Speaking about hardship, they say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In the late Sixties, Ferruccio Lamborghini was enduring a string of hardship, despite the fact that his Miura was the darling of the automotive press. Though once honored by Italy’s president as a “Knight of Labor,” a label that brought with slightly more esteem than being named a “Kentucky Colonel,” his manufacturing plants were plagued by ruinous and long strikes. Communist agitation was everywhere, and the streets were often blotted by the chianti red of rioters’ blood.
Closer to home, the Lamborghini Miura seemed a victim of its own victory, like a precocious child that can’t quite adjust to adulthood. It was a car that was rushed into production before it could be accurately sorted out, and, thus, the first round of buyers became loud, complaining “development drivers,” a work they certainly did not want to pay for. In addition to the typical exoticar teething troubles, the Miura had four very definite shortcomings:
The first was its backbone or, relatively, it’s lack thereof. Chief engineer Giampaolo Dallara planned the Miura’s monocoque tub out of welded-up sheet steel. It seemed a perfect way to save weight, but, in practice, the chassis flexed much more than was desirable. When combined with corrosion over the years, a Miura chassis could practically fall apart during a hard maneuver.
Difficult maneuvers could also cause the oil to slosh in the pan to the point the oil pickup would suck air. Of course, this had a devastatingly deleterious effect on the V-12’s main bearings, and pulling the transverse engine from a Miura had about as much appeal as pulling one’s own teeth without Novocain.
Another weakness was the relationship of the Miura’s rear suspension geometry to its decidedly aft weight bias. (Some 58 percent of the car’s 2800-pound weight leaned on its rear tires.) Early Miuras were known to transition in a flash from benign understeer to rapid oversteer, a feature that left many rich Miura owners white-knuckled and, perhaps, one or two of them dead.
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The final inadequacy was front-end lift, a factor that seems the bane of the “pretty” car. The Miura’s delightfully curved nose proved to be an effective airfoil, lifting the front wheels at speed, again a disconcerting habit to Miura purchasers.
While all these problems were difficult, maybe the most crippling to the Miura was its expense to manufacture. With a bulging order book, Lamborghini felt compelled to deliver vehicles, but the speed of production was agonizingly slow and, therefore, agonizingly expensive. As a trailblazer, the Miura was a certain landmark, but as a profitable project, the car left much to be desired.
With these undercurrents buzzing around the Sant’ Agata Lamborghini works, Paolo Stanzani stepped to the drawing board to design the car that would become the Miura’s substitute, the Lamborghini Countach. At the time, one would be hardpressed to think of a better guy for the assignment. Not only had Stanzani been a main player in the development of all of Lamborghini’s previous motor cars, he was also the head of production for the company. He knew personally the manufacturing headaches the Miura design had brought onto his enthusiastic team of artisans.
Though Dallara had reinvented the sports GT car with his groundbreaking mid-engine model, Stanzani didn’t blindly follow the obvious lead. In fact, he continued to reinvent the sports GT yet again, because, apart from the midships-mounted V-12, his Countach was vastly different from the Miura.
The Miura had been hailed for the modification of its transverse-mounted V-12, something similar to a Mini Cooper set-up on a far grander scale. Stanzani understood the packaging efficiencies of the transverse mount, but he also had experienced the cockpit heat problem and the tortuous shift mechanism inherent in having six cylinders a few inches from the seatbacks.
For the Countach, he mounted the engine longitudinally (as had the mid-Sixties Ford GT40, among others), but rather than having the power takeoff exiting the back of the engine with a short run to a transaxle, he specified the power takeoff be in front of the engine, right to the gearbox, which sat about level with the driver’s right thigh. This enabled a shift linkage as direct as in a traditional front-engine, rear-drive automobile. Unfortunately for simplicity, this was about the only direct aspect of Stanzani’s design. To reach the rear-mounted differential, power was directed through a gearset to a driveshaft that ran through a tunnel in the oil sump, not precisely conventional or easy to build.
Another big departure from the Miura came in the Countach’s chassis. The troublesome sheet-steel monocoque was deserted. In its place, Stanzani specified a racecar-like space frame of welded steel tubing. To the disadvantage of the passengers, the wheelbase was shortened from the Miura’s 98 inches to 96.5.
Lamborghini originally designed to offer the Countach with a 5-liter bored-and-stroked version of its Bizzarrini-designed V-12, and because of that it was revealed at the 1971 Geneva auto show as the LP500. However, when it came to series production, the car’s were powered by the reliable 3.9-liter version and the nomenclature was changed to the LP400. In its original Countach form, the V-12 delivered 375 horsepower, down 10 from the MiuraSV configuration.
For the body design of the new car, Lamborghini tapped a familiar face: Marcello Gandini, who with some assistance from a very young Giorgetto Giugiaro, had drawn up the Miura. Like Stanzani, Gandini went an extremely different direction with the new car. Instead of the Miura’s sensuous curves, the initial Countach had edges to it, as if it were an oragami sculpture. Its most distinctive characteristics were the gas-strut-assisted swing-up doors. Those familiar with the current Countach would barely recognize the original, because it lacked the cooling scoops, fender flares, and rear wing that made the car an Eighties icon.
What the design didn’t lack was presence, and as it developed toward production in 1972, the signature air scoops and low, anteater nose made it look futuristic. In fact, the car still looks futuristic more than 25 years after it was planned.
After fine-tuning to the original removed its tendency to lift its nose, the Gandini design was far better for high-speed touring than was the Miura’s. Where the Miura would get twitchy during hard braking or acceleration, the Countach proved much more stable, which was crucial since, even in its earliest form, the car had honest 180 miles per hour capabilities. (A Countach, in good trim, could jet from zero to 60 miles per hour in about 5.5 seconds.)
The lack of driving foresight
Unluckily, just as the Countach program was reaching fruition, Ferruccio Lamborghini’s problems grew so bad that he sold controlling interest in his car company to a couple of Swiss businessmen. Though lacking the driving foresight of its founder, the company continued to refine the raging bull.
An S version was introduced in 1978, and in 1982 the car received the 5-liter V-12 that it was initially designed to accept in the early 1970’s. In the end, still showing a great deal of life, its engine was redesigned yet again, receiving four-valve heads on a bored-and-stroked 5.2-liter block. This Quattrovalvole proved to be the most powerful Countach of them all, with 455 horsepower and more torque than a bulldozer.
It was a car in which the driver certainly not looked back. Why worry? If he was doing his work, nobody was ever gaining on him.
Filed under: Top Classic Cars