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It’s a shame, in a way, that the Lamborghini Countach looks so enduringly spectacular, because it takes attention away from what a remarkable machine it was (and is) in other ways.
Seeing it on the cover of the brand-new, August 2020 issue of Classic & Sports Car brought it all back.
It was never remarkable in commercial terms, mind you – fewer than 2000 made in 16 years between 1974 and 1990.
But it’s extremely unlikely there’ll be another supercar, let alone a longitudinal V12 supercar, with such amazing proportions and such an adventurous mechanical layout.
Marcello Gandini’s styling is so brutal, the roof is so remarkably low and the scissor doors are still so eye-poppingly sensational that you simply don’t appreciate for a while how small a Countach is.
It’s at least 20cm shorter than a Ford Focus, and no wider, yet when we wrote about it pretty often in its ’80s heyday we were forever describing it as ‘big’.
Wouldn’t it be great if anything with a 4.1-metre overall length could be considered big today! For reference, today’s Mazda MX-5 is barely a hand-span shorter.
The key to this relative compactness is engineer Paolo Stanzani’s decision to mount the large, Miura-derived 60-degree V12 (4.0-litres at first, later 5.0 and 5.2) in a way most people would see as back-to-front, so the end-on gearbox sits more or less under the driver’s left elbow rather than hanging off the end of the car like a pendulum.
The gated gearchange sprouts more or less directly out of the ‘box (which you feel when you change gears), and the gearbox output then turns through 180 degrees and runs back through the engine’s crankcase to a diff just behind the engine.
It’s ultra-compact and certainly wouldn't do for every car, but for the Countach (whose wailing engine helps to drown out the gear whine), it seems a genius idea.
The shape is just plain amazing, especially the original LP400.
Mind you, I’ve never been able to understand what possessed the company to thereafter fit the car in several stages with what we now know as a bodykit, which progressively disguised the delicate fuselage-like sides of the body and messed up those gloriously exotic rear wheelarch shapes.
I’ve no idea whether Gandini himself put that stuff on the car (done to allow use of more modern wheels and tyres) or even consented to it, but I kind of hope not. The original car, in my book, is a piece of genius.
The later ones are spectacular too, but I just don’t believe the company should have allowed the same kind of cheapo body addenda for the later ’80s that people were fitting to Capris (rather than modifying the original panels).
Even so, I feel the Countach’s superiority is still obvious when you view it against a Diablo, which came next.
I was fortunate enough to drive at least eight Countachs for road-test purposes, mostly in period, starting with the LP400 which wasn’t all that fast in modern terms (there are McLarens that can halve its 0-60mph time), but sounded wonderful.
The last I tried ‘in period’ was a 455bhp 5.2-litre quattrovalvole whose owner lent us the car for a test with similar participants to the three-car cover feature in this month’s C&SC – except we added an Aston Martin V8 Vantage for luck.
I can remember lapping Castle Combe in the qv (remember, I’m no hero driver) thinking that with these compact dimensions and this superb damping, the pair of us could have made use of another 100bhp or so.
Mind you, I always think of the Countach’s claim to fame as being that it was the last from a supercar era when the cars made a virtue of being pretty difficult to drive.
If you could act nonchalant with a Countach, you were definitely somebody special.
Their driving positions were compromised: you learned the ‘Countach crouch’ over bigger bumps on the open road to prevent bashing the roof with your scalp.
And you couldn’t see very well in any direction, especially to the rear, when intrepid Lambo jockeys learned to perch, door open, on the wide chassis sill and reverse by looking back over the car’s scooped and louvred engine cover.
You had to be confident your feet weren’t going to slip on the pedals.
At the same time, the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer and Testarossa were still known for tail-happiness, the Porsche 911 turbo could also put you backwards through the hedge (or understeer straight across an apex) if you weren’t careful, and the Vantage needed a driver with substantial thigh muscles and biceps to supply the strength to get it to yield its best.
Then Luca di Montezemolo arrived to run Ferrari in the early 1990s, and soon realised that the way to sell more cars was to make them habitable and enjoyable for all, principally by taming them, and making them easier to get into and out of.
It was perfectly logical, though for a while we purists thought he was on the wrong tack. He wasn’t.
Still, even now when you’re settled in a Countach, riding on your tail-bone with your knees high in the air and the near-vertical steering wheel a lot less than a full arms-length away (which is the way Lambo’s legendary six-foot plus Kiwi development driver Bob Wallace did it), you do feel very, very special.
This is the purest of driving environments: the din is immense, the gearchange heavy, deliberate and brilliant, the brakes and steering ditto.
The namby-pamby idea of listening to the radio, or paying big money for some high-falutin’, big-name hi-fi, seems laughable. Leave it out.
Among car experiences I feel lucky to have enjoyed, the Countach days sit close to the top.
Especially memorable are the three occasions at the Sant’Agata Bolognese headquarters when I was packed into a Lambo, usually late in the afternoon, that was destined to become the UK demo car, and sent off towards Blighty with a sheaf of paperwork and a lot of hope.
Neither the factory nor the importer was prepared to stump up for a transporter; better to get some passably reliable hack to deliver it for free.
Thus it came to pass on one occasion that the car got impounded at Dover (and for a time, me with it).
In the end I finished a truly exceptional journey on the train having spent the night in the customs compound, sleeping in the car. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was certainly special.
Read our Lamborghini Countach vs Ferrari Testarossa vs Porsche 911 turbo triple test – and much more – in the August 2020 issue of C&SC – click here for a preview and how to get your copy
Images: Malcolm Griffiths