Have you ever seen a Chrysler sedan from the late 1990s to the early 2000s drive by and find yourself saying “holy crap, a Lamborghini?” I realize that whoever may be around at such a moment will likely look at you like you’re some drooling simpleton, but, as you may know, the joke is very much on them. In fact, you’d be more like a drooling genius because you correctly noted that Chrysler’s “cab-forward” design language used on LH-platform cars like the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, Chrysler New Yorker, and a couple others were, in fact, very directly inspired by the design of a Lamborghini concept car called the Portofino.
That’s right, it was a Lamborghini that gave the distinctive look to the sedan your friend’s dad’s poker buddy drove back in 2002. That whole “cab-forward” look that was so important to Chrysler’s re-emergence at the end of the last century was born in 1987, when a designer named Kevin Verduyn adapted a clay model of a concept car from the previous year called the Chrysler Navajo into the design for a Lamborghini concept. The reason this happened at all was because that was also the year that Chrysler bought Lamborghini.
Lamborghini was in real financial trouble when Chrysler picked them up at bargain-bin prices, and eagerly dove into what the legendary brand had to offer like a kid tearing into birthday present wrapping. It was only months after the deal closed that Chrysler shoved Lambo’s famous rearing bull into a Chrysler pentastar and stuck that on their latest concept.
Look, on the steering wheel, that’s the Lambo bull in a Chrysler-shaped pen:
This concept car was pretty radical, even for a Lamborghini, mostly because of how many doors it had: four. Four supercar-style scissor-opening doors, a full four-door, four-seat sedan that was somehow still mid-engined! The Portofino was built on a lengthened Jalpa chassis, making it one of the vanishingly rare mid-engined four-door sedans. The whole thing was radical and unexpected; I mean, look at the damn thing:
Hot damn. Look at that wonderful design untainted by a B-pillar, leaving that dazzling void in the middle when all those doors are dramatically flipped up. Why shouldn’t there be a dramatic, four-door/four-seat Lambo? Lambo owners have more than one friend, don’t they? Or at least up to three people who want to pretend to be their friend? Of course they do.
For whatever reason, maybe borne of some bitterness at being bought by the company that once made the Maserati TC by Chrylser, the honchos at Lamborghini were not impressed, referring to the Portofino as a “big potato.” Chrysler, however, understood how delicious and filling big potatoes can be, and took the general design concept from the Portofino, mated it to the surprisingly competent chassis from the partially-Renault-designed Eagle Premier, and boom, out came the LH platform:
Of course, in translation to reality, a lot of things had to change from the concept, not the least of which was the engine moved from the middle to the front, but even then Chrysler was sure not to make anything feel too normal, so it was front wheel drive with a longitudinal engine, like a Cord or Citroën Traction Avant or Oldsmobile Toronado.
What’s remarkable is just how much the production car actually does look like the concept, something especially impressive for such a radical design. I mean, okay, the scissor doors had to go, which is a real shame, but there’s still a lot of Portofino in the LH cars, even down to some of the details. Look at these rear quarter angles of the Portofino and the Dodge Intrepid:
…there’s the Lambo. Now, look at the design vocabulary of the Dodge, the taillight treatment with the full-width heckblende and those oblong strakes below, on either side. You also have the blacked out pillars and general, if made real-world-plausible, proportions:
I’m not certain if one day these LH platform cars will become the sorts of things people want to collect, but I tend to think they should. They were genuinely novel designs of the era, with an emphasis on maximizing interior volume, pushing the wheels to the corners, and providing a lot of surprisingly good handling and safety for a mass-market family sedan. They didn’t look or feel quite like anything else out there at the time, and a lot of that may be because they were born, at least in part, from an incredible and daring Lamborghini concept car.
That’s an unexpected genesis for one of the lines of cars that helped get Chrysler back on their feet, but there it is.
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