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Lamborghini Diablo is a flawed but dreamy car

The rear of a 1991 Lamborghini Diablo is

The rear of a 1991 Lamborghini Diablo is seen at Auto Salon Singen. Credit: Flickr / Stephen Hanafin

Meeting your heroes is dangerous; you might end up disappointed. This also holds true for fantasy cars. That exotic Lamborghini you dreamed about as a teen might be a lemon.

That splash of cold reality hits me in the face just before I twist the key to a 1991 Lamborghini Diablo. I had a framed poster of the supercar on my bedroom wall during high school, but never got any closer to it until today, 22 years later, when a friend bought one on eBay for $90,000 and let me borrow it.

Backed into a narrow garage, the all-black car gleams meanly, low and wide, scissor doors - the ultimate exotic-car detail of the day - open and pointing upwards. A big wing sits at the back, and air vents ribbing the rear deck indicate the place where the 48-valve, 5.7-liter V-12 engine lives.

When it first came out, the Diablo’s base price was about $240,000, including a 10 percent luxury tax. With 485 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque, it had a top speed of 202 mph and attained 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, according to Automobile Magazine.

Those are good statistics, even today. At the time, Lamborghini was owned by Chrysler.

My 9-to-5 gig is reviewing cars, so the adult half of me will simply be doing my job. But the other, still-teenage side will be dancing around in high-top Keds sneakers, whipping around his mullet and marveling at his luck. Dude, this is gonna rock harder than C+C Music Factory.

It’s clear this will be an unusual experience. While the leather bucket seats recline rakishly, the angle can’t be adjusted. The left wheel-well intrudes into the cabin, so the driver sits off center with legs twisted to the right. There’s little room to manipulate the pedals, and the steering wheel sits so low on my thighs that I’m pinioned.

This car could make a chiropractor a lot of money.

The instrument cluster looks like it was ripped from the cockpit of F-16 jet fighter, and a manual stick shift pokes up out of a gate shifter (a piece of metal with the gear slots cut out). I reach up to close the scissor door and then fire up the V-12.

It sounds like a badly-tuned John Deere tractor. The entire cabin shimmies. I gently clink the stick into gear and edge out of the garage.

The man beneficent enough to loan me the Diablo is Ari Straus, president and partner of the Monticello Motor Club in the Catskills. He knows his exotic cars.

While he’s a reasonable guy - he sometimes drives a Honda Odyssey minivan - nostalgia got the best of him when he saw the Diablo on eBay.

"I made a bid and kind of forgot about it. Then I got an e-mail saying I’d won."

Like any Lambo worth its salt, this Diablo had a colorful backstory: It had been seized by a drug enforcement agency in Montana and was later put up for auction. It needed a new clutch, a notoriously faulty issue with older Lamborghinis, but was otherwise in good shape.

The back wing also has deep ripples in the finish, speaking less to fine Italian craftsmanship and more to a bored Sant’Agata Bolognese worker who couldn’t wait to knock off for lunch.

"You’re driving a dream, but it doesn’t drive like a dream," jokes Straus. "I have to take off my shoes to work the pedals and the AC blows out warm air. But you start revving it high and it comes to life. You remember the poster on your wall and think, this is phenomenal."

I find myself on rolling country hills, long grass tilting with a soft breeze, and give the gas a tentative push to the floor. The engine note changes, becoming less broad and keener; the shimmying of the cabin actually stills. The Diablo bounds forward, an adrenaline shot to the heart.

Later Diablo models got all-wheel drive, a feature now standard on Lamborghinis. But original Diablos are rear-wheel- drive, and the push from the back is like a backslap. The rear tires actually squeal.

The car bounds over a hill and down a squiggly lane, sucking down to the asphalt. Tire grip is excellent and the suspension is good. The brakes, which lack anti-lock, are less than commensurate to the car’s power.

The steering is also unassisted, which makes pulling out of a parking spot a tug-of-war, but it’s excellent on broad sweeping turns. The car is a handful, in the very best of ways.

I pass a group of teens pulled over on the side of the road and they shout, "Go go go!"

I comply.

More than two decades on, the Diablo sure isn’t perfect, but it continues to inspire a dream or two.

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