – the Ghibli Cup but one example. Maserati had spent much of the eighties flogging an increasingly aging horse with its ‘notchback’ BiTurbo, and while the car kept the firm afloat and on the radar of, well, people mad enough to consider buying a brand new ‘Maser’ in the mid-eighties, it was hardly the sort of car to keep Ferrari or Lamborghini awake at night.
Enter in 1995, the Ghibli Cup. Yes it was based upon the by now ancient BiTurbo, and yes it was hardly what you’d cool pretty, but it was powerful – seriously so. The Cup’s 24v 2.0 V6 made a full 333bhp, which was worth crowing about at the time, sent to the rear wheels via a Getrag five-speed ‘box with shorter ratios than its rivals. That it was designed to populate the grid of an aborted one-make Ghibli Cup race series (all with less power than the road going version) is merely the icing on the cake.
4 – Lamborghini Espada
A big, front-engined, V12-powered sports tourer, the Espada looked right from just about each and every angle, and while it lacked the aggressive drama of its Countach sibling there could be no denying that the Espada was a sensational way to blast across continental Europe…providing you could afford to keep the six Weber ‘forties’ fed with fuel!
The Espada lived long, the production run spanning 1968 to 1978 and spanning three different series. These steadily became more powerful and more refined, though all looked striking in the extreme. We would LOVE to treat an Espada to the Retropower…treatment. Any takers?
5 – De Tomaso Pantera
Did you know that you’re legally allowed to punch anyone who says they don’t like the De Tomaso Pantera squarely in the chin? Well, that’s actually not so much a fact as a request, because let’s face it, you just can’t trust someone who doesn’t appreciate the charms of this angular Italian wedge with a big, 5.8l Cleveland V8 mounted amidships.
The combination of a rock-solid American V8 and wedge-tastic, ducted Italian styling proved to be immensely popular in supercar terms, with over 7000 of Panteras finding homes over the course of its long, 22 year production run.
6 – Cizeta-Moroder V16T
You know how it is: you want something Italian, overblown and vented, either a Countach or a Diablo, but there’s a catch – both are obsolete, soon to be replaced, and even Lamborghini has moved away from its classic, wedge-shaped styling template. The solution? Why, the monstrously massive, so-eighties-it-has-a-coke-habit Cizeta-Moroder V16T.
But looks were only part of what made the Cizeta such on oddly compelling prospect, the other being the source of its name, the transversely mounted V16. The father of the project was one Claudio Zampolli, the man charged with creating a new engine from a pair of leftover V8s from the Urraco programme, eventually resulting in a 6.0 monster with 8 cams and 4 cylinders. That’s correct, your teeth should be itching at mere prospect of the amount of trouble a bespoke Italian engine of this kind would cause.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Cizeta V16T is that as of last year you could still buy one, brand new from none other than Zampolli himself. He still owns all the tooling and the workshop facilities required to build a few more examples, though you’ll of course need the deepest of pockets to convince him to pick up tools one again.
7 – Lamborghini Islero
The Countach (and to a lesser extent, the Diablo) have so shaped the general public’s idea of what a Lamborghini should look like, that it can be hard to conceive of a time when they looked any different, but they did. Case in point, the Islera, a stunningly proportioned tourer with nothing in common stylistically with its more famous offspring.
The Islero was produced between 1968 and 1969, a tiny span of time and the reason a mere 225 examples were built in total. What it lacked in numbers it made up for in presence, and, thanks to the inclusion of a classic 4.0 V12, good for 325bhp.
8 – Maserati Bora
The passage of time has made it very hard to appreciate just how radical the Bora looked when it was unveiled in 1971. Granted, this big, sharp-nosed beast could never be mistaken as a product of any decade other than the seventies, but it somehow looks far, far more modern than its years, probably down to the neat, rounded treatment of the flanks and the neatly capped alloys.
All but forgotten now, the Bora was an all out powerhouse at launch, its 4.7l (later 4.9l) V8 able to overwhelm pretty much all opposition in its class. It wasn’t until the Countach of the late seventies (or perhaps the Lancia Stratos) that the rest of the world caught up.
9 – Dome Zero
Come the mid seventies, the Italians no longer had the supercar landscape to themselves. Other European nations like the British and the Germans had started to get in on the act, and even the Americans had begun to mull over the prospect, even if the US entry – the Corvette – was powered by a front-engined V8.
Yet the Italians faced another, far weirder challenge to their domination of the supercar landscape, the Dome Zero from, wait for it, Japan. OK so it was powered by a weedy Nissan L28E inline six making just 160bhp, and yes it never made it to production (much less in quantities large enough to worry the Modena set), but it looked mad, and, more importantly, pointed the way to looming Japanese dominance of the sports car sector.
10 – De Tomaso Mangusta
Mangusta is Italian for ‘mongoose,’ which is just about all you need to know about this badass De Tomaso. Well, that and the rumour that it was named after nature’s finest killer of cobras following a vicious dispute with Carroll Shelby – the brainchild of the AC Cobra. Shelby and Alejandro de Tomaso supposedly fell out of love with one another following a delayed, then aborted plan to develop a new race car for the 1965 CanAm season, after which the former took his services to Ford’s GT40 programme. Wonder how that worked out…
Bonus Entry – De Tomaso Longchamp
It isn’t a supercar, granted, but the Longchamp deserves a mention because it’s just about the coolest car ever conceived. It was derived from De Tomaso’s large, pre-existing saloon, the Deauville, the new car making use of its engine, transmission and suspension, albeit clothed in a radically different GT body.
It was conceived as a luxurious luxury tourer, the sort of car a CEO might buy to traverse continents, and as such it featured a plush, seventies-tastic interior, angular, Mercedes-ish styling and lashings of road presence. This being a De Tomaso, it also got a V8, another 5.8L Ford Cleveland.