The Posterless Child: Lamborghini Countach
Whoever was making Countach posters in the early ‘80s must have made millions of dollars. Every time someone brings up the Countach they start by waxing poetically about a poster on a wall. I must be the only car enthusiast in the world who never had such a poster, but then again, I was born in 1984, and by the time my last diaper met the trash, the Countach was relegated to history.
What does a poster signify anyway? None of the posters I had on my wall were of cars that I desired in any particular way. It’s not like I amassed posters of every car I wanted to own in the future and then started mentally checking them off once I was old enough to drive and buy those cars. Posters, whether they’re of cars, people or anything else, come to represent a life. For that fleeting moment when all those boys (and maybe some girls) glanced up at their two-dimensional Countach, they were transported to the backstage at a rock concert, the casino in Monte Carlo or a night out in the clubs of Miami.
There must be some crazy Countach statistic that nobody has uncovered (or maybe would rather not uncover) about how much cocaine, hair spray, or fur coats have graced the atmosphere inside the car. The earliest Countachs even had a little glass window on the roof, presumably so the people driving behind you could see the work of your barber as you haul your groupies off to the hotel after playing a crazy gig.
Finally, there are the doors, best described by the name itself, “Countach!”, a Piedmontese exclamation of something astonishing or attention-grabbing.
The story of the Countach begins in the late ’60s with production of Lamborghini’s first-ever mid-engine supercar, the unforgettable Miura, winding down. It had gone through three different iterations, culminating in the flared Sport Veloce or SV, and it was now beyond ripe and prepared for retirement.
Ferruccio Lamborghini, being more than satisfied with the Miura stylistically, had approached Bertone again to follow it up with what he was hoping would be yet another hit. Bertone obliged by putting Miura designer Marcello Gandini on the job yet again.
Gandini was fresh off the Alfa Romeo Carrabo and Lancia Stratos Zero, two unique concept cars that would inspire his design for Lamborghini. The wedged design of the Carrabo and Stratos Zero began at the front with a hard point that would widen toward the back of the car. This was a refreshing styling trait that pointed the way toward the future and was distinctly Bertone.
Starting with a sheet-steel chassis (the norm at that time for Lamborghini), Bertone fabricated the first prototype’s body out of steel and prepared the car for testing, which took place in 1971. Chief Lamborghini test-driver, Bob Wallace, put the car through its paces over the course of the year and discovered a myriad of issues that plagued the car, including interior space constraints and overheating of the Espada-derived V12 engine. Adjustments were made by the factory, and in 1972, the 2nd prototype, which was now extremely close to production, was ready. This second car, originally painted red and eventually shown at the Geneva Auto Salon in 1973, was different in several respects to the first car.
First, the factory had come to the conclusion that a sheet-steel tub was rather crude and elementary for a car such as the Countach and decided to go with a tubular steel spaceframe that was manufactured by Marchesi of Modena, Italy and saved approximately 17 kilograms over the 1st prototype’s chassis, despite being longer for better interior ergonomics.
Second, after incorporating the design tweaks needed to keep the V12 engine cool, another body was made, this time out of aluminum.
Finally, small tweaks to ease manufacturing were made. The small side-windows of the prototype wer found to break easily in production which lead to a redesign, the gauges were now supplied by US-based Stewart Warner and the dash was covered in suede to reduce glare on the massive near-horizontal windshield.
The car debuted at the Geneva Auto Salon in 1973, where it made a huge splash and stole the show with its radical vertical doors. Where the Miura was stunning in its elegant flowing lines and static beauty, the Countach looked like it was racing forward just standing still. It’s possible that to some showgoers it wasn’t even a car, but a UFO that should carry some hyper-intelligent life form. Its bizarre design elements like the aforementioned doors, an oddly placed window on the roof that would later earn the car the nickname “Periscopa”, huge NACA feeding the radiators in each ¼ panel and the oddly-triangular fender openings all culminated in total sensory annihilation.
This wasn’t just a car, it was a cultural icon. All of this, of course, came at a cost to Lamborghini, and because they were not in financial position to build another example, the same car was painted green and shown at the Paris Motor Show later that year with production beginning shortly thereafter in 1974.
Lamborghini had originally designed the Countach’s running gear with the new Pirelli P7 super sports tire that was set to revolutionize the market. But the tire was delayed and the first Countachs were fitted with the Michelin XWX tires. In 1975, the tire was finally available and one of Lamborghini’s wealthiest clients, an Austro-Canadian oil-tycoon by the name of Walter Wolf, had the factory install these tires over wheels inspired by the Lamborghini Bravo concept car. The size of the tires, 345-section at the rear, are among the widest street tires ever made, and this necessitated special flares built out of fiberglass to be fitted to the body of the car. With the tires providing additional grip, more power could be added and an experimental 5-litre engine was also installed. The grip and power now necessitated an aerodynamic change in the form of a massive rear wing and suspension tuning was provided by Dallara to take advantage of the entire package.
The tweaks to the Wolf Countach proved formidable and the factory began working on the car’s first “refresh”. With the help of racecar chassis designers Dallara and at least partial financing by Walter Wolf in the form of a 2nd specially prepared car, the Countach LP400S debuted in 1978. Gone were the svelte lines of the original car that looked like it had been carved from a solid block of metal. The new Countach was now a brash, in-your-face Italian exotic that demanded your attention with its huge flares and optional rear wing.
The LP400S was tweaked throughout and was actually slower than first flare-less cars, now known as LP400. Emissions conflicts disallowed use of the high-output 5-litre engine in the Wolf car, so the standard LP400 engine was used, but with the compression slightly dropped and the camshafts re-profiled to give less lift and overlap for a cleaner burn in the combustion chamber. With the extra weight from the new suspension, wheels and tires and the flares hampering aerodynamics, the new LP400S, although much angrier looking on the outside and more “manageable” during spirited driving, could not match the original in acceleration and top-speed.
In 1982, shortly after the debut of the Ferrari Boxer, the engine displacement was increased to 4.8-litres and the model designation changed to LP500S. Ferrari had produced a worthy contender to the Countach, but the new engine had more horsepower, now breathing through redesigned cylinder heads and larger Weber side-draft carburetors.
Just 3 years later in 1985, Lamborghini updated the Countach yet again in response to Ferrari and their new Testarossa. The engine was bumped up in displacement to 5.2-liters and all new 4-valve cylinder heads and Weber down-draft carburators helped the engine breathe even better than the LP500S. This new Countach, affectionately called the QV, short for “Quattrovalvole” had a ground-pounding 455hp, 65 more than the Testarossa. It is also considered the fastest Countach ever and to many, what the Countach “should have been” from the very beginning. Beyond the engine, the car received a host of upgrades including a slightly redesigned front suspension to handle a wider wheel/tire, subtle body updates like a larger hump on the rear engine lid and in 1987, specially-fitted side skirts with integrated brake cooling ducts. On paper, the QV is both the quickest and fastest Countach, although purists do sometimes complain that none of the flared cars have the light-on-their-feet feeling of the original LP400.
Finally, the last hurrah for the Countach was the Anniversario. Built to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company in 1989, the Anniversario was a mostly cosmetic refresh and feature-enhancements of the Quattrovalvole. To help modernize the car after nearly 15 years in production, Lamborghini aerodynamicist Horacio Pagani of Pagani Automobili fame, freshened the exterior by adding thin vertical strakes in all the intake and radiator openings. Wide, 3-piece alloy wheels with exposed rivets rounded out the exterior changes. On the interior, fit and finish was improved, everything was now covered in leather and power-windows/hi-fi audio added. The toned tri-athlete LP400 had now turned into a heavyweight bodybuilder in the Anniversario.
Following nearly 700 Anniversario models, production of the Countach wrapped at just over 2000 units for the entire 16-year run from 1974 to 1990. Continuously improved to compete with other supercars from Italy and abroad, it was and always will be an icon of a bygone era. When the Armageddon finally does occur on planet earth and the human race is replaced by some hyper-intelligent, but horribly uninteresting alien life-form, I hope they uncover a Countach. Because if there is any single thing on this earth that the humans should be identified by, the Lamborghini Countach is it.
– – –
Click here to view the Countach video Petrolicious filmed, When Outrageous Was Possible.
Petrolicious is celebrating 100 years of Bertone. Click here to see all of our Bertone posts.