Driven by Design: Lamborghini Countach
(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)
The Lamborghini Countach has been called many different things over the last forty years, the majority of them encapsulated between the words ‘most’ and ‘car, ever’. But one thing the Lamborghini Countach shouldn’t be called is beautiful. Now, if you’re familiar with Petrolicious, you might be surprised to read this because I have at every possible opportunity mentioned how desperately I need to find one of these for myself, something along the lines of, “check out the beautiful detailing on this VW Beetle, know where I can score a downdraft Countach for cheap?” And much like a Pavlovian dog whose reward is emptiness and longing, I scour the internet daily in the hopes that I’ll find a Lamborghini Countach selling for a reasonable price, original, in white-on-white, with phone dial wheels, ’85 or ’86, please.
So perhaps some explanation is required. While it may not possess the sort of classic beauty that graces the Ferrari 250 California Spyder, the Countach is striking. It is bold and shocking and the response that it elicited became its name, Countach! This is a slightly vulgar exclamation of surprise in the Italian Piedmontese dialect. But consider the context: Lamborghini was working on a successor to the Miura (the world’s first true super car) and coming from the voluptuous, full fendered shapes of the late ’60s, this wedge looked like it came from another galaxy. There had been otherworldly concepts that coincided with the Study LP500 (the Countach concept), but this was the first production car that smashed the status quo. But why was it so different?
Well for starters the engine was mounted longitudinally, as opposed to the Miura’s transverse set up, but the output shaft pointed forward to improve the car’s weight distribution. It was also only three and a half feet tall (just over a meter) and many of the surfaces appear to be trapezoidal and flat (they’re most definitely not flat). And then there are those scissor doors. But more on the surfacing and details in a moment.
Let’s begin with those exaggerated proportions. Mr. Marcelo Gandini, the master designer who created the Countach and finished the Miura before it, has said repeatedly that he focuses on the occupant package first and let’s everything develop from there. And the Countach does an impressive job of packaging occupants, drivetrain, and wheels into an amazingly low-slung aerodynamic shape. Marcelo was trying to increase the car’s aerodynamic efficiency as much as possible (to increase performance) by making the occupant and drivetrain packages as efficient as possible. Thus the occupants are pushed way forward of the engine due to the reclined seating position (to achieve a low roof). But the wheelbase isn’t even longer still, because the transmission is mounted in front of the engine (closer to the occupants). The mass between the door and rear wheel communicates clearly that there is a large engine, a fact reinforced by the relatively clipped front end and abundance of details on the rear quarter.
The greenhouse also helps to amplify the Countach’s low-slung stance. As the A- and B-pillars are slightly offset from surface they dive into, they make the greenhouse appear like it’s sunken into the body of the car, almost as if it’s been chopped or even crushed a bit. This treatment is so successful that it’s been used on every Lamborghini sports car since and has been copied by countless others. Don’t misunderstand though, most cars offset the pillars from the shoulder for aerodynamic reasons (namely the greenhouse doesn’t need to be as wide as the car’s body), but in the case of the Countach it could have been flush (and was in sketches) and a conscious decision was made to offset it to achieve the enhanced look.
As noted earlier, the surfacing looks completely flat but isn’t. While many of the panels are broken up into rectilinear forms, the actual surfacing has a lot of curvature to it. The thirty year-old designer definitely had something to do with this, but credit is more likely due to the modelers pulling clay at Bertone. If one only looks at the surface intersection between the top of the fenders and the body side, the rounded peaks emphasizing the tires is very obvious. The tops of the front fenders also have a lot of section to them as they descend towards the hood, these are not flat surfaces. However, one must give credit to Marcelo when considering the twisting motion of the plane formed by the side windows as it flattens into the tops of the fenders. Since the bodyside is so relatively tall, that as the body rolls under the car the reflection of the ground visually connects the car to the ground making it look solid, and even lower.
And while the proportions are striking and the surfacing masterful, some of the details are a bit goofy. It’s probably because some, like the top-mounted intakes, were never intended by the designer. Those intakes were added during development, because the door/fender intakes proved insufficient for cooling the engine, and ruined the intended purity of the Countach’s shoulder. One detail that initially made it to production but was eventually removed was a periscopic rear view mirror that was cut into the Lamborghini’s roof, giving the early models that have it the nickname ‘Periscopio’.
One detail that fortunately did remain are the scissor doors. They were actually a necessity because of the shape of the opening. You see, door hinges need to be aligned and perpendicular in order to function properly. And to allow a large enough aperture for someone to enter or exit the Countach semi-comfortably, the doors need to be as large as they are. So hinging them at one point and swinging them up was the simplest solution. And a really cool one at that. Also worth mentioning are the rear wheel houses because they hold your attention (again emphasizing the power generated out back) due to their unconventional shape.
In the first couple of paragraphs I used a lot of adjectives to describe the Countach, including otherworldly, striking, and shocking. And with the exception of subsequent Lamborghinis there are almost no cars that look so different from everything else on the road. It is also worth noting that from concept through its final year in production, the Countach became more and more aggressively styled and hence a bit more cartoonish with every new iteration. Regardless, beautiful has always been the wrong word to describe it, perhaps amazing is better. Do you understand? Good, now I can go back to searching, emptiness, and longing.
If you’d like to see more of the outrageous Lamborghini Countach, check out this video.