1990 Lamborghini Countach Review: Wild Looks and Noise Only Improve With Age
The Lamborghini Countach gave us 50 years of incredible design and imagination. Here’s to 50 more.
“Remember: the engine is cold, the transmission is cold, the tires are cold, the roads are cold, and there are no driving aids. This car is like my daughter; please bring her back in one piece,” warned Massimo Delbò, a historian and a spokesman for Lamborghini’s Polo Storico—the in-house restoration center inaugurated in 2015—over the low rumble of a 1990 Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary’s idling V12. I had a poster of his “daughter” on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. To be at the wheel of one as an adult was one of those beautiful, full-circle life moments that only come along once and while.
Lamborghini built precisely 1,999 examples of the Countach during a 17-year production run, so it’s not the firm’s most prolific model (it took the Sant’Agata Bolognese factory merely five years to churn out 14,000 units of the Huracán), yet it has become the most emblematic Raging Bull. The United States Library of Congress awarded it a coveted spot on the National Historic Vehicle Register earlier in 2021, where it stands proud next to the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, and, somewhat unexpectedly, the 1984 Plymouth Voyager. It was the first Lamborghini equipped with scissor doors and it set the template for the supercar as we know it: extremely fast, extraordinarily loud, and flamboyant.
Wild as its looks and reputation suggest, the Countach is surprisingly pleasant to drive. Lamborghini was kind enough to celebrate the model’s 50th birthday by giving a handful of journalists the chance to take a spin in the anniversary model, as well as an in-depth look at a unique joint project between Polo Storico and its Centro Stile design center: Recreating the 1971 concept, which hasn’t been seen since it was stuffed into a wall as part of a crash-test program in 1974.
1990 25th Anniversary Lamborghini Countach Specs
- Price: $350,000 in 2021 money (est.)
- Powertrain: 5.2-liter V12 | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 449 @ 7,000 rpm
- Torque: 369 @ 5,200 rpm
- Quick take: Loud, fast, and with an out-of-this-world design, the Lamborghini Countach is far less of a brute to drive than you might assume—and a tremendous amount of fun.
A Lengthy Past
Unveiled as a concept car at the Geneva Auto Show in 1971, the Countach turned heads with a wedge-like silhouette that made it instantly recognizable as the work of Bertone’s Marcello Gandini. It wasn’t the first coupe shaped like a slice of pecorino; Bertone had already drawn the 1968 Alfa Romeo Scarabeo, the 1969 Autobianchi A112 Runabout, and the 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero, among others. The difference is that Lamborghini, in need of a replacement for the brilliant but aging Miura, phoned Bertone and said “è perfetta, let’s build it!”
While the Countach’s exterior design was revolutionary, and it blazed the path that Lamborghini’s design department still follows in 2021, its mechanical layout was equally innovative. In the Miura, the V12 was mounted transversally, a solution allegedly inspired by the original Mini. In the Countach, the V12 was installed longitudinally, hence the “LP” part of its name (longitudinale posteriore in Italian). Several factors convinced Lamborghini’s engineering department—which was led by Paolo Stanzani (1936-2017) at the time—to rotate the engine by 90 degrees. But one particularly obscure factor stands out.
“In 1971, there were no robotized or electronic gearboxes. Most carmakers used either cables or rods that went from the shifter to the transmission and it was often very difficult to engage a gear if the car was too hot or too cold. Our engineers figured out that they could solve this problem by putting the gearbox in a position where they could link it directly to the shifter,” noted Maurizio Reggiani, the current head of Lamborghini’s research and development department. Alfa Romeo had discovered this trick as well.
Lamborghini introduced the production version of the Countach at the 1973 Geneva show and manufacturing began shortly after. The model went through several evolutions: the LP 400 passed the torch to the LP 400 S in 1978, followed by the LP 5000 S in 1982, the LP 5000 Quattrovalvole in 1985, and the 25th Anniversary model in 1988. Each iteration benefitted from design and mechanical updates without giving up the key attributes that characterized the 1971 concept: a wedge-shaped silhouette, scissor doors, and a massive V12 engine screaming a couple of inches away from the driver’s eardrums.
Then and now, the Countach draws attention—it’s a riot on wheels. It asks for even more of that when you’re behind the tiny steering wheel of the final example built—a silver, 25th Anniversary model that has never been sold or registered—on roads sized for a 1930s Fiat Topolino. Which is exactly the situation I somewhat unexpectedly found myself in on a cold Tuesday morning near Lamborghini’s headquarters.
Driving the 25th Anniversary Countach
Ergonomics didn’t play an important role in the constitution of a supercar’s character until recently. Opening the driver’s door doesn’t require a great deal of effort, but the quickest and most elegant way to get in is to drop your butt on the cushion before lifting your legs over the massive sill one at a time. Once inside, the seats are nicely bolstered but the power-operated half windows only slide down by a few inches and I’ve got a 1971 Fiat 850 whose front footwells feel about as tight as the Countach’s. It’s raw, it’s unapologetic, and it’s glorious. The fact that it remained in production for 17 years, laughing at generations of new benchmarks, cements its status as an icon. Not many cars can make that same claim.
It takes a couple of miles for the drivetrain and the huge tires to warm up—though the local roads remained mostly frozen—to get better acquainted with how the Countach interacts with the laws of physics. It’s a highly enjoyable and relatively easy car to drive, and it’s not nearly as daunting as it looks, unless you’re trying to recreate the opening scene of The Cannonball Run. The non-assisted steering system is pleasantly quick, a feeling exponentially amplified by the wheel’s kart-like diameter, and the brakes are reassuringly strong. Forward visibility is excellent; rearward visibility is nearly non-existent.
This is a European-spec model, so its carbureted, 5.2-liter V12 bellows out 449 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. These figures are easily eclipsed by 2021’s crop of supercars (or, hell, even by 2011’s) but the Countach remains terrifically quick. Keep in mind that, at around 3,284 pounds, it weighs approximately 800 pounds less than a new BMW M3. Put in the context of its era, the Countach was a superstar in the same way that the Aventador stands proud near the top of the modern car hierarchy.
And yet, speed isn’t the most memorable part of driving a Countach. It’s the sense that you’re pretty much part of the car: You hear the engine, of course, but the song it trumpets out of four Ansa-branded exhaust tips is accompanied by a faint whine from the gears and the sound of the intake system sucking in air. Push in the heavy clutch pedal, use the gated shifter to engage one of the five gears (it has a dog-leg pattern with a metal tab to engage reverse, bytheway), and the experience is so tangible that you can almost visualize the shift forks moving… until you remember Delbò’s warning about his “daughter” and realize there’s a plane ride home to fantasize about the transmission’s guts.
One of the common points between the Countach and, say, the Aventador is that you feel like you’re sitting on the ground. It’s a low car to begin with, of course, and the seats are mounted on thin rails so the door mirrors are positioned at eye-level. The suspension is firm, no one bought a Countach expecting a plush ride, and there’s almost no body lean when going around a turn. Add a heavily rear-biased weight distribution into the pot and you’ve got the ingredients of a memorably fun driving experience.
Don’t get the wrong idea: this is not a car that makes you feel like a rally driver. For a car enthusiast, driving a Countach is like a hands-on history lesson. Imagine if a history buff could travel back to 753 BC and witness the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. There’s no better way to know your subject than to experience it first-hand. Rome savants are out of luck; I’m fortunate Lamborghini kept this car.
What Is Old Is New Again
Most historians agree that after the original 1971 Countach concept was crashed, it was likely scrapped. Scrapped, but not forgotten, it seems.
After a request to recreate the car came in from a collector and long-time Lamborghini customer, the automaker put over 25,000 hours into building it. Lamborghini notably hunted through its archives to find period photos and it tracked down some of the folks who worked on the concept.
“One of the cool challenges we faced while recreating the LP 500 was that the car was built in 1971 with 1971 technology; it wasn’t even really symmetrical! So, with the technology available in 2021, we had to recreate something from 50 years ago. The most complicated area was the section with the air intakes on the quarter panels. It was really difficult to install those fins because, when you look at the photos, they’re a little bit uneven. We couldn’t do them unevenly but we also couldn’t overcorrect them,” Mitja Borkert, the head of Lamborghini’s design department, told me as he admired the yellow wedge.
But that’s not all the automaker was up to.
Lamborghini celebrated the Countach’s 50th anniversary by bringing the nameplate back in August 2021. Called Countach LPI 800-4, it takes the form of a limited-edition coupe powered by a mid-mounted, naturally-aspirated V12 that joins forces with a supercapacitor (a type of electrification already used on the Sián) to develop 803 hp and 531 lb-ft of torque. Several styling cues bridge the gap between the old Countach and the new one, including air ducts on both sides, and the digital instrument cluster has been redesigned to echo the original model’s arrangement of analog gauges. This is the first time that Lamborghini has dusted off a historic nameplate to use it on a production car and it’s a highly unusual decision—an exception to an unwritten rule that the firm has followed for many decades.
In 2017, Borkert told me that part of the reason the heritage-laced Miura concept unveiled in 2006 didn’t receive the proverbial green light for production is that the company doesn’t want to venture into retro-styled territory. “We take some inspiration from the past and do it in a new way but we should never do a Lamborghini 2.0; that’s not us,” he explained standing directly in front of the design study. And yet, here we are four years later standing in front of the firm’s second Countach. What gives?
“For me, it’s not retro at all. It’s taking inspiration from the past but it’s still futuristic. At the end of the day, it’s still shaped by modern technology. It’s taking the lines but it’s in a different century,” he told me. Viewed in this light, he makes a good point. It’s not retro like the Volkswagen New Beetle was.
Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann added that the Countach’s contributions to Lamborghini’s image and success through hell and high water convinced his team to make an exception. “Usually, we do not promote looking back at cars, but for the Countach we thought it was the right thing to do. Countach is the car that made the difference for Lamborghini. All of our models are inspired by this one.”
Unsurprisingly, 112 units of the new Countach will be built and they’re all spoken for.
Looking to the Future
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of an emblematic car is an honorable thing to do, especially in an industry that’s far more focused on promoting the next-biggest touchscreen than on keeping Weber carburetors in sync, but Lamborghini’s efforts to highlight the Countach won’t end after 2021. Polo Storico is on a mission to preserve as many of the remaining examples of the original car as possible.
“We turned our attention to the Countach well before it celebrated its 50th birthday. We are the OEM, so we’re the only ones with access to documents related to the car’s development and production. Looking ahead, we’ll take the same approach that we took with the Miura. We are following the same kind of process,” Federico Foschini pledged, the chief marketing and sales officer at Lamborghini.
In parallel, the company’s goal is to build and deliver the 112 units of the modern-day Countach planned before the end of 2022. Executives chose this number because the original Countach was called Project 112 internally. The coupe will remain its own thing: a tribute to the Countach. It is not the start of a retro era for Lamborghini’s design team, and it is not a thinly veiled preview of the Aventador’s replacement.
“When we presented the Sián in 2019 a lot of people asked me if it’s the forecast of something. Now, we’ve presented the Countach and a lot of people are asking me the same question. The answer is absolutely not. At the end of the day, we want to always present a new theme,” Borkert stressed.
Over the past half a century, the Countach has secured Lamborghini’s survival through some fiercely difficult times while helping shape the supercar segment. And, much like the original Volkswagen Beetle or the Willys Jeep, it transcended its status as merely a form of transportation and earned a spot in popular culture. Here’s to hoping that the Countach’s next 50 years are just as wild, loud, and fast as the last.
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