The Legend Of The Reliable Lamborghini Countach

Illustration for article titled The Legend Of The Reliable Lamborghini Countach
Photo: Andrew P Collins

Months ago Matt Farah, a known driver of cars, was kind enough to offer me a lift. We both had to get from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, and “if I wanted a ride in his Countach” I was welcome to hop in with him. Well, one does not simply decline the chance to buzz the Pacific Coast Highway in a Lamborghini.

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Farah’s best known for hosting The Smoking Tire podcast, appearing behind the wheel on TV, and writing car reviews for various publications. He’s a hard worker who’s blessed with a lot of bucks and a good sense of humor. He’s also exceedingly gregarious and ironically ostentatious–a caricature of a car with genuine provenance like an ’88 Countach is perfectly paired with his personality.

We had to make the 100-mile trip to meet some colleagues for another road test. It was a perfect excuse to stretch the car’s legs somewhere scenic.

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What Kind Of Weirdass Word Is ‘Countach?’

Say “Coon-tosh,” as Car & Driver tells us. It also relayed a story of the how that strange sound came to be the name of this sports car, as told by legendary Lamborghini test pilot Valentino Balboni, in an October 2018 post:

“...when the team from Bologna arrived in Turin, the security guard on duty called Nuccio Bertone directly. He was told to take Stanzani and Wallace to the factory room and turn on the lights where the as yet unnamed Lamborghini model was located.

‘This guy at security takes Bob [Wallace] and Stanzani to that room. He puts that light on and, when he sees the Countach, the 1:1 scale model, [the security guard] said, ‘Countach!’ And then he went away.’”

“Countach,” of course, is an expression of shock and awe in the Piedmontese dialect that’s something like “Whoa!” Or “Heavens!” (Piedmont is a region in the northwest of Italy, near Switzerland and France.)

Apparently there was also an “official Lamborghini” story that differed slightly, reported by Road & Track and probably others in August of 2018. Lambo’s own post isn’t online right now, but the crux of it as told by designer Marcello Gandini per R&T is:

“When we made cars for the car shows, we worked at night and we were all tired, so we would joke around to keep our morale up. There was a profiler working with us who made the locks. He was two meters tall with two enormous hands, and he performed all the little jobs. He spoke almost only Piedmontese, didn’t even speak Italian. Piedmontese is much different from Italian and sounds like French. One of his most frequent exclamations was ‘countach’, which literally means plague, contagion, and is actually used more to express amazement or even admiration, like ‘goodness’. He had this habit. When we were working at night, to keep our morale up, there was a jousting spirit, so I said we could call it Countach, just as a joke, to say an exaggerated quip, without any conviction. There nearby was Bob Wallace, who assembled the mechanics – we always made the cars operational. At that time you could even roll into the car shows with the car running, which was marvelous. So jokingly I asked Bob Wallace how it sounded to an Anglo-Saxon ear. He said it in his own way, strangely. It worked. We immediately came up with the writing and stuck it on. But maybe the real suggestion was the idea of one of my co-workers, a young man who said let’s call it that. That is how the name was coined. This is the only true story behind this word.”

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I’ve got to imagine the names of most new cars are analyzed and focus-grouped to hell and back, at least when automakers take a break from mining nostalgia. So I love the idea that one of the most memorable names worn by such a legendary car just came from someone being amazed, and the rest is murky.

What Makes This Particular Countach Perfect

An ’88 Countach is cool because it represents the final form of the car’s design. This ’88 is cooler because Cindy Crawford sat in it for a photoshoot. (That, of course, was a callback to the 1992 Pepsi commercial in which Crawford emerges from a red-over-tan Lamborghini Diablo.)

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Farah’s red-over-tan Countach is a 1988 5000 QV. That’s Quattrovalvole: Four valves per cylinder. If you’re still confused: Lots of holes for the engine to eat and excrete gas and air through. More zoom. Meglio così.

Illustration for article titled The Legend Of The Reliable Lamborghini Countach
Photo: Andrew P Collins
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Theoretically, that delicious-sounding engine is good for 420 horsepower which would have been like a nuclear arsenal 30 years ago. Today, the Countach can still step to an impressive speed but it’s really best appreciated at a canter.

A lot of that appreciation comes from people you pass by. Farah’s QV is spec’d with two options: the wing, and an Alpine CD player. There’s also a period-correct police radar detector (deactivated) and an exhaust from Lamborghini tuner Al Burtoni, Farah told me.

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Burtoni passed away in 2014, as reported by the duPont Registry Daily and others, but is usually referenced as a renowned wrench-turner with the high-performance Lambo shop V12 Engineering out of the San Jose, California area. I’m not quite sure what the current state of Burtoni’s outfit is, but it doesn’t look like its website has been updated in a while:

Screengrabbed April 11, 2020
Screengrabbed April 11, 2020
Screenshot: V12 Engineering
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He did a bang-up job on the exhaust that’s now plumbed under Farah’s QV, though. To tell you how it sounds I’ll just report how its song felt: Warm and hearty.

Running or not, the car’s spectacular to behold even when its standing still. That red. That wing. And once the doors go up–forgetaboutit. Speaking of style, I hope you enjoy the casual photographs I have to share here. But if you’re interested, the car’s been much more artfully captured by photographer Larry Chen on Hoonigan.

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An Oddly Incident-Free Adventure

Running at a socially acceptable highway speed, the car felt smooth and stable from the passenger seat. The engine noise was more “trill ambiance” than “assaultive exciting” below 3,000 RPM. And the car just... worked.

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When we’d made it an entire hour without catching fire, I expressed my astonishment to Farah.

“Dude, I know!” He replied, obviously pleased. “When it gets driven regularly, it’s just, a car. It works and you can drive it and it’s fine!”

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Old Italian cars don’t exactly enjoy the best reputation for reliability. Though my father, who’s owned a ’79 FIAT since I was in grade school, would swear to the contrary it is a cliché in the car world that decades-old Italian cars want to catch fire. Or “are wont” to. Both?

There used to be plenty of jokes that Italian work ethic might have been to blame, but I’m not about to make any assumptions about a culture I’m not steeped in. Let’s just say the people making cars at Lamborghini, Ferrari, and friends in the final days of carburetors were pushing the limits of some primitive technology and sometimes that meant a little combustion occasionally occurred in the wrong spot.

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Not on this day. The car ran, and ran, and made a lot of peoples’ day as it zoomed by like a basement-built spaceship that happened to look like a work of art.

The Countach’s exterior design is unquestionably arresting, but the cockpit is closer to “charmingly janky.” Getting from a standing position to being installed in a seat is about as arduous as lowering oneself onto an uncarpeted floor to play with your friends’ kid you have to pretend to like.

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Illustration for article titled The Legend Of The Reliable Lamborghini Countach
Photo: Andrew P Collins

Once your butt’s parked in the jai alai cesta-shaped seat, you’re pretty much just looking at long rectangular expanses of nothingness wrapped in leather. On the driver’s side, a few simple gauges are stuck on a boxy console like googly eyes.

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The side windows are particularly funny–they only open in little slits wide enough to pass stacks of cash through. To activate some personal air conditioning in the passenger seat of a Countach, just cup your hand and stick it through the slot. Fresh air runs down your wrist and onto your guts at whatever speed the car’s moving.

OK, Not Entirely Incident-Free

We were blessed with an open road on our way northbound, but heading home was another story. We sat and sat for hours doing between 5 and 20 mph.

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Farah complained a lot as he slipped the clutch for eternity, but I must admit I’d have been just as agitated in his seat. All I could really do from the right side of the car was assure him I’d monitor the temperature gauge, which, incredibly, didn’t really get high even as the car was forced to crawl along in traffic.

The Sycamore Cove Beach parking lot provided a respite for all three of us; me, Farah, and the Countach. While we stretched our legs, a photographer taking portraits of a young woman asked if he could shoot the car. (Seriously, you can’t take this thing anywhere without it being A Thing.) As we watched him work, we caught a glimpse of the exhaust pipes: Covered in blackness, burnt to a crisp.

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“Not the Burtonis!”

I started wondering how the hell the tail end of the tailpipes had gotten hot enough to catch fire without us noticing, but Farah was already on to it. “Look, a plastic bag got caught on there,” he said, unfazed.

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We’d run over a disposable shopping bag, which had managed to cling onto the tailpipe and melt. I winced but Farah shrugged it off. “That’ll come off easy.”

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That right there is the kind of attitude you need if you’re going to drive around a big city with a car this precious. Everything can be fixed. And indeed–Farah had the car taken to a pro detailer and the pipes were looking perfect shortly after the bag incident.

Want To Keep Your Old Italian Car Running This Good?

The legend of the reliable Lamborghini Countach is not a work of fiction. This is a weird, extreme, notoriously sketchy car that’s “just a car.” The secret, and Farah’d be quick to tell you, is actually using the thing.

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When old cars sit, all the rubber seals critical to operation get stale and crack. That means leaking lubricants and functional fluids absorbing water, and that means overheating and component failures. On top of dead batteries and cracked tires with flat spots, of course.

Let your old iron out of the barn and it’ll be a lot happier to be alive. Just, for now, keep your trips short while our world’s locked down by the coronavirus.

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Meanwhile, if you want to enjoy a little more Countach while you’re cooped up at home, here’s a video rundown from the owner himself:

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik | 1975 International Scout, 1984 Nissan 300ZX, 1991 Suzuki GSXR, 1998 Mitsubishi Montero, 2005 Acura TL

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DISCUSSION

I 100% agree with Matt’s take on Countach styling. Amazingly, Horacio Pagani ruined the 25th Anniversary models. The early Periscopo models are pure of form, but THIS is a Countach! Fender flares, 345 section rear tires, and the wing. Dumb, impractical, yet essential.

I’m 50 and had THE Alpine poster in my room.  I’d kill for a ride, let alone own one.