160mph convoy: Lamborghini Countach, Urraco and Silhouette flat out across Europe
When Lamborghini needed a brand-new Countach, Urraco and Silhouette whisked from Italy to London in October 1976, Mel Nichols was one of the drivers happy to oblige.
Part 1 160MPH CONVOY: THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Part 2 INSIDE LAMBORGHINI: ACCESS ALL AREAS
Part 3 OH NO – NOT THE COUNTACH!
Part 4 SILHOUETTE UP TO MONT BLANC
Part 5 PASSING GENDARMES AT 165MPH
Part 6 “AT 185MPH, WE WERE FORCED TO LIFT OFF”
Part 7 POSTSCRIPT: COUNTACH’S SAD FAREWELL…
160MPH CONVOY: THE JOURNEY BEGINS
It had the unreal quality of a dream. That strange hyper-cleanliness, the dazzling intensity of colour, the haunting feeling of being suspended in time and motion: sitting there with the speedo reading beyond 160mph and two more gold Lamborghinis drifting along ahead.
Not even those surreal driving scenes from Claude Lelouch's film A Man and a Woman were like this: the pale grey ribbon of motorway stretching on until it disappeared into the sharp, clear blue of a Sunday morning in France, mid-autumn, and those strange dramatic shapes eating it up.
What a sight from the few slower cars as that trio came and went. What a sight from the bridges and the service areas – watchers there would have seen the speed.
So would the police, of course, those same gendarmes who, one after another, parked their Renaults and motorbikes and stood beside the road to drink it in; to savour it as an occasion rather than intercept us.
We hadn’t intended to travel so quickly when we left Modena, in the heart of Italy, with more than 1000 miles home to London ahead of us.
But given the build-up, the crispness of that morning, the perfection of that road and those cars, it was inevitable.
And not to have run so hard and so fast would have seemed appalling afterwards. Only a little later the French brought in their 130km/h motorway speed limit.
But to go back to the beginning: we arrived in Modena on Thursday night, spilling tired from an Avis Fiat rented from Milan airport.
For some reason, all the hotels in Modena were booked up. But Roger Phillips had a trump card: a key to the flat of Rene Leimer, the owner of Lamborghini, and we set off in the tired Fiat again, weaving along the lanes until we stopped at a trattoria in a village near Sant’Agata Bolognese, near the Lamborghini factory, about 15 miles east of Modena.
It was two in the morning, but the place was still in full swing. Carlo, the owner, treated us like long-lost brothers, and in moments we were starting an excellent four-course dinner. No bill: there would be a grand reckoning when it was all over.
And with that we tumbled off to Monsieur Leimer’s beds, thankful that he was in Switzerland and thus spared the embarrassment of four unexpected and uninvited guests.
We were there because Roger Phillips, Britain’s Lamborghini concessionaire, had come to pick up his latest batch of cars. Next morning, about 10, he phoned the factory.
“Ah Phillips” – it was almost possible to see sales manager Ubaldo Sgarzi shrugging – “your cars? Perhaps this afternoon, perhaps tomorrow morning.”
The little Urraco P300 was ready. Even the Countach was ready. But the Silhouette was still being painted.
Now Roger had been there before, countless times, on similar missions. So had David Joliffe, London’s main Lamborghini dealer. So had Steve Brazier, Britain’s biggest Lamborghini service agent. And so had I.
We knew what to expect when it came to dealing with the Italian supercar manufacturers, whether Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati or De Tomaso.
We sauntered off for lunch at another of Carlo’s establishments, a place of superior tone. Besuited this time, he waited on us personally, recommending this, tut-tutting over that, sweeping away dishes not to his approval before we could even taste them and replacing them with others. For three hours we ate and drank gloriously.
INSIDE LAMBORGHINI: ACCESS ALL AREAS
And then it was off to the Lamborghini factory, that long fawn establishment among the Lambrusco vines on the Modena side of Sant’Agata.
It was Friday, so no Gian Paolo Dallara, wizard creator of the Miura; part-time now. No Dottore Ingegnere Franco Baraldini, the wiry little engineer who runs the factory and controls the engineering. He was in Munich updating BMW about the progress of Project E26, the 24-valve, 3.3-litre, in-line, six cylinder mid-engined coupe that Lamborghini will soon begin making for them.
Down on the factory floor, the third strike of the day was over and the business of building Lamborghinis was underway once more. Ah yes, there was our Countach and there was the Urraco, waiting to go.
On its own down at the end of the line busy trimming Countachs – including an incredible blue one with gold-painted engine, cockpit and wheel arches, apparently bound for Haiti – was the Silhouette.
Around it clustered a team of men and women, buffing and polishing the fresh bronze-gold paint, painstakingly fitting the last bits and pieces. They’d be there for hours yet so there was no hope of our getting away before nightfall.
The cars had yet to be checked and “sealed” by the customs man from Modena, too, an event that experience said was rather dependent upon his whim, his lunch and the weather. Better to shrug with the Italians and wander around the factory, soaking it all up again.
In and out of the Olivetti milling machines and all those marvellous, glistening alloy castings being bored and trimmed and drilled to make blocks, cylinder heads, transmissions and suspension uprights.
Most impressive of all was the Countach sump with its fine, full-length cooling fins and big holes in each end that allow the driveshaft to run through from the transmission, ahead of the engine, to the differential mounted behind it – unique, imaginative and quite magnificent.
Sauntering past the rows and rows of plastic parts bins, each in its clearly marked spot. Ducking under the four production lines, with Espadas and Urracos, Countachs and Silhouettes all in various phases of completion, their bodywork carefully protected by big quilts, their undersides shining with new nuts and bolts.
Peering into the dyno rooms, where the freshly finished engines are run in, mile after bench-mile. Watching the test drivers going through their checklists with the mechanics after completing their 50-mile circuit out on the road, with never a wheel or a rev wrong, and no pussyfooting.
Leaving the spotless, spacious, unfussed factory to sneak across into the advanced engineering shop to talk to Umberto, the chief body-man, lovingly tending an old 350GT returned to by a respectful owner to the factory for restoration.
Running a hand over the smooth, sharp, hyper-economical lines of the prototype Bravo, about to start on the developmental path that Lamborghini hopes will eventually take it into production with a resurrected Miura 4.0 litre V12 sitting sideways between its flanks.
Apart from Ferruccio Lamborghini himself, the only element missing was Bob Wallace, his lanky 6ft 4in frame doing its best to fit into the traditional blue overalls, leaning low over a prototype, brow furrowed and taciturn as ever.
The legendary Kiwi development engineer, who went to Italy to work for Ferrari and fulfil a childhood desire then crossed the tracks to Sant’Agata with other romantics to build the Lamborghini dream, is gone now, settled in Arizona, where he maintains Italian exotics for American enthusiasts.
The trip down memory lane, the high of seeing and sniffing a unique factory that turns out cars few can afford and even fewer really deserve, came to an end. We set off yet again for the good Carlo’s, and at the end of another fine meal we settled up: Two days of eating and drinking had cost a mere £25 each. Well-pleased, we set off unusually early to avail ourselves of M Leimer’s unwitting hospitality for the last time.
We were anxious to be fresh: first thing in the morning, the serious business of ferrying three Lamborghinis back to London would begin.
OH NO – NOT THE COUNTACH!
The noise of 28 cylinders, 12 cams, 14 sucking carbs and eight howling exhausts rent the damp, still morning.
But my heart had sunk as Phillips tossed me the keys to the Countach.
Not the Countach to begin with! Not that one, with its right-hand-drive steering and no usable mirror on the left, to go through the villages and the narrow streets of Modena. Not that awesome beast, with its awkward cabin and daunting visibility and 360 horsepower.
I tugged off my boots to have maximum control of the pedals and, while I was messing about, the others were gone in a flurry of sound and exhaust vapour. Finally, I swung in my left leg, then dropped my backside to the sunken seat, hauled in the other leg and pulled the door down.
Just as I reached the factory gate and swung out into the road, twitchy about being on the wrong side of the car, the V12 coughed and sputtered. Midway across, I had to fling the clutch in, blip the throttle fiercely and, with the V12 revving hard in recovery, was able to let it out again.
The Countach blasted forward with a roar from the engine, a chirp from the fat rear Michelins and a quick waggle from the tail.
But by the time I’d caught the others filling their tanks at the garage just up the road, I’d learned once more that my uneasiness about the Countach was unfounded.
How good it was to be back behind that outlandishly raked windscreen, with the little leather-bound wheel between my knees and the solid metal gearshift in its big, chunky, metallic gate beneath my left hand.
The first mile – yes, as little as that – had brought it all back: the incredible feeling of stability and purpose, and the sheer precision of a car that has no reason to exist other than to spear down the road as far and as fast as possible.
That feeling is so strong in the Countach it can take your breath away – stronger than in any contemporary road car. And there was no trouble with the pedals. I put my boots back on, those big clumpy Fryes, and never gave them another thought.
With the tanks full, we fired up once more, eased out into the traffic and were happy to flow along with it, settling properly into the cars, checking the systems, until we reached the motorway north towards Milano, the Alps, and France.
Away from the entry tollbooth, even mild throttle and modest revs took us scampering past the rest of the traffic as we accelerated away and eased quickly into 5th.
We settled for a steady 80mph cruising speed for the most, but varying it now and then to let the engines work at different revs for their first few road miles.
Running in with the Italian super-cars – with an engine that’s been bedded in on the dynamometer – tends to be more driver discipline than the engine’s asking.
They just feel ready to go, and indeed, within two hours, our speed was creeping steadily upwards until we were sitting on 110mph with the Fiats and slower Alfas and Lancias moving out of the way well ahead as this extraordinary convoy of three gold Lamborghinis sprang into their mirrors.
The pleasure to be had merely from sitting there conducting the Countach at that steady, restful, seemingly slow speed was considerable. Again, it’s the overwhelming stability that comes through strongest, and the absolute decisiveness of the car.
The steering is not heavy, just solid. Turn it with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, s-l-o-w-l-y, and feel the car change direction without a millisecond’s hesitation.
Feel it change direction at precisely the tempo and to precisely the degree you have commanded. Swing the wheel back and grin with pleasure as it comes back just as precisely to its heading again. There has been no roll, nothing more nor less than you asked for.
Feel too the messages being patted into the palms of your hands. I watched the Urraco and Silhouette, a little way ahead, riding over the bumps, and the feel alone said that the Countach was dipping and rebounding even less than they were.
And yet its ride is never uncomfortable. Yes, it’s firm – about as firm as that supplied by a modestly padded steel office chair resting on thick carpet when you jiggle up and down on it – but never uncomfortable. It simply feels honed as finely and magnificently as every other component in this king of the world’s supercars.
INTO THE SILHOUETTE AND UP TO MONT BLANC
We stopped for fuel and food. The first of many crowds gathered around the cars and stared in silence. We swapped keys, and I drew the Silhouette, which Roger had pronounced surprisingly and interestingly different from the Urraco, even though they are essentially the same mechanically.
He was right. Especially after the Countach, but even compared with the standard Urraco, I was startled by what appeared to be slack in the Silhouette’s steering. It seemed very soft at the straight-ahead. Turning it brought accurate response once the rim had moved a little way, but it just didn’t have the sharpness of the other 3.0litre.
The explanation proved to rest with the Pirelli P7 tyres. They were allowing the rims to move above their treads before responding fully. The capability is there – even more so – it’s just that the Silhouette feels a lot softer.
Its ride is similarly affected, and I lounged back in its tall tombstone seat and watched the Countach now snapping over the bumps in front of me, its tail barely bobbing. The differences in the performance were brought home too: Where Roger was accelerating relatively mildly in the V12, we had to prod the V8s decisively to keep up as he shot off from the tollbooths and past slower traffic. There was no disputing which car was boss.
Later, in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, we swapped again, and Roger removed the Silhouette’s roof. I switched to the Urraco with Steve at the wheel to try and take pictures.
We were surging up the Aosta Valley now, heading for the Mont Blanc tunnel. The air was clean and fresh and the sight of those two cars behind us, as I hung out the Urraco’s window with my camera, was magnificent.
A wide, straight road, mountains topped with snow rearing on either side and the soft light of the dropping sun. I stayed out there until the cold wind of 90mph made it impossible to hang on longer and then asked Steve why he’d gone so fast. “Sorry cock”, he said in his Cockney accent, “didn’t realise.” I knew what he meant. We returned to a more natural 120mph.
Not so far from Aosta, we stopped for enough fuel to take us into France. I changed back to the Silhouette and buttoned up my coast. The lack of buffeting with the roof off was incredible. We were soon running at 140mph on the almost-deserted autostrada, and even at that speed there was little noise or wind intrusion.
Mont Blanc loomed ahead, the sun was low and dropping fast and the air was getting cold. The heater, full-on, warmed my legs and chest while my face froze.
But what an evening: flowing so quickly and effortlessly up that mountain and finding that the Silhouette and its Pirellis had more grip than I might have imagined. Alone again in a real sports car with the power to eat those bends and catapult past the trucks.
I don’t know how long I endured perfect pleasure; I didn’t realise how cold I was until we stopped at the customs control at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel. Like a fool, I volunteered to be a passenger again for the descent, although I suspect I gained nearly as much reward from watching the Countach and Silhouette darting through the endless downhill bends ahead as I might have from driving myself.
There was barely a car on the long, quick autoroute up to the Swiss border, and we covered it at a steady 140mph cruise, the cars hardly seeming to work. Night was coming quickly, and we wanted to be within reasonable striking distance of the Dijon-Paris autoroute before stopping.
After we’d stopped for coffee at a bar whose owner claimed that his front door was in France and his back door was in Switzerland, the Silhouette was mine again, and we covered the bumpy back roads taking us across the Rhone and on towards Nantua with the sort of ease that can be had only in a true grand touring car.
It’s at times like these, with a few hundred miles under your belt and the going growing more difficult and tiring, that you appreciate them most. They are so very much in control; so much within themselves.
And their reserves are your reserves. We came over a crest and there, on the wrong side of the road with no hope of making it, was a bumbling, juddering, wound-up Citroen 2CV trying to overtake a truck.
There was a small pull-off area, and the Silhouette darted into it as the Deux Chevaux sailed past. David and Steve saw the dust and followed suit. The rock wall lining the road resumed again and, no doubt, so did the 2CV driver.
PASSING GENDARMES AT 165MPH
We stopped at the first likely hotel, a deliciously decadent placed called the Chateau du Pradon terrorised by two mad cats called Antoinette and Voltaire. It had wallpaper tacked on with tape and decidedly curious plumbing, but comfortable beds, humorous staff and, thank goodness, an impeccable restaurant.
The Urraco went into the garage, and so, barely, did the Countach, but the Silhouette’s chin spoiler was just too low to clear the ramp. It stayed outside, and at six the next morning, with the other cars already throbbing out of the courtyard, I found that its windshield was covered in ice.
While I was still scraping the screen clear, the others were through nearby Nantua and gone. Despite the cold, the V8 had come to life as easily as ever, and after warming it up carefully, I was ready for an attempt to catch up.
But was there ice on the road? The first few bends suggested not, just as they also again suggested how much roadholding was available in this new little Lamborghini.
And what a road on which to exploit it: running along the side of a lake and then climbing up through first one range of hills, dropping, then rising and descending through two more over a distance of about 50 miles, and barely a straight anywhere. Without the car being taxed in any way, it simply devoured that road. Keeping the V8 in mid-range and just occasionally giving it its head for a moment coming out the bends brought more than enough speed.
Despite those curves, the pace was rarely below 70mph and frequently around 100. The bumps in mid-bend (often severe) could not throw the Silhouette off-line. Wet patches encountered under braking into hairpins did not make it budge. Ah, how well it could all be felt through that leather-bound wheel and the pliant but beautifully controlled suspension.
To experience a Lamborghini in such conditions is to understand just how good a car can be, how swiftly but safely you may travel, with never a wheel out of place or a trace of drama. You just get pleasure.
I caught up as the others slowed, dawdling, on a straight preceding a vital junction. The road from there took us, all together again, over yet another set of hills. As we reached their peak, we looked down upon a sea of mist filling the river valley below. It was eerily beautiful.
Phillips knew I would want to stop for pictures and before I could overtake him to call a halt, he sped up. Until we ran into the mist ourselves, those three cars tore down through the bends, one after the other, each of us keeping close so we could listen to the engines of the others’ cars through the bends and for the delight of seeing how flatly and tidily the three gold beasts obeyed their drivers’ commands.
We reached Bourg-en-Bresse as the mist began to ease a little. On the pavement in one part of the town huddled a group of men. One of them saw us coming. He stepped out to the edge and pumped his arm furiously to summon his companions. They lined the road and watched in awe as we wailed past, whatever they were doing instantly forgotten.
Then, leaving the town, we came upon a Citroen GSX2. It was sitting on a steady 100mph and brought me back to reality. It was much easier for us to hold that speed, and we had a great deal more in hand – but here was this little 1200cc sedan, kids and all, scooting along at the maximum speed that vision would permit. He could drive too, and we were content to sit behind him until we had really clear road ahead of us where we could let the Lambos have their heads again.
The Countach reached the motorway west of Macon first. And after such a stirring early morning warm-up, who would have been able to resist giving such a car its head?
Roger took it hard up through the gears. I dropped my window to listen and could still hear it above the sound of the Silhouette’s V8. Steve and I did our best to catch up, running onto 165mph, only to see the Countach still disappearing into the distance – and into the unobstructed vision of a gendarme sitting on his motorbike beside the motorway.
He watched us come, one by one, turning his head after each of us. We pulled into the rest stop a kilometre or so up ahead; and so did he. But he just parked his bike and wandered over to look at the cars with a nodded hello.
A whole busload of gendarmes pulled in and came over, and so did another two motorbike cops. Word had spread. We watched them going over and over the cars from the service area restaurant’s windows as we ate breakfast.
“AT 185MPH, WE WERE FORCED TO LIFT OFF”
When we left, the police stood and watched us accelerate away at a pace merely brisk-ish for us but very fast to an onlooker. By the time we reached the motorway itself, we were each doing well over 100mph. None of the gendarmes moved.
Somehow, we knew we were going to be all right, and for the rest of the day, all the way north through France, our speed stayed around 120mph, with some spells at 140 and some at a little over 160mph.
And so we flowed along that silver-grey ribbon of road, disappearing north into a blue, blue morning. It was a big, wide-open feeling – lulling and warm. You felt relaxed, hand just resting on the wheel, the car reaffirming its grip on the road and its arrow-like direction every single instant.
But it made you feel sharp, provided you with an alertness that lasts hundreds of miles at a time. Even nearing their top speeds, these cars feel free from stress, and so do you.
We ran on and on, it was really was like a scene from a film, with first the Countach flowing out to pass a slower car and then peeling in again, and then the Silhouette, and then the Urraco. We stopped for fuel and one quick break on the way to Paris, and then again on the way to Lille.
And then came a sort of climax; a defining moment. I was with Roger in the Countach. We were running at around 120mph. In the mirror Roger saw a Jaguar XJ-S closing fast.
Cold bloodedly, he changed down to fourth and opened the Countach right up. It surged ahead with force, and precisely as the Jaguar came alongside, we had matched its speed at 155mph.
We went into top gear again as 8000rpm came up, the throttle still open, and we left the XJ-S as if it were standing still. When the clock was showing 180mph, we were forced to lift off.
As we slowed back to 140 again, I saw that both the Silhouette and Urraco had come past the Jaguar too. The effect was more than the driver could bear. He caught us up, took a long look and then pulled off into the inside lane and proceeded at something like 80mph.
I can tell you that even at an indicated 185mph, a Countach feels solid as a rock, never twitching from its path, while behind your head is the incredible, ferocious noise of the V12 in full cry.
After that, as we neared the end of our run through France, the highs began to abate, although the pleasure went on. I took over the Countach again and was able to enjoy the potency of that engine as we worked down the coast to Calais on the minor roads, hanging back as the lead car with its sightseeing passenger set the pattern for overtaking, and then blasting through in second or third, thrilling everyone on the road.
By five o’clock we were on the ferry, and it was all coming to an end. There was just the customs clearance at Dover, and then the run back to London on the beleaguered roads of a misty Sunday night.
We were not tired when we stopped at last, just as I had not been tired a few months earlier when I’d driven a Lamborghini Espada 900 miles in 13 hours, including stops, over much the same route.
You just switch these cars off, get out and try to quantify the enormity of it all. It’s something you won’t want to talk about: the experience is too intense, too special, too enormous for mere conversation, even if mention of the speeds you’ve been doing does not seem beyond belief.
No; you just keep something like that to yourself and mull it over in your memory as often as possible.
POSTSCRIPT: COUNTACH’S SAD FAREWELL…
High up on London’s A40 Westway, just where it climbs away from Marylebone Road and heads west over the rooftops for Oxford, a metallic gold Lamborghini Countach was being smashed to pieces.
Some fool had chopped across its path mid-bend. It started spinning in great big arcs, thumping into the barrier on one side of the road and being flung back to smash against the other side.
The nose was pounded back to the windscreen in the first gyration, taking the front wheels with it. The side had already gone and, as it slammed into the barrier for the last time, the tail was flattened to the engine – that glorious V12.
I was driving the other way, into London, and saw it happening right there in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I shouted with anguish…horror…anger. Even in the blur of the destruction, before it had stopped and I had parked to run across and see if the driver was all right, I knew it was my Countach.
We’d only had 48 hours together. But each hour, every single minute, was a jewel that I, and the three others who’d shared the experience, will treasure forever. That Countach, along with the Silhouette and Urraco, was the one that had whisked us halfway across Europe in our epic high-speed convoy.
Its occupants were able to swing the doors up and step out, shaken but uninjured. The windscreen hadn’t broken, even though the nose had been so hideously flattened and the severity of the impact, I’d learn later, had cracked the alloy of the crankcase and transmission. In death, as in life, that car was magnificent.