A Living Legend: the 1974 Lamborghini Countach
If you ask an entire generation of supercar fans that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s which car they had as a poster on their wall, you can guarantee that a majority will answer: Lamborghini Countach. Perhaps more than any other supercar, the Countach has a look that is so startling, so extreme and so distinctive that even in the 21st century, decades after its launch, it is still right up there in any list of all-time great supercars. My experience with the Countach is perhaps typical of why the car made such a massive impact. I was on a primary school trip to London as a 7 Year-old, excitedly but wearily walking around museums, the Embankment and, finally, in the hunt for some tourist food, taking a stroll through Covent Garden. And that was when i saw it. Parked opposite the Tube station was a crisp white Lamnorghini Countach. An expensively dressed man had the scissor door raised up and was sitting on the sill of the Lambo, leaning out the car, looking over his shoulder and parallel parking the Countach perfectly into a tight space. An excitable crowd had gathered, taking photos. Later i would come to realise this parking manoeuvre was no mean feat, especially under such a public spotlight. At the time it was, quite simply, the most astonishing thing my young eyes had ever seen. If my eyeballs could have come out of my head, in the style of Tom and Jerry, they would have. I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday, it was just so exciting. All of my mates were staring too. Everywhere in the street people were chattering and taking photos. If an alien spaceship had landed at just that moment and announced that Earth was now a colony of Mars, no one would have been listening. The car was so futuristic that, when the man locked the door and simply walked away, i was almost surprised that he hadn't zoomed off on a hover-board or just teleported to his next meeting. (Of course, i realised later why he hadn't used a hover-board - it wouldn't have fitted into the very limited luggage space in the Countach.) From that moment on, the Countach was imprinted in my brain and soul. How were Lamborghini able to do this? How did they create a car- just a shaped chunk of metal on 4 bits of rubber- that drew such an emotional reaction from millions of people around the world? It is time for a little more supercar history...
The Countach was designed by the same genius who had been involved in the creation of the Miura: Marcello Gandini of the Bertone design house. In 1971, Gandini stunned the world by unveiling a bright yellow concept Countach at the Geneva Motor Show. Various stunning supercar concepts had appeared at motor shows in the late 1960s, but Lamborghini wanted to make this particular concept a reality. Known internally as the project 112, the Countach stole a march on all its rivals, most notably Ferrari's much-heralded 365GT-BB. Remarkably, some reports suggested that the new, shorter-wheel-base car was so breathtaking that some show-goers didn't even notice the updated Miura SV, also on stand that day. Given that some car experts had doubted how anyone could possibly follow the legendary Miura with any success, this was impressive. The press reaction was similarly dazzled. On its retail launch, CAR magazine said 'The Countach breathes naked aggression from every pore'. Gandini himself said that he wanted 'people to be astonished when they saw the car'. He wouldn't have been disappointed. One of the most immediate impressions you get of the Countach up close is how low it is. This incredibly low-slung car- approximately 42 inches high- was centred around dozen of trapezoidal design motifs, an idea that would be replicated in the hexagon obsessed Aventador and after that the Huracán. As such, the Countach is an explosion of non-organic creases and folds. Gandini's trademark asymmetric wheel arches added to the unique look, sitting above a very early example of alloy wheels. Add to that the scissor doors- what else?- as well as entirely futuristic lines and it is clear why this stunning car looked like nothing the world had ever seen. 'It just blew everybody away when it was launched', recounts Lamborghini UK's legendary salesman Steve Higgins. Notably, in a reversal of the usual pattern of toning down concept cars for their commercial version, the early production Countachs were, if anything, more aggressively styled than their concept predecessors, with larger air scoops and bigger vents. Another point of interest regarding the aesthetics of Countach owners, is that when Lamborghini later made a rear wing option available, to make their car look even more outrageous, the vast majority of buyers opted instead for the spoiler. The car's aggressive look was not just an aesthetic indulgence, though; the NACA ducts were in place for very specific cooling purposes, even through the large rear-view. The truly space-age bodywork was made from aircraft-grade aluminium, a method most commonly found in racing cars of the day. Underneath, an innovative tubular space-frame provided the skeleton. The Countach was powered by a mid-enging V12, mounted longitudinally rather than transversely, as the miura was. (Early models actually used a Miura 4-litre power plant.) The driver's close proximity to the V12 made for an operatic experiende inside the tiny cabin. And the Countach was no slouch, being the fastest road car on its launch, with a top speed of 183mph. Due to the gearbox sitting in front of the engine, the driver and passenger were seperated by a huge, central console that housed the transmission. The gear stick plugged directly into the gearbox, and when driving, the auxiliary oil pump serving the gearbox could be clearly heard. The driving position was almost horizontal, once again aping racing cars of the day. One contemporary writer likened it to lying in the bottom of a lightbulb. Such gripes about the interior build quality were often attributed to the fact that Lamborghini was still a modest-sized supercar player, with the cars essentially hand-built - no robots involved - at a rate of just three a week. The minimalist interior consisted of painted aluminium, leather and pretty much nothing else. While the Miura sometimes suffered from front end lift at high speeds, but the Countach hugged the ground more tightly, making the long nose of the car pretty much invisible to the driver. The way the windshield followed the exact angle of the nose of the car was also an industry first. Pop-up headlights helped to preserve these sleek lines. This expanse of windscreen made the interior cabin a sweltering greenhouse in sunshine, even with the addition of air-conditioning (there was no stereo, incidentally). There was one, insect-like, spindly pantograph windscreen wiper that was reputed to lift off the glass at speeds in excess of 120mph on some models. But, then, if you are doing that speed in the pouring rain, you will have more urgent things to worry about (not least given the brakes were smaller than those on a modern Renault Clio RS).
Over the cars lengthly 16-year, 2,000+ car production run, the engine and also bodywork were regularly tweaked and upgraded. Later models were embellished with fins and body parts, to the disdain of some purists. However, the (undoubtedly fine) engineering is not really what the car is best remembered for. 'As far as the drive is concerned', explains Lamborghini's Steve Higgins, 'like all of these older cars, the Countach was challenging! The interior is quite cramped, the rear vision is minimal, it's not the car that you jump in to go cruising up and down the road. You have really got to mean it and want to do it when you get in a Countach. It is noisy and hot, with a heavy clutch and stiff gear shift. But, really, look at it- do you care?' Countach owners were, by definition, bold, extravagant people. One Japanese car collector actually commissioned a new house to be designed with a central elevator that could lift his Countach into his living room - final proof, if needed, that the design lines are much art as they are automotive. There were, of course, practical limitations galore . If you take a Countach to a McDonald's drive-through, you can fit a quarter pounder through the tiny non-electric side window-slits, but not a Big mac! This was not a car for the frugal, either. At a time when fuel rationing was on the cards, in the middle 1970s, the Countach represented perhaps the ultimate motoring extravagance. (Driven 'heartily' you would be lucky to see double figures in mpg.)
The Countach is now established as one of the all time great supercars. But is it a game changer? undeniably, yes. During its active lifetime, chiefly in the 1980s, the car played an important role in keeping a financially stRuggling Lamborghini at the forefront of all supercar fanatic's minds. (Ferruccio had sold his shares three years before the Countach was launched.) It is also a fact that the Countach is a global icon. When the Australian International Concourse d'Elegance show advertising its 2013 event, it did so with a painting of a Countach adorning the front of the programme. Perhaps the last word is best left to a man who knows the Countach better than most, Steve Higgins of Lamborghini: 'what surprises me is that the Countach remains current to this day- so many guys walk in here and say they had that famous poster of a red Countach on the wall when they were a kid. It's amazing how many buyers still mention it. In many ways, I would say that it is probably the iconic supercar design of all time.'