Both these '90s supercars may offer mid-engine 12-cylinder thrills, but as we discovered, they are two very different animals...
Story by Wilhelm Lutjeharms
I’m filled with nostalgia as my gaze sets upon the Lamborghini Diablo, waiting between more mundane vehicles in an industrial parking area. Thoughts of all those early supercars of the 80s and 90s and the TV programs and movies in which these cars were featured overwhelm me and send shivers down my spine. This is going to be a good day...
The owner bought his Diablo ten years ago with 70 000 km on the odo and has since added more than 22 000 km. He uses this supercar (very) often, be it for his daily commute as well as longer, more enjoyable runs. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, he is clearly not afraid of sitting in traffic with the Diablo. I walk around the car on my way to the passenger side, thinking he can drive through the traffic before my stint on the track, only to find him already warming the seat. Having met him a few times before, I fully expect the chirp he slings my way. His “don’t you know how to use a clutch?” sends me back around the Diablo to the driver’s seat. Okay, so my first taste of a Lamborghini Diablo VT is going to be heading through peak afternoon traffic in South Africa’s largest metropolis!
Heading through traffic
I slide in and suddenly I’m not concerned about the traffic anymore. This car grabs your attention from every little angle. The seat is mounted low in the chassis while your view from driver’s seat is vastly different to that of any other modern classic car I’ve driven. When I pull the scissor door shut (another attention grabber, even three decades on), the way the side window dips down towards the front wheel gives you a clear view of the road, ideal for clipping those apexes. You have the angled dashboard in front of you while the steeply raked windscreen give the cabin an airy aura. Once seated it becomes very clear that you are positioned towards the nose of the car with the business end being close behind you.
It is initially overwhelming to drive the Diablo through traffic, as I don’t want to ride the clutch in any way, but after a few kilometres I realize the Diablo is easier to drive at a sedate pace than I anticipated. Sure, the clutch is rather heavy and gear changes should not be rushed, but overall it is definitely not as challenging as I had imagined. While I try to navigate through traffic, the owner deals with all the remarks from fellow road users – he clearly is used to it.
We are making our way to Red Star Raceway, situated approximately an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg. There we meet up with a pristine example of the F512M, taken care of by a good friend of the owner.
Design and history
As the F512M arrives it immediately offers a stark, yet welcoming contrast to the outlandish Diablo. Whereas the Diablo has that notable rear wing, angular front wedge shape, pop-up lights and side and top air intakes, the Ferrari visually classifies itself as the gentleman’s super-GT. Although both cars have NACA ducts above their headlights (not seen on the Testarossa or the TR), the front design of the M is more fluid followed by the flowing curve above the slatted side intakes and lower and wingless rear end. The Diablo’s rear also offers larger and more obvious engine air outlets and even more outlets below the rear deck.
As with the Diablo, the F512M clearly stands out from the crowd today (what must it have been like in the '90s!), but its presence is undoubtedly less shouty than the bull from Sant’Agata.
The F512 M, to give it its full name, was the third and final iteration of a lineage started by the Ferrari Testarossa (and the 365 GT4 BB before that), its direct predecessor being the 512 TR. Unveiled at the 1994 Paris Motor Show, the M represented a number of new Pininfarina styling elements and improvements. Gone were the pop-up headlights, a new nose design (including a new grille, with traces of the coming F355) and new wheels to name three of the main changes. At the rear the grille was reduced in size, while on each side a pair of rear lights was fitted. The engine cover was now body coloured. It is clearly a smoother and more modern design than its predecessors and, as one would expect, presents much less of the 1980s Fioravanti design influence.
Whereas the flat-12 in the Testarossa produced 287 kW and in the TR 317 kW, the M offered a full 328 kW at 6 750 rpm (500 Nm at 5 500 rpm) with a claimed kerb weight of 1 455 kg. Claimed top speed was an impressive 315 km/h (not far off the F40’s 324 km/h). The 512 M is also a relatively rare beast, with only 501 units manufactured (well over 2 500 Diablos were produced over the 11 years production cycle, of which around 400 were VTs).
The 512 M has lived a vastly different life to that of the Diablo. It has covered less than 26 000 km and this is obvious not only in the car’s interior but also its exterior condition, not to mention the driving experience.
With photography done, the track is a safe place to explore what these supercars offer near-on three decades after their release. I step into the luxurious cabin of the M and immediately I experience it as a different kind of supercar, perhaps maybe leaning more towards a super-GT that just happens to be mid-engined.
The combination of the Nero and Blu Scuro (black and dark blue) leather together with the plush carpets lend the cabin a cosy feel – not the case with the Lamborghini. However, the seriousness of the performance on offer is immediately felt by the presence of that quintessential metal gearknob and drilled metal pedals, slightly offset to the left. The seating position is good (and comfortable), although ideally I would have liked the steering wheel to be closer to me. My hair only just brushes the roof lining, so I’m constantly kept aware that I’m driving a low-roof sports car!
The general layout of the 512 M cabin is more conservative and classic versus the almost playboy-like interior of the Diablo, which is again perfectly in line with the two different approaches of these supercars.
I turn the key to the right of the steering wheel and the engine growls into life. As the gearlever slips with a soft “clack” into first gear I can’t help but smile. If you don’t own an open-gate Ferrari, savour the chance you get to drive one. It is one of the great automotive experiences.
It only takes a few slow corners to realize that this car is in tip-top condition. There are barely any rattles and it almost doesn’t feel its age. The turn-in is good, keeping in mind the massive weight of the flat-12 behind my shoulders. But as I get into a rhythm with the car I start trusting those wide rear tyres (295/35 ZR18, but the Lambo features even wider 335/35 ZR17 examples) and that, once it has settled into a corner, a measured flex of that medal throttle pedal shows just how much grip is actually on offer.
Make no mistake, the engine is eager to rev and it does so in a linear and efficient way, typical of a large, naturally-aspirated unit. There are no surprises, just an honest howl running through the rev range all the way past 6 000 rpm – the red line is just after 7 000 rpm. The brakes feel strong, even by modern standards, although I prefer to never lean too hard on them. Controlling the urge to rev the engine to the redline, the torque lower down in the rev range allows you to experience an enticing level of acceleration, even particularly low in the rev range – again, an ideal characteristic of a super-GT.
As I return to the Diablo, its cabin is once again a strong reminder of the two different ideas these companies had in their supercar approaches at the time. In the Diablo it feels like you are closer to the ground while the wide transmission tunnel separates you from your passenger, more so than in the 512 M. As is the case with the Ferrari, the open gate gearlever (topped by a slightly less appealing leather gearknob) reminds one of a time when driving these cars were not for the faint of heart, demanding from you a focus and determination not required nowadays.
If the relatively small steering wheel’s aim was to make the car feel nimbler, it has succeeded. Diablos are not lightweight cars, but the turn in is surprisingly crisp if you take the size and weight into consideration, while every shift of the transmission takes some planning – such a welcome exercise compared to today’s sophisticated, if slightly boring, dual-clutch systems.
You can easily place the front wheels exactly where you want, while the throaty and intense sound from the quad exhaust pipes underlines the difference in personality of the Diablo compared to the 512M. However, the previous owner of the Diablo couldn’t help but fit a Tubi aftermarket system on the Diablo – another reason it is considerably shoutier than the M. The engine is brutal in its power delivery (367 kW and 580 Nm peaks) and although you can use the available torque by shifting through the gearbox early, when you do leave it in gear and pass 3 000 and then 4 000 rpm that rawness of the performance makes itself heard all the way past 6 000 rpm. The brake pedal is firm and needs a proper push to scrub speed. Driving this car is a huge thrill and something you want to do over and over again. In an effort to offer a purer driving experience, the owner removed the front drive shafts, making this VT a true rear-wheel-drive supercar.
Later, when the owner takes the Diablo for a final lap with sun already set behind the horizon, the Marcello Gandini shape looks utterly stunning and focused – a sight I’ll never forget.
I asked him about how the Diablo crossed his path: “Funny you should ask that. Today I watched again the opening scene of Cannonball Run and that movie is what got me into Lamborghinis in the first place, prominently featuring a black Countach and some beautiful women. I always wanted a Countach and years ago I bid on one but couldn’t afford it at the time, then opted to buy a Ferrari 308 instead. Later things fell into place and in 2012 I was able to purchase this example after I put in a cheeky offer.”
Needless to say, he has no plan of ever selling it. “Every single car of mine I purchase to drive and experience. I never ever buy a car just to park it.”
The owner of the 512M has a long history of restoring a variety of cars and is utterly pedantic about the condition of his cars and originality. He explains: “In 2014 a Ferrari specialist approached me and said he has a car that I might be interested in. There are only two of these cars in SA and I’ve always appreciated them, these flat-12s being the powerhouses in the 60s and 70s in road and race cars. “I’ve owned a TR for a couple of years, but the M represent the gold standard and the last-off-the-line of the flat-12 recipe. The fact that this car was completely original and meticulously maintained appealed to me.”
Both these cars were easier to drive than I anticipated. Both also looked as enticing in real life as I had hoped. They represent the pinnacle of performance of their time, but where the Lamborghini is clearly the winner in terms of being a Goliath that stands its ground, the 512M does its job in a more sophisticated and perhaps more stylish way.
One can’t argue the fact that the Diablo snatches attention from the 512M, even when standing still. Both offer impressive, wall poster-worthy design, from small details like the split-rim wheels to the aggressive, yet in places smooth design, combined with the engine notes of those 12-cylinder powertrains.
But, when you want to cover long distances and move slightly more under the radar, the 512M will be one to have. As a Road & Track article mentioned: “Its styling is dramatic, its highway manners nearly flawless and that big 12-cylinder engine makes a soul-stirring sound you will hear nowhere else. It’s a combination of desirable attributes difficult to improve upon, even for Ferrari”.
1995 Lamborghini Diablo VT
Engine: 5.7-litre, V12
Power: 367 kW @ 7 000 rpm
Torque: 580 Nm @ 5 200 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual, RWD
Weight: 1 625 kg
0-97 km/h: 5.1 seconds
Top speed: 326 km/h
1995 Ferrari F512M
Engine: 4.9-litre, flat-12 cylinder
Power: 328 kW @ 6 750 rpm
Torque: 500 Nm @ 5 500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual, RWD
Weight: 1 455 kg
0-97 km/h: 4.8 seconds
Top speed: 315 km/h