Does any car epitomise the spirit of the supercar better than the original Lamborghini Countach LP400 Periscopica? Harry Metcalfe travels to Italy to find out
Photography Dean Smith
The Countach’s visual shock factor is alive and well in Rimini on this winter morning. We thought we’d found a quiet spot at the far end of a barren dockland pier but the locals take no time to discover us and now the cameraphones are out in force.
But it’s easy to see why it’s drawing a crowd exactly 42 years to the day since this particular LP400 Periscopica left the Lamborghini production line, as it already has me under its spell, too. It’s helped considerably by being painted a very 1970s purple hue (Viola Metallizzato in Lamborghini speak) with a crisp white leather interior, which is exactly how it was spec’d by its original owner, a gentleman named Michael Noss, who is described as being a ‘flamboyant Swedish entrepreneur’ in the notes supplied by the current owner. Mr Noss epitomises for me the Countach customer profile perfectly, but then you could paint a Countach mud brown and it would still make you stop and stare, such is the superstar quality of Marcello Gandini’s original design.
What I find more surprising is just how tiny an early Countach is in the metal. Today, we’re used to next-generation cars being a little bit bigger than whatever went before but that was not the case when Lamborghini moved from Miura to Countach. The Countach is actually shorter than the Miura (163in plays 172in), despite the latter’s transverse engine layout that should make it the more compact. Roof height is near- identical at 42in apiece but the Countach is wider by 4in, at 6ft 2in across the beam. Quite how Gandini managed to fit a longitudinal V12, five-speed gearbox, two 60-litre fuel tanks, a decent boot, air-conditioning and space in the nose for a full-size spare, in a car that shares a footprint with today’s three-cylinder Ford Fiesta, is one of the great wonders. But there’s a snag: interior space is tight and headroom is almost non-existent. Turns out that the pre-1980 Countach has a lower roofline (they’re referred to as ‘low-bodies’ by those in the know), meaning you can fit behind the wheel of an early Countach only if you are well under 6ft tall, and I’m not.
I first discovered Countach interiors come in two sizes back in 1999, after making enquiries about a ’76 LP400 up for sale at a London dealer called Garage on the Green. The Countach in question was yellow with a black interior, it had been part-restored and was available for a mere £40,000 (funny how crazy-low prices for classics you should have bought stay etched in the mind indefinitely). I didn’t know much about them at the time but the engine looked nice and shiny, if a little scary to work on, but I walked away because I would fit inside only if I could find a way of removing my head.
I tried another LP400 a few years later but it was the same problem. Then Octane asked me to drive this one, owned by the collector and broker Simon Kidston. He’s 6ft 4in tall but has had a section of chassis below the seat invisibly dropped so that he’ll fit. I jumped at the chance.
There’s always something special about driving the first edition of anything. It’s generally the purest and that’s definitely the case with the Countach. Wind back the clock to when Lamborghini maestros Paolo Stanzani (who took over as chief engineer at Lamborghini after Giampaolo Dallara left in 1968) and Bob Wallace were dreaming up how they might replace the Miura. The key areas they wanted to improve were high-speed stability, chassis rigidity and gearchange quality. It was Stanzani who had the brainwave of turning the Miura’s transverse V12 engine through 90o and bolting the gearbox to the front of it, positioning it down the backbone of the car, between the two seats in the passenger cabin. The net result was direct operation of the gearbox and better weight distribution.
The only problem was how to get the drive from the gearbox back to the rear wheels. The solution was an enclosed driveshaft running from the side of the gearbox, through the base of the engine to a differential at the rear. It sounds complicated but isn’t really, and it’s this layout that later allowed Lamborghini to develop four-wheel-drive Diablos with relative ease, by fitting a second shaft running forward from the central gearbox.
It’s time to swing the driver’s door up and see what this LP400 is like to drive. It’s obvious that the white leather in which the cabin is smothered would mark easily and you need to slide in over the sill – a bad idea in these dark-blue jeans. A seat cover is quickly found and – finally – I fit! It’s a joyous moment after decades of access denied. I should add here that I ended up buying a ‘high-body’ Countach Quattrovalvole back in 2010, which I have since enjoyed over some 25,000km. I’m intrigued to find out how this daintier LP400 compares to my more powerful but fatter and heavier QV.
I give the tiny key an initial twist and hear two electric fuel pumps get to work; that’s different from my QV, which just emits a high-pitched whine at this stage. Carbs primed, I twist again to engage the starter. The V12 comes to life, as first eight, then ten cylinders clear their throats before all 12 chime in. This engine already sounds great and settles into a 1000rpm tick- over as I depress the clutch and select the dogleg first. Clutch, steering and throttle all immediately feel lighter than in my QV, while visibility is a revelation. Not having the QV’s power-dome
over the engine makes the rear window seem enormous, although the indented roof channel that gives the Periscopica its nickname – it has its own tiny rear window and was originally intended to house a periscope, an idea that never got off the drawing board – doesn’t noticeably provide any extra light into the cabin. The mirrors are clamped more closely to the windows and are more useful than the tinted electric ones on my QV, which sit at the end of droopy stalks.
Now to extract this Countach from downtown Rimini and head to the hills. Wow, this car is low. In traffic, you can sidle up alongside some modern SUV and find the roofline of the Countach is below its window-line. So no eye- contact, but everyone knows you’re there, thanks to the sound of a racy V12. It’s not loud like today’s shouty supercars; rather there’s a deep underlying bellow that penetrates your inner being, a bit like how a male lion’s grunting sound can be heard for miles yet would barely raise a flicker on a decibel meter.
The dash instruments are smaller than in my QV too, yet they are easier to read as the speedo displays only km/h and not mph as well, meaning the digits are that much larger. I love how the odometer is stacked vertically (showing 60,500km incidentally) and spend the rest of the time it takes me to leave Rimini trying (but failing) to think of another car with this feature.
After several minutes of urban crawl a brief section of dual carriageway appears and gives me the chance to push on a bit. The easy-action throttle is so much nicer than in my car, which is handicapped by being right-hand drive, the convolutions of which force extra resistance through the initial travel. Combine this with the greater visibility and narrower track and my confidence in placing the LP400 builds quickly.
The quality and depth of the 2016 restoration by Bacchelli & Villa are starting to shine through too. This was a complete stripdown and rebuild, rather than merely a titivation exercise. When Kidston first bought the car, it was finished in yellow but, when the technicians took the windscreen out in preparation for its respray, they discovered the car was originally painted the purple colour you see here.
More digging revealed a Swedish magazine article done with the first owner soon after delivery and one of the photographs showed a large white telephone on top of the dash to the right of the instrument binnacle. Sadly the phone is no more but to have a purple Countach complete with fitted car-phone in the 1970s has to be the definition of living the dream!
Anyone one who has experienced the run to San Marino during the Mille Miglia will know this is a short but crazy section of road, with
gradient, serious bends and random roundabouts thrown into the mix, and I’m loving it. The gearchange needs a firm hand; it’s tempting not to use it much and rely on the elasticity of the engine instead, but this stretch of Italian madness is my first proper go at using the revs.
Peak power is 375bhp and arrives at 8000rpm, which is just where the red paint starts on the tacho. Peak torque is 266lb ft and arrives quite late too, at 5500rpm, which is thanks mainly to the engine having a short (62mm) stroke relative to its 82mm bore, making it over-square. That’s because Bizzarrini originally designed this V12 as a race engine, but made a more road-biased version when Mr Lamborghini came knocking at the door. Those racy characteristics are still there, though, and it’s a pleasure to pile on the revs whenever the chance arises. As we climb further up the hill, the low-fuel light starts winking at me so I pull in at the nearest petrol station for a refuel and a bit of a breather.
On these early cars you get a fuel-filler on both sides, each hiding inside the NACA duct ahead of the radiator. As the attendant plops €50 of his finest 100-octane into the right-hand tank, I take the opportunity to check out the tyres, which turn out to be Michelin XWXs, 205/70 VR14s at the front and 215s at the rear. The rears look particularly tiny today, especially when you view the car from dead-on. Compare those with the pumped-up Pirelli P7s on the back of the later Countach, 345/35 ZR15s that make the LP400 look like it’s on space-savers!
It wasn’t meant to be like this, though, as Bob Wallace was promised by Pirelli that the new generation of performance tyres it was developing would arrive just in time for the Countach’s launch in 1974. They were late and, while Wallace wanted to delay the car’s release, Ferruccio needed the cash and pressed ahead. Wallace left Lamborghini soon after Stanzani in 1975, so it was left to enthusiastic owner Walter Wolf to contact Giampaolo Dallara to help develop the Countach to take the new Pirelli P7 tyres when they finally arrived.
Fuel-stop completed, we leave San Marino and head for a more challenging stretch of road that leads to the pretty town of San Leo. The Countach is nicely warmed through now and showing a bit of January road grime down its flanks. Still, it’s not snowing like it has been closer to Modena, where our day began, so we count ourselves lucky and press on regardless. The road turns into more of what I was hoping for and, as the traffic disappears, the route twists and turns at random, up one hillside and then down another.
I’m liking this Countach a lot. There are no bangs or crashes from the suspension, despite
the badly weathered road surface, and the damping feels tight with much of the springing medium coming from the tall tyre sidewalls, rather than the quad springs at the rear (two spring-and-damper units on each side). A good Countach should feel tight, as the suspension is linked to the (beautiful) tubular chassis via Rose joints all round, rather than the rubber/metal joints you find on most cars, and that’s partly why I’m finding this such a straightforward car to read as I start to push harder.
It’s easy to kiss the 8000rpm redline unintentionally, so happily does this engine build revs. You use first a lot as it takes you all the way to 64mph, second is closely stacked and gets you to 81mph, while third is good for 108mph.
But what’s shining through is the quality of the chassis and how I can nibble at the tyres’ limits, or push just a little more and break through the grip to enjoy the rear slipping slightly wide before dropping back into line as the corner starts to straighten out. This is joyous and nothing like my QV, whose limits are so much higher, particularly at the rear, so understeer dominates the experience most of the time, unless you are seriously determined to find where the outer extremes of rear-grip really are.
As we reach San Leo I’m relieved to have finally found an LP400 I can fit into and drive, and also to have discovered this stretch of road, where I can explore the outer edges of the car’s handling without anyone else around. There’s no question in my mind that the more enjoyable experience would be in this LP400 Countach over my QV. The chassis is easier to read from the driver’s seat, and the smaller brakes aren’t the worry I expected them to be either, with more initial bite than those on my QV, despite being an inch smaller in diameter due to the smaller wheel size of the LP400.
In the QV it’s the butch looks and the matching punch of that 455bhp engine and the still-quick-today performance it engenders that leave the most lasting memories. The LP400 is altogether a more intimate experience: its looks arrest your eye in a different way, and the balance of the chassis and the free-revving nature of the engine make it feel quite dissimilar. That’s what I came away enjoying the most.
There’s one thing that has always troubled me about the LP400 and that’s how on earth chief test driver Bob Wallace managed to fit inside when he was developing the car. He too was a lanky 6ft-plus individual. I finally discovered when reading a rare interview in a recently published book on his life that actually he didn’t fit inside the LP400 prototype either. In the end, he had to remove the driver’s seat completely and create a padded aluminium sheet to sit on, then did all development driving using this, rather than a standard seat.
I’m not saying you should take such drastic action but if you ever get the chance to drive a properly sorted LP400 then grab it with both hands. I’m glad I did. It was worth the wait.