Going Nowhere Fast: Lamborghini Supercars

Andrew Yeadon
lamborghini

COUNTACH/DIABLO/MURCIELAGO
THE POSTER CARS

The first step in creating a supercar to follow the Miura was to make it look so outrageous that anyone who saw it would react by uttering a slang term of awe -- and then name it after such a word. Next, Lambor-ghini introduced the new car at the same time as the Miura SV to see if it would upstage the latest version of the old car. The final step was to start taking orders and rush it to production as fast as possible.

That last step ended up taking three long years, and by the time the first Countach was delivered to a customer in 1974, Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold his stake in the company -- but it was he and the young guys who'd created the Miura (see sidebar) who were responsible for the Countach, and its spaceship body was designed by Marcello Gandini, who also penned the Miura. Lightning does strike twice, it seems.

The Countach's goals were to improve upon the remaining shortcomings not addressed by the SV: front-end aerodynamic lift, snap oversteer, the recalcitrant shifter, structural rigidity, and engine noise. Its angular body, made from one-millimeter-thick aluminum, was bolted to a steel spaceframe that was stiffer than the Miura's sheet-steel frame, and its sloped front end solved aerodynamic front-end lift issues. The V-12 engine was mounted longitudinally -- but not to be overshadowed by the car's styling, Lamborghini engineers mounted the engine backward, so that the transmission was nestled between the passenger seats, its output end pointing toward the front of the car. Now, instead of the shift linkage passing through the engine, the transmission's output shaft did. Crazy, yes, but it worked, and it removed the Miura's complicated shift linkage.

As for reducing cockpit noise? Thankfully, Lamborghini didn't come close -- the Countach was even louder than the Miura. Its asymmetrical fender openings even look like they're warped from the V-12's fury. The entire car looks as extreme now as it must have forty-one years ago -- and that's before the vertical scissor doors open. If the Miura's conventional doors draw blood (thanks to the shape of the louvered upper vent that tempts you into holding the door there while closing it, smashing your fingers in the process -- I speak from painful personal experience) the Countach's scissor doors draw crowds.

The Countach has a rearview mirror for the sole purpose of admiring the engine. The side mirrors? They're for looking at the bodywork. The view out the front is all windshield wiper and no body whatsoever, although the dash itself is as angular as the body panels you can't see. And although the driving position is better than the Miura's (the wheel and the pedals no longer seem to be mounted on the same plane), the pedals are severely offset to the right, and the clutch and steering are so heavy that the average luxury car buyer would likely have given up before even getting the car to move.

Ferruccio Lamborghini wanted it that way. Ironically, the man whose original mission was to build faultless GT cars seemed a bit frustrated at the characters who bought (and wrecked) his Miuras -- and he wanted the Countach to be just uncivilized enough to keep away the pretenders. The company reluctantly made provisions for air-conditioning but hoped its customers would prefer to endure the oppressive cabin temperatures guaranteed by the large, flat windshield and the side windows that barely opened.

Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Transportation didn't consider excessive cabin heat when it evaluated the Countach's roadworthiness, and in 1986 -- sixteen years after the car first appeared -- it finally certified the Countach 5000 Quattrovalvole for sale in the United States. The QV's V-12 was bored and stroked to 5.2 liters, and it was fitted with four-valve heads, catalytic converters, and Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection. It produced 420 hp, enough to reach more than 170 mph, and 60 mph could be had in just over five seconds. It wasn't faster or quicker than the original 3.9-liter Countach, thanks to a steady weight gain and increased aerodynamic drag courtesy of the wider wheels, tacked-on fender flares, and spoilers. But no one cared then, and no one cares now.

And it certainly wasn't going to stop us from begging to drive the QV. We're glad we did, because it's full of surprises. That magnificent mechanical fuel injection makes metering power a cinch -- aided also by the long-travel gas pedal -- and the steering provides Porsche levels of road feel. In fact, we'd go so far as to call the Countach a driver's car. As long as that driver never, ever has to sit in traffic. The clutch pedal is so stiff it feels like it's attached to a pulley that's lifting the engine off its mounts every time you press it, and the shifter might be more precise than the Miura's, but it's not much lighter. Driving a Countach slowly is like working out in a leather-upholstered greenhouse.

Sitting in the cabin of the Countach's replacement, the Diablo, is like looking at that same dashboard in a fun-house mirror. Everything is swoopy and round -- not even the side-window lines escape superfluous curvature -- and inboard seatbelts keep the wacky theme going. But what's most impressive about the Diablo is that it exists at all. Automobili Lamborghini stumbled from financial catastrophe to financial catastrophe, changing hands no fewer than four times during the nineteen years from the Countach's show-car debut until someone was brave enough to replace it. And when they did, Chrysler, the new owner, insisted that the updated supercar be more practical.

It would also not be the all-new, revolutionary bombshell its two predecessors were -- and by that we mean the Diablo no disrespect. Riding on an updated Countach chassis is hardly something to be ashamed of -- and as a bonus, this car not only had windows that opened fully, but the curvy body reduced the drag coefficient from 0.40 to 0.31, making the Diablo a damn sight faster. With a revised, 485-hp V-12 displacing 5.7 liters, the Diablo smashed through the 200-mph barrier, and it blew through the mile-per-minute marker in just over four seconds. More important, the Countach's backward engine layout made it a breeze to add four-wheel drive -- which is exactly what Chrysler did. The weight gain was considerable, but the 3900-pound Diablo VT (for viscous traction) is far easier to drive than the Countach: it has power steering and a light shifter that anyone can operate, and, thanks to an electronically controlled suspension, it even rides well.

The Murcielago also rides on an evolution of that same steel spaceframe, and it also has nothing to be ashamed of. It replaced the Diablo in 2002 under the stewardship of Audi and was given the barely pronounceable name of the bull that sired the Miura family of fighters. (For the record, and for the love of God, please repeat after us: Mercy-ELL-ago, not Mercy-eh-LAH-go.)

The Murcielago kept the progression of porkiness at bay with carbon-fiber body panels, and it featured an actual trunk, a driving position genuinely suited to real people, and a new 6.2-liter V-12 that helped it better the Diablo in both top speed and acceleration -- no small task -- achieving 205 mph without unnecessarily scaring its driver to death. From behind the wheel, the Murcielago is frightening only because it's so expensive and so wide -- it's nearly twice as broad as it is tall. The ride is direct without being harsh, and it refuses to roll or pitch in corners. In fact, it feels like the world's biggest go-kart, and although it prefers to understeer, it'll occasionally see red, pitch sideways, and try to slam you against a building. You, too, would have a temper if no one ever pronounced your name correctly.

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