Crashing the first Lamborghini Diablo allowed out of captivity should have ended my attempt to work in Europe. Long before the career move from Australia really began to pay dividends such public humiliation – try keeping a Lambo prang quiet in an industry that thrives on ever more exaggerated gossip – could, rightly, have meant being denied access to supercars, the bedrock of any job based on driving and writing about fast cars, while living in Italy.
Instead, the Wheels magazine (December, 1990) cover story instantly became the stuff of legend. Somehow, despite the major setback, my career blossomed. Lamborghini’s wonderfully forgiving reaction helped.
“It is not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last…if you drive.” Ubaldo Sgarzi, Lamborghini’s director of sales, told me, after he learned of the accident.
“It happens. You could always go by train.”
Sgarzi, a legend at Lamborghini before he retired, went on to work part time for Pagani and we used to catch up at motor shows. Ubaldo, who died in 2015, understood the supercar business like few others and I shall always be grateful for his tolerance.
“You’re Peter Robinson?” the young man queried and, without letting me reply, followed up with, “You’re the bloke who crashed the Diablo.” Watching the San Marino Grand Prix from Imola’s Tosa corner a couple of years later, I didn’t expect to be accosted by a Wheels reader holidaying in Europe. Similar scenes have since been played out in Maranello, Detroit, London, Tokyo and most states of Australia. Not that I’m recommending this embarrassing exploit as a career-starter for aspiring motoring writers.
Let’s begin at the beginning. After arriving in Italy in late 1988 to work for Wheels and Autocar magazines, I’d spent months establishing my credentials with Lamborghini’s Sandro Munari – yes, that Sandro Munari, the rally great – and been linked up with Luca Ciferri, an Italian colleague, and photographer Andrew Yeadon for the first drive in the Diablo. The idea was to spend two days with the first new Lambo supercar in 19-years.
Phil Scott, my editor at Wheels, told me, “Mate, what we’d really like for the cover is a shot of the speedo needle above 300km/h.” Anything you want Phil! That editorial demand became my goal, although I didn’t let on to Munari. As well, I was producing an eight-page cover story for Autocar, the English weekly and the oldest motoring magazine in the world.
I turned the yellow Diablo right out of Lambo’s Sant’Agata Bolognese HQ, heading for Bologna and the Mille Miglia’s famous Futa Pass, in the Apennine mountains that separate Emilia Romana and Tuscany. Munari’s sidekick, Antonio Zambelli rode in the passenger seat. Ciferri and Yeadon attempted to stay in contact in a Fiat Croma. While I remember the Diablo being large and heavy, it was immediately obvious the 5.7-litre V12 was a quantum leap forward from the Countach in most measurable terms. That didn’t stop me from whinging about the lack of room around the pedals, the heavy steering and questioning the strange omission of anti-lock brakes.
Gradually, I began to explore the engine’s power, upping the change-up point at every opportunity; each serious prod of the right foot making me aware of the immense grunt. The Diablo made 362kW at 7000rpm and, although it proved surprisingly flexible through the villages, with peak torque of 580Nm at 5200rpm, the tacho needle wanted/needed to soar. The V12 bellowed, of course, the fierce exhaust roar totally in keeping with the brutal power.
Andrew shot a roll or two of tracking shots before we left the autostrada. We hadn’t bothered with details, we had one and a half days of snapping time. Running down the Futa, in the opposite direction to the MM, the road becomes a series of dipping corners. I swear I wasn’t over driving, but a right-hander turned into an equally abrupt downhill left-hander. Time for the brakes to slow and set up the Lambo for the corner after next. I lifted, the right foot coming down hard on the brake….just as I caught sight of a small Fiat Fiorino pickup climbing slowly up the hill.
The front wheels locked – ABS brakes weren’t considered essential in those days, at least in Sant’Agata – the Pirellis leaving two lurid black skid marks as mute evidence of the inevitable disaster. My attempt to wrench the wheel to the right had no impact. The Diablo would not turn from its trajectory towards the Fiat. My mind knew I should lift, so the wheels would turn, but my foot refused to respond to the message from the brain. The nose of the pickup filled my side window. For one desperately optimistic moment, as the Diablo skidded straight across the single white line, I thought we might just, just, miss the Fiat’s rear end.
No such luck. The left side of the Lambo’s nose scraped along the side and rear wheel of Fiorino, tearing at the Diablo’s lights and spoiler. From that moment, this was a catastrophe. My mind raced ahead: how would we fill the cover: Ciferri hadn’t even driven the bloody car – by now it was a bloody car – what could I possible tell Lamborghini.
I wanted to be anywhere, anywhere, but here.
“Nobody’s hurt…it’s only a car,” Yeadon offered as reassurance.
“Only a car,” I shouted, desperate to hide my inadequacies. “It’s more than that and you know it. Other people crash Limbos and Ferraris, not me.”
In the next half hour, scenes played out that to this day remain vivid. I didn’t know it then, but this would become one of the great dinner party stories, though there are still people – all non-Italians – who find the outcome impossible to believe.
While I pondered the end of the world, Zambelli rang the carabinieri. A few minutes later four – why four? – uniformed chaps arrived in a Jeep-like Fiat and began questioning everybody.
Except me. I sat on the side of the road, head in hands. The accident was discussed in great detail, all explanations relayed eagerly with much arm waving. It all seemed to hinge around the word Prova. Finally, after 20 minutes, they all shook hands, the old couple departed in their still-driveable Fiat, as did the now smiling carabinieri. I talked to nobody. The carabinieri hadn’t even asked to see my licence or my passport.
Luca explained and I knew, again, why I loved living in Italy.
“You need to understand many things,” he began. “First, very importantly, Zambelli discovered he went to primary school with one of the carabinieri, and they were friends.
“Second, the Diablo was on Prova (test) plates. Therefore it should only have been driven by an employee of Lamborghini and, worse, only in the province in which the plate was issued.
“Third, the Fiat has just run out of insurance.
Then came the unbelievable.
“So, at the suggestion of the Carabinieri, we all agreed the accident was 100km from here, it happened eight days ago, and you weren’t driving….
Everybody, well not quite everybody, went away happy. The following day, Lambo provided another Diablo – yes, I drove it – and we finished the job near Mantova, north of Sant’Agata on the Po Plain, where the road are only ever flat and straight.
Scotty’s reaction to the news was in total contrast to Autocar’s. The Poms insisted the incident be forgotten, at least in terms of its readership. Things are different in Australia.
“Didn’t get the speedo shot, Scotty, sorry,” I told the Wheels’ editor, “I crashed the car.”
“You crashed the Lambo? Did you get any photographs?” he asked excitedly. I replied in the affirmative and told him the story. I could hear his brain move into overdrive, the cover lines already half-written.
“Fantastic. Just write it as it happened.”
“WE DRIVE DIABLO…AND CRASH. Robinson bends the world’s fastest, most expensive car. Read it and weep.”
So screamed the Wheels’ cover.
I never showed Munari the issue. If he ever saw a copy, it was never mentioned. Some things are best left unsaid.
For the record, my souvenir section of the horribly scored Diablo bumper now sits on the wall of my office – a daily reminder of my stupidity. There have been many other incidents thoughout my 58-years as a motoring writer, nothing goes close to matching my Lambo story.