Lamborghini Countach

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1984 Lamborghini Countach 5000S

1984 Lamborghini Countach 5000S

With its outrageous looks and blistering performance, few cars have whipped up stronger passions than the Countach. The Miura May have been the most exotic supercar of the sixties but it was a flawed gem. Its replacement had to be both better developed and dynamically superior – goals Lamborghini addressed with confidence. Improving on the Miura’s visual impact was a more daunting task. Out of fantasy, though, came the fantastic: a car so in-your-face dramatic that even the Miura paled by comparison. Nearly three decades after its launch, the Countach is still a byword for outrageous excess. No car before or since, with the possible exception of its Diablo successor, has had greater road presence, more head-turning allure, or a crazier disregard for the mundane and practical. Despite Lamborghini’s no-racing policy, few street-legal daydreams would look more at home on the track. If there was a styling rule-book, Bertone ignored it. The original Countach may have looked neater with round rear wheelarches, rather than tilted rectangular ones; it may have looked cleaner without those air scoops on the rear haunches, never mind the later rear wing. But it was these outlandish features that made the Countach such a car of the gods. To wealthy extroverts drawn to such profligacy, the journey was only part of the Countach experience. Arriving was the coup de grace. Shaped like a wide-nosed chisel, the Countach cocked a snook at convention and discretion, and practicality, too. The car’s three greatest qualities – uncompromised design, dynamic excitement and hell-raising looks – nurtured big egos. So did the exclusivity that came with a mind-blowing price tag: over £18,000 when Motor tested an LP400 in 1975. For the same money, you could have bought a nine-car fleet of MGB GTs. Just for the record, a dozen would equal the value of one pristine Countach today.

In The Beginning

The prototype Countach broke cover at the 1971 Geneva salon, springboard for several memorable Lamborghinis, including the 350 GT, Miura. Espada and Jarama. Billed as a concept showpiece to display the talents of Lamborghini and Bertone, Tipo 112, the first Countach prototype, was surely too wide, too futuristic, to way-out and impractical to become a production reality. But memories were short. Hadn’t the same been said of the naked Miura some years before? As Ferruccio Lamborghini continued to shun racing as an expensive irrelevance, it was no use looking for some hidden competition purpose to explain the Countach’s outlandish profile. Whereas the tricky Miura had its V12 engine slung transversely behind the cockpit, the Countach had a more conventional north/south power train, as indicated by its LP5000 tag, shorthand for Longitudinal Posteriore Cinque Litri. The big 4971cc motor of the prototype was said to yield 430bhp but doubts about reliability (the engine’s rumoured lifespan was under 20,000km) left it on the shelf for further development. Tipo 112’s semi-monocoque chassis, made up from panel-stiffened square tubes, was a one-off too. Conventional in orientation though the power train was, all the better for weight distribution, the engine was actually rump about face – south/north if you like – with the five-speed gearbox up front, between the seats, connected to the rear ZF diff by a sealed though-the-engine driveshaft that gave two separate lubrication systems. In all but the definitive SV, the Miuara’s engine and gearbox shared the same oil, Mini style. This unique arrangement, which called for a stiffer ribbed block and sump, gave several advantages, including a near 50/50 weight distribution, a low polar moment of inertia (because the heavy bits were central), better engine accessibility and a direct gear change bereft of corrupting control rods. There were downsides, however. The engine sat higher than was ideal, the cockpit was cramped, luggage space meagre and three-quarter rear visibility terrible.

The LP400

1984 Lamborghini Countach 5000S-2In many ways, the sceptics were right: LP500 was not suitable for series production. Much clean-sheet design and development was needed to evolve the single prototype into the customer LP400, launched at Geneva in 1973, but not ready for sale until ’74. Although the production Countach looked much like the way-out ’71 showpiece, it was very different beneath the skin. The brief from Ferruccio Lamborghini – he was to influence no more cars bearing his name – was that the Countach should be both out-and-out sportser and refined gran turismo. In other words, it had to be great to drive and civilised with it. Out went the original’s improvised chassis, to be replaced by a Marchesi-fabricated tubular spaceframe, said to account for much of the car’s cost. Unstressed aluminium panels, shaped on a wooden former, skinned the chassis. Gandini’s brief also allowed the retention of unique ‘gadfly’ doors, despite safety worries. Although the 3.9-litre, four-cam, 2.4-valve engine was Lambo’s stock V12 from the Espada, it embraced some of the mods – new stiffened block and sump, for instance – developed for the experiment 5.0. On six DCOE Weber carbs it yielded a claimed 375bhp at 8000rpm, or 10bhp less than was alleged for the Miura SV. However, just as performance figures were glossy exaggerated, so were those for power and torque. The box-forward layout of the unique drive train was central to the raison d’etre, so also made it into production. The original cooling system did not. Radiators, flanking the engine longways, were turned to face add-on air scoops to counter overheating. A projected space-age dash, based on troublesome before-their-time electronic instruments, and a gimmicky rear-view periscope were also dropped. The LP400 actually had an unremarkable facia by the standards of the rest of the car, centred on tiny analogue dials strewn across a slender nascelle. It wasn’t much to look at but at least it worked. Remember, Lamborghini was in turmoil, politically and financially, during the Countach’s long laboured birth, so funds and expertise were focused on the big issues, to the detriment of some of the small ones. Progress was slow. The definitive LP400’spublicdebut was not until ’74 Geneva show. Production forecast was 50 a year – poor labour relations permitting.

Driving the Countach LP400

Lamborghini CountachWhat is close to the ultimate in driving experiences starts by fiddling for the catch – neatly hidden in the NACA duct – to get in. Although the sills are absurdly wide (all the better for torisonal stiffness), access through the surprisingly practical lift-up door is quite easy. The threat of guillotined legs is a passing worry. Once ensconced, you feel a bit claustrophobic in a bizarre cabin that’s short of room in all directions except width. Anyone of above average height must adopt the Bob Wallace (Lamborghini’s chief test driver) slouch – chin down, bum forward, knees up – to avoid contact with the low roof. At Least the thing, all-in-one, hammock-shaped seat spreads your weight evenly, keeping backache at bay. Unpromising though it looks, the driving position is actually comfortable once you’ve got used to being so recumbent. Other inhibiting features include the rake of the near-horizontal screen (and all the reflection it carries), the massive central divide (housing the gearbox, remember) and close-set throttle and brake (a snag for big feet). You never get used to the poor rear-three-quarter visibility, but then who needs a mirror in one of the world’s fastest cars? Embraced by so much intimidating hardware, the Countach seems at first too big and cumbersome. And so it is in tight corners. Reversing is a nightmare (the accomplished Countach driver does sitting on the sill with the door up); slot parking even worse, as all the extremities are invisible.  Without a spotter to guide you, you select reverse at your peril. Ignore the flaws and distractions, among them excessive cabin heat and side windows that barely open, and the Countach LP400 exceeds its promise as a memorable driving machine, even though it is not as fast as Lamborghini claimed. The flexible V12 is quite happy to slog it out at 1000rpm without hesitation or hiccup burgeons demonically. Ditto the decibels, as high in volume as they are in quality. Once heard, a Lambo V12 at full cry is never forgotten. Sited directly above the midships gearbox, the gated shift is slicker and easier than that of Ferrari’s rival Boxer, never mind the old Miura’s though it still needs a pugilistic jab rather than caressing hand. Seamless changes do not come easily, as the throttle is almost as heavy as the thigh bending clutch. One glance at the convoluted linkage required to operate six-twin choke Webers explain why. Except when heave-ho parking, the pin-sharp steering is remarkably light and direct, despite the absence of corrupting power assistance. Relatively tall 70-series Michelin XWX tyres may not grip as tenaciously as the wide, low-profile gumball PirelliP7s that came later, but they endow the LP400 with agility and wieldiness that belies its ponderous girth. The effectiveness of the car’s weight package is graphically rewarded by brilliantly sharp handling. The LP400 is no pushover to drive, not at least because of the sheer physical effort required, especially around town. But as an adrenaline stimulate beyond the reach and understanding of Signor Plod, the Countach was always more than mere mobility. Given the right mindset and roads that permit speeds of more than 100mph, the breathtaking experience is hugely rewarding. Driving a Countach has about as much to do with getting from A to B as slivovitz has with quenching thirst.

Shaping an Icon

CountachBertone is a Lamborghini what Pinifarina is to Ferrari: house stylists. While both studios played down individual flair for the good of the team, it’s an open secret that Marcello Gandini – successor to Giogetto Giugiaro, who went on to establish Ital Design – was the man behind the Countach’s striking looks. As Gandini had styled the Miura, who better to shape its replacement? Not that the styling of the two cars had anything in common. The delicate, softly curved Miura was art for art’s sake – and it showed, in aerodynamic shortcomings. With the wedge-shaped Countach, high-speed stability was an important as eye-popping looks. Two elements drawn from Gandini’s Alfa-based Carabo concept showpiece of the Sixties helped shape the Countach: the single fastback sweep of the radiator-free, shovel-nosed snout and its huge windscreen extension; and the bizarre doors. Although the overhangs were short (all the car’s heavy bits were confined within the wheelbase), they were unprotected from clumsy parkers. For this and many other reasons, the Countach was not at home in combative traffic or urban crawls. It was a grande route car, not a city slicker. You’ll find no organic curves on the Countach. Sharp edges, acute corners and trapezoidal forms define a creation that’s straight out of Thunderbirds yet far from pure whimsy. From its metre-high apex above the driver’s head, the roof is almost flight deck flat. A spinal scoop provides tunnel vision of sorts for the rear-view mirror. The original LP500 was pretty well free (which made the view aft even worse) – corrupted the car’s geometric purity. Had the first prototype progressed as Plan A, it would have had a futuristic cockpit as wild as the car’s external styling. In the even, interior architecture was surprisingly mundane.

Countach Family Line

1971: Hurriedly built prototype Countach, the LP500, stars at the Geneva Salon. Way-out styling and back-to-front 5.0litre V12 engine have tongues wagging. Punters dismiss car as an impractical showpiece that’s going nowhere. 1973: Productionised Countach LP400 with new spaceframe chassis carrying much the same bodywork and smaller stock engine (still south/north with central gearbox) appears at Geneva Show as Miura’s successor. After tortuous gestation, car goes on sale in ‘74 1978: Countach S, based on a couple of customer specials, is introduced after 150 of the LP400 have been made in the 1974-77 period. Suspension is modified by Dallara to handle gripper, low-profile Pirelli P7 tyres. Glassfibre wheelarch extensions accommodate wider rubber. Brakes and steering improved. Output of unchanged engine now a more realistic 3353bhp. 1979: Minor modifications include new wheels and enlarged dash with bigger instruments. Most cars by now sport optional rear wing, making looks more outlandish (some would say naff) and reducing top speed. 1980: LP500S gets bigger 4754cc, 390bhp V12 engine, still with only two valves per cylinder, developed from the 4-litre. Top speed raised by more than 10mph to 180mph. 1985: Responding to the threat of Ferrari’s Testarossa, chief engineer Giulio Alfieri oversees upgrading of a 60 V12 engine. Enter the 48-valve QV. Capacity increased to 5167cc, and block strengthened. All-new alloy heads have four valves per cylinder, compression ratio is increased and side draught carbs displaced by downdraught ones. Power raised to a claimed 455bhp at 7000rpm, top speed – limited by high drag – to more than 180mph, guaranteed. With GP ace Pierluigi Martini driving, Fast Lane magazine clocks 10 seconds flat for the 0-100mph dash. Unadorned QV widely regarded as the definitive Countach. 1987: Experimental Countach Evoluzine testbed sheds 900lb with lightweight carbon-composite construction. Semi-active suspension and 480bhp engine show the way ahead. Car destroyed in crash test. 1988: Under Chrysler ownership, Lamborghini introduces Countach Anniversary to celebrate company’s silver jubilee. New wheels carrying Pirelli P Zero Tyres, two-piece seats and carbonfibre bodykit distinguish last Countach. Cosmetic addenda widely criticised.

Did You Know?

Legend has it that someone exclaimed Countach! – Piedmotese slang for amazement and admiration – when he first saw Gandini’s creation. Lamborghini’s links with fighting bulls were thus broken by an expletive you won’t find in an Italian dictionary, just as you won’t find ‘bloody hell’ in an English one. How much would you pay for the prototype LP500? Nothing. It does not exist. According to Marchat Coltin the yellow ’71 Geneva show car was destroyed by Lamborghini in a crash test at MIRA near Nuneaton. Lamborghini lied outrageously about the Countach LP400’s performance. Velocita masima claimed the factory in its PR literature, was a staggering 315kmh – more than 160mph is nearer the truth, especially with the drag-increasing wing. Industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini, born in 1916 of humble stock, created his first tractors from scrap. His reign at Lamborghini Cars lasted 11 years, from 1964 to 1973. Lamborghini later produced quality wines bearing his name. He died in 1993.

Buying a Countach...?

Do your homework. Recommended reading included Peter Dron’s Lamborghini Countach, the complete story, Osprey’s Authohistory by Marchet and Coltrin, and the collected road test and articles published by Brooklands Books. Be Patient. Lamborghini made fewer than 1500 Countach’s and by no means all of them survive. So there are not many to choose form. Go for the best. Most prized model is still the original LP400 even though its much slower than the definitive 500QV. Condition is everything. Forget the dogs. Join Lamborghini Club UK. You’ll get the best advice - and access to cars with a decent provenance – by mixing with kindred spirit. Spend, spend, spend. Don’t kid yourself into believing that a Countach is a blue-chip investment. You’ll need deep pockets to run and maintain this way-out exotic.Tags: