When tractor builder Ferruccio Lamborghini established his own sports car business in 1963, he did so with only one goal in mind: to beat Ferrari as ultimate Italian sports car. Over the years the merciless rivalry between the raging bull and the prancing horse resulted in the production of some of the world's greatest full-blooded sports and supercars. A privileged member of that exclusive club is undoubtedly the Lamborghini Countach. Presented in 1971 as successor to the legendary Miura, it became the archetype of modern day super cars. Brutally fast, aggressive, outrageous, dramatic but essentially unpractical an irrational is probably the best way to characterize the Countach. Still, it dominated the sports car scene for the last twenty years of the 20th century.
With the Miura Lamborghini had already produced the world's first genuine super car. Powered by a mid-engined 4.0 litre V12 of 385 bhp (in SV trim), the Miura could top 175 mph. When Ferruccio Lamborghini instructed his engineers to develop a successor, his specification sheet was brief but clear - build a mid-engined V12 powered sports car with aluminium body work mated to a space-frame chassis that would be capable of 200 mph. Interior and exterior styling were outsourced to Paolo Gandini at that time working for of Bertone. Paolo Stanzini, of Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage fame, started development of the chassis.
The Countach made its public debut at the 1971 Geneva motor show. The design of the ultra low two seater sports car took the world by surprise. Its most captivating parts were of course the scissor doors, swinging up and forward. Over the years these famous doors have become Lamborghini's trade mark right up to the latest Murcièlago.
Another intriguing issue consisted of the periscope style rear view mirror that pointed up and over the roof. Inside Gandini had designed a futuristic interior with odd steering wheel and digital instrument lay-out. Despite still being a road going model, the Countach promised to be mechanically as innovative as its aluminium handcrafted body panels.
The projected 5.0 litre V12 would be longitudinally positioned at the rear. This engine lay-out by the way was reflected in the prototype's designation: LP 500 or Longitudinale Posteriore five litre. To improve weight distribution, the five-speed gearbox would be rather unconventionally mounted ahead of the engine, virtually between the seats. This meant that the driveshaft had to go all the way underneath the engine to the final drive. The proposed solution was to let it run in its own tunnel right through the engine's sump. This in turn raised the engine position (and with it the centre of gravity) forcing the carburettors to be repositioned horizontally to fit under the bonnet. Fuel would be stored in two fuel tanks.
Another unique feature of the Countach development story is the fact that it had been designed around the then new Pirelli P7 tyre. Development of the latter got however behind and the new tyres would not appear before 1978. That is why the prototype and the first generation of road cars stood on rather modest 7.5x14 and 9.5x14 cast magnesium Campagnolo wheels shod with Michelin 205/70 and 215/70 respectively.
It would take Lamborghini two more two more years and two more prototypes to develop a final roadworthy Countach. The LP 400 had gone a long way since the 1971 prototype but the most exciting styling clues like the scissor doors and periscope rear view mirror were retained. Additional air vents and scoops were created to improve cooling of engine, brakes and passengers. The completely revised chassis on the other hand had become a complex tubular space-frame rather than the original one made up of square section tubes.
The 5.0 litre V12 project was abandoned after the engine exploded during tests. Instead Lamborghini reverted to a more reliable 4.0 litre version based on the Miura power plant. Still with four camshafts and six horizontal two barrel carburettors, the V12 delivered 375 bhp at an incredibly high 8,000 rpm and 368 lb ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. The prototype's futuristic but very un-Lambo interior was done away with and replaced with a more traditionally styled leather-clad dashboard and seats.
Though the motoring press raved about the Countach' charisma and brutal performance they were disillusioned by a rather important factor for a sports car - top speed. While the LP400 would cover o to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, it would run out of breath at an estimated 170 mph, way under the 200 mph mark announced at the Motor Show. Remarkably the Countach would never ever reach a true 200 mph in whatever evolution version, which has everything to do with its miserable initial +0.40 drag coefficent.
The Countach also introduced a new way of reversing . The driver would have to open the door, sit on the side sill and with one foot on the throttle and one hand on the steering wheel move the car backwards!
The first batch of Countach LP 400 produced between 1974 and 1978 number only 150 cars before the first evolution appeared in 1978 when the Pirelli P7 tyres became available. With the help of Canadian F1 racing team manager and multiple Countach owner Walter Wolf, chassis designer Dallara developed the LP 400S. The new style telephone dial wheels were covered with 205/50 at the front and ridiculously wide 345/35 Pirellis. No wonder Lamborghini clinched the title for fitting the largest tyres ever on a production road car. Needless to say the complete suspension geometry and chassis set-up needed revision. To house the oversized rubber new wheel arch extensions were created, giving the Countach finally its famous squat stance. Another novelty consisted of the optional V-shaped rear wing. While this undoubtedly enhanced the dramatic styling of the Countach on steroids, it remains debatable whether it did actually improve the Countach' aerodynamics.
Ironically the meaner and leaner but also heavier LP 400S proved actually slower in top speed (158 mph) than the LP 400, also because the engine had been left untouched. The LP 400S stayed in production until 1981 and some 235 cars were manufactured.
The next logical step of the Countach evolution consisted of stretching the V12 to a full five litres like had been planned more than a decade ago. In 1982 the LP 500S or 5000S as it became known in the USA was introduced. But despite the name the bigger engine only measured 4,754 cc. Still fed by six double carburettors, the V12 equally put out 375 bhp but this time at 7,000 rpm. Torque rose to 302 lb ft at 4,500 rpm. More grunt pushed the LP 500S over 164 mph and enabled a 0-60 mph sprint in 5.6 seconds. Some 321 cars were built between 1982 and 1985.
When arch rival Ferrari introduced the Testa Rossa in 1984, Lambo retaliated by upgrading the then 14 year old Countach once again. The 1985 Countach 5000 QV (Quattro Valvole) featured a multi valve V12, stretched to 5.2 litres. The six double carburettors moved to the top of the engine in downdraft configuration. This new layout necessitated an additional central bonnet bulge. The QV developed a whopping 455 bhp at 7,000 rpm and at last the Countach outpowered the original prototype of 440 bhp. With more power on tap the QV's performance figures improved significantly: it could reach 182 mph and sprinted from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds. Total production of the QV version reached some 610 cars between 1985 and 1988.
1988 saw the pinnacle of the Countach saga. To celebrate the mark's 25th anniversary a special Countach was launched. Mechanically identical to the 5000 QV, the Countach Anniversary boasted a heavily restyled body work with additional air intakes, scoops and disgraceful looking side skirts. Chrysler had acquired Lamborghini by then and the Countach got creatures comfort like electric seats and windows. With 650 cars made, the Anniversary became the most popular of the Countach range.
By 1990 the last of the 2,000 or so Countachs had been sold before the new Diablo heralded the end of two decades of Countach supremacy. One living legend was replaced with another.
© Jo Hemelsoet (2002)