Lamborghini’s LPI 800-4 resurrects a venerated nameplate: Countach. Revealed last Friday in Monterey, Calif., the car looks the part, with styling cues that pay homage to the original and a wedgy, wingless silhouette. A 802-horsepower, hybridized V12 ensures that the new mid-engine Countach will have ample performance in its attempt to fill a very large pair of shoes.
Yet this new car’s looks seem only skin deep. Instead of an entirely new model, it looks as though Countach elements have been applied to a Lamborghini Sian, which has that same hybrid V12.
A nod to the past is one thing, historical cosplay is another. The Countach name is not one to be applied lightly, its banner only to be carried by the worthy. This remake of the legend feels like trying to recast The Godfather and add in modern CGI. There’s only one original gangster, one supercar to rule them all.
The first true supercar was a Lamborghini, the Miuria. Still one of the most beautiful cars ever made, its languid shape concealed a transverse-mounted V12 that shrieked when provoked. Something of a lethal car to drive, with front-end grip shrinking as the front-mounted fuel tank drained, the Miura was nonetheless an icon of desire.
However, the 1960s were an era of rapid progress, and by the end of the decade, the Miura had aged. Ferruccio Lamborghini had not wanted a sporting car like the Miura – a small team had designed the car after hours and presented it to him as essentially a fait accompli; he recognized its brilliance and gave the go ahead. Now, he tasked this same small team to build a worthy successor.
The lead engineer was Paolo Stanzani, recently promoted to Technical Director at Lamborghini. The test pilot was New Zealander Bob Wallace, a skilled mechanic and adept racer. The designer was Marcello Gandini, of the Bertone design house. Gandini had still been in his twenties when he drew out the shape of the Miura.
The project began in 1970, and was codenamed LP112. Stanzani and Wallace looked to address the handling and cooling issues of the Miura, including a switch of the big V12 from transverse layout to longitudinal. Gandini, meanwhile, began sketching out the angular shape that would hang on hundreds of thousands of bedroom walls, all over the world.
The prototype, LP500, was not Gandini’s first wedge. For Alfa-Romeo, he had created the Carabo concept car, shown at the 1968 Paris Auto Show. Not only does this concept presage some of the Countach’s angular look, but it also had the scissor doors which would become a Lamborghini calling card.
As the team worked on their project, they gave it an unusual name. Other Lamborghinis before and after were largely named after famous Spanish fighting bulls. The Miura itself was named for the bulls raised by Don Eduardo Miura, an Andalusian noble house that began rearing the fiercest of beasts in 1842.
But the Countach would take its name from a curse. According to Gandini, one of the workmen around at the time spoke mostly Piedmontese, a northwestern Italian dialect that is almost more French than Italian. Similar to the French-Canadian sacres, Piedmontese has its own unique profanities. The one frequently used by the workman was contacc, a mild vulgarity literally meaning “contagion,” its roots in the Black Plague.
Drop a hammer on your foot? Contacc. Run into an old friend? Contacc, it’s good to see you. Gandini asked Bob Wallace how the name sounded to ears more used to English. Countach, said Bob. The name fit.
The prototype, LP500, was shown on March 11, 1971, at the Geneva Auto Show. The production car, LP400, arrived three years later. LP stands for longitudinale posteriore, the longitudinal-oriented, rear-mounted, V12 engine displacing just under four litres.
To properly judge the impact of the Countach’s arrival, picture what traffic looked like in the mid-1970s. In North America, it was a blend of bug-eyed Volkswagens and boat-sized family sedans. In Europe, hatchbacks and short economy sedans swarmed over the roads, their efficiency-minded engines labouring along the autobahn.
Then here comes this Italian spacecraft, riding a wave of twelve-cylinder fury. Nothing else looked like it. Only the most exotic cars sounded like it. It was cramped, rare, valuable, fast, dangerous and jaw-dropping to behold. If the Miura still ranks among the world’s most beautiful cars, then the Countach remains the most shocking.
In its first, purest form, the Countach is surprisingly delicate and compact. It is just over a metre tall, nearly twice as wide, and only four metres long. In cutaway drawings, almost all interior space is devoted to the engine and transmission, the driver an afterthought shoved to the front. At 370 hp, performance was plentiful for the day, but drivers had to be both brave and adept on the original’s narrow 205mm tires.
Wider tires, flared wheel arches, and that signature wing would come later. Blame Canada. Slovenian-Canadian businessman Walter Wolf bankrolled Lamborghini under the table during the late 1970s, and the company built several prototypes for him, each wilder than the last. For a time, all the fastest Lamborghinis wore a Maple Leaf badge.
Yet Lamborghini was always in dire financial straits. The styling of the Countach went from elegant to slightly bloated in an effort to stay relevant. When the last was sold, in 1990, fewer than two thousand had been made.
Earlier this month, the 1979 LP400S Countach that appeared in the movie The Cannonball Run became the 29th vehicle added to the National Historic Vehicle Register. It’s a rare honour, joining a hall of heroes like the first Jeep, the first race car to win the Indy 500, the prototype Shelby Daytona Cobra coupe.
No one would question the Countach’s right to be among such elevated company. And few would argue that this new tribute car, limited to 112 examples at $2.64-million, isn’t one of the best-looking modern Lamborghinis to come along in years.
But there was only ever one Countach, Lamborghini’s curse word on wheels. The real curse is that they may never again build anything like it.