For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
You don’t need to have driven one to ‘get’ the Lamborghini Countach.
It gets you, every single time. It’s only a cliché because it’s true, but the Lamborghini Countach really was the supercar pin-up for prepubescents the world over during the 1970s.
And for much of the ’80s, too, come to think of it.
No other car represented such a visualisation of childlike wonder, and even now it triggers a primal response in people of a certain age.
Seeing – and hearing – four iterations together, in contrast, merely leaves you with a knot-in-the-stomach feeling.
Few cars, if any, carry such a sense of occasion. If it appears dramatic now, just imagine the reaction at the March 1971 Geneva motor show when the original LP500 prototype broke cover.
Road & Track reported in period: ‘Countach is an exclamation in the Turin vernacular meaning: “Oh my God!” or “Good Lord” and this certainly evokes it… Three hundred kph, or 186mph, is the potential for this dramatic car which, if it never sees the production line in this form, has features which surely will.’
But it did enter production.
In doing so, Lamborghini metaphorically raised its middle finger to Ferrari, much as it had done with the Miura barely five years earlier.
Necessity being the mother of compromise, however, the Countach that emerged did so with a multitude of scoops and ducts in a bid to make it function.
If anything, though, these additions served only to amplify its aura of otherworldliness.
Nevertheless, it was what lay beneath the startling outline that really set the Countach apart from its contemporaries.
A multi-tubular spaceframe with an additional tubular structure carried the aluminium body while also doubling up as a rollcage.
The front end was suspended by wishbones and coils, the rear employing a similar arrangement but with twin coilover units per side.
And then there was the engine, an all-aluminium, quad-cam V12.
This Giotto Bizzarrini-conceived, Gian Paolo Dallara-refined jewel was mounted longitudinally rather than transversely, as in the Miura, with chief engineer Paolo Stanzani placing the gearbox ahead of the engine.
This was an unusual arrangement, but it ensured that the V12 was accommodated within the wheelbase, along with the fuel tanks and radiators.
The flywheel, the engine’s heavy bit, was nearest to the car’s centre of gravity.
It was a masterwork of packaging, and the same basic template remained largely unchanged for the better part of two decades.
However, by the time the LP400 (Longitudinale Posteriore 4 Litro) entered production in 1974, it did so without the firm’s founder, Ferruccio Lamborghini, and against a backdrop of significant industrial and political unrest in Italy.
Even so, around 150 examples were made to 1977, ‘our’ car having been delivered in October 1976.
Resplendent in a fabulous shade of Marrone Metallizzato (metallic brown), it remains an amazing conceit, as perfect a symbol of 1970s hedonism as was ever envisaged.
What you don’t expect, and what photographs cannot fully convey, is the size of the LP400.
In your mind’s eye, the Countach is a big car. And yet compared to most ‘small’ modern hatchbacks it appears positively dainty.
The LP400 hasn’t lost the power to shock, either. In this company it is the tamest of the lot, but what makes this car so special is its styling purity.
Without the sizeable bumper overbite of later iterations, not to mention the other plastic addenda, it still looks reminiscent of the original Geneva show car.
Bertone chief designer Marcello Gandini went for broke here, with elements of his earlier Alfa Romeo Carabo concept queen having filtered down for this application.
He simply ignored – or disobeyed – the established rules of car design, his signature sculpted rear wheelarches being a case in point.
And then there are the NACA ducts in each flank.
Aside from anything else, they provided a location for the door-opening buttons and also somewhere to hold when tilting them upwards.
You can spend ages drinking in these details and more.
That said, on entering the LP400 the mad soon takes a turn for the maddening.
The trade-off for the mechanical packaging brilliance is all too obvious: the cabin is cramped. And how.
It is almost as though the engineers and designers didn’t consult each other until after they had mated the body and chassis together.
Headroom is at a premium, while the thinly padded seats offer nothing by way of rake adjustment. The close proximity of the rear bulkhead sees to that.
Your posterior is located below the bottom of the pull-down door, and wedged firmly between the sill and the lofty centre console.
The wheel-wells also intrude into the cabin, which means the pedals almost overlap, and the near-vertical steering wheel practically rests on your lap.
The thing is, once you’re in, you’re in.
And, to be honest, you can forgive the LP400 anything just for the sound of its 3929cc powerhouse erupting into life.
Twist the key and the twin electric fuel pumps chatter loudly. As their ticking ebbs, a half turn and… Ber-limey!
Like every facet of this car, there is nothing subtle about the Lamborghini staple, even if the quoted power output of 375bhp was just the teensiest bit inflated in period.
There is, however, no getting around the fact that driving the LP400 – or indeed any Countach – is a chore at low speeds.
The rack-and-pinion steering is hard going thanks to its colossal heft. Then there’s the clutch, which has a strong and progressive bite but will plait your hamstrings due to its weight.
The long-travel throttle is heavy as well, but then it does have multiple carburettor trumpets to open.
But – and it’s an important but – get it moving and the LP400’s weightiness slackens appreciably.
It’s surprisingly tractable, with relentless acceleration and a linear torque spread.
It pulls from low down the rev range and the sound of six twin-choke Webers sucking and gurgling is intoxicating.
From 2000rpm onward, the engine delivers smooth and seamless power and sounds wonderful doing so.
The faster you go the better it gets, the dogleg ’box being meaty but with a clearly defined shift action.
The brakes, too, are powerful even if they respond faster the second time you use them.
What the LP400 demands is your absolute attention. Get to know it well, and you will be rewarded.
As for the handling, even with tyres that have a higher sidewall relative to subsequent editions, it is extremely precise.
In some supercars you feel suspended between outcomes, none of them good. Here, your nerves don’t jangle.
Prior experience of the model informs you that at an indicated 130mph, it remains arrow-straight: there is no tramlining or front-end lift. Geared for 26mph per 1000rpm in top, it is barely getting started.
As, indeed, was Lamborghini, for it followed through with the wilder-still LP400S.
Scroll back to 1974 and the third Countach made was delivered to a Canadian former crop-duster of Austrian extraction.
But Walter Wolf wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more, to the point that he engaged Dallara to realise his vision while simultaneously petitioning Pirelli to complete its long-awaited low-profile P7 tyre.
Gandini was employed to create wheelarch extensions and a new spoiler/bumper arrangement.
Displayed at the 1978 Geneva Salon in the dark-blue-and-gold livery of Wolf’s F1 cars, and packing his special 5-litre V12 (as used in the original Countach prototype), it foretold the LP400S production car that went on sale later in the year, albeit with a slightly less radical specification.
In addition to the physical makeover, beneath the skin this new strain boasted repositioned anti-roll bars and parallel-linked rear suspension in a bid to maximise the potential of the then state-of-the-art tyres.
The LP400S ushered in the era of the add-ons and, to many, this was the definitive Countach outline.
The 1979 car pictured here is pure wall-adornment fantasy in tangible form, in vivid red and riding on beautiful cast-magnesium Campagnolo wheels that mimicked those employed on the Lamborghini Bravo show car.
As for the success or otherwise of the restyle, it depends on your aesthetic sensibilities. But there is no denying its ‘bring it on’ attitude.
Inside, it’s much as before with only minor ergonomic tweaks that are of no real consequence.
The driving stance still requires you to adopt the ‘Countach squat’ with your knees straddling the steering wheel, and ventilation remains limited, as does visibility.
You only really notice the difference over the previous model at speed. The LP400S feels lighter, but this is a case of perception clouding reality because it’s actually around 50kg heavier than the original’s surprisingly slender 1300kg.
There’s the same sense of theatre on start-up, and accelerative thrust, but it seems even more boisterous.
It also feels tauter still. There are no trace elements of body roll, either, but it does tend to be upset by imperfections in the road, crashing and banging over calloused asphalt.
The steering, though, is a revelation. It is even better than that of the earlier car, with an immediacy that takes your breath away.
The beefier wheel doesn’t writhe in your hands; it doesn’t feel edgy. The massive four-piston braking set-up is bruisingly effective.
It’s worth recalling that, by the dawn of the 1980s, Lamborghini appeared to be heading for the embalming table.
Yet despite its zero-capital existence, it revealed the LP500S (aka 5000S) in 1982.
Thanks in part to the engineering nous of Maserati exile Giulio Alfieri, the Countach maintained its relevance in the supercar firmament, the V12 receiving an increase in bore and stroke for 4753cc, a lower compression ratio and larger Weber 45DCOE carbs.
It was finally Federalised for the Stateside market, too.
Finished in Bleu Acapulco, ‘our’ 1984 example is physically akin to the LP400S, the cabin architecture also being carried over virtually unchanged save the instrument layout within the rectangular binnacle.
The gauges were repositioned for this iteration in order to make them equally difficult to read, but for different reasons.
It also has air-con, which was an option but should have been mandatory because the cabin may as well be hermetically sealed.
Given that this variant was taller-geared and a bit heavier than its predecessor, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference.
It still feels blisteringly quick, with 0-60mph taking an alleged 4.8 secs. These days that doesn’t seem all that fast but, as before, it’s the way the Countach accelerates that impresses.
And, unlike so many modern supercars with their flat-plane-crank parps, it sounds choral.
At about 3000rpm it starts to clear its throat. Between 3500 and 5500rpm it is in full voice. In theory you can rev it to 8000rpm, but somewhere south of that you struggle to hold a conversation.
Like the LP400S it has massive levels of grip, the same immense stopping power and super-quick steering.
The only discernible difference is the more evenly weighted throttle pedal, which makes for easier modulation.
It is still a decidedly old-school supercar, with all that entails, but things really got interesting with the car that followed: the quattrovalvole.
Ferrari had fought back with the Testarossa that arrived in 1984, reputedly with 390bhp.
Lamborghini responded in double-quick time, with Alfieri conjuring a trick head with four valves per cylinder for the V12 while also raising displacement to 5167cc.
Together with a selection of other mods, this revised unit produced a genuine 455bhp at 7000rpm and an elephantine 369lb ft of torque at 5200rpm.
Introduced at the 1985 Geneva Salon, the new strain truly delivered.
However, Lamborghini wasn’t done: witness the 25th Anniversary edition.
Work began on this most radical take on the theme shortly after Chrysler acquired the Sant’Agata firm in June 1987, and even now it continues to polarise opinion.
Nevertheless, it was the best-selling variant of all, with 660 finding homes from 1988-’90.
The car pictured here looks decidedly sinister in black, and there is no getting away from the fact that it is very much a product of its era.
Horacio Pagani headed the team responsible for the makeover and every supercar styling cliché was thrown at the Countach. Most of them stuck.
The front bumper/spoiler, complete with the obligatory strakes, looks relatively tame.
The cooling scoops atop the rear deck, which run all the way to the revised tail-light clusters (as previously employed on US-spec cars), rather less so.
Then there are the side skirts with yet more strakes, plus the chunky rear bumper.
The sense of whimsy continues inside.
While not what you might describe as luxurious, the last-of-the-line model features wider, motorised seats so you can find a slightly less challenging driving stance.
Oh, and for reasons we haven’t quite been able to work out, the toll-booth-only windows are electrically operated.
However, the 25th Anniversary is a riot to drive thanks in no small part to the 48-valve engine.
It sounds that bit smoother than previous iterations, but it’s still far from discreet.
It’s all induction roar and exhaust fanfare overlaid with a high-pitch whine from the gears. Drive one and you will swear you can hear each and every firing stroke.
Inevitably, it too suffers from a less than limousine-like ride. With no rubber insulation, you wouldn’t expect it to, but the 25th Anniversary feels more affected by topographical nastiness than its older siblings.
While suspension changes over its predecessor were relatively subtle, being related for the most part to the adoption of more modern Pirelli P Zero rubber, it does have a tendency to tramline.
It will understeer determinedly through low-gear bends although the steering, as with the others, is beautifully metered.
And the brakes remain reassuringly strong, without threatening to fade.
With the Countach, Lamborghini stuck to the attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
And even if it is a bit broke, you’re probably better off not messing about with it too much.
It was the right approach, even if it was thrust upon the firm by circumstance. The Countach was – and remains – a toweringly capable car that outlived its natural lifespan.
It was conceived in 1969 while Ferruccio Lamborghini was still very much in charge, withstood serial ownership and insolvency, took a turn for the brilliant under the stewardship of the Mimran family and enjoyed one final hurrah under Chrysler.
It became ingrained in pop culture, too, which puts it in rarefied company.
The Countach provided children of the 1970s and ’80s with the opportunity to while away time arguing about how to pronounce its name correctly. For that, we remain forever grateful.
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, it’s worth recognising that the Countach isn’t the best supercar to turn a wheel. Not even close.
It is, though, a candidate for the greatest. It is a subtle distinction, but a salient one nonetheless.
Images: Rémi Dargegen
A legend speaks: Marcello Gandini on the birth of the Countach
Marcello Gandini was – and remains – a colossus of car design. Famously reticent about discussing his career, he nevertheless has great affection for the Countach.
“It was done in very little time,” he recalls. “Ferruccio Lamborghini wanted to create something to replace the Miura. It had to be something advanced and revolutionary to show how Automobili Lamborghini was orientated towards the future.
“We, at Bertone, were ready to fulfil his request, the new styling trend that comprised squarer lines and surfaces being something we were familiar with.”
“The main difference, though, and full credit has to go to Lamborghini, is that the Countach entered production while other concept cars did not,” he continues.
“It represented about eight months’ work prior to the LP500 being shown in Geneva [in March 1971]. We were up against the clock the whole time, but that was perfectly normal.
“With the exception of the technical layout, and Ferruccio’s wish for something innovative, I was given completely free rein. The original prototype [above] was the most beautiful Countach, but it needed some modification to become a real road car. The changes weren’t too invasive.”
As for the origins of the Countach name, Gandini says: “That word, with the emphasis on the last two letters, is an exclamation in Piedmontese dialect.
“It literally means ‘contagious’, but it is used to express positive surprise. It was often uttered by a guy at Bertone who worked on ‘profiling’ the LP500 prototype. It was “Countach” this, “Countach” that.
“I started to joke that we should simply call the car ‘Countach’. [Legendary test driver] Bob Wallace was there, and we checked the pronunciation in English.
“However, what began as a joke became something more serious. I realised that it suited the car perfectly. I persuaded Nuccio Bertone, then Paolo Stanzani and ultimately Ferruccio Lamborghini to use it.”
Lamborghini Miura: The Italian Job reloaded
Family fortunes: Ferrari 400GT vs Lamborghini Espada vs Iso Lele vs Maserati Indy 4200