Home » The Original Countach Was Lamborghini’s Greatest Design. Here’s How It Was Ruined

The Original Countach Was Lamborghini’s Greatest Design. Here’s How It Was Ruined

Lamborghini Countach Dgd Ts1
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A while back I wasted two hours of my life a while back watching the terrible movie Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend. Starring “Dollar Store Jason Statham” Frank Grillo and Gabriel “only here for the paycheck” Byrne as Ferrucio Lamborghini and Enzo Ferrari respectively, this relentlessly shitty movie nevertheless contains a one hundred percent totally accurate sequence when a smug Byrne in a Ferrari Mondial QV casually dispatches Grillo in a Lamborghini Countach. Their supposed rivalry is started in an earlier scene in the movie where Lamborghini accosts Ferrari outside his factory to complain about the clutches Ferrari uses, and Il Commendatore haughtily tells Lamborghini to “go back to his tractors.”

Was Lamborghini the sports car company a creation of pure spite? Ferrucio Lamborghini was born to wine-making parents in 1916, but his interests lay in mechanizing labor rather than any romantic notions about the farming of grapes. He studied mechanical engineering and found himself maintaining trucks for the Italian Air Force during the Second World War.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

After the smoke cleared at the end of European hostilities, Ferrucio opened a small garage in Bologna and began to tinker, using war surplus parts to create his first tractors. Because these used Morris car engines that ran on expensive petrol, Lamborghini patented a fuel atomizer, that allowed the engines to start on petrol and then switch over to cheaper diesel. Buoyed by favorable economic conditions supporting Italian farmers buying domestically built agricultural equipment, Lamborghini Trattori soon found success in the post-war mini-industrial boom. By the mid-fifties, Ferrucio Lamborghini was a very rich man.

Screenshot 2024 03 11 At 2.58.57 pm
This lovely 1957 Lamborghini Lamborghinetta sold for $38,000 on Bring A Trailer in April 2023. 

Ferrucio shared his hardscrabble background with another Italian industrialist, Adolfo Orsi, who owned Maserati. According to an interview with Thoroughbred and Classic Cars given in 1991, Lamborghini said:

“Adolfo Orsi, then the owner of Maserati, was a man I had a lot of respect for: he had started life as a poor boy, like myself. But I did not like his cars much. They felt heavy and did not really go very fast.”

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He was also unimpressed with the succession of Ferrari 250s he owned. The Old Man famously saw his road car business as a necessary evil to finance his beloved racing team. Lamborghini considered Ferraris fast but unrefined and recalcitrant in use. Whatever the truth of what was said between them, Lamborghini had enough engineering knowledge, resources, and business acumen to believe he could do it better.

The Hills Are Alive To The Sound Of V12 Engines

The hills surrounding Turin were overflowing with sports car expertise and Lamborghini availed himself of the best of it, creating the very first Lamborghini Automobili 350 GTV which appeared as a prototype at the 1963 Turin show. The production version, substantially reworked for ease of use and manufacture, appeared in 1964 sans pop-up headlights and with less chrome trim. With no need for concessions to motor racing, the 350 GT followed the continent-crushing gran turismo layout with a large V12 under the hood and an opulent 2+2 cabin. 120 were built, but Lamborghini’s next car would be the genesis of the type of car the company is known for today.

Lamborghini 350 GTV
Lamborghini 350 GTV
Lamborghini 350 GT
Lamborghini 350 GT

The Miura wasn’t the first mid-engined production car, but it gave life to the idea that serious road-going performance machinery should have its motor in the middle of the chassis. Up to this point, mid-engine designs were nearly exclusive to racing cars, and Enzo Ferrari himself considered the configuration too much for non-racing drivers to handle. Indeed, the first mid-engine road-going Ferrari, the 365 GT4 BB, would not appear until 1973.

Ferrucio hadn’t been consulted about the Miura’s mid-engine layout, but as soon as the naked chassis was presented, he was convinced. Nuccio Bertone saw the Miura chassis on display at the 1965 Turin show and came to an arrangement with Ferrucio there and then. Marcello Gandini, whose hiring at Bertone had previously been vetoed by the departing Giorgio Giugiaro, would be allowed to get on with designing the Miura with a little input from Bertone himself. The Miura’s voluptuous curves and coquettish eyelashes are pure Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – an Italian man’s vision of the ideal feminine form on wheels. The successor would cast aside such sixties thinking.

Lamborghini Miura
Lamborghini Miura

Despite the Miura being only four years old Lamborghini gave chief engineer Paolo Stanzani and Gandini permission to think about a successor in 1970. The transverse layout of the Miura, while novel meant it had weight distribution issues and widow-maker handling. To remedy this a technician working under Stanzani, Oliveriero Pedrazzi came had the idea of turning the engine not only length ways, but crucially backwards in the chassis with the gearbox in front of the engine between the driver and passenger, giving the car its LP designation: longitudinale posteriore. As Pedrazzi told the website deRivaz & Ives:

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“I came up with the idea of using the engine-transmission combination of the Espada, but turned around so that the gearbox would be located ahead and between the seats for the driver and passenger. It was done to essentially rationalize our production process and save costs.”

Alfa Romeo Carabo 1968
1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo. Image courtesy Stellantis Media

With the four-seater Espada and slightly gawky Jarama (also a Gadini design) now covering the grand touring market, the new car was free to be the ultimate expression of Italian style and performance. Italy had long been a European industrial design leader, thriving in the spirit of post-war modernism. Gandini like his great rival Giugiaro had spent the latter part of the sixties and early seventies experimenting with a daring new automotive form language; harder edges, flat planar surfacing, sharp transitions and dramatic side profiles to give birth to what would become known as the wedge. Post Miura, Gandini designed the 1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo (built on the chassis of Tipo 33 Stradale) and the 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero concept cars. Both featured trapezoidal shapes, low profiles with new ways of entering the cabin, and the slashed rear wheel arch that would dominate the form of the prototype LP 500 Countach, first shown at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show.

So Shocking Its Name Is An Expression Of Amazement

The Countach LP 500 was nothing less than a showstopper. Low and sharp, simple yet sculptural, dramatic yet beautiful, and positively futuristic. It looked like a car to adorn the artwork of an Atari cartridge; except they wouldn’t exist for another six years. Its name came from the reactions it elicited. According to Gandini from the Lamborghini website:

“When we made cars for the car shows, we worked at night and we were all tired, so we would joke around to keep our morale up. There was a profiler working with us who made the locks. He was two meters tall with two enormous hands, and he performed all the little jobs. He spoke almost only Piedmontese, didn’t even speak Italian. Piedmontese is much different from Italian and sounds like French. One of his most frequent exclamations was ‘countach,’ which literally means plague, contagion, and is used more to express amazement or even admiration, like ‘goodness.'”

Countach LP 500 Prototype
Countach LP 500 Prototype. Note the lack of mirrors and lack of window and air intakes behind side glass.
LP 500 Interior
The interior of the LP 500 show car showing the warning light system

The original LP 500 prototype wasn’t just futuristic on the outside, it was state-of-the-art on the inside as well. A bank of large primary-colored warning lights dominated the sightline of the driver, mounted on the column and viewable through a single-spoke padded steering wheel. There were no door mirrors to spoil the aerodynamics; instead, a periscope system provided a view of the Polizia Stradale disappearing behind you. These flights of fancy were eliminated from the production LP 400 which appeared in 1974, although the inset on the roof for the rearview system remained on the early cars; these pure early versions are nicknamed Periscopio.

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Countach LP 400 Periscopio
Countach LP 400 Periscopio

Dissecting The Design

In any view, the Countach is simply outrageous. Despite the four-liter V12 being in the spine the Countach is nearly 10” shorter than a Muira. There’s no fat anywhere on it; everything is pulled taut. The upper section of the car is essentially four lines starting from the top of the taillights and running forward down the length of the car, varying in height just enough to package the underlying components and passengers. The top surfaces simply span these lines, gently curving and twisting to create great tension and a logical resting place for the side windows and the additional air intakes that road testing dictated would be required over the show car.

Countach Four Lines

Countach Lined Up

The front bumper, the bottom of the scissors doors, the front corner of the rear wheel arches, and the center lines of the axles are all level, creating harmony to balance the drama happening above. Those slashed rear wheel arches are a trademark flourish that would appear on other Gandini designs, but there is visual theory behind them. The larger gap in front of the wheel suggests forward movement, like how you would frame a car in a photograph with empty space in front of it. The NACA duct on the flank is pure science as function, one of the underlying principles of modernism as a design movement. Comfort and ease of use are secondary concerns – the doors are not a gimmick but because the Countach was a wide car and its chassis construction necessitated larger than usual rockers. Unusual commitment requires such unusual solutions. The Countach is sensational without being sensationalist; its form is shaped by the desire for speed and style, briefly sculptural but totally alien. Imagine gazing upon one as it came to a standstill, heat haze shimmering from the rear vents. Quietly ticking as the engine cooled. The door swings up with a controlled hiss. It would feel like a car from another time, or perhaps another world.

Countach7

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Look How They Massacred My Boy

Ferrucio Lamborghini, sensing the seismic changes in the automotive market in the early seventies, sold his share of the car company in 1974. The company staggered between financial crises in part because the Countach was never developed for the United States so for a while was unable to be sold here legally. Consequently, in 1975 a Canadian industrialist, Walter Wolf developed his own updated version. Equipped with steam roller Pirelli P7 tires and extended wheel arch flares to cover them as well as front and rear wings, the Walter Wolf Countach formed the basis for the upgraded factory LP 500 S, and some of these cars entered the US grey market.

Walter Wolf Countach
Walter Wolf Countach

Unlike their rivals at Ferrari, who had access to the Fiat checkbook, cash-strapped Lamborghini had to make do with updating the old bull as best they could, injecting it with more and more testosterone. Official models finally arrived in 1985 with the LP 5000 QV, which could be optioned with a Bosch K-Jetronic injection system, making it emissions-compliant in the United States. In the era of excess, these models were also saddled with excessive oversized bumpers. The final indignity arrived with the 25th Anniversary model in 1988, designed by Horacio Pagani. To mimic the supercar that had totally captured the eighties cultural zeitgeist, the Ferrari Testarossa, Pagani infected a pox of strakes all over the poor Countach.

Countach LP 500S
This is the most eighties photograph ever taken.
Countach 5000 QV Anniversary
Countach 5000 QV Anniversary. Horacio Pagani did this. Which explains why own cars appeal to the terminally tasteless.

Towards the end of the eighties, motor racing was having an increasingly direct effect on the cars you could buy. Turbocharging, computer-aided design and composites began to move the supercar needle towards 200 mph. The Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40 emerged in 1986 and 1987 dripping in racing technology but the Countach wasn’t quite done for yet. In 1987 Pagani developed an ‘Evoluzione’ version. This Einstürzende Neubauten-looking beast had body panels and a brand-new chassis made entirely of composites, giving a substantial weight reduction. Lamborghini also stuffed it with state-of-the-art drivetrain technology – electronically adjustable suspension, four-wheel drive, and ABS brakes. A blueprinted engine pushed it to 205 mph; had it gone into production it would have been the fastest car in the world. Although magazines did get the chance to drive it in period, it was a test bed and probably never seriously considered for sale.

Countach Evoluzione
The Countach Evoluzione, otherwise known as the Toecutter Special
MAtchbox Number 27 Lamborghini
I had one of these, long since lost like my innocence. Photo eBay

If you were a young car fan in the eighties you fell into one of two camps: Countach or Testarossa. Despite me now being a sometime paid-up member of the tifosi, I have never really got on with the Testarossa – it’s a bit ungainly and carries too much Out Run baggage for my liking. The Countach always had a special place in my heart because an unconvincing version was one of the first Matchbox diecasts I pushed around the brown carpet with my chubby baby fingers. The brilliance of the original LP 400 was it commands your attention and then rewards you for keeping it. The drama came from the form and the intent. A Persicopio in vibrant seventies earth tones is a transcendent statement of modernist Italian industrial design, like a Voxson Radio or an Olivetti Valentine typewriter. I often think that one of the hallmarks of any great design is that nothing added could possibly improve it, and the wider wheels and aero addenda of the later versions do nothing for the original car’s purity of purpose.

Despite what they say modern Lamborghinis have forgotten this heritage, instead concentrating on the more-is-more aesthetic ideas of the cocaine-powered eighties versions. The current range is a riot of furious angles and extreme details, each one an assault to the eyes, appealing only to dilettantes, attention-deficit TikTokers, and bored Middle Eastern playboys. They shout and scream and demand your attention, but they don’t really deserve it.

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Unless otherwise stated all images courtesy of Lamborghini Media.

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OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
30 days ago

I found my Matchbox Countach. The side of the casting is disappointing (totally flat), but the engine is pretty good.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/GwMVrfL2goSVVDgM9

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 month ago

I feel the same way about the first Countach as I do the Pantera; as a young person, I was all about the added wheel arches and wings, as a grown assed (ie OLD) man, I not only like the OG version better, I find the tarted versions simply painful to look at..
Oddly this does not extend to 930 slopenosed Porsches, those are still ace.

Last edited 1 month ago by Black Peter
Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
1 month ago

Just an excellent article, informative and well formed, thank you! Being a late teen when these came out, following autos through magazines I could never afford, this car invoked a visceral reaction like no other. Forgot about them heading off to university, then one day I saw one parked and that same feeling came over me but more so. I could never fit in one, nor afford it, but the engineering just hit me as beautiful.

Yngve
Yngve
1 month ago

By the time I became aware of the nuances and subtleties of automotive design (mid-late 80s), I felt like there were no winners in the Testarossa/Countach wars…both were too overwrought and full of cheese graters to be appealing.

While both companies have developed less offensive design languages, my nostalgic preference would be well sorted a 328 GTS (the rear wheel arch on the OG Countach remains a bit much for me); let the Miami Vice squad fight it out over the more ornate cocaine era examples.

Mr E
Mr E
1 month ago

I saw a picture long ago of a Countach with a wing on the front of the car.

That to me is peak 80s.

Last edited 1 month ago by Mr E
Loudsx .
Loudsx .
1 month ago

” Imagine gazing upon one as it came to a standstill, heat haze shimmering from the rear vents. Quietly ticking as the engine cooled. The door swings up with a controlled hiss. It would feel like a car from another time, or perhaps another world.”

this is literally my first memory of a car.early 80’s there was a car rally coming though the small rural town we lived in so my dad took my up the street to watch.

this UFO pulled up in front of us and the co-driver opened the stupidist door I ahd ever seen and wanted directions as missed a check point.

jumped back in quick uturn and screamed into the horizon.

Little me who had not seen anything beyond a falcon or a hilux was instantly a car person moving forward.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
1 month ago

Fantastic work, as always. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Countach in its more famous forms, the early ones have so much more grace and cohesion to their design.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
1 month ago

Another great piece, thank you, Adrian!
Yes, the original is tense yet elegant, a truly timeless design but one that speaks for its time as well.
The ’80s ones are mildly regrettable, like when you pour hot chocolate on a perfect tiramisu. The Pagani version is… well, I can’t muster enough national pride to condone his sylistic choices. Neither in this life, nor in the next seven ones. He owns the best Torino in existence, so there’s that.

BunkyTheMelon
BunkyTheMelon
1 month ago

Like every 80’s kid, I had the coked out version of the Countach on the wall so it’s my favorite, purists be damned.

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
1 month ago
Reply to  BunkyTheMelon

Hear! Hear! I agree. The OG looks bland to me. The Countach, imo, is the pinnacle representation of 80s excess. Don’t mind me while I go re-watch Cannonball Run.

Arthur Flax
Arthur Flax
1 month ago

“The Miura’s voluptuous curves and coquettish eyelashes are pure Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – an Italian man’s vision of the ideal feminine form on wheels.”

I went to a Fellini movie once. Walked out on it, not able to make heads or tails on what was going on.

I would rather spend two hours staring at a Lamborghini Miura than another moment at a Fellini movie.

Please, in the future, Mr. Clarke, compare the Miura to Gina Lollabrigida, who recently passed, or Sophia Loren, who still walks among us, when you compare it to an “Italian man’s vision of the ideal feminine form on wheels.” Every time I hear the name of the never good and now dead Italian film maker Federico Fellini, I think of the Fiat Panda I once rented in Italy. Though to be fair, it got me where I wanted to go and I didn’t walk away from it.

Otherwise, I enjoyed your article, particularly the photos and description of the 350 GTV prototype. That car is sexier than sex, so sexy that I, even as a heterosexual, though non-Italian male, am at a loss for words to find appropriate comparable feminine forms. Maybe some Italian goddess or another would work.

That is all.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
1 month ago

Not a single wasted word. Nice work.

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
1 month ago

I have a Countach Micro Machine sitting on top of my computer monitor. It does have the fender flares, but at least the hideous wing fell off.

S13 Sedan
S13 Sedan
1 month ago

I’ve always felt that Lamborghini loves to come out with a great looking car then progressively ruin it with spoilers and things as time goes on. The early Countach is the best Countach. The early Murcielago is better than the later SVs. The early Aventador is better than the later ones. The list goes on and on

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 month ago

I understand why people put the earlier ones on a pedestal for being more pure and less gimmicky, but I’d rather have that red 80s one 10 out of 10 times. I like my Countaches (sp?) as ridiculous as possible. Also, those wheels are far better, and wheels make or break the car, right?

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 month ago

Excellent take, esp. the comments re. Pagani designs. That said, the eighties’ silliness still appeals to my inner twelve-year-old – just not as much as an arancia formica LP400.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 month ago

Nice piece! Thank you (heart emoji). I LOL’ed at the Toecutter Special 😀

Even though I’m to the german side of old cars and love the soft “lines” of my 356, I adore the Sharp Marcello Gandini designs, so with no money for old Lamborghinis here, it’s probably going to be a 1983 Champagne Gold Citroën BX.

Really too bad all newer Lamborghinis nowadays are for people with bad taste and small dicks. But I guess that sells quite well?

Spyrius Robot
Spyrius Robot
1 month ago

Damn, I thought this was going to be about how awful looking the new Countach is.

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I need to know this please!

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Me wants to read it. Please?

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Grazie mille, caro!

Geekycop .
Geekycop .
1 month ago

Fantastically written and I agree whole-heartedly. I love the periscope cars but the US updates just got too gaudy. Also I’ve never quite understood the rivalry between Giugiaro and Gandini. I get it that they were both strong personalities, but their design work always seemed to compliment each other to my eye.

P.s. Who else wants a tube chassis replica of the LP 400 that you could do with a moden powertrain(not an ls) so that a) you could actually have one on the road, and b) a normal human could fit without tilting your head at a 30 degree angle?

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago

My favorite widebody Countach was always the 25th Anniversary by far to be honest. Never cared for the tacked on RWB-esque appearance of the other ones.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 month ago

“They shout and scream and demand your attention, but they don’t really deserve it.”

I’d argue the same about most modern supercar designs, nice turn of phrase.

Beached Wail
Beached Wail
1 month ago

I was always Team Miura. I liked its smooth curves, the rear deck louvers, the laid-back headlights. Obviously powerful but tasteful, not boastful.

Back in the late ’70s, I saw a Euro version of the original Countach parked on a college campus. Of course it drew a small crowd of gawking students. Guy came out of a grad school building and opened the door. Conversation between the driver and crowd:

“Hey, is that your car?”
“No, it’s my cousin’s.”
“What does he do?”
“He collects cars.”

Widgetsltd
Widgetsltd
1 month ago

Not having a massive pile of money, the Fiat X1/9 that I owned circa 1990 was the only Gandini/Bertone wedge car that I can say I have owned. It was a marvel of packaging, and fun to drive too!

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