Archived Road Test
From the December 1983
You shouldn’t have this car. Nobody should have this car. That’s obvious from what happens to people when they are exposed to it. On the freeway, fellow motorists tuck into your blind spot, watching from where they can’t be seen, all expression shocked right off their faces, powerless to do anything but stare. It’s the same slack-jawed gape you’d get walking down Fifth Avenue with Pia Zadora, were she all dressed up in about eight yards of Saran Wrap. You wouldn’t be the focus of attention by any means, but the straights would all be wondering what, exactly, kind of bad boy you are, anyway.
This is a bad boy’s car, and everybody knows it. When you surface from the depths of its cockpit and put two feet on the earth’s crust, folks with any sense back off a couple paces. They don’t know what you might pull next, but, as far as they’re concerned, just being seen at the wheel of such a thing is prima facie evidence that you’re a regular traveler beyond the borders of good judgment, good sense, and good taste. Nobody on a mission from God would arrive in such a conveyance. It’s too much: too low, too flat, too many slots and scoops, too much power in the engine, and too much rubber on the road. Wretched excess is what it is, and God would never commit such an affront—which leaves only one other guy, the big bad boy himself. So hide the women and the kids. There’s a Lamborghini Countach 5000S on the loose, looking for heads to turn.
Actually, this is quite a significant automobile, a real world-record holder, number one on the planet’s most-shocking-car list for ten solid years now. Production started late in 1973 and has continued ever since, never exceeding the 120-car-per-year limit of manufacturing capability, and it’s been interrupted only by the factory’s periodic lapses into bankruptcy. And those occurred before the Mimrans, a French family of enormous wealth, brought their resources to bear on the liquidity problems in 1981. Now, it’s assumed, Lamborghini is well enough financed—and, more important, well enough managed—to ensure a continuing supply of these angry, slotted Countaches to automotive extremists everywhere.
It’s a tough job, as Lamborghini’s bumpy history will confirm, but somebody has to do it. Somebody has to be the farthest out in this already far-out corner of the car market, cater to that fringe element for whom too much is never quite enough. Lamborghini deserves to remain in operation purely on the basis of tactical wretched-excess superiority. Not only has the Countach been the flat-out farthest-out car on the market for ten years (which is like forever and a day in the extremism business), but it is so far out that all the others have conceded the market. Its continued presence has caused Lamborghini to be perceived as a company that will stop at nothing. Whether the Countach sprang from the everyday creativity of Lamborghini on the go or whether it was an outrageous bluff, the effect is the same: all the other exoticar makers have been intimidated back into the middle of the road.
Such easily appreciated extremism is what makes it the bad boys’ Mailgram. You flash your Countach (pronounced Coon-tash by the importer), and everybody gets the message. You’ve got the speed of a telegram at a zillion times the price ($99,500). The speed means you can get a lot of people flashed in a day, too. Bad boys are always claiming to have the Fastest Car. This is an argument we are unable to settle for the time being, but we do have some significant observations on top speed. Although the U.S. importer has certified the Countach and plans to bring in at least 75 per year starting in January, there were no certified examples ready in time for our testing. Our driving was done in a six-Weber European-specification car rated at 368 hp at 7500 rpm; the U.S. version is said to have a torque curve at least as strong, but its power trails off above 6000 rpm to a peak of 348 hp. In any case, the Euro version maxed out at 150 mph—fast, but certainly not out of the range of Boxers and good-running 930 Porsches. Unbolting the optional (at $5500) wing from the rear increased speed to 160 mph with only a very minor loss in directional stability. Not ordering the wing has to be the cheapest speed secret in the world.
Top speed is less than you might expect for a car so low and so powerful, primarily because the body was originally shaped nearly fifteen years ago, when much less was known about aerodynamics. The sharp break where the flat windshield transitions into the side glass is a high-drag area, and so is the tunneled-in rear window.
Within the more prudent ranges—and still of interest to bad boys—the Countach easily holds its own. Zero-to-sixty mph takes only 5.4 seconds, and the quarter‑mile is consumed in 13.5 seconds at a finishing speed of 107 mph. If the domesticated version lives up to its billing, it should not be far off these numbers.
If you only want speed, there are many easier and cheaper ways: a big-block Corvette from the late Sixties, just to name one. But the Countach provides an extra thrill: it seems fast. At 35 mph in the suburbs you’d think you were on the far side of the double-nickel. On the Interstate, you’d swear you were moving in 100-mph traffic. The noise plays its part, with twelve singing cylinders and five whining speeds. The cockpit sound level is 83 dBA at 70-mph cruise, much louder than the 75-dBA Corvette. (Forget about the $3000 optional stereo; you’d never hear it.) Full throttle peaks at 102 dBA; that’s up in the range where it gets your full attention. And then there is the road noise: the suspension has no rubber, just control arms wrought from steel tubing with weather-sealed rod ends. Every strum and thrum of the road comes right on through, to your ears and to the seat of your trousers.
If you can stand the racket, you’ll appreciate the handling. Directional stability is very good; steering response is almost electronic in its quickness. Understeer is substantial, both at low speeds, where the wing is relatively ineffective, and also in the higher reaches. Despite the grinding of the front tires, though, the Countach circled the low-speed skidpad at 0.82 g, an accomplishment that requires no apology.
All of this measured talk of measured performance could easily lull you into assuming that the Countach is a perfectly reasonable way to blur the scenery, which of course it is not. Nothing is reasonable about this car. The doors open upward, not gull-wing style but like the blade of a paper cutter. You slide in over a sill wider than most transmission tunnels and down into a bucket seat that seems bent on pushing your shoulders forward at an unnatural angle. Once you pull the door down (each one is held up by a single gas strut), you can no longer see out. Oh, looking ahead is not too bad, but the side windows are angled in such a way that, when cornering to the left, you have to look through a mess of horizontal and vertical seams behind the windshield pillar, all there in an effort to provide a side window that opens. The bottom glass cranks down about enough to slide in a hamburger if the onions are chopped instead of sliced—and “chopped” is a fair description of what all this hardware does to side vision. The rear corners are totally blind until you get used to the side mirrors. The inside mirror actually has a clear shot, but the view is confused by reflections on the sides of the tunnel at night. It takes a while in the Countach to get over the lane-change paranoia.
Probably you’d never get over the clutch effort. This car is a Nautilus machine for the left leg. Ten minutes in heavy traffic will last you all day long. The shifter is stiffish, too, and for parking, the steering could use a little help from a friend in the hydraulics business. Genuine bad boys take a certain pleasure in such adversity, but the clipped vision and the Bullworker efforts are enough to keep the ordinary Mercedes-type rich guys out of the action.
Surprisingly, the cockpit has room for the lanky. The seat moves rearward a fair way (and tilts, but the backrest does not recline independently), and the column tilts and telescopes enough for the long of leg to get well back from their work. The main problem, typical of mid-engined cars, is that the left front wheel bites into the footroom. You cruise along with your left leg pulled back and your right fully extended to reach the accelerator—really fully extended at wide-open throttle, because the pedal travel is typically Italian, which means of epic length.
Despite the control efforts, it’s possible to drive the Countach quite smoothly because all the controls send you the right messages. Even the shifter is trustworthy, which is unusual for a mid-engine configuration, and due in large measure to Lamborghini’s unusual drivetrain layout. The 60-degree V-12 engine is positioned longitudinally with the flywheel end forward. The transmission extends up between the seats, with its power-output shaft poking out near the bottom and extending back through the engine’s sump to the differential, which is mounted behind. The forward transmission location means the shift lever can sprout right up out of the top of the gearbox and into the driver’s hand. The lever travels through a maze much like a Ferrari’s with one interesting addition: a little swinging gate that can be positioned manually to block reverse. Reverse is synchronized, so it doesn’t clash on engagement; but the importer says the synchronization also allows inadvertently upshifting from first to second and catching reverse instead, with disastrous consequences. If it’s not aimed right, the lever just goes right into “R,” according to the importer, something we did not verify during the course of our testing.
Something we did pay attention to was the quality of the workmanship. If you can ignore the body’s outrageous shape, which is almost impossible, and focus on the details, many of them are very nicely done. The skin is all aluminum except for the roof (steel) and the fender flares (fiberglass). The aluminum work is exemplary; no ripples. And the craftsmanship continues behind the scenes. Where the outer door skin clinches around the inner panel, for example, the metal finishing is first-class. The interior seems more obviously handmade, less perfect; but if you’re looking for one-piece molded-vinyl dashboard padding, you shouldn’t be shopping in the anarchy department anyway.
It’s not what the Countach can do for you that counts, but what it does to others. This car was made for shattering sensibilities. It performs equally well in heavy-duty neighborhood work or on fleeting targets of opportunity. If driving it requires earplugs and the strength of two legs on the clutch, well, nobody ever said being a bad boy was all fun.
Back in 1971, when Lamborghini presented to the world a prototype of the Countach at the Geneva salon, it was a shockingly low, boldly styled superwedge powered by an exotic V-12 engine. Ten years later, when Jasjit Rarewala of Lamborghini of North America started working in earnest to satisfy the DOT and the EPA that the Countach was wholesome enough for U.S. consumption, certain changes were necessary. Bumpers sprouted from each end of the car, and, peculiar as it may seem, the glorious V-12 became a pair of six-cylinder engines linked together through one common crankcase.
The splitting of the upper half of the Countach’s engine was Rarwala’s inspriation, and it has turned out to be an ingenious way to deal with the knotty problems of making a dozen cylinders powerful, clean-breathing, and drivable. Each bank of six has its own twin-cam, two-valve head, as Lamborghini intended, but the double row of three two-barrel Weber carburetors has been retired from duty. In their place are even more impressive fuel, air-induction, and exhaust systems.
Double everything is used because component manufacturers’ shelves are full of six-cylinder emissions-control gizmos but are practically devoid of bonafide twelve-cylinder hardware. For example, the Bosch KE-type CIS fuel-injection systems (two per Countach) were originally specified fro use on the Mercedes-Benz 280CE. The active ingredients inside the three-way catalysts are identical to those of U.S.-spec Porsche 911SC components. The air-filter elements are the same as a European Porsche’s.
Fuel is drawn from two 15.4-gallon tanks, and although it appears that the two intake manifolds meet at a common plenum, they do not. Partitions within the massive aluminum casting keep each bank’s air supply independent.
Two Bosch computers manage the injection systems with the aid of two oxygen sensors, which are plumbed into the exhaust systems. In addition, Rarewala has added his own electronic control circuit (made in the U.S. by SAE, the audio-component manufacturer) to override the Bosch circuitry at certain times.
The new-for-Lamborghini fuel-injection hardware allows a number of refinements that weren’t possible with carburetors. The twelve fifteen-inch-long tuned intake runners are now considerably longer than their European counterparts and are within a half-inch of the ideal length. (The factory assisted Rarewala in this determination.) Valve lift has been increased for better torque, and the U.S.-spec engine works fine with a 9.2:1 compression ratio (identical to the European ratio), with no exhaust-gas recirculation.
All in all, the U.S.-spec Countach 5000S amounts to an international conspiracy. It was conceived by Bertone and built by Lamborghini in Italy. Nuova Automobili Ferruccio Lamborghini, SpA, is now owned by the Mimran family, which is French. Rarewala, an Indian by birth, certified the car for America with the aid of German, Swedish, and American hardware and technology. His managing director, Trefor Thomas, is British. The scheme has worked so well that Lamborghini has far-reaching hopes for the future: Countach’s next stop may be Japan. –Don Sherman