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Motoring: Lamborghini Countach - 1974

Legend has it that, when millionaire Italian tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini started having trouble with his Ferrari's clutch, the local workshop couldn't fix this problem so Ferruccio decided to drive to Modena and confront Enzo Ferrari himself. But Enzo, who was known for his arrogance, told this 'farmer' to take a walk; Ferruccio was furious and at that moment decided to show Enzo how he should be building GT cars. Within three years, he achieved his goal by producing the Miura, a mid-engined V12 supercar with beautiful looks and incomparable speed that threatened to give Ferrari's current models at that time a good run for their money.

But Ferruccio didn't stop there. Having fulfilled his original quest, his set his sights even higher and vowed to create the greatest supercar of all time. That car should be unbounded by any existing rules, and should be so outstanding that no word could describe its excellence. The word Countach (pronounced Koon-tahj) is an exclamation of astonishment in the local Piedmontese dialect - generally used by men on seeing an extremely beautiful woman. There is no direct translation into English. The name first came from the lips of designer Nuccio Bertone when he first saw "Project 112" in his studio, and it stuck. All previous Lamborghini model names were associated with bullfighting (Ferruccio Lamborghini being an aficionado of the sport).

Miura, the fastest car in the world then, could run up to 172 mph. Countach, on the other hand, aimed at 200 mph (320km/hr). Yes, 200 MPH. Besides, it should have an appearance that could stun everybody. What the designer and engineers came up with was a vehicle that achieved all this - and much, much more. The styling was by Marcello Gandini of the Bertone design studio. Gandini was then a young, inexperienced designer - not very experienced in the practical, ergonomic aspects of automobile design, but at the same time unhindered by them. He produced a quite striking design. The Countach shape was wide and low (1.07 metres/42.1 inches), but not very long. Its angular and wedge-shaped body was made almost entirely of flat, trapezoidal panels. There were curves, notably the smoothly coke-bottle wing line, but the overall appearance was sharp.

The doors, a Countach trademark, were of a 'scissors' fashion - hinged at the front with horizontal hinges, so that the doors lifted up and tilted forwards. This was partly for style, but just as much because the width of the car made conventional doors impossible to use in an even slightly confined space. Aerodynamics, however, were quite poor for such a sleek-looking car - but looking fast was more important to Lamborghini. The Countach utilised a skin of aircraft-grade aluminum over a tubular space frame, as in a racing car. This is expensive to build but is immensely strong and very light. The underbody tray was fibreglass.

The prototpe was first shown to the public as a concept car at the Geneva Motorshow in 1971, called the LP500 (Longitudinale Posteriore 5-litre). The Miura chassis was largely retained, but the motor was turned through 90 degrees to be mounted longitudinally and the body was a radical new design by Marcello Gandini, then still at Bertone. The engine was a 5-litre development of the Miura V12, with 440bhp. The gearbox was positioned in front of the engine with a drive shaft passing through the sump to the final drive which was at the rear. Only one prototype was built, but it no longer survives; it was sacrificed in a crash test to gain European type approval, even though its construction method was utterly unlike production vehicles.

When this daring, aggressive looking piece of brute force was finally released to an unsuspecting motoring public in 1974, it took the motoring world by storm and sent the rest of the world's supercar manufacturers back to the drawing boards. The semi hand-built Countach was and still is the epitome of the supercar - extreme in every degree. It went like a rocket - it was the first registerable road car with a top speed of over 300kmh and hit 100kph from a standing start in just 5 seconds while still in first gear. It handlied like it was on rails, due to near perfect 50/50 weight distribution and an unbelievably low centre of gravity. All that came at a price.

Visibility is dismal - the car is, after all, only about belt high, so every other car on the road is taller; the snarling V12 is just centimetres away from the occupants' ears, breathing down their necks and making them aware of its awesome power every second. Care has to be taken getting in and out, and involves sliding between the vertically opening doors and the low roof. Luggage space is enough to cater for only an overnight bag; the cockpit is cramped; the steering and clutch are heavy and visibility for reversing does not exist unless the driver sits on the door sill outside of the car. But when you buy a beast of this ilk, these idiosyncharsies just go with the territory.

Not only did the Countach send other car manufacturers back to the drawing boards, it sent Italian tyre manufacturer back there too. When the car was released, they didn't have a tyre to suit the car. In 1975 Pirelli introduced new super-wide tyres designed specifically for cars like the Countach. The car was much modified to accept and to make the most of these tyres, with changes to the rear suspension, front and rear track, bodywork (wheelarch extensions) and brakes (still larger). The resulting Countach S was built from 1978.

The next development was to increase the size of the engine, to 4754cc and 400bhp for the 500S, which took place in 1981. In 1985 the engine grew again - to 5.2-litres - and got four valves per cylinder in the model named as such, the Quattrovalvole. Production stopped in 1993 when the Countach was replaced by the equally fast but somewhat more refined looking Diablo. Thirty years on, the Countach's design is still so fresh, daring and vibrant, it could have come off the drawing board yesterday.

Models - numbers built
LP500 prototype - 1
LP400 - 158
LP400S - 237
LP500S - 321
LP500 Quattrovalvole - 672
LP500 25th Anniversary - 660


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