1980 was an especially good year for concept cars. The Aston Martin Bulldog, the Citroën Karin, the Ferrari Pinin and the Lancia Medusa, all debuted that year to wide acclaim, each for different reasons. The Bulldog and Karin were wedge-shaped sports cars, and the Medusa and the Pinin were unique, elegant sedans.
But one concept car from that year is usually not mentioned: the Lamborghini Athon, a bit of an outlier even in a year of unique designs. Its pedigree seems impeccable – Bertone, classic Italian Carrozzeria; Lamborghini, classic Italian marque; designer, Gandini’s successor Marc Deschamps; its format, a spider, again an Italian classic. But perhaps it was a combination of unique circumstances that led to the Athon being overlooked and, just maybe, underappreciated.
A bit of context is in order here. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a disaster for Lamborghini. The company had struggled throughout the 1970s and went bankrupt in 1978. The company was placed in receivership with the Mimran brothers in 1980. The Mimrans would try to resurrect the marque, searching for investors and financing to get production going again.
Enter two of the most prominent Lamborghini dealers of the time – Romano Bernardoni's Emilianauto in Bologna, and Achilli Motors in Milan. They had been financing the construction of the cars they needed by paying for them in advance, and agreed to finance a concept car, along with Nuccio Bertone, who undertook the project (and most of the expenses) as a matter of pride and belief in Lamborghini.
The project began with the delivery of a Lamborghini Silhouette chassis, complete with drivetrain, to Bertone (it had probably been a test mule). Whatever the car would look like, it would be stock Silhouette underneath, which meant a standard 260hp V8 engine, placed amidships, with a five-speed manual transmission and standard suspension. A glorious roar through an unmuffled exhaust meant that the car would be quite a presence both visually and aurally, wherever it went. Finally, as the Silhouette (with its targa top) was the first roadster that Lamborghini had produced in any numbers, it was determined the new concept car would be a roadster as well.
The project was to be Marc Deschamps’ first as director of design at Bertone. Marcello Gandini had left at the end of 1979 and automotive enthusiasts and industry insiders were watching to see if, as expected, a new design language would emerge at Bertone. However, Deschamps surprised everyone by continuing the design themes championed by his predecessor, and by Nuccio Bertone himself.
The roadster that emerged from Deschamps’ drawing board was very geometrical. It had a strong wedge at the front and a solid, slab-like mid and rear section. Typical of Bertone, these sections were deeply incised with clear recesses and cuts that caught the light and animated what would otherwise be a chunky, awkward form. Along the flanks of the car a deep recessed surface contrasted with the upper body and particularly the lower sill, which seemed to protrude from the car and become a dramatic sculptural piece in itself. Details also worked to animate the form. Witness the taillights – mere slits incised into the blocky rear of the car. But they were enough to keep the eye moving horizontally over the form of the car. The engine cover was treated as a separate element, extending across the rear deck of the car (its considerable length reminded some of a pickup truck with a tonneau cover over the bed).
But for all the sculpting and graphics, there was still a monolithic quality to the design – no doubt intentional on Deschamps’ part. Bertone liked a certain monolithic quality to the designs that bore his nameplate. Witness the Lancia Sibilo concept of 1978 – a vaguely pyramidal form animated by chunky fenders and equally chunky wheels. Even the Sibilo's glazing was superbly integrated with the body to achieve a strong seamless form. The Athon, being more sculpted and an open top car, was in some ways less monolithic, but from many views, particularly the rear 3/4 view, it looked as if it was milled out of a solid block of metal.
The Athon was described by Bertone as a spider or a true roadster – it had no top - but unlike many spider-type cars the Athon was a little cab-forward due to its mid-engined layout; most spiders had their engines placed in front. The windshield was, typical of Bertone, well integrated into the body, in this case at the awkward junction of the wedgy front and the blocky midsection and rear. The curving windscreen glass was of advanced construction, and smoked to better integrate it into the colour of the car's body – again like the earlier Sibilo.
The interior was luxurious and for its time quite technically advanced. The Italian supplier Veglia worked hard to create an early touchscreen instrument panel, while a box to the left of the steering wheel had fingertip controls for indicators, wipers and the like. An integrated phone sat on the passenger’s side of the center stack. The seats were deeply sculpted buckets covered in the finest leather. The door panels included a geometric composition of controls and speakers for the stereo system, their layout being one of the more under-appreciated design features of the car.
The Athon, named in reference to the Egyptian God of the Sun, was conceived to be a luxurious spider for cruising in sunny places like the Mediterranean, or even California – a market not previously of concern to Lamborghini. Alas, the car, introduced to wide acclaim at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show, was destined to be a only a concept. But no matter, as the publicity the Athon garnered lifted Lamborghini’s fortunes; a new car, the Jalpa, would join the Countach in the next few years and the company would begin to find its way out of the abyss.
As for the Athon itself, the car was returned to Bertone and placed in its museum. It was sold along with other Bertone classics in May 2011 at Villa d’Este for €347,200 to a private collector. It was unrestored, but apparently still in running condition.
Was the Athon the car that saved Lamborghini? Probably not, but it was the symbol of the energy and dedication of those who financed it and donated time, labour and materials to a cause that seemed all but lost. The project was a matter of personal, professional and national pride. As we look at all the marques that have disappeared in the last decade, we could certainly wish for more of that spirit today.
Length: 147.2 inches (3,739mm)
Width: 74.1 inches (1882mm)
Height: 41 inches (1041mm)
Wheelbase: 96.5 inches (2450mm)