When people think of Lamborghini, they think of the Countach. Yes, the Miura was prettier and launched the supercar segment, and today’s cars are faster and far easier to live with, but it’s the Countach that made Lamborghini what it is. Its legacy is what allows the brand to operate from safely under the Volkswagen Auto Group umbrella, share parts with Audi, and expand into the SUV market while still pushing the image that its cars are a flying middle finger to speed limits, good taste, and discretion. Ferrari may have been at its most iconic in the ’50s and ’60s, but Lambo peaked ideologically in the fast-living, sleazy ’70s and all-for-me ’80s. The Countach is a car of excess and impulse, one that always has and always will appeal to people on a primal level, even if they can rattle off its laundry list of flaws from memory. Simply put, the Countach is one complicated car.
It’s important to remember that the Lamborghini of the early 1970s is far different than the company today. Its sales had begun to dwindle thanks to rising gas and insurance prices, and it was hit especially hard by the labor unrest that had swept Italy. As a result, company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini would step down in 1974, and it would go bankrupt in 1978. To say things were touch and go is an understatement. On paper this was a strike against the Countach’s build quality, but in the car’s narrative, it makes it all the more extraordinary.
Ferruccio Lamborghini envisioned his company as a builder of world-class grand tourers, but as soon as the Miura was released in 1966, it became apparent that customers expected something different from the company. When it was launched, the Miura’s sinewy, Marcello Gandini-penned body and mid-mounted V12 made it unlike anything else on the roads. But by the end of the decade, competitors like Ferrari and De Tomaso had caught up, and the Miura was beginning to show its age. Lamborghini returned to Gandini to design a follow-up, and what he came up with was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
The legend goes that the Countach got its name when a worker came upon the prototype before its unveiling at the 1971 Geneva Motor Show and shouted it out in exclamation. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a Piedmontese exclamation that’s analogous to “good heavens!” or something dirty men say to each other about a beautiful woman.
Either way, the name was appropriate, and the prototype LP 500 hit the auto show circuit almost exactly five years after the Miura, having nearly the same effect. The supercar world may have still been new, but it had changed a lot since Lambo’s first mid-engined two-seater. Italian design firms like Bertone, Ital Design, and Pininfarina had spent much of the late ’60s showing off wedge-shaped concepts, but the Countach was the first of these designs to make it off the auto show stand and into production.
That would come three years later, during what’s considered by some to be the worst year in automotive history. In America, the two best-selling cars were the Ford Pinto and Plymouth Valiant as catalytic converters began to strangle performance from engines, and massive five mile per hour impact bumpers became law.
Elsewhere in the world, the fuel crisis had driven gas prices to stratospheric levels. So imagine the pure, unadulterated escapism the Countach LP400 seemed to embody. It didn’t look like anything that had come before it, and it certainly didn’t look like it came from 1974. Impossibly low, all angles and sporting gorgeous scissor doors, its 4.0 liter V12 cranked out 370 horsepower – an unheard of number in the early days of the fuel crisis.
With car culture at its nadir, the Countach seemed like an object from another planet, one where things like safety, emissions, and fuel conservation didn’t exist. Most importantly, it looked like it came from a better place.
But back on Earth, Lamborghini was in serious trouble. By 1977, Lamborghini had found just 158 customers willing to buy the Countach. Because of new safety and emissions laws in the U.S., the car wasn’t legal in America, cutting off revenue that severely hamstrung the company. It declared bankruptcy in 1978, the same year the Countach saw its first major update, becoming the LP400 S. Improvements included an optional $5,500 V-shaped wing which slowed the car down, but made it look even more sinister and turned it into an automotive icon.
At the dawn of the ’80s, Lamborghini was still in dire financial straits, but the Countach was already a legend. In 1982, the car became the 500 S, getting an updated interior and a 4.8 liter V12 to boot. By then, its outrageous styling and outlaw status began to grow legendary in America, and companies began to spring up that would import the cars and make them U.S.-DOT compliant. Known as “gray market” imports, they would set you back well over $100,000 (around $230k today), but it wasn’t likely you’d have to worry about anyone else having the same car.
Car and Driver tested a 500 S in December 1983 and perfectly captured the allure of the Countach:
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.
By 1985, the Countach turned 11, and Lamborghini introduced the 5000 QV. Its 5.2 liter 48 valve fuel-injected V12 was now pumping out a whopping 414 horsepower, but most importantly, it was now street-legal direct from Lamborghini’s Sant’Agata Bolonese factory.
In 1987, Lamborghini was sold to Chrysler, and after 25 tumultuous years, it celebrated its birthday with a notably restyled 25th Anniversary Countach. While the original car was radically clean and simple, the 25th Anniversary model was bulbous and aggressive, like a long-distance runner who took up steroids and weight lifting. But by then, the car was already ancient, and it soldiered on for just two more years before being replaced by the all-new Diablo.
Once the Diablo hit the streets, it seemed like the world had had enough of the Countach. Despite their otherworldly looks, Countaches were cramped, hot, lacked any real ventilation, had no storage space, a second-rate interior, couldn’t corner, and were woefully unreliable. Its clutch was incredibly heavy, driving position was awful, and to reverse, you needed to open that sculptural scissor door, sit on the wide sill, hang your body outside, and very carefully guide your car backward. In every metric other than speed, looks, and exclusivity, it was a terrible car. On paper, the Diablo was better in virtually every way.
And yet, no one remembers the Diablo as fondly as the Countach. When it debuted in 1990, the Diablo looked fast, sexy, and appropriately like a Lamborghini, but it also just looked like a contemporary fast car. The Countach never looked “just like” anything, let alone like anything contemporary. Stretching into three decades, it was like a collective fever dream, something unobtainable to lust after. Lamborghini may have built it for 17 years, but only 2,049 cars rolled out of its factory. For at least two generations of gearheads, the Countach was more important than an expensive sports car; it was an avatar to project your desires onto. No one in their right mind would ever consider it a good car, but chances are if you’re a gearhead born between 1965 and 1990, you probably had a Countach where it really counted: on your bedroom wall or in your toy chest. I know I had both.
And that’s the enduring appeal of the Lamborghini Countach: an image that transcends time, space, class, and even logic to become an object of universal desire, or a sinister gateway drug that made millions of kids fall in love with cars. They were unobtainable then for almost all of us, and as surviving cars now change hands for seven figures, they’re even more so today. Try to think of another car that could represent so much to so many people who have never driven – let alone owned – one; you’d be forgiven if you can’t. Top Gear‘s James May famously said, “Never drive your heroes,” about the Countach, and he’s probably right. But that’ll never change how great that car is in our collective imagination.