He once won a Ferrari 512BB on a handshake bet with Enzo. The Countach has a wing because he shaped one with Gian Paolo Dallara late at night, then attached it to his hand-built prototype. After a Porsche 935 won Le Mans in 1979, he had Kremer build a road-going version; it went 210mph on the autobahn, seven years before the F40 cracked 200mph. His privately owned F1 team beat Ferrari at the Monaco Grand Prix. Walter Wolf is the most interesting man in the world. The kind of man you want to get to know over a strong cup of coffee. And we did.
We'll have to get up early, and we'll have to take a Lamborghini. Ask any Lamborghini historian: Wolf and the fighting bull are inextricably linked. Thus, a few minutes before 5am, the V10 of a Huracán howls to life in a sleepy Vancouver suburb. The angular crimson shape noses out into the fog and rain, slips into the dozy early morning traffic, and begins running East, carrying a tribute to the man in it's glovebox.
Born in Austria in 1939, Walter Wolf survived the tumult of World War II and immigrated to Canada in his early 20s. He arrived with little more than a desire to succeed, learning English by visiting the same cafe day after day and talking with the regulars. Eventually he moved to Montreal, where he landed a job as a diver with a marine construction company. He took out a loan, purchased ownership of a third of the company, and set his sights on the oil fields of the North Sea. Within a few years he branched out into the bulk crude business. When the energy crisis came, Wolf hit it big. One single tanker load of oil made him a $100M profit when the prices spiked as the ship was at sea.
Possessed of almost unimaginable wealth during a period of time in which almost anything was possible, Wolf's life boggles the mind. In the most dangerous and glamorous era of F1 racing he bought the remnants of Hesketh and a large percentage of Williams and eventually forged them into a winning racing team, one which nearly beat Ferrari's Niki Lauda for the 1977 championship run. And Wolf kept Lamborghini afloat with massive under-the-table loans, essentially funding the company's R&D efforts by driving around in their prototypes.
This Rosso Mars LP580-2 just happens to be roughly the same color combination as the first of his specially built Countachs. He had three in total, in addition to an early white LP400 that was mostly stock except for a F1-style wing. The red car came with the V-shaped rear spoiler now so familiar to Countach fans, and 335mm rear tires. The latter were created by Pirelli at his behest, and were wider than any other road-going tire at the time.
I once interviewed Wolf about his involvement with Lamborghini in those days, why he hated the two LM002s he owned, how he had one of the last Miuras ever assembled, the potential of the last of his Countachs with its 7:1 steering ratio and hand-built 500-hp 5.0L engine. He told me he never even kept any photographs from the old days. “I am a pilot,” he said simply, “Not a collector.” He drove his incredible cars, he partied with James Hunt and Niki Lauda, he took Jody Scheckter to within a hair of the championship, and then he moved on, always seeking the next thing.
Tucked in the glovebox of this red Lamborghini is gift for Walter. After a little sleuthing around the internet, I've gathered together some photos of the old days. Most of them are from the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix, the day Wolf considers to be his best. He lives a quiet life these days, retired to a ranch in the Thompson River Valley, ordinarily a four or five hour drive from the coast. Ordinarily.
Dawn breaks in a sodden mess, the pines wreathed in spindrifts of shredded cloud. The light is thin and grey, but we've beaten most of the traffic that will snarl the roads for the coming holiday weekend – they're still sleeping, and we've got more than a hundred miles beneath our wheels. By the time we crest the pass and the scenery changes from rainforest to grasslands, the sun is just beginning to break cover, pouring golden light over an empty landscape. The early Lambo, it seems, gets the worm.
Besides the appropriate color, a two-wheel-drive Huracán seems a particularly appropriate ride for this journey. After all, it's the Huracán GT3s that actually go racing – apart from the SV version, the Aventador is the nightclub frontage, the Huracán is the driver's Lamborghini.
And on fresh, empty tarmac through fields that stretch out to the horizon – well, I make good time. I drop the windows and a couple of gears, dial up the Lamborghini's aggressiveness via the steering-wheel mounted switch, and let the car run a little. Putting power down exclusively to the rears makes this car livelier than the all-wheel-drive version, and on a road like this, it's wonderful.
But soon we're back in the drifting rains, at the foot of Wolf Ranch. I call up Walter and he suggests a coffee shop in town. Thirty minutes later, having taken a side road back past hoodoos and barbed-wire fences, I'm parked downtown and waiting.
Even approaching eighty, and not in perfect health, Wolf's grip is that of a guy who grew up welding oil rigs together. After a brief chat passing along best wishes from the wealthy Japanese men who now own his cars – the first and third Countachs are carefully preserved in Tokyo – I hand over the pictures. “Ah,” he says, pausing on one of a Can-Am car in the Wolf racing livery, “That's Chris [Amon] driving for me here. I was very sad to hear of his passing – he was a very nice man, a very good driver. I visited his farm after he retired.”
Mesmerizing tales just roll out, names and places that ring with glory for any fan of racing. Wolf talks about the day he introduced Gilles Villeneuve to Enzo Ferrari, about flying his helicopter down from Nice to Monaco on a whim, about his house in the south of France where Villeneuve and Michèle Mouton and Jochen Mass and Hans Stuck all used to hang out. As my coffee goes cold in its cup, unnoticed and neglected, I ask him about his 740hp, Kremer 935 K3.
“Very hard to get rear tires for it,” he says, “I had them shave the treads of the wet compounds. I used it to drive up to Cologne, and had a plane fly in with a new set of rear tires.”
That car is still in existence, carefully tucked away in a museum somewhere. Visit the Monterey historic races, you'll still see Wolf F1 cars running around Laguna Seca. You can buy models of Walter Wolf Lamborghinis from Japanese diecast companies like Kyosho.
I wonder aloud about how close he came in 1977 to the outright championship. Wolf shakes his head sadly.
"We won Argentina, we won Monaco, we won Canada. If we'd kept the lead in Monza..." he shrugs. "But ifs don't win races."
Having delivered my little treasure trove of pictures, it's time to shake hands and part with one of the most unusual characters in the history of motorsport and head back to a more ordinary life. At least, thanks in part to Walter Wolf, there's a Lamborghini waiting to take me there.