History lessons don't get any better than this
By Mike Duff / Saturday, 17 December 2022 / Loading comments
A few years ago I saw an Oasis tribute band. They were really good, with the frontman who had not only mastered Liam Gallagher’s accent and pout, but had also taken his impersonation to the level of getting a period-appropriate haircut to sit beneath his beanie hat. They were note perfect, and far tighter on stage than original Oasis ever managed to be during their heyday. Yet, obviously enough, they weren’t the real thing – which is why they were playing in the function room of a pub in Oxfordshire rather than selling out Knebworth.
The very idea of a new Lamborghini Countach seemed like a similarly unreal concept to many. The original Countach is not just Lamborghini’s most famous car, it’s a genuine automotive icon, the origin of the shape and swagger most associated with the supercar genre. When news broke about what was set to become the LPI 800-4 Countach many feared it would be a cynical cash-in or a bloated tribute act.
But it isn’t – and although creating a new car sharing its name with the original is inviting what might seem an impossible comparison, it’s one that the LPI 800-4 doesn’t shy away from. Huge respect for Lamborghini for letting me get both cars together, in this case the factory’s LPI 800-4 demonstrator, in what was pretty much its last gig before entering the corporate heritage collection, and an original Countach which had been borrowed from the company’s museum for the day. This 25th Anniversary Countach is actually the last one ever made, chassis number 12085, having covered just under 10,000km since it was completed in 1990.
I was so excited at the prospect of getting both cars together I phoned a friend with a vastly superior knowledge of older Lamborghinis and no fewer than two Espadas in his garage. When I told him the original iteration would be represented by a 25th Anniversary there was a sharp intake of breath. “That is so definitely not the best version of that car,” was his pursed-lip summary. Which might be true from a dynamic point of view, or in terms of design purity. But despite the fact I wasn’t going to be offered another one, I reckon that the showiest and go-iest original Countach actually makes most sense here. The 25th Anniversary was the best-selling version of the car, with part-composite bodywork and a widened track to accommodate huge new Pirelli tyres. It’s as close as the old Countach will get on numbers to the new one.
Of course, on any spec you choose – beyond awesomeness – a straight comparison between these cars isn’t even close to being close. The LPI 800-4 is based on the core architecture of the recently retired Aventador, and V12-powered Lamborghinis have expanded significantly since the original Countach retired. So the new car is 69mm taller, 90mm wider and sits on a wheelbase 200mm bigger than the original. It is much longer, too – overall length having gone up by a colossal 730mm. The new car is also 105kg heavier, 347hp more powerful and its 2.7-sec 0-62mph is barely more than half the time it takes the 25th Anniversary to dispatch the same benchmark.
Yet if presence was a measurable metric the original Countach would break the needle against the stop. It is spectacular, not as a natural beauty, but as an object that doesn’t even acknowledge the rules it is breaking. Much of the purity of Gandini’s original design had indeed been lost under 15 years of slap by the time the 25th Anniversary came out with its sill extenders and vast rear air intakes. But it has an irresistible confidence, visual BDE.
The LPI 800-4 is a homage rather than any attempt at a replica, and also – by the generally accepted rules of design – a more harmonious whole. Regardless of what you think of the idea of bringing the name back to life, it’s a seriously clever one given the limitations of both the Aventador substructure and four more decades of safety and lighting regulations. Lamborghini design boss Mitja Borkert didn’t grow up lusting after supercars; spending his early life in what was then communist East Germany meant the most exotic Gandini-penned model he remembers from his childhood was a western holidaymaker’s Citroen BX. As a child he never obsessed over any era of Countach, so the new car takes themes from throughout the original’s long life, like Quattrovalvole style hexagonal wheelarches and raised air intakes, but a front light graphic clearly inspired by that of the LP500 but without pop-up lights.
I get to drive both cars on road and track, and although the tight 1.3-mile Autodromo di Modena was used mostly as a controlled location for photography it did give the chance to confirm the size of the dynamic gulf that separates the two eras of Countach. No surprise that the LPI 800-4 is massively quicker, using the punchiest version of the Aventador’s magnificent 6.5-litre V12 working with the additional assistance of the supercapacitor hybrid system from the ultra-limited Sian. On the circuit it feels like a turned-up Aventador, hugely fast – but turning into the many slow corners with a willingness that belies its size. While I’d be lying if I claimed to be able to feel the electric motor’s 34hp contribution on top of the V12’s 769hp output, the electric torque definitely seems to have smoothed the automated single-clutch transmission’s gear changes compared to the brutality of the cars that use this gearbox without the motor.
Modern Lambos enjoy life on track, but the original Countach dates from the time when the brand regarded motorsport as being beneath it. You will be entirely unsurprised to hear that the 25th Anniversary takes to a racetrack like a duck to treacle.
Ergonomics are close to being comically bad. Getting in is a squeeze, the seating position is cramped, offset and immediately uncomfortable – with my head grazing the roof and nowhere for a clutch foot to go when not being used. The rev counter and speedometer are big and obvious, with supplemental dials mostly hidden behind the steering wheel. At which point the designers ran out of dashboard real estate, so the display of the digital clock is positioned so low as to be effectively invisible from the driver’s seat.
The 25th Anniversary has what must have been the cutting edge technology of set-temperature climate control, although I soon realise this doesn’t do much, and the electric windows only open slightly. Two features on the huge centre console have been given equal prominence: the open-gate shifter for the dog-leg manual gearbox, and what seems to be one of the largest ashtrays ever fitted to a car. And are those really Austin Allegro column stalks?
Initial driving impressions bring a strong element of “never meet your heroes.” Some cars are willing to try unlikely environments, but the Countach clearly hates a tight-fitting circuit. The engine sounds great, it’s quieter than the LPI 800-4 when it starts up and idles with a carburettor wuffle; late U.S. spec Countach got fuel injection for emissions reasons, but European cars kept carbs to the end. It has a softer voice when worked, too – with valvetrain clatter clearly audible over the exhaust harmonics.
But it is so much hard work. The clutch is almost painfully heavy, the unassisted steering requires such effort at lower speeds that it’s actually hard to turn the wheel; the only other original Countach I’ve driven had aftermarket 12 Volt power steering fitted, and I can see why. The apexes for the Autodromo’s many tight corners are mostly missed by substantial angles, and starting to push produces sends the front nudging wide. But the biggest limit to speeds is stopping, not going, with the brake pedal feeling mushy even when the discs are cold; a couple of rapid laps produce the unmistakeable sensation of fade starting. Even the cautious braking points chosen due to the 25th Anniversary’s age and lack of ABS are soon starting to feel a bit keen.
It’s no surprise to find that the original Countach has no business on track, although it looks great as it skims over stripy kerbs. But on road it becomes far better, as I follow the LPI 800-4 driven by Mario Fasanetto. Mario is Lamborghini’s chief test driver, and one of the coolest human beings on the planet – but he started his long career with the company assembling Countach engines in the eighties.
By accident or design, the route he chooses from the Autodromo to the mountain road near the Modenese village of Samone that has served as the backdrop for numerous supercar shoots goes straight through Maranello. On one of the town’s roundabouts a wrap-clad SF90 Stradale, presumably on shakedown, slots in between me and the modern Countach. I watch what seems to be an animated conversation between its two occupants as they discuss the interloper ahead of them. Then the driver’s eyes glance in the rear-view and he clocks that he’s got an even more spectacular example of the opposition right behind. His response is seen, not heard, but seems entirely appropriate for a car that was originally named after a local expletive.
Without the punishing need for frequent steering lock, the original Countach becomes a much easier companion. It’s still not very comfortable, staying hot even in the modest heat of an autumn day and with my left leg aching. But it is clearly a car designed for high speeds, dating from a time when limits were largely discretionary for supercar owners. While Lamborghini’s performance claims from this period all need to be taken with generous quantities of salt, the 25th Anniversary’s alleged 183mph v-max was rarely if ever verified. But even travelling at less than half that the Countach has the sold, planted feel that feels as if it will stay good when really pressing on. There’s a nice amount of off-centre steering feel in the steering without the need to wrestle big amounts of lock. And, beyond the obvious ergonomic failures, it is much less loud and harsh than I was expecting.
Getting to the twisty road gives the LPI 800-4 another chance to prove its dynamic otherworldliness. The Stradale Provinciale 26 is well used for capturing images, I’ve been here with both Ferrari and Pagani before, and its popularity is borne out by heavy rubber marks on the more photogenic corners. The back-to-back hairpins immediately turn the 25th Anniversary into a physical workout again, with the different character of the two cars summed up by the way I can barely hear the original car over the savage exhaust note of the new one as I follow it up the hill, even with Mario driving at pace to allow me to keep up.
Swapping again proves there are some definite dynamic similarities. The LPI 800-4 is more spacious and much better finished, but its low and laid-back driving position is obviously related, as is the view through the trapezoidal windscreen. Aside from the 25th Anniversary’s He Man steering weight there is a definite relationship to the way both turn and get their power down. Each is wearing a huge V12 backpack, and although this rear-biased mass can help to change direction, both also want to be facing a straight before accepting full power. And although the LPI 800-4 has twice as many driven wheels the 25th Anniversary still finds impressive low-speed traction with its fat rear tyres.
The new Countach will always be remembered with asterisks rather than as a canonical addition to the clan, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the charisma and personality to have earned its branding. The LPI 800-4 is one of those cars it is genuinely hard to stop staring at, with the only likely exception to that rule being the chance to make a side-by-side comparison with the original car.
But perfection and character are different things, and often in opposition when it comes to cars like this. Modern automotive engineering is vastly better than that of forty years ago, and that’s especially true for supercars. The original Countach’s flaws are part of its legend, and – these days – part of its appeal as well; it would be pointless to have one that looked original but drove like a 21st-century car. But that definitely limits its usability, with typical annual mileages of original Countaches in three, two or even zero figures.
The LPI 800-4 proves that the reverse argument is true as well: you can’t really criticise it for not being flawed enough, especially as Lamborghini has indeed worked hard to distinguish it from the Aventador that sits beneath. (As, of course, it had to given the new Countach’s seven-figure price tag.)
Choose one? As a work of automotive art or a historical document, the original car every time – whether an early LP400, a spoiler-clad S, an LP5000 Quattrovalvole or a 25th Anniversary. But as a car to actually live with and drive for more than a few hundred miles a year, and – let’s be honest – likely to part of a collection that may well include at least one original car, the LPI 800-4 is massively compelling. It’s not the Countach, but it’s definitely a Countach.
Specification | Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary
Engine: 5167cc, V12
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 455 @ 7000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369 @ 5200rpm
Top speed: 183mph
Price: c. £90,000 (1990), c. £240,000+ (2022)
Specification | Lamborghini Countach LPI 800-4
Engine: 6498cc, V12 with electric motor
Transmission: Seven-speed single-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 802 @ 8500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 542 @ 6750rpm
Top speed: 217mph
Weight: 1595kg (dry)
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