Classic Cars

Classic Drive: 1988 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV

Driving to my 30-year high school reunion in a 30-year-old Lamborghini

High school sucked. So, was there a better way to arrive at my 30-year-reunion than in a 1988 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV? Didn’t think so. Southern California restaurateur David Houston was gracious enough to lend me his ’80s icon, so I, the semi-known weirdo girl whose best friend went to another school, finally had a reasonable shot at being cool!

The Lamborghini Countach, originally designed by Marcello Gandini while at Bertone (who was also the youthful genius behind the Miura and Espada), first made brains fry at the Geneva motor show in 1971 and went into production in 1974. From the scissor doors to the wedge-shaped front end to the geometrically impossible greenhouse, the Countach is a rolling study in impracticality. But its bravado is also the source of its instant appeal.

Countach is a fairly profane expression in the Piedmontese dialect, though Google will politely tell you it means “wow” and, for the sake of propriety, I will only say, “Holy countach, I’m driving a Countach!”

Nuccio Bertone allegedly used the expression when he first saw Gandini’s car. If I’d ever gotten near this car as a 17-year-old in my rad slip-on Vans, I’d have said the same thing. Hell, I said it as a 40-something who wears rad Vans slip-ons when Houston first came around the corner. The name stuck.

After falling into the slipperiest leather ever to cover a driver’s seat, my photographer jammed a backpack full of camera gear behind me, because while the seat moves forward, it doesn’t stay there.

Driving this bull requires leverage. The Countach might have a clutch heavier than a WWII Sherman tank, and this one in particular isn’t quite right.

“It’s been slipping since I left Pacific Palisades,” Houston informed me after surrendering the driver’s seat. He drove the car for 21 nervy miles from his coastal home to Burbank’s John Burroughs High School, from which I couldn’t graduate fast enough in 1987.

Awesome, a wonky clutch that feels like it weighs 300 pounds.

“Hopefully it will make it to your reunion,” he says through a smile. I’m only driving it the equivalent of 24 laps around the football field where I quit the track team because running was too damn hard. “Fixing the clutch will probably cost me about $20,000. So, I’m holding off for now.”

Houston’s opinion of his rosso space ship with gold wheels is as unabashed as the classic itself.

“This is technically the first and only supercar ever made,” he says.

His claim starts with the longitudinally mounted V-12, an innovation copied by many subsequent mid-engine supercar architects. It extends to the aluminum body over a tubular-steel frame, mimicking technology used in race-car construction at the time. He also points to Gandini’s eye-exploding design, including elements such as the scissor doors, which on this particular example won’t stay open when parked on even the smallest of inclines. Oh, and it’s temperamental, another crucial supercar trait.

“Every car since is an imitator,” Houston asserts.

It doesn’t take long to understand why Houston couldn’t stop sweating when he first got out of this pointy razor of a sports car. The windows only open about 3 inches, and you dare not turn on the air conditioning.

“You’ll definitely overheat the engine,” he explains.

That afternoon was a merciful 80-degrees, instead of your garden variety, 90-degree-plus September day in Southern California. After five minutes I’m sweating, too, and shortly, my reunion dress was soaked through with sweat. Not that I cared.

“If you stick your hand out the window and aim it just right,” he says, “you can get some fresh air into your left armpit.” Houston’s right. Happy armpit, happy driver.

As my noodle arms heaved the steering wheel around a right turn, we went past storefronts unchanged since I cruised them in the ’77 Datsun B210 I drove in high school. Though truthfully, I couldn’t see them—or much of anything else, for that matter—given the Countach’s extremely limited visibility. Look behind you only if you think the b-pillars are attractive; otherwise, don’t bother.

From a dead stop, turning the tiny wheel was more like turning a locomotive valve from the 1800s than steering a 3,500-pound car. But get moving, and the four-valve-per-cylinder Quattrovalvole V-12 moves this bull through San Fernando Valley traffic easier than a Ginsu knife through a beer can, mostly because everyone slows down and moves aside to look at it.

Advertised numbers 30 years ago have it making 420 horsepower and revving to around 7,000 rpm. That may not sound like much by today’s 700- to 800-hp standards, but in its heyday, the Countach was a buzz saw with a tiny wheelbase of 96.5 inches. A lot of folks, Houston being one of them, believe the 5000 QV, 610 of which were built between 1985 and 1988, to be the best version of the Countach. When the engine turned over, every dog in Burbank started to bark. They seem to agree.

This isn’t the type of car generally seen in the quiet Southern California suburb made famous by Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” which was filmed in its beautiful downtown. So when that riotous cacophony of an engine sound charged up Buena Vista Street, heads turned. Just in case you miss it with your eyes, the Countach wants to be sure you catch it with your ears. It won’t be ignored.

Changing out of my high heels into tennis shoes to drive was a great idea but not 100-percent necessary. The pedals are painfully close together for the average hairy-footed hobbit guy, but my petite feet fit fine.

“A lot of men have to drive without shoes on, so this was pretty much made for you,” Houston remarks. Damn straight.

“Don’t flip this switch,” Houston warns me, pointing at the wiper lever, as the rubber blade from the larger of two windshield wipers had somehow ripped off. “That part doesn’t actually exist anymore, so I have to get it special ordered, and that will cost probably a couple grand.”

The same holds true for the tires. The original Pirelli P7 rubber, 225/50R-15 up front and 345/35R-15 at rear, is long out of production, though there have been several special-order re-issue runs. According to Countach owner legend, when a set comes up, you have to snatch them up quick, because there are serious hoarders in the exclusive bunch. England was the closest place I could find a set to get a sense of cost. After the currency conversion, it appears the rubber bits would show up on the Centurion AMEX as a two-grand sneeze. Houston’s car wears the more modern Pirelli P-Zeros, which are the closest equivalent.

To say the Countach offers a smooth ride would be a lie. This thing is rougher than losing your virginity in the back of a limo at homecoming—and that’s exactly the way you want it. Hey, it’s Italian. You expected something genteel?

There’s nothing smooth about the manual five-speed transmission, either. You don’t shift it so much as demand it submit to your will with brute strength. And Houston was right; the clutch was indeed an uncooperative SOB.

Lamborghini claims the top speed to be 183 mph, but the jacked-up clutch on Houston’s car dictated otherwise during this trip, and I barely clocked in at 45 mph going up the final hill to my reunion. Still, I was driving a red Countach and couldn’t care less how slowly.

Despite my hair being ruined and my deodorant heavily tested, when I successfully arrived to the reunion at the DeBell Golf Course in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains, I didn’t want to get out of the car. Thirty years ago, I didn’t really know those people with huge feathered hair that well, so I stayed for an hour, said hi to the few I did know, and left.

Turns out two guys got in a fight. It was high school all over again, just take away the lockers and add alcohol, money, and a middle-aged fear of insignificance. Burbank’s finest showed up, helicopter and all, to break it up. Guess I wasn’t the only one to arrive in style.

Best-laid-plans notwithstanding, only about three people saw this weirdo girl roll up in the Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV, so driving it did zero for my cred with the populars. Yet, I swear I’ve never felt cooler in my life.

1988 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV Specifications

ON SALE Now
EXPECT TO PAY $460,000 (Hagerty insurance average value)
ENGINE 5.2 DOHC 48-valve V-12/420 hp, 369 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 6/10 mpg (city/highway)
L x W x H 165.4 x 78.7 x 42.1 in
WHEELBASE 96.5 in
WEIGHT 3,500 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 4.2 sec (MT, 1990 test)
TOP SPEED 183 mph (est)

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