Car or exclamation mark?
The Ancient Chinese once espoused the philosophical concept of Yin and yang, two opposing, yet mutually dependant lifeforces. This notion of interdependent duality was embraced across many cultures and philosophies over intervening millennia, but would come to be represented in late 20th Century Italy, not only by the rivalry between exotic ateliers, Ferrari and Lamborghini, but also by the complementary, yet determined efforts of the two leading Torinese coachbuilding houses to outdo one another in stylistic feats of daring.
With carrozzeria Pininfarina firmly, and it seemed permanently abed with Maranello, it fell to Stile Bertone to make its own with the upstart newcomers from Bologna. Nuccio Bertone’s styling studio may not have been Lamborghini’s initial choice, but following the breathless debut of the 1966 Miura, it would become the default one – and in Marcello Gandini, its simpatico lead designer.
Certainly, Gandini could be said to have reshaped the nascent carmaker, if not entirely in his own image, certainly to a vision very much his own; one Ferruccio Lamborghini seemingly embraced, if not entirely with enthusiasm, at least with resignation. But if Ferraris of that era were carefully curated objects of beauty as much as outright speed, the products of Sant’Agata Bolognese would under Gandini’s steely gaze become objects of awestruck wonder.
In automotive terms, there is probably nothing more nonsensical than a full-sized, mid-engined supercar. Especially something as road-hungry as a V12 Lamborghini. Of course that fuel-gulping four-cam V12 means that it is fast. But the V12 also entails that the car is big and therefore heavy. Too corpulent to be nimble, too wide to travel at the sort of speeds it ought to be capable of (without white knuckles at least), too expansive to allow its layout to work to full advantage. Add in the inherent limitations of packaging (of people, luggage and grubby bits) and what one realistically finds oneself with is a car whose primary purpose is to look faster than thought itself – ideally while stationary.
Inspired not only by the mid-engined machines dominating sports car racing at the time, but also the mighty Atlas rockets that would send humanity out into space, the exotic sportscar genus was starting to mutate, simply by reflection. While the entire Italian coachbuilding community were to some extent engaged in a stylistic arms race by this stage, Gandini was perhaps the leading exponent of this principle; his 1968 Carabo show car (based on Alfa Romeo’s Tipo 33), and the (Lancia powered) Stratos Zero concept of 1970 illustrating not only where his mind’s eye was focusing, but also where the outer reaches of the stylistic envelope lay.
The work of a designer at the very height of his powers, Stratos Zero created a sensation; a thrilling symbiosis of pure form, with virtually no concession to practicality or production feasibility. No matter: these concepts were very good for business, and Nuccio Bertone was a businessman, first and foremost. Now that the seminal Miura was becoming eclipsed by the speed of stylistic change, a Lamborghini powered concept would not only gain the carrozzeria valuable publicity, it would also garner attention at Sant’Agata. No doubt also, given the latter design’s mixed parentage, Gandini would be keen to establish an unequivocal mark.
For the 1971 Geneva motor show, Gandini and his team of artisans began work on a new concept. Shown the 1 : 1 scale wooden model at Stile Bertone, Lamborghini’s Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace were suitably impressed by what they saw; its future as a production Lamborghini model becoming a mere formality.
Making its dramatic debut at Bertone’s show stand in Geneva’s Palexpo that year, the running Lamborghini badged concept inspired no end of startled expletives in innumerable languages, so it would prove somewhat apt that it was itself named in honour of one.
While Stratos Zero was unequivocal in its resolutely wedge shaped silhouette, low build (one had to practically lie down to drive it) and total abandonment of any semblance of user-functionality, 1971’s LP500 Countach concept at least made concessions to the possibility of human-centric use. The stylistic evolution was obvious however, despite the Countach’s more sinuous beltline (a possible nod back to the Miura?), discernible canopy section and recognisable door openings.
Stark, uncompromising and almost brutal in its sheer surfaces and unconventional rear wheel openings, themselves a reference back to the Stratos study, what could in lesser hands have been an indignant affront was leavened by some lovely body sculpting, and superb proportions, which helped mask the car’s space-hungry engine layout. But despite this, the LP500’s missile-like appearance was not for the faint of heart – elegance being a more debatable quality.
The journey from concept to production car however would prove to be neither straightforward, nor smooth, given the multitude of changes required to make the Countach functional and habitable. These entailed a lengthened body, a revised canopy, the provision of a wealth of ducts, air intakes and extractors, all of which weighed upon the revised shape, somewhat to its detriment. It was, to some extent, testament to the strength of Gandini’s design that it took these changes largely in its stride, even if some of the concept’s delicacy was lost.
Had it remained a show car, the Countach would perhaps have become retrospectively viewed as something of a watered-down Stratos Zero, spoken of as merely a transitory design amid the heady Gandini ouvre. The fact that Lamborghini not only went ahead with it but went out their way to preserve its visual impact meant that it not simply transcended its Bertone antecedent, but would become the subject of Athena posters Blu-Tacked to teenage bedroom walls from Brecia to Ballynahinch. Furthermore, its advent would enact a permanent shift in exotic car design towards the extremities.
Later versions of the Countach would become even more extreme in appearance, as the shape was massaged and manipulated to accommodate more powerful engines, an increased hunger for cooling air, wider tyres and the desire amid its makers to maintain its position as the ne plus ultra of this rarefied breed, culminating in the horribly disfigured Anniversario version of 1988.
But in its original, largely unadulterated form, the Countach would come to embody not simply Marcello Gandini at his carrozzeira Bertone creative peak, nor Lamborghini in its sympathy for the devil pomp, but the art of the motor car at its very apogee, before the forces of geopolitics, regulation and conservation began to nibble away at its full-throated trajectory. For 17 years, over several iterations, Countach represented the ultimate in every possible sense, and over that time, it induced the very same expression of poleaxed wonderment amongst those who witnessed its passing.
Delicate yet brutal, bestial yet beautiful, fast as the wind, yet too unwieldy for all but the very capable, the Countach was above all a car of immense contrast and contradiction. It created the template for the modern performance hypercar, even if in purely visual and in cultural terms, it still eclipses most of them. In that respect at least, the Countach lived up to its name.
 Ferruccio Lamborghini was believed to have preferred more classical GT designs to that of Gandini’s flights of fancy. However, he could see they were good for business.
 The design of the 1966 Miura has been mired in controversary ever since its debut, with both Giorgetto Giugiaro and Gandini laying claim to its design at Stile Bertone.
 According to some sources, the Countach was initially a Bertone concept, later adopted by Lamborghini. Others refute this, stating that it was commissioned by Sant’Agata from the off.
 There are a number of stories as to how the car’s name came about. One, told by Lamborghini’s former proving test driver, Valentino Balboni, described how a security guard, showing Bob Wallace and Paolo Stanzani into the room in Stile Bertone where the full-sized model was residing, exclaimed the word in amazement; the term is properly spelled “Contacc” in Piedmontese.
However, according to Marcello Gandini’s account, Gandini and his technicians were working an all-nighter completing the concept for the Geneva show. In order to maintain morale, he described how they would employ “a jousting spirit” within the studio. Gandini relates how one of the profilers, a local Piedmontese, who barely spoke Italian would frequently exclaim, “countach”, “which literally means plague or contagion”, but is used more to express amazement or admiration. So as a joke, Gandini suggested they christen the car thus, asking New Zealander, Bob Wallace who was helping to make it a runner how it sounded in English. “It worked. We immediately came up with the writing and stuck it on”.
 The rear wheelarch shape of the Countach was a nod to the treatment of the Stratos Zero and would over time become something of a Gandini calling card. Sadly, he rather over-used it, lurching into cliché in latter years.
 The Anniversario Countach was in effect a full rebody of the existing car, with a vast amount of changes from its predecessor, while retaining a close resemblance to it. It was also the best-selling of the series.
Sources: Lamborghini.com/ Car and Driver/ Road and Track/ lambocars.com.
34 thoughts on “Hope You Guessed My Name.”
Good morning Eóin. I did indeed have a Countach poster on my teenage bedroom wall:
The original goals for the Countach were to correct the faults of the Miura, in particular its wayward front-end at high speeds. It was supposed to be a more compact replacement too. Bob Wallace hated the later S-series cars with all the skirts and spoilers and tractor wheel width tyres that Walter Wolf added.
For me the definitive Countach is the LP400 “Periscopio”. Maybe it’s just over familiarity, but I actually prefer its looks with all the NACA ducts, grilles and cooling ears to the prototype LP500. I’m fortunate enough to own one…at 1:12 scale courtesy of Kyosho:
I think the Countach design is particularly unsurpassed in plan view:
Good morning Eóin . Your description of a supercar as “a car whose primary purpose is to look faster than thought itself – ideally while stationary” really made me laugh!
The Countach really did define the perception of Lamborghini and continues to do so to the present day. Ferrari is organic and sinuous, a product of nature, whereas Lamborghini is brutish and angular, a product of the machine age. Your Yin and Yang metaphor is spot-on.
How ironic that the Countach was Marcello Gandini’s vision for the marque rather than Ferruccio Lamborghini’s own.
Incidentally, those studio photos of the green Countach are just beautiful.
those images of the green LP400 are by Davide De Martis, who is one of the few outstanding photographers among the legions of snappers Instagram has brought to the fore.
Going off on quite some tangent, Lamborghini’s customer magazine is the finest of its kind I’m aware of – not just in terms of so-called ‘production values’, but also with regards to its contents, which I found genuinely worth my while.
I find it rather baffling that a marque selling a product like the Urus could simultaneously create something as genuinely sophisticated as that magazine and commission images like those of that green Countach. Then again, Ferrucccio was rather more sophisticated an individual than Enzo.
Yes, really very good and beautiful photos.
However, the photographer – without wanting to belittle his performance – also had a top model in front of the lens, which of course makes it a bit easy.
(You know what I mean, you can put a Kate Moss or Charlotte Rampling in a flour sack anywhere on a chair, you’ll never get a bad result).
Maybe such artists should be honoured with a link to their website. One or the other might want to see more of his (or hers) work.
I had (happily) forgotten about the Anniversario Countach, but it really was a travesty:
The “ram-raid on Halfords” quip comes to mind.
This is what a Countach should look like this, in its original production form:
One big problem of the original Countach was that it could not accomodate wider tyres once these became available in the Seventies. For the LP400S with wider tyres they already had to fit wheelarch extensions that looked like cheap aftermarket items. From there it was only a small step to the silly big wing fitted to many Countachs and these mainly sold to customers with more money than taste
The drawing at the top of the article shows one big packaging nightmare oof the Countach. The engine is sitting completely ahead of the rear wheels and the gearbox is between the seats. Here you see the gearbox on one end of the engine’s oil sump and the differential at the other with a long shaft running under the engine:
The Ferrari BB had a much more elegant solution with four of its cylinders sitting behind the rear wheels and the engine atop the gearbox. To keep the centre of gravity low they had to go for a boxer engine in that case.
These cars aren’t my kettle of fish but pressed to choose I’d prefer one of these over the Countach any time of the day:
I’ve never been a fan of the Countach or 512 BB. The 512 BB is often criticized for having a higher center of gravity than the traditional V12 setup with the gearbox mounted behind, so as elegant as the solution seems, it was actually worse. The engine isn’t a boxer either, since each set of opposing cylinders share a crankpin.
Very interesting piece Eóin.
I think that, although it was not named after a bull (as opposed to most other models), the Countach is the epitome of the over-manly attitude, if not the machismo, of Ferruccio. It certainly made its success.
May I report a typo: “ne plus ultra” instead of “nec plus ultra”.
Hi Nick. Many thanks, typo now corrected.
Nicolas & Daniel: This has come up before, I seem to recall and from what I can ascertain, there seems to be a divergence between the English usage of the Latin term and that used in French. I have employed the English usage, ‘ne’, which to the best of my knowledge is correct, since this is an English language piece. ‘Nec’ would be equally correct, but I do not see it widely used. I assume it is used by French language writers.
Because of this, I have reverted the spelling to its uncorrected form.
Thank you for your correction however – we’re always happy to hold our hands up if we make a mistake.
The funny thing is that Ferruccio Lamborghini didn’t cars with brash manly attitude. The original Lamborghinis were very cultivated examples of the ‘granturismo’ genre and as was stated in the article the Countach didn’t reflect what Ferruccio saw as his cars.
Ferruccio certainly wouldn’t have approved of cars nor customers of the Patrick Mimran era when Countachs were white inside and out with big wings and customers had gold wrist chains and large sunglasses….
Thank you Eóin for this interesting post. The Countach is one of the most iconic supercars ever. I think that with icons such as cars, James Bond films (*), etc. one’s heart gravitates inevitably toward the versions from one’s childhood, so while I appreciate the purity of lines of the original (I positively love the yellow show car!), I can’t help but feel like my “proper Countach” is red, with flared wheel openings, rear wing, and telephone dial wheels wearing super wide Pirelli P7s.
(*) “My” James Bond is definitely Roger Moore because even if some consider him the worst 007, for me he is the James Bond I discovered as a child watching “The Spy Who Loved Me”, “For your Eyes Only”, “Octopussy”, … some of them later replayed over and over on video tape (Betamax, no less!).
For some odd reason, the first person I think of when someone mentions the Countach is Rod Stewart. He has owned quite a few Lamborghinis, so it’s a reasonable association, I guess.
Re the name, I always understood it translated roughly as ‘phwoar’ in Italian.
Excellent model, Mr Topley.
Wonderful photography from Mr de Martis, really compliments Eoin’s fresh outlook on this, still quite unbelievable after all these years, shape. I mentioned the Countach to several car uninterested parties today – most of them replied with “the wedge one?”
As to how the car got its name, they’re all interesting but my favourite has to be the Gandini version.
Does anyone happen to know which car the production Countach sourced its inset square rear lights from? I bet Daniel will know! Maybe a Fiat?
You’ve just won that bet John!
Spot on, Daniel! I knew you wouldn’t let me down. You’ve won a weekend with an Anniversario Countach.
Er, thanks…what’s second prize?
A week with the Anniversario Countach of course!
You line them up etc…
Yup, I walked right into that one! 😁
You’ve just spoilt the Alfetta for me Daniel!
Eoin, what a great post! I remember being gob-smacked when I saw a metallic blue LP400 parked in downtown Toronto in ’76 or so…in a world of malaise era crap it was an alien spacecraft. And astonishingly, it was set up with hand controls as the owner was apparently disabled. Not sure how that would work, and I didn’t stick around to see (likely) him drive off. Even today, it’s otherworldly, and effectively timeless, as nothing so extreme has been produced since.
Harry Metcalfe, who has taken his own 5000 Quattrovalvole on some pretty epic drives, posted a video in 2017 on his YouTube site of a drive in a (very purple) LP400. He remarked on the delicacy of the car compared to his much newer model, almost entirely due to the relatively skinny and higher aspect ratio tires, and that he could actually use the inside rear view mirror! There are numerous other videos of later-model Countach owners reversing while sitting on the sill with the driver’s door scissored up. Clearly, day-to-day practicality was about #12 on a list of the ten most important features for the car.
In Frankfurt’s pedestrian area once was a deli where the rich and beautiful rallyed on Saturdays for the necessary lobster/caviar cum champagne and to park their cars where they shouldn’t – right in front of the shop.
One day the owner of a yellow Countach Anniversario was asked by the police to drive away his car. He did as you described: sitting on the sill, one hand on the roof and looking over the rear of the car with a pumping accelerator pedal and ear shattering noise.
I obviously never walked along Fressgass’ at the right time. Where did this take place? Plöger?
Exactly. Right in front of Plöger.
There used to be a collection of Range Rovers, Corniches and this Lambo on Saturdays.
To see some really spectacular cars you should have gone to Goethestrasse – the next one one parallel to Fressgass’. The combined value of the cars parked on two hundred metres of road is about the sum of the price of all other cars in Frankfurt – or at least that’s what a friend of mine calculated when he walked ther for the first time. Nowadays you only find shops with signs explaining their VAT return schemes in Chinese and Russian.
You can find the craziest used car dealer a couple of hundred metres away:
The only time I ever saw a McLaren F1, an Enzo and a Carrera GT next to each other…
I’d never heard of Herr Saturski’s business – thanks for the heads-up, Dave.
The only dealer I try and visit when I’m in Frankfurt is Movisti, which I’m certain you’re already acquainted with. Herr Janzen usually has at least a few gems on offer.
Saturski’s premises are on Mainzer Landstrasse in a completely inconspicuous building 400 metres down from Galluswarte. The shop window almost always contains a selection of supercars.
Living around the corner from there is an Aston DB 2/4 MkIII that is parked in the open and used as a daily driver (I find this far more fascinating).
Eóin Doyle says:
“Nicolas & Daniel: This has come up before, I seem to recall and from what I can ascertain, there seems to be a divergence between the English usage of the Latin term and that used in French.“
You are right, I don’t remember I saw the “ne” variant in French. I didn’t know it existed. I relied on my memory of Latin classes, long ago.
Hence, in DTW, one can learn stuff not only about cars but about Latin too! 😉 What a site!
many thanks for this Eóin. I find the drawing of the Countach
fascinating. it revives memories of boyhood competitions with
my brothers to design the most fabulous car, and the drawing so
eloquently lays bare the admirable but childish absurdity of such a
car. as Dave says, an old daily-driver Aston is much more interesting.
mind you, I’m still hankering after a Super Seven.
To me, the crucial aspect of the Countach styling ‘drama’ lies within
the gradual rotation of the rhomboidic plane that begins with the DLO,
all the way from the A-pillar to the rear. It is a radical visual language that perhaps contributed most to its ‘shock’ factor – and consequently its bizarre, anecdotical naming exercise.
No other automotive design has managed to so vividly transpose transport design into architecture.
I sat in the driver’s seat of a brown LP400 once, the periscopo was a bit foggy. They say never to meet your heroes, although in this case I have zero regrets.
But today my hero is Gandini, still as bold and brave as ever.
gooddog: you will be unsurprised to learn that the DTW fairies are already on this…
In the interim, might I suggest reviewing a not unrelated piece Christopher wrote four years ago? It expresses my own opinion on this matter far better than I could do myself.
Couldn’t agree more – with you, or indeed with the estimable Mr. Butt. But then he does know his onions…