Despite being more than 40 years old, the Lamborghini Countach remains an iconic supercar that still turns heads wherever it goes, as Noel Ebdon finds when he takes one out on the streets of Dubai.
The Lamborghini Countach: taking an iconic 1980s supercar out in Dubai
Never has any other car been so closely associated with a decade than the Lamborghini Countach. It was, and still is, the 1980s personified. A car built to show everyone around you that you had achieved significantly more than they had and had enough money to buy a spaceship.
Together with the brick telephone and shoulder pads, it could be sealed in a time capsule for future humans to understand how we were thinking as technology began its rapid advance on our now digital lives.
But as with almost all icons, the story of its existence starts well before its birth, back in 1963, with the formation of Lamborghini itself. Spurned by Enzo Ferrari, the tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to take on il Commendatore at his own game and build grand-touring cars. If Enzo didn’t take him seriously then, he probably did three years later, when the company unveiled the Miura.
Still considered, along with the E-type Jaguar, one of the most beautiful cars ever made, the Miura put Lamborghini on the map and the Marcello Gandini-designed car would become the choice of movie stars and the business world’s elite for the rest of the decade.
But once the 1970s arrived, the world had moved on and the Miura, with its slightly feminine curves and ladylike eyelashes on the lights, was in need of replacement. Production would run until 1972, but Lamborghini was already looking for its successor.
Although the world of the yuppie and 1980s excess were still almost a decade away, the automotive design world had already started to go all angular. Gandini was sent into his studio to come up with something that reflected the mood of the time. Something different to the Miura. Something that would take over where that stunning car would leave off.
What came out of those long nights in the design labs was truly shocking. The prototype Countach LP 500 was unveiled at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show and people simply gawped. The angular lines and outrageous styling saw the stand swamped with car lovers, all eager to see this amazing new car. If Ferruccio had wanted to make a statement, Gandini had surely delivered.
The car was basically a wedge, which, despite its sleek exterior, actually had quite poor aerodynamics. This would be somewhat fixed with the later cars, but the early cars were perhaps the purest versions, with no large wings, huge air intakes and the wide arches that made the car so famous. It was also incredibly low and flat, barely reaching most people’s chest height.
With Lamborghini only producing a handful of cars a month at that time, buyers would have to wait until 1974 to get their hands on the first cars. But once they did, they could start to enjoy the 4.0L, V12 engine and the 370hp on offer.
The Countach was allegedly designed “for the successful businessman who lives in Bologna and has an urgent meeting in Turin, after which he wants to take his mistress to dinner”. It’s easy to picture it doing just that, even alongside modern supercars.
The LP 400 turned into the LP 400S in 1978, with a slight drop in power but the first appearance of those famous wide wheel arches. This would then be followed by the LP 500S in 1982 and then the 5000QV in 1985 with a 5.2L engine.
But the madness of the 1980s was declining and cars, while remaining exciting, needed to be usable and safe, a role that the Countach didn’t fill very well. The Countach’s production run finally came to an end in 1990 with the last 25th Anniversary Countach (introduced in 1988), which was perhaps the most resolved model that Lamborghini built. It would boast performance figures of a sub-five-second 0-100kph and a top speed in excess of 290kph. The car would be replaced by the equally striking Diablo, which is another story in itself.
Jump forward 24 years and this stunning black LP 400S still looks as fresh as the day it rolled out of the factory. It’s not a show queen, but it’s in great condition and the current owner does drive it occasionally around the UAE, but the low mileage of just 7,000km reflects its pampered life.
The car was originally sold to a museum in Los Angeles in 1980, but as it isn’t fitted with the US-only impact-protection bumpers or emissions equipment, the car was illegal to drive in the US. It sat in the museum for more than 15 years, before being sold to a Dutch collector who brought the car back to running condition.
The Countach was then sold to an English owner, who lived in Monaco, which, despite the tight streets, is possibly the perfect place to drive around in a black Lamborghini. He eventually moved to Dubai and imported the car with him, selling it to the current owner in 2006. At that time, the car still had only 1,100km on the clock.
Opening those iconic scissor doors, the whole unit slides up and out of your way, exactly as Gandini intended. The supports still hold firm and it’s relatively easy to slide over the sloped sill into the very low-set leather seat. The interior is swathed in the original white leather, which has worn well considering that it’s almost 35 years old. The huge centre console dominates the interior and the two occupants are pretty much cut off from each other.
The seat-belt retainer is far too long and ends up sat on your stomach after you’ve clipped in the standard-style belt. The pedals are offset, as you’d expect, but it’s not uncomfortable and actually quite cosy. The dashboard is pure 1970s, looking like a part of the set from Space: 1999. The huge rectangular binnacle that houses the clocks is covered in grey Alcantara and the clocks themselves deep set into the darkness of the dash. The windscreen slopes so violently towards you that you feel like a tank commander about to set off across the battlefield.
Behind you, the infamous rear vision isn’t as bad as contemporary roadtesters made out. Yes, you need to adopt the famous sitting-on-the-sill-with-the-door-open pose to reverse the car, but, on the move, the rear-view mirror gives you enough information to keep fairly safe. Later cars would see the carbs moved to the top of the engine, necessitating a large bulge on the engine lid, reducing rear vision to almost zero.
Getting going is a task in itself. The clutch bite is high and the accelerator stiff, so achieving that all-important balance between your feet is tricky. Just to add to the mix, this Countach is fitted with Miura cams and slightly larger 45mm carbs, making it hard to drive at low rpms.
But once on the move, it’s all torque, rather than fast revving. Modern supercars spin up in an instant, but in a Countach you need to be patient and let it build. Although these cars would hit 100kph in about 6.3 seconds when new, it’s not with that same urgency that you get from modern cars. This is a mechanical object with no computer involvement, so the experience is felt, not programmed.
The sound is loud, as you’d expect, but it’s not ear-splitting. You can actually hear the different parts of the engine working away behind you and, as the revs rise, you soon start to see why there’s no stereo fitted. The sound doesn’t have the finesse of a Ferrari, as it’s more businesslike, more mechanical. It’s not showing off, unlike the rest of the car; it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
Shifting between gears through the open metallic gate is not difficult once you’re at cruising speed, but you do have to remember the dogleg gearbox (first gear is up and left, while second is down), which is basically the opposite way around to a conventional shift pattern. The heaviness of the clutch becomes far less of an issue and the Countach starts to make perfect sense (in a way).
There’s a total lack of body roll and the huge rear tyres seem to grip all day long. You probably wouldn’t want to be at the controls if they decided to give up though, as that sudden loss of traction would be pretty intimidating. The test drivers who ran these cars to their limits were a brave bunch. This is clearly a car built for big roads, high speed and long distances. Despite the lack of luggage space, you really could see a rich Italian count cruising from one end of the Alps to the other in one of these cars.
Driving this Countach, and probably any Countach, isn’t easy. You have to think about it and that’s what makes it so addictive. If you want a car that you can jump in and nip off to the shops, then this is not for you. Every drive is an event, and every movement gains a response. It’s binary driving at its best.
The car’s owner also has an LP 5000S, which is currently being restored, giving him double shock value when opening the garage door in the morning. Owning one Countach is a commitment. Owning two is frankly beyond the realms of most people’s thinking.
Whatever your view on the Countach and its outrageous styling, it’s a car that defined a movement, a time when things were on the up and up. It was madness in a motor car, but that was a good thing. There will probably never be another Lamborghini Countach and that’s probably a good thing. If everyone had one of these, it wouldn’t be special.
But luckily they don’t, so driving one is a privilege ... even without the shoulder pads.
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