Rich man’s toy and an engineer’s dream
It sits there like a Preying Mantis, ready to pounce, a menacing, wicked, scarlet being with a cheetah’s look of speed, at rest, Stylish, outlandish, a tribute to the car maker’s art and probably the fastest true production road car in the world, the mid-engine Lamborghini Countach generates attention like a power station churns out electricity when its workers have a mind to. To the majority of the public and, most sadly, owners, the Countach is merely a motoring Picasso, a picture to be looked at, to be shown off by the man who has everything, a £30,000 abstract art form, stashed with visual excitement. As each Countach wings its way to the Middle East or to Britt Ekland’s Beverly Hills home, one can but wonder how many owners will appreciate, or even be capable of exploring the fact, that the Countach is an animate machine, perhaps the ultimate supercar, capable of topping 100 m.p.h. in under 12 seconds or over 180 m.p.h. flat out, an adrenalin-inducing motorised dart, the closest to a productionised, road-going Porsche 917.
Like so many expensive, almost unreal and impractical flippancies in the topsy-turvy economics of the modern world, the Countach has proved far from a folly for its manufacturers, Lamborghini SPA. Such a stylist’s dream, such a price tag and such exclusivity have ensured that demand from the world’s richest extroverts is impossible to meet, even with production increased from one Countach to four a week from the 200 employees at the Santa Agata Bolognese plant in Italy. Indeed, anybody fortunate enough to purchase a new, list-price example of this most striking example of the Italian supercar art is practically guaranteed a worthwhile return on his investment. Out of the dozen Countachs imported to Britain, almost all have been snapped up on the resale market by overseas buyers and one was written-off on the M4. It is rumoured that only two remain in Britain, one of which, the most recent to be delivered, I have been fortunate enough to borrow for a long, memorable weekend.
The Countach (pronounced Coon-tash) first appeared at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show, and if its astonishing styling is eye-stopping today, one can imagine the reaction six years ago. The motoring world at large tended to dismiss it as another remarkable Italian design exercise, but by mid-1974 the Countach had escaped from styling studio to production line. An insane act, perhaps, to introduce a to m.p.g., 180+ m.p.h. supercar into the aftermath of a fuel crisis, into a world beset by economic problems and blanket low speed limits? Not a bit of it. Illogically, the supercar market has never been so good, as Ferrari with the Berlinetta Boxer and Porsche with the Turbo and 928 will join Lamborghini in vouchsafing.
Designed by Gian Paolo Dallara, the Countach eschews the transverse arrangement of its Miura predecessor’s V12 engine in favour of a north-south mounting, with the 5-speed gearbox in the cockpit area ahead of the midships engine, transmitting 375 b.h.p. to the rear-mounted differential via a driveshaft passing through the magnesium sump, beneath the 12-cylinder, magnesium block. This helps achieve the excellent weight distribution of 43 per cent front, 57 per cent rear.
To open the bonnet, a front-hinged flap behind the cockpit, is an immediate answer to those who despise the Countach as pure styling gimmickry. The engine is a glorious masterpiece of engineering, 12 cylinders in a 60 degree vee topped by two overhead camshafts on each bank, the outer edge of each cylinder head festooned with three, twin-choke, horizontal Weber 45DCOE carburetters. One six-cylinder distributor is driven by each of the two camshafts on the nearside bank. This seven main bearing, mostly magnesium-cast, engine has a capacity of 3,929 c.c. from a bore and stroke of 82 mm. X 62 mm.; the original Geneva Show car displaced 4.8 litres and gave 440 b.h.p. A comparatively high state of tune, including a 10.5:1 compression ratio, ensures almost the magic 100 b.h.p./litre output: 95.4 b.h.p./litre from a total of 375 b.h.p. DIN produced at 8,000 r.p.m. The maximum torque reading of 267 lb. ft./DIN appears at 5,500 r.p.m.
This mighty engine is cooled by twin radiators mounted aft of the cockpit on each side, fed with air through those distinctive “ears” atop the bodywork and huge NACA ducts in the body sides.
Beneath the extravagant, all-aluminium exterior panelling is a complex tubular steel space-frame chassis and fully-adjustable suspension that follows pure racing practice, as the Countach’s performance demands. The wishbone front suspension-has single coil spring/damper units, while each corner of the wishbone rear suspension has two coil spring/damper units with the driveshafts passing between them. Both ends have large-diameter anti-roll bars and adjustable suspension ball joints. Normally, aluminium-cased Koni dampers are fitted all round, but I understand from Roger Phillips, Managing Director of Berlinetta Italia Ltd., the British importer, that the test car had Bilstein rear shock absorbers because of a supply problem. The suspension uprights are magnesium.
Thick, 10.51 in. diameter, ventilated, outboard disc brakes have Girling aluminium calipers. Small separate calipers serve the handbrake on the rear. The dual circuits have servo assistance. The rack and pinion steering affords three turns lock to lock. Magnesium wheels, of 7 1/2j section at the front and 9 1/2 at the rear, are shod with 205/70VR 14 in. and 21 5/70VR 14 in. Michelin XWXs respectively. The lack of front radiators allows the inclusion of a full-size, inflated spare tyre and wheel in that sharply drooping nose, one up on Ferrari’s Boxer and flat-six Porsches. In fact in luggage space the impractical-looking Countach doesn’t fare too badly at all: a deep, if narrow front to rear, carpeted boot under a separate lid behind the engine runs the full width and that means 6 ft. 2 in. of the body. A few more oddments can be squeezed into the nose “boot” which houses an excellent, circular tool-kit, complete with spare belts, in the centre of the spare wheel, the battery and hydraulics.
The bright red road test Countach was only three weeks and 1,700 km. old when it arrived outside Standard House, as conspicuous in this grey City street as a flying saucer from Mars. It had come through the good offices of fellow motoring journalist Ian Webb, City stockbroker Noel Gibbs and Christopher Allen, partners in a firm called Autosearch Ltd., of Ormond Road, Richmond, Surrey, a brokerage service for private buyers and sellers of high performance and quality cars. This car was an Autosearch investment, a flag-waving machine destined ultimately for resale and for us the only likely opportunity to test a Countach. It will be the last Countach imported to this specification: future imports will have suspension modifications, spoilers, wider wheels, Pirelli P7 tyres and an extra £3,000 on the current £29,950 list price. On top of that can be added the cost of air-conditioning, with which the test car was fitted. Lamborghini dealerships are even more exclusive than their cars, there being only three British outlets, Berlinetta Italia Ltd., the Whytelcafe, Surrey, based concessionaires, Portman Garages, the London dealership and Maltin Car Concessionaires Ltd., the “country” dealership in Henley-on-Thames. Maltins supplied this Countach to Autoscarch and it came to me direct from its first service in their workshops.
For me, the first thing to explore was how to enter this futuristic contraption. Door release buttons are concealed in the top edges of the NACA ducts and tugging and pulling at the doors will get you nowhere: they pivot skywards on a vertical plane from a hinge in each door’s waistline front corner. Hydraulic struts support them in the open position. This clever idea means that the open doors do not protrude beyond the overall width of the car, a much better idea than gull-wing doors. In the unlikely event of this wide-tracked machine being rolled in such a way that neither door can be opened, the solution is to knock the screen out. The roof has a built-in roll-over bar, by the way.
Mysteries of the doors overcome, entering the car is easier than it looks: I found it best to put in my left foot first, slide across the wide, leather upholstered high sill, then follow through with the right foot, squeezing it round the wheel arch into the pedal well. The seats are curved, one-piece, leather-covered bucket affairs with built-in headrests with fore and aft and tilt adjustment. The more the seat is tilted, towards a semi-reclining driving position, the more the front of the squab digs into the thighs. The little, thick-rimmed, smooth leather-trimmed steering wheel is adjustable. Once the unorthodox door is slammed down into place, the initial effect is slightly claustrophobic, more because of the sharp tumblehome of the side windows and the low roof than because of confined space, for the cockpit at body width is wide enough. Occupants are separated by the massive, leather-covered centre console camouflaging the big gearbox and it is this that restricts breathing space. Acres of suede facia stretch ahead to meet the base of the vast windscreen, surely the most steeply-raked screen on a production motor car; its sharp line is followed through by the bodywork to the very tip of the nose, with its vestigial plastic bumper. This new car’s floor carpets were already curling at the edges and looked barely worthy of a £2,000 vehicle. There were glue streaks on the fabric roof trim, too. Even the roof is unconventional in this extraordinary car; in its centre is a deep, trough-like depression, at the front of which, just behind the screen rail, is a tiny, inch-high window. All it seems to achieve is to cast a little bit of light into the top of the screen area. It is possibly a throw-back to the first prototype, which had a periscope mirror device, replaced in production by a conventional mirror viewing through the rear window.
Usable stowage space is limited. True, there are two sensibly large pockets in the leather door panels, but the laws of gravity spell disaster for their contents when the doors are opened. There is a lockable glove-box too, but a fuse box robs it of most of its space. Space between the seats and bulkhead is negligible.
For once I was overawed and nervous at the prospect of launching an unfamiliar car into Friday afternoon London traffic. I sat there for a few moments plucking up courage to turn the key, contemplating the rush-hour hazards of a £30,000, 375 b.h.p. car with a nose which is totally invisible from the driving seat, a vast overall width which cannot be judged visually by the driver, is broader behind him than ahead and at 6 ft. 2 in. is 2 in. wider than the bulky Aston Martin V8, and rear three-quarter vision which is non-existent, for the view through the door mirrors is chopped off by the rising rear wings. Turning the key provided the necessary distraction as the gorgeous whoomph and whirrings of a well-tuned V12 filled my ears. Most misgivings disappeared as I eased in the slightly fierce clutch against the modest bottom end torque and pottered up the road, for the steering is so precise, pleasant and sensibly light that the great bulk of the Countach seems to sense its way along through the most modest of slots. The greatest problem in traffic proved to be lane changing, because of the non-existent three-quarter vision. Within moments I had begun to feel elated and confident, no longer vulnerable. I reckoned not with the incompetence of other drivers, however. Within less than a mile of the office on this first, perilous venture, the Countach had proved itself a liability. My slumbers as I sat in the queue in a right-hand filter lane at red traffic lights were brusquely interrupted by a thump and a shake as an old Daimler 250 saloon scraped its side down the poor Countach’s nearside rear wing. The lady driver of said Daimler confessed to having been so enrapt with the Countach that she neglected to give it a wide enough berth. Vulnerability indeed!
From then on, until I had to return it, I kept the Countach out of town for, precision of direction and lack of engine protestations apart, it is entirely incompatible with such use. Parking in normal situations is practically an impossibility, certainly on the nearside, where rear three— quarter vision is nil: a sloping window behind the door provides a nice view of the radiator intake, the side pontoon chops off angled vision through the rear window and nothing is visible within reasonable proximity beyond the end of the Ark Royal rear deck. Reverse manoeuvring close to driver’s side solid objects is facilitated by opening the non-protruding door and leaning out, remembering to allow height clearance for the open door.
Enough of such urban impracticalities, for this is a car for the very open road, for high speed motoring when the boys in blue are asleep or you happen to own the surrounding desert. Although I suspect that few are used to such purpose. Certainly in Britain I found it too conspicuous, too audacious a car to allow indulgence in prolonged extension of its relentless performance. No claims from me of “there I was, 190 on the clock,” for a couple of bursts to 140 was nearer my mark, when the Countach felt to be dreaming along, the engine thrashing at a modest 5,700 of its available 8,000 r.p.m.! say “m.p.h.”. In fact the test car had been supplied with a k.p.h. instrument (reading in 20 k.p.h. increments to an edifying 320), which is to be changed.
As might be expected, the highly-tuned engine demands revs. Admittedly it will trickle along in traffic at 1,500 r.p.m. with no sign of plug problems, or tick-over at 800-900 r.p.m., but to make it pick up and go demands at least 4,000 r.p.m. on the tachometer. Much more than a stroke of the throttle below that produces a dead-pan burble as 12 carburetter chokes dump their loads into unreceptive combustion chambers. A thrust of throttle once the engine is “on cam” sends the tachometer needle scurrying up the scale, leaping ever more agilely once beyond the 6,000 r.p.m. mark, by which stage the glorious Formula One-type howl from behind has the adrenalin churning with realisation of what the Countach is really about. Changing at the rev, limit would produce speeds in the gears of 65 m.p.h., 84 m.p.h., 113 m.p.h. and 150 m.p.h. Out of deference to the engine’s newness (though all are pretty well run in on the dynamometer), I rarely took it to 7,000 r.p.m. and avoided its maximum. Even so performance was, shall I say, “more than adequate”. The sensory effect of acceleration is less blatant than in the Porsche Turbo, perhaps because of the lack of tail squat, the bulk of the car, the angle of the screen, the invisible nose and the way one’s body is supported by the curved seat. Tenacious grip from the rear wheels, fed through a limited slip differential, the 65 m.p.h. first gear and the modest power at lower revs make it necessary to abuse the clutch slightly for rapid standing starts. To achieve the sensational maximum standing start acceleration of which this car is said to be capable must surely necessitate taking the revs to the top of the scale, “dropping” the clutch and waiting for the wheelspin to stop. In normal road conditions the real measure of acceleration is the rate at which overtaken cars become infinitesimal dots in the rear view mirror, which fortunately gives adequate vision where it matters.
The gearlever, topped by a man-sized leather knob, slots through a proper gate, with first down to the left opposite reverse (which has a flick-over stop to prevent inadvertent engagement) and the rest in H pattern, a system which I prefer. First and reverse gears were often difficult to select from rest and though positive the change was often obstructive, hard work when driving hard and pushing the torque through the forward-mounted box, into which the lever passes almost directly without the usual mid-engine rod-and-prayer remote extension. It is fair to say that the change began to improve with mileage. Part of my gearchange difficulty lay with the length of shove required on the clutch pedal, to achieve which I was far too close to the other pedals. This enforced a permanently bent right knee and a pushing down action on the throttle pedal rather than a smooth push forward. Some pedal adjustment is possible, with a spanner. Initial lost motion in the throttle pedal reduced power-on/power-off sensitivity for cornering. Tall drivers have little choice but to drive with legs askew, knees bent around the steering wheel, their heads touching the low roof and the rail above the door, in some discomfort.
Other hints that the Countach is a pure weapon of speed, not -a vehicle of convenience, come from details like the side-windows, which wind down a mere three inches or so, and the twin fuel tanks in the sills, each of 13.2 gallons capacity filled awkwardly through fillers hidden in the rear of the NACA ducts; because of their positions and the width of the car it is impossible to fill both tanks from one side of a pump, a ludicrous bugbear in a busy filling station. Of more direct concern to the driver are the bad daylight reflections in the left hand instruments, including the speedometer. They are clearer at night, when one’s progress is lit by four powerful headlamps in quick-lift nose pods. Separate lights for daytime flashing are housed in the bumper. All the instruments are housed in a huge rectangular binnacle. Front left to right are: voltmeter, ammeter, 320 k.p.h., 3 in. speedometer with a vertical odometer but no tripmeter, oil pressure and water temperature gauges mounted centrally between the speedometer and matching 9,000 r.p.m. tachometer, a fuel gauge and an oil temperature gauge. A row of warning lights on the bottom edge of the facia was invisible from my seating position. The hand brake lever is a joke: tucked away in the right-hand sill, there is room for only three fingers to hold it. The separate pads on the rear discs are barely capable of holding the car.
I would not dream of describing this encounter with Countach chassis and engine number 1120276 as a road test. Only a long transcontinental journey on roads sufficiently bereft of traffic and police to permit full use of its sensational performance could possibly throw accurate light on the capabilities of Dallara’s spectacular creation. I had to make do with a journey to Yorkshire (where E. C. “Cee” Booth, who used to conduct his ex-Culpen/Aldington Fraser-Nash Le Mans Replica – 3rd placed car at le Mans in 1949 to such good effect in the ’60s, professed to quite like the Countach after a drive in it but would not dream of exchanging his much more sensible Berlinetta Boxer for one), and a handling and photographic session on Mike Franey’s Hertfordshire airfield circuit.
The Countach’s suspension is firm, yet the ride, if slightly choppy, is far from uncomfortable, indeed very gentle in its passenger treatment in motorway conditions. Noise level is high at cruising speeds over 80, largely from that massive lump of magnesium amidships, which roars so enthusiastically when accelerating. The suspension geometry almost precludes dive and squat under braking and acceleration and roll stiffness is tremendously high to the extent that there is hardly any roll at all. High speed behaviour is totally unruffled total stability at all times, although whether the same can said towards the top end of its range I know not.
Other than the wonderful engine, I found the Countach’s steering to be the most impressive feature, kart-like in its directness and precision, squirming a little to feed back exactly what those fat front tyres are doing. The brakes were less of a joy, spongey, feel-less and overlight (I have heard others who have driven Countachs complain about the heaviness of the brakes perhaps they vary) and, unbelievably, they showed signs of fade on the road and when braking from a modest 7,000 r.p.m. in third on the circuit. Such fade may merely have been a sign of the lack of brake pad bedding-in. It was disturbing to find the tail of this 13 ft. 6in. long machine trying to break loose if the car was only slightly off line under heavy braking; a mid-corner emergency stop in the wet must must be terrifying.
On high speed bends this Countach behaved superbly, and so long as it was treated with respect as road speeds, its handling was always enjoyable, at least in the dry. But try too hard and use the throttle insensitively and it could be very vicious indeed, traits I reserved for exploring fully on the circuit. Try to tuck it in tightly or use a fraction too much throttle in mid-corner and the back lashed round to 90 degrees instantly, very knife-edge behaviour. That could be caught with opposite-lock easily enough, but this was followed by an equally vicious tail swipe in the other direction, which necessitated incredibly rapid winding off of the opposite lock, or the outcome was a spin. What disturbed racing driver and high performance tutor Franey and I was that the speeds at which this behaviour occurred were not that high – lower than some far less exotic machinery we have tried on the same circuit. The symptoms of this low break-away point were suggestive of too much roll stiffness – it needed to roll more to give more adhesion. Though a very responsive car, it didn’t generate the G-forces it ought to have done for a mid-engine car. What must be remembered is that this new car had probably not had its fully adjustable suspension set up and could no doubt be made much better. The Pirelli P7s of the new model should make a great deal of difference too.
To drive this Countach quickly on everyday British roads had me as shattered and sweaty as after a race, so demanding was it on concentration, reactions and physical action, particularly of the gearbox and clutch. But what excitement! This spectacular, quite sensational machine left me with mixed emotions: great admiration for the engineering, particularly of the engine, the Shattering performance and the stunning looks, suspicion of its chassis behaviour and gratitude to the people who make possible such an outrageous V-sign to conformity. But I was not left with an overwhelming desire to own one. –C.R.
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