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.