Editor’s note: Welcome to our new series, Driving the Greats. Your chaperone, David Lillywhite, Editor of acclaimed Magneto magazine, will be putting you in the driver’s seat of some of the most memorable cars of all time. Buckle up and enjoy. James Mills
You probably already know the bad bits. The awkward driving position, the hefty clutch, the weighty steering. You might even be under the impression that the bad bits outweigh the good bits.
But they don’t. Not at all.
It all starts when you see a Countach in the metal. It’s still special, still shocking in its madness. It’s smaller than imagined and even more outrageous, whether it’s an early 1970s LP400, so pure yet so striking in its Marcello Gandini design, or the end of the line 1980s beast in all its wide-arch, extra-vented glory.
It’s been said many times before, but if it’s surprising now, imagine the effect the Countach had when the prototype LP500 was unveiled at Geneva in 1971 as a successor to the achingly pretty Miura. It couldn’t have been more different in looks and attitude and, despite sharing the same V12 engine, the Countach is very different in layout from the earlier car, and that makes it surprisingly different to drive.
Of course the experience begins with those doors. Unlike the Miura, the Countach was built on a full spaceframe chassis, the design of which made for wide sills over the multi-tubular side members – great for strength, not so good for access to and from the cockpit. Mercedes-Benz had given themselves a similar problem in the 1950s with the 300SL, and given the coupé gullwing doors to ease access. Gandini opted for scissors doors, as much for style and wow factor as practicality – and a Lamborghini trademark feature was born.
And so you approach the Countach, already feeling a little awestruck, noting its remarkably low roofline – just over 1m or 42in high – push the button that sits inside the side vent NACA duct and swing the door open, assisted by the gas strut. You’ll be greeted by the unmistakable sight of the Countach’s trademark wide sills, reams of often garish-coloured leather, the chunky, clunky instrument pod (or pods for later models) and a general air of misalignment.
Pretty, it’s not. But full of character, it most certainly is. Swing your legs over the sill, drop your backside down into the reclined one-piece seat, stretch to pull down the door, slide back for more legroom and then forwards again when you realise that your arms can no longer reach the steering wheel… oh! The layout is masterclass in how not to do ergonomics, and if you’re in one of the later, chunkier seats with electric adjustments, it’s actually worse.
It’s just something you’ll get used to, and there are ways to make it easier, including (whisper it) aftermarket power assistance on the steering. And actually the steering column adjusts and the seat tilts, though all in one. But there will always be that short leg, long arm requirement that not all of us will be entirely comfortable with, compounded by a lack of headroom if you try to compensate by sitting more upright, propped up by a handy cushion.
In standard spec, you’ll soon find that the steering is seriously heavy at low speeds too, but we’ve missed an important step here: starting up the V12. Turn the key, hear the starter crank the engine a couple of turns and then – whoomph! – the beast awakes. It’s smoother and less mechanical than you might expect, but blip the throttle and intake roar and exhaust rumble takes over. It’s pretty epic.
Next shock: the clutch. Boy is it heavy! It’s not the kneetrembler you might have been fearing from the legend of the Countach but it’s a shock after stepping out of a modern car. The gearlever needs a firm push too but it feels precise, even slotting into first.
You’ll likely have a crowd of bystanders by now so it’s fortunate that there’s no shortage of torque from the V12. You’d have to try hard to stall it, even if you’re struggling with the heavy clutch and long accelerator travel. Your shoulders will be working hard on the steering, and you’ll already have realised by this point that visibility behind you is… ‘limited’. Or, to put it another way, you can’t see a damned thing. Even the view out of the side windows is difficult, obstructed by the messy frames that allow the glass to wind down just a few centimeters.
But carry on, because this is where things start to get exciting. You’ll be able to feel those fat tyres picking their way over imperfections in the road through the suspension, as the V12 urges you to speed up and the noise in the cabin increases. Into second gear with a firm pull on the lever, again precise but heavy, and the steering feels a little less immovable at least.
Keep building up speed; it’s so high-geared and torquey that there’s no need to change up yet, which is lucky because you’ll need both hands to wrench on the steering wheel, but it’s definitely getting easier, while the suspension jiggles over pebbles, the noise levels rise some more and the scenery starts to move a little faster.
You’ll be getting the full work out by now. If you’re moving slowly, the clutch will begin to hurt you and your shoulders will start to ache from the effort not just of maneuvering the steering but from the heavy gearshift too. Even as your speed increases, the steering initially weights up in the tighter turns and the suspension jiggles until…
…the sweet spot! It seems to vary from model to model, but above 30-40mph the steering comes alive and instead of feeling its weight you’ll simply marvel at its directness and precision, almost to the point of it feeling twitchy. Most of all, you’ll feel completely secure, because the Countach feels so planted on the road, like it will always go wherever you point it.
Amid all this, the engine is both the least dramatic and the most dramatic factor in the Countach package. Provided the carbs or injection are set up properly, it never hesitates, it never feels in any way delicate or vulnerable, it’s just a sheer powerhouse of torque that’s also surprisingly willing to rev and rev. In fact, any specialist will tell you that the Lamborghini V12 is one of the strongest of all exotic engines. [For a deeper history of the legendary Lamborghini V12, follow this link. Ed.]
So with this in mind, you can push it harder, and with that comes the most phenomenal feeling of performance and brutal acceleration, made all the more intense by the build-up in transmission noise, engine noise, induction noise, exhaust noise, road noise and, if you’ve got a passenger on board, the sound of sheer terror coming from the other side of the cabin. What a machine!
Keep pushing and the Countach, any Countach, will tear past 100mph and well beyond, still feeling completely stable, though don’t expect it to be quiet. The later the model, the better the stability at very high speeds, but it’s interesting that road testers at the time found that removing the large rear wing fitted to so many of the last Countachs would increase the top speed slightly with little effect on stability.
How fast? Well the first LP400, with its 3.9-litre 370bhp engine would achieve 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds and reach 179mph; the heavier, better-equipped end of the line 25th Anniversary Countach was capable of 4.5 seconds and 186mph thanks to its 5.1-litre, 449bhp specification.
However you drive a Countach, whichever one you experience, it’s a car to be learnt and subsequently loved, not one to jump in and out of without thought.
Is there anything else that attracts so much admiring attention? Probably not. And if you want the full Countach experience, you need to finish your drive by reverse-parking while sat on the sill with the door up, in front of appreciative onlookers. No need to tell them that it’s the only way to reverse safely.