Test Drive: Lamborghini Countach LP400
Mel Nichols was editor of CAR from 1974 to 1981 and later Editorial Director of Autocar, Classic & Sports Car, Autosport and Motor Sport. In the first of a new series inviting respected pundits to recall memorable moments on the road, we asked Mel to look back on a remarkable test drive. This is what he told us...
Early in 1973 I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. Bob Wallace (below, at 135mph), Lamborghini’s fabled original test driver, asked me to ride with him in the prototype Countach LP400 from Sant’Agata to Sicily to watch the last proper Targa Florio.
But the Countach wasn’t ready so I flew to Palermo while Bob carried on with his 600-miles-a-day test programme. Three weeks later, he broke off long enough to whizz it over to Monaco. And after the Grand Prix I jumped in with him for the 250-mile trip back to Modena.
It was a perfect introduction to the Countach. I saw what it could do and how it was meant to be driven. Smoothly, calmly, measured; firm but unhurried shifts; picking the moment to let the V12 run; judicious throttle out of tight bends to the verge of oversteer; noting the stability’s contrast with the Miura’s above 150mph – one of Bob and Paolo Stanzani’s priorities.
In England in 1975, William Loughran lent me his silver LP400. In Yorkshire’s towns and villages, people gawped. Did any car’s shape declare its intent more resolutely? At one point, parked starkly on the moors, it looked like something from another planet. For me, that original, pure Marcello Gandini shape remains the best.
Slipping behind the wheel was other-worldly too, with nothing ahead of you but that sheet of glass and the road. Then came the 4.0-litre V12’s sound – savage, bitter and full of fight. That mighty engine would trickle down to low revs in high gears but below 2000rpm there wasn’t much oomph. Best to stay higher up and at every opportunity push hard into the power band, effective from 4000rpm all the way to an exhilarating, intoxicating, and vicious-sounding 8000.
On roads packed with bends, dips and crests, the adroitness stemming from the balance imparted by the back-to-front drivetrain installation (with the gearbox between the seats), the suspension design and Bob’s years of road work came into their own. There, the suspension’s firmness – hard but not uncomfortable in towns – kept the car extraordinarily flat. It snapped around curves like a slot racer, answering the steering with quickness, sharpness and feel missing in the Ferrari BB365 and Porsche 911 Turbo that LJK Setright and I also had on hand.
Its poise over crests – and under brakes into descending curves – was striking. Bob had dialled anti-dive from the front suspension because it was creating bumpsteer. “You can’t have that in a road car,” he’d said with a grimace.
The Countach’s tautness wasn’t just in its engine, suspension and steering. That sensual gearshift coming – uniquely for a mid-engined car – straight out of the box played its part too. Harry Metcalfe’s video about Simon Kidston’s LP400 conveys perfectly the experience of driving an original Countach.
At night we lamented the way the headlight pods’ juddering slashed our speed. When manoeuvring we cursed the horrendous rear and side vision. And 10mpg, our usual consumption, meant an effective range of 250 miles.
But on open roads the LP400 cornered faster and more easily, and gave its driver more pleasure, than its contemporaries. And the impact of its design was unassailable. After two days of hard driving, LJKS and I were sure it was the ultimate supercar of its time. As Leonard concluded: “Is it not most logical that the most extreme design should be the best, in cars that are meant to go to extremes?”
The full story of Mel Nichols’ trip with Bob Wallace in Countach 1120001, and his epic ‘Convoy!’ drive flat out from Modena to London in a Countach, Silhouette and Urraco, are in his book And The Revs Keep Rising.
Photos by Mel Nichols, Strictly Copyright