March of 2021 marks the 50th birthday of the immortal Countach. If that makes you feel old, well, it should. To say that the Lamborghini Countach had an impact is sort of like saying J. Robert Oppenheimer was good with chemicals. The Countach was a design and performance explosion that basically re-wrote what a sports car could be and set a new benchmark for what was cool enough to put on a poster.
I think it’s fair to say the Lamborghini Countach was the first supercar. It was more than a sports car, both in performance and more importantly, in terms of design. Before the Countach, even very high-performance sports cars looked conventional. Sure, you could tell a Ferrari Daytona was fast, but it was elegant, refined, and conservatively thought out. It was classical music. The Countach was rock and roll.
It was, at first glance, all flashy and show-off lines and “look-at-me” features like those scissor doors. The reception from seemingly everyone was, “You can’t be serious?” But the Lambo crew from Sant’Agata – designers Marcello Gandini (Bertone), Paolo Stanzani, and driver engineers Valentino Balboni and Bob Wallace – were as serious as a flying hammer.
Underneath all that showy Italian wrapping was some serious engineering. The engine – a brute of a six-carb V12 – was mated directly to a five-speed transmission and then installed backward in the chassis. Then the drive was sent backward again through the diff and thence to the rear wheels. It made no sense, and it made complete sense.
The Lamborghini Countach was an impossibly low wedge, all angles, and inclines type of approach. The only curved lines were found on the wheels and tires, and the initial design was, if anything, as minimal as it was radical. It was, to use the term, Cool.
It was, unfortunately, anything but cool in a thermodynamic sense. The first version, the LP 400, was a benchmark of space-age minimalism with slashes of vents here and louvered intakes there. It also overheated like a baked potato in an oven. And the handling was nasty. And the ride height was quite screwy. So Lambo, starting a tradition that lasted for the rest of their history (until Audi bought them and the Germans put a stop to this nonsense), just went crazy with the add-ons to fix half of the problems.
Torn Dress, Face is a Mess
The track is not wide enough, leading to problems putting the power down? Widen it! And put on wider wheels and tires too (No, wider!). The new wheels and tires stick out too far? Put on some box fender flares. Is the engine steaming like a teapot? Lose those louvers, put in a scoop.
Still not working? NACA ducts, yeah, those look cool; slap some of those on! Hold up, the front end is rather light at speed? Put on an air dam. Tie it into the front flares if you can. Now the whole thing looks unbalanced. Hey, wings are awesome; let’s put one of those on the back! Nevermind, the rear wing on the Lamborghini Countach is aerodynamically pointless; they generate no downforce and actually take about five mph from the top speed, but it looked cool! So why not just throw one on?
Life’s Been Good
All this fiddling and fixing after the fact did not go over well with the automotive intelligentsia. They looked down their blue noses and tut-tutted at Lamborghini’s Countach. Only two kinds of people thought the Countach was cool: 15-year-old boys and 25-year-old narcissistic jerks who were emotionally stuck at 15.
Turns out there were enough (more than enough) narcissistic jerks with too much money that needed to let the world know how cool they were. And that ladies love them. That they are it, baby! It was as if the collective id of a retrograde portion of humanity willed the Countach into existence for themselves. “Look, I want a car, no, need a car, that shows the world what an amazingly cool guy I am. Manly! Virile! Oozing in sexuality and sensuality! But Ferraris are too conservative, and British cars are even worse.”
What am I to do? How will the chicks know I have a vast manly mat of chest hair in which my Zodiac medallion and gold coke spoon lie in sweet repose? What shall I do?! And –poof– the Lamborghini Countach came to be.
The Wow Factor
The strange thing about all this, especially in hindsight, is that while the Countach made Lamborghini, it also sort of sunk them too. The Countach was such a statement, such a high watermark and so revolutionary; what do you do as a second act? How do you follow that? How can you be more wild, more radical, and more outrageous than a car that is waist-high, has doors like scissors, andlooks like Mr. Spock’s bratty kid brother should drive it? How?
You can’t. And you don’t. If you look at what Lambo has done since the Countach – the Diablo, the Murciélago, the Aventador, and so on – it’s been better cars by the numbers, but less and less wow! as time has gone on, which is fitting, in a way. All Lamborghinis have traditionally been named after fighting bulls except one. The Countach.
Countach is a Piedmontese word that translates as “wow.” And we are still saying “wow” 50 years later.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He is the author of Bricks & Bones: The Endearing Legacy and Nitty-Gritty Phenomenon of The Indy 500, available in paperback or Kindle format. Follow his work on Twitter: @TonyBorroz.