A trio of Lamborghini Countachs storms the Alps

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The engine and transmission oils warmed nicely as we rumbled through town – still grateful for not having knocked off any of this precious car’s corners through the tight, bollard-lined exit of the hotel’s underground car park. The needles on the Stewart Warner dials are well off their stops as the houses thin out in Gstaad’s satellite villages and the road widens and begins to climb. The end of urban speed limit signs loom and pass just before a steep hairpin bend. Dip the clutch – forget your preconceptions of weight, because it’s light and positive – blip the throttle for an adrenalin-pumping shout from behind and slot the gearlever forward into second with a deliciously mechanical clunk, then press home the hefty accelerator. There’s the briefest flutter from the six twin-choke Weber 45s then the relentless shove of this wonderfully deep-lunged engine begins, its rising song soon drowning the fizzing of second gear, the trees flashing by merging into a green smudge before the orange Lamborghini bursts out into the sunlight.

So we’re in the Alps, in a V12 Lambo... cue another Italian Job tribute? Not this time. There will be no Beckerman-style wheel-twirling today, no Matt Monro score humming away in the background. The little three-spoke operates a rack that, though lighter than you might imagine, is too weighty to permit the driver such nonchalance. Then there’s the fact that it’s almost impossible to drive in a relaxed manner in a car that’s so damned uncomfortable. Most importantly, however, and quite unlike its Miura predecessor, the Countach makes no pretence at being some sort of mid-engined super-GT. This is a supercar, pure in purpose, hang the compromises, and that means stub the fag out, switch off the radio, stow the sunglasses and surrender to the rollercoaster thrill of trying to tame 375bhp of Sant’Agata’s angriest offering.

And then you remember that this is the least powerful car here. A glance in the rear-view mirror reveals the surreal sight of two more examples of this most dramatic hypercar, devouring the tarmac beneath them as they egg you on. The quattrovalvole in particular is all over your tail – but then it does have the benefit not only of an extra 80bhp and more talent behind the wheel (Supertrofeo pilot Mirko Venturi), but also the extra ability bestowed on the Countach’s capable chassis by the adoption of fat, low-profile Pirelli rubber in 1978.

For now, though, I don’t want to get out of this meticulously restored LP400. It took some time to find a reasonable driving position and get used to long-travel pedals that refuse to accommodate my size-12 feet. But now that I’m halfway comfortable, semi-reclined, with head tilted between the door frame and the ‘periscope’ let into the roof to aid rearward vision, the surprise is just how friendly this car is. By modern standards it’s small – shorter, narrower and 300kg lighter, than the supposed ‘baby’ Gallardo – plus the steering and controls aren’t as obstinate as the car’s reputation might suggest. The gearbox is clunky when cold, but with warmth and revs it responds to a firm hand with clean slices across the painted-metal gate. It’s much better than the Miura’s, thanks to Lamborghini’s decision to turn the V12 through 90º – hence LP, or longitudinale posteriore, rather than its transversale posteriore predecessor – and mount the gearbox ahead of it to provide a near-direct linkage. Then there’s that muscular 3929cc engine (the same as before, albeit boosted by 25bhp), which has an astonishing vocal range. There’s a gutsy bellow low down that smooths into a strident tenor chord as the V12 gets into its preferred zone, near the 7000rpm start of the red zone.

The generous Italian collector who owns all three of these Countachs, along with 11 other Lamborghinis, has also brought along a Miura SV – just for comparison, you understand. It’s easy to see why many prefer Sant’Agata’s first supercar, because it’s deliciously light, agile and responsive, but it also has scary brakes, limited grip and an uncomfortable sense of the mass behind you. Not so the Countach, which continues to dispel myths with every mile. First up, it steers beautifully (think Lotus Esprit with three times the cylinders) and has a delightfully supple, balanced chassis that drivers with the ability – such as Venturi – can drift at will, exploiting the relatively low limits of its tall Michelins. It’s easy to picture Kiwi test driver Bob Wallace doing the same in the early ’70s, honing the Project 112 prototypes along the lanes of Emilia-Romagna in the transition from Marcello Gandini’s LP500 concept car of 1971 to the production-ready Countach.

After a sinuous approach between craggy rock faces, the road straightens out and the Countach can really be stretched through the gears, its wishbone-suspended spaceframe soaking up the scars in the blacktop, before you jump on to the ventilated discs as the pass opens out at its crest for Les Diablarets cable-car station. This region, at an altitude of 1200m, lies between Gstaad and Lake Geneva in the heart of the Vaud Alps. Today it is thronged with climbers – it’ll be skiers in a couple of months’ time – here to tackle the 1546m Col du Pillon.

For a moment they forget their unlaced boots and leave their rucksacks unattended to rush over, cameraphones aloft, as our symphonic convoy rolls in. It’s clear that this shape has lost none of its drama since the production car took a bow at Geneva in 1973. If we were in Italy, onlookers’ reactions to our unique group would give away the origins of the name – “Countach!” is a Piedmontese exclamation (a bit like “blimey”, but a touch more vehement). Lift the scissor doors – always a crowd-pleaser – then shatter the illusion of glamour as you unfold yourself with graceless grunts, to muffled giggles from the slightly less awestruck spectators.

It’s tragic to recall that, just a year after the LP400’s launch, Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold up and turned his back on the company he had founded, leaving it to its darkest years under absentee owners, foundering and strapped for cash. And we must now turn away from the LP400, too, but only because another treat awaits. Countach development didn’t stand still after Ferruccio’s departure. First came the switch to low-profile Pirelli P7s in 1978 – inspired by alterations to GP privateer Walter Wolf’s car – which necessitated those brash wheelarch extensions, not to mention suspension tweaks that included new pick-up points, stronger
wishbones and a revised steering rack. A simultaneous slide into receivership could have been disastrous, but after two years in a parlous state, shifting between various owners without the wherewithal to revive the firm, the bull of Sant’Agata emerged fighting in 1980 under the stewardship of wealthy enthusiast brothers Patrick and Jean-Claude Mimram. Countach production was ramped up and in 1982 a new model emerged, as the LP500S (5000S in the USA) finally got the 5-litre capacity – well, 4754cc – promised by the initial prototype more than a decade earlier. This was the first enlargement for Giotto Bizzarrini’s quad-cam V12 since the 1966 400GT, the engine itself dating back to the firm’s inception in 1963.

More fundamental changes were afoot, however, and in 1985 the quattrovalvole arrived to take the fight to Ferrari’s incoming Testarossa. As the name suggested, the new model boasted four valves per cylinder, but this update was accompanied by a further capacity boost – to 5167cc – and a whopping power hike, to 455bhp. This particular 5000 qv is an ’80s boyhood fantasy: fire-engine red, with optional (speed-limiting) high wing and huge glassfibre wheelarches just about covering those vast Pirelli-shod OZ alloy wheels. Pull up the door, slide in and you go from glorious blue-suede 1970s paradise to an ’80s supercar stereotype of chocolate-and-tan leather. The cabin feels marginally more accommodating than that of the LP400, even though the basic architecture has changed little – presumably it’s due to the loss of that headroom-hurting periscope, designed to aid rearward vision.

After pulling down the doors with a thud, we exit the car park in a long sweep – best to avoid the showboater’s reversing technique of sitting on the sill with the door up: we’ve attracted enough attention as it is – and head down into the valley along the Route du Pillon towards Les Bovets. The road has been damaged by snow on this side of the mountain and you expect the Lamborghini to turn all primadonna – but it doesn’t. There’s that same absorption of bumps and lumps, a hint more heft in the steering. There are flaws, though: the helm has lost some of the finer signals that were coming through the LP400’s wheel, plus – inevitably – those colossal boots have a tendency to follow fissures in the road if you’re not on your guard.

The payoff for a little tramlining, however, is monstrous grip. There’s a 690mm-wide contact patch at the back, and that allows you to exploit the qv’s additional 80bhp without fear of the 58% rearward weight bias biting back. Where the LP400 can get squirrelly under braking for tighter bends, or if you’re not careful with the throttle through fast sweepers, the qv is hugely stable, anchored to the road as if weighing twice its substantial 1490kg. And then there’s the engine. Far more important, far more noticeable than the power hike is the 101lb ft of additional torque, which gives astonishing flexibility. In uphill corners, where the earlier car might have demanded a downshift to avoid being slowed by the gradient, you can trust the torque of the four-valve engine to haul you out, its throttle response crisper, its pick-up faster, its sound deeper, smoother, but no less thrilling. 

Before turning back to base, there’s time for one last swap, this time to the Countach swansong. With the 25th Anniversary – created to mark the company’s quarter-century – Gandini’s masterpiece is barely visible beneath spoilers, skirts, dams and strakes that smother the nose, tail, flanks and rear deck of this black beast. In case you were wondering why Lamborghini took such an ostentatious turn, you just need another brief look at the history books, because the firm had changed hands once again between qv and Anniversary. US giant Chrysler used its pocket change to snap up the Italian legend for $30m in 1987. A year later the Anniversary was launched at the Italian Grand Prix, largely unchanged mechanically but impossible to miss due to the results of the surgeon’s knife. Not that buyers minded: at the height of late-’80s speculation, many were willing to pay up to twice the £99k list price to own one.

So what’s it like, this last roll of the Countach dice, designed to keep the model on sale while engineers worked feverishly on its replacement? A lot like the qv really, but a bit plusher with its electric seats and leather that’s whiter than a Hollywood star’s teeth. The new chairs are more generously trimmed, but surprisingly narrow, and the rest of the cabin feels user-friendly, with useful stowage space and more generous pedal spacing. This example does have one fundamental difference: it’s a US car, so was fitted from new with Bosch KE-Jetronic in place of carbs. It fires easily and idles smoothly, the characterful gurgle and spit of Webers replaced by the anodyne hum of electronic fuel injection. On the road it’s a little more docile at the bottom end, a little less punchy and responsive at the top. 

Oddly, for all its superficial nods to usability, there is a new obstinacy to the Anniversary. The gearbox, which is now topped by what looks like an upturned child’s shoe, has acquired a built-in baulk that the other two lack – though that could just be set-up – and both clutch and steering feel meatier. It’s as if its years as king dog of the supercar crowd have made the Countach arrogant – not that it had anything to be smug about by that stage because, at 15 years old, it had fallen far behind the supercar pack.

By then, the likes of the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 reigned supreme. It was time for something new and, as Countach number 1997 rolled off the production line, its Diablo replacement took a bow at the Monaco Grand Prix in May 1990.

Reluctantly, we pull over and park beside a chalet-style restaurant that in just a few weeks time will be heaving with fluorescent-jacketed après-skiers. Our 36-cylinder, 12-cam, 1285bhp trio sits expelling heat in a chorus of metal-shrinking tinkles. There’s another half an hour before we have to get on the road for the airport and the unglamorous EasyJet bunfight home, so photographer Griffiths and I order a couple of espressos and the conversation inevitably turns to that age-old rivalry between the charismatic Enzo and Ferruccio. These days a Ferrari 458 and a Lamborghini LP560-4 are direct competitors that appeal to the same buyer, but 20, 30 or 40 years ago the marques required different mindsets from their customers. There’s a real symmetry between the cars’ characters and the badges they wear: horses race, but bulls fight. Ferrari’s cavallino may be wild, yet it’s beautiful, a thoroughbred with an impeccable bloodline – plus all it needs is the right horseman and it can be tamed. In contrast, Lamborghini’s toro is all muscle: majestic rather than pretty; powerful, yes, but also unruly, obstinate. For true thrill-seekers, however, it’s the ultimate ride.

As for which of these three is best, well that’s easy. Or at least it’s easy to decide which is worst. On modern roads, the Anniversary’s over-adorned body looks swollen and, well, a bit daft – like a drag queen wearing full costume to do the weekly supermarket shop. It isn’t even the nicest to drive, because in re-engineering the Countach to make it comfier, supposedly more usable and refined, Lamborghini managed to lessen the thrill. As a piece of automotive art, the LP400 remains unrivalled: unsullied by wings and wheelarch extensions, Gandini’s outline has such presence, such drama that it still looks futuristic today. It’s mindblowing to think that the firm was just 10 years young when the Countach was completed. The earliest car is also the sweetest to drive, with a delicacy you just don’t expect from such a wild child. But it demands plenty of compromises – not least of which is living with constant discomfort, and a gaping hole in your bank balance. Which just leaves the middle-man quattrovalvole. As little as three years ago it shared the Anniversary’s ridicule, but its time has most definitely come. This super-cool bewinged wonder is the car the Swiss crowds most want to photograph, and for the lucky few who get to drive one it’s the Countach that best blends the thrills of the early car with a welcome – if limited – dose of cabin civility and the rocketship performance of its steroid-enhanced engine. And what an engine! What grip! What balance! What poise! So it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that it costs less than half the price of a decent LP400. Sold.

See the video that accompanies this feature here. 

Thanks to Simon Kidston and Emanuele Collo at Kidston SA (www.kidston.com), the Lamborghinis’ owner and to ace racing driver Mirko Venturi

FACTFILES

COUNTACH LP400

Sold/no built 1973-’78/150 (plus 237 400Ss from 1978-’82) Construction tubular steel spaceframe, aluminium body Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3929cc V12, six Weber 45DCOE carbs Max power 375bhp @ 8000rpm

Max torque 268lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, driving
rear wheels Suspension independent by wishbones, coils, anti-roll bars Steering rack and pinion Brakes ventilated discs, with servo 

Wheels & tyres 14in Campagnolos, 205/70 (f), 215/70 (r) Michelin XWXs Length 13ft 7in (4140mm) Width 6ft 2in (1880mm) Height 3ft 6in (1067mm) Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm) Weight 2645lb (1200kg) 0-60mph 5.6 secs Top speed 175mph Mpg 12.8

Price new £18,295  


COUNTACH 5000 qv As LP400 except

Sold/number built 1988-’90/618 (plus 321 LP500Ss 1982-’85) Construction glassfibre wheelarch extensions and Kevlar bonnet

Engine 5167cc, six Weber 44DCNF carbs (Bosch KE-Jetronic in US) Max power 455bhp @ 7000rpm Max torque 369lb ft @ 5200rpm

Wheels & tyres 15in OZ alloys, 225/50 (f), 345/35 (r) VR15s Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm) Weight 3284lb (1490kg) 0-60mph 4.9 secs Top speed 178mph Mpg 14.6

Price new £49,500


COUNTACH 25th ANNIVERSARY

As 5000 qv except

Sold/no built 1988-’90/657 Weight 3262lb (1480kg) 0-60mph 5.1 secs Top speed 173mph

Price new £98,957 

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Alastair Clements; pictures: Malcolm Griffiths

 

 

 

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