Classic Car Profiles & Reviews, Classic Cars, Ethos, Features

Wall Art Comes Alive: We Drive the Lamborghini Countach!

It’s become almost cliché to say, but I was one of thousands of kids in the 1980s with a poster of a Lamborghini Countach tacked to my bedroom wall. Not the one my friend had with a bikini-clad model draped across a white hood. Instead, it was a red Countach, parked almost haphazardly on a double-yellow apex turn sharp enough to necessitate four or five bright yellow and black arrow signs warning oncoming drivers of its treachery.

When I’d get home from school, the Lamborghini was there waiting for me. I’d dream of flipping its door up, clambering in, and firing up that rip-snorting V-12. It stood out from the other posters that covered nearly every inch of my room. The Ferrari Testarossa was almost tame by comparison, and the Corvette ZR1, with its crisp folds that gave it away as a freebie from a copy of MotorTrend, was undeniably ordinary. To this car-obsessed fourth grader, the Countach was the ultimate—a mashup of a Le Mans prototype and an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet. When I finally saw one in the sheetmetal at a local car show, it cost me half the roll of film in my disposable Kodak camera. Save the bizarre Vector W2, it was simply the wildest car I knew. And it was almost a colossal failure.

These “downdraft” cars were the most powerful Countach variants made and require a deck bulge to clear the six Weber carburetors.

The Countach was among the last Lamborghinis born under the direction of company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini himself. Work began in 1970 as project LP112 to replace the curvaceous but aging Miura. It was to use the same basic engine as that car (developed by former Ferrari engineer Giotto Bizzarrini), turned longitudinally in a new Paolo Stanzani-engineered chassis and enlarged from 4.0 to 5.0 liters. The first prototype, dubbed LP500, was given a radical new wedge-shaped body and scissor-style doors from Miura designer Marcello Gandini at Bertone, which borrowed from his prior Alfa Romeo Carabo and Lancia Stratos Zero concepts.

By the time Lamborghini showed the LP500 concept at the 1971 Geneva show (alongside the evolved Miura SV), the name had changed to Countach—thanks to Gandini’s Piedmontese styling assistant who would frequently utter, “Contacc!”—an expression of awe and astonishment in his native tongue. Wider, lower, and shorter than the Miura, the Countach was an instant system shock representing years of conceptual ideas come to life. It quickly graced the cover of nearly every automotive magazine worldwide.

But the following year, cracks started to emerge in the global economy. The ensuing turmoil forced Ferruccio to sell the tractor business he built his empire upon. His fledgling automobile enterprise, by then not quite a decade old, wasn’t doing much better. With the production version of the Countach missing deadline after deadline, the founder ultimately sold his controlling stake in the company to friend Georges-Henri Rossetti, a Swiss businessman. Lamborghini himself was retained to get the car to production, and in 1974 the Countach LP400 finally came to market with Stanzani’s advanced tubular space frame chassis but featuring the smaller 4.0-liter engine adapted from the Miura. Drained of his passion, Ferruccio eventually sold his remaining stake in Automobili Lamborghini and retired to the Italian countryside to make wine as his father had before him. He was still doing just that in 1993 when he died at 76.

Those lovely fixed-back seats are actually very comfortable, and the high center console gives a “cockpit” feel.

Lamborghini’s struggles continued even after the Countach started selling in the European market, and by 1980 the marque was in bankruptcy proceedings. That same year, French entrepreneurs Patrick Mimran and brother Jean Claude took control of Lamborghini in receivership and bought it outright in ’82. During Patrick’s reign as CEO, the company began selling the now eight-year-old Countach in the U.S. Success came rapidly, and by 1986, Patrick Mimran was ordering his third Countach “company car”—the one I’m about to drive.

It’s good to be the boss, and for Mimran, any old Countach wouldn’t do. This 1986 5000 Quattrovalvole wears one-off Bordeuax Speciale paint custom mixed by Lamborghini supplier PPG Milano. It looks sensational contrasted with the Oro wheels and Panna leather interior. The engine is special, too: It’s one of 300 “downdraft” European-spec cars eschewing fuel injection for six downdraft Weber 44 DCNF carburetors lined up in the vee of its now 5.2-liter V-12. Add special-order sport cams (and an extra oil cooler), and this Countach is among the most powerful built, with 470 hp, an extra 15 compared to standard downdraft models and nearly 100 more horses than the fuel-injected U.S.-spec cars.

A stealthy yet high-end period Alpine stereo rounds out the extras, as Mimran, a music fanatic, routinely used this Countach for blasts between his home in Switzerland and Lamborghini headquarters in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy. Even in a Lamborghini, that’s a long drive without tunes. Interestingly, this car was ordered without its single extra-cost option: the $6,500 V-shaped rear wing. Perhaps the reason was that the drag it created shaved about 10 mph off the car’s top speed, or perhaps Mimran just preferred the cleaner look. We think it looks perfect as is.

The car was so loved that it stayed with Mimran for a short time even after he sold Lamborghini to Chrysler in 1987 (which turned his $3 million initial investment into a $25 million megadeal). It passed through a Swiss owner until 2015, when Joe Sackey, a British expatriate investment banker turned U.S.-based supercar specialist, bought it from a client. A serial Countach owner who bought his first one brand-new in the 1980s, Sackey found the Mimran provenance intriguing enough that his intention of reselling the car quickly gave way to a lengthy and comprehensive restoration by Oceanside, California-based Dugan Enterprises. The goal was to put the car back in as-new condition. By all measures, it was achieved.

I reach into the depths of the NACA duct on the driver-side door and click open the latch. The door rises easily, assisted by a pneumatic prop, revealing the gently curving, fixed-back seats that look like they were ripped out of a spaceship. The first person to place a posterior in this driver’s seat was none other than official Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni, who drove the car straight off the assembly line. Recently, Balboni was given a second chance to drive it following the restoration, making small but critical suggestions to perfectly dial in its performance.

Driving a car you’ve idolized for years is a funny thing. Sometimes your heroes aren’t the machines you thought they were, though sometimes they’re even better. Weeks before I got into the driver’s seat, I’d talked to a couple friends who’d had seat time in a Countach for tips on what to expect. Tales of “trucklike” (its own cliché at this point in Countach land) steering and ride quality, finicky engines and clutches, and brakes that would have a hard time slowing down a hot dog cart are what I heard most often. I’m not sure which Countach they drove, but it wasn’t this one.

With a twist of its oval-shaped black key, the engine fires quickly. Already warm, it settles into a calm idle with no indication of fussiness. The gated shift lever needs a strong tug to get it into first gear (down and to the left, race car style), and the clutch pedal, while firm, isn’t the leg press machine I’d been led to believe. The throttle is lighter in action and a little sensitive, so it’s easy to go heavy on the revs when getting away from a stop.

The personalized key fob is among the artifacts linking this car to Patrick Mimran. The speedometer is in kph, this being a Euro-spec car.

The steering, heavy at low speeds, begins to loosen, and after the up-and-right shift into second then straight down into third, the Countach starts to hit its stride. Getting more comfortable, I knock the car back down into second with a blip of the throttle, then get back on the gas with more conviction. The sound its six Weber carbs make right behind your head as they gulp down air is really something; I’m reveling in the rare opportunity.

Into third once more, and I pin the throttle under my foot as the tachometer makes a run for 7,000 rpm. I have the side windows cracked to better hear that giant 5.2-liter V-12 bellow out its quad exhaust pipes—a mechanical concerto that someone should set to a musical soundtrack. Getting out of the gas before a sharp right-hander, I’m treated to an angry series of pops and bangs that make the hairs on my neck stand up. This car isn’t interested in slowing down.

It quickly becomes apparent that a well-maintained Countach isn’t a car to fear. The visibility out the back and rear quarters isn’t terrific, and, mostly for that reason, it wouldn’t be great in rush-hour traffic or on busy city streets. But the ride isn’t jarring, the steering is precise, and the view out front is fantastic, with thin A-pillars and a virtual 180-degree view over the low dashboard that offers excellent sightlines of the road ahead. I can barely see the hood at all, and the sensation of asphalt rushing toward the car makes me feel as though I’m driving even quicker than my moderate pace.

With the sky turning ominously gray, we’re worried about getting this concours-grade car caught up in a downpour, but the twists and turns keep coming and the Countach devours them with its flat stance, those massive 335-section rear Pirelli P7s keeping the business end in check. It aches to run harder, but I decide to play things safe and hand the key back over to its rightful owner before I get too comfortable. After all, it’s never a great idea to get too confident in someone else’s Lamborghini. And anyway, somewhere in the back of a closet, there’s a dusty, old, thumbtack-pricked poster that needs framing.

Read More
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Ethos, Features, News

30 Years of Lexus: How the Luxury Brand Changed the World

It isn’t always easy to recognize a watershed moment as it happens, but when the Automobile staff first drove the 1990 Lexus LS400, editor David E. Davis Jr. recognized the significance. “All you guys from Munich, Stuttgart, and Coventry, call your offices,” he wrote in the January 1989 issue. “I’d say the fox is about to find his way into the henhouse.”

Although its conservative styling and quiet demeanor led some to dismiss the LS400 as a glorified Toyota, it proved the Japanese understood what Americans wanted in a luxury car, perhaps even better than Detroit and Stuttgart did—and that they could execute it with the same pedantic attention to detail and quality for which they were known best.

“Audi may dismiss it as plastic,” we wrote when we named the LS400 a 1990 All-Star. “Porsche may dismiss it as a pretender. Mercedes-Benz may dismiss it as plebeian. And they’d all better duck, because the LS400 is about to kick some serious tail in the luxury-car market. Nothing close to the Lexus flagship—in price, size, and class—will be unaffected by the new standards the LS400 has set. We all knew the Japanese were serious about their move upmarket into the big-money machines. But in all honesty, none of us expected such a stunning first-year effort from the masters of the econobox.”

1990 LS400

The LS400 was notable for its unpretentious approach. The styling was a bit derivative, but it was honest, a simple shape with no tacked-on adornment. Inside there wasn’t a lick of chrome to be found, just plenty of leather and a bit of wood. Even the plastics didn’t pretend to be anything but. Every switch, lever, and button felt weighty and solid, a level of quality that made Cadillac and Lincoln look like amateurs. And with a base price of $35,000—some $28,000 less than a Mercedes 420SEL—it was equally embarrassing to the Germans.

Even today, a drive in an original LS400 impresses, if not for its modern amenities then for its silence, smoothness, serenity, and solidity. Dynamically it’s not quite up to modern standards; the brakes feel soft, the steering lacks feedback, and the engine takes its time to build up torque. But whereas today’s luxury cars try to overwhelm you with amenities, the LS400 takes a simpler approach, welcoming you in and inviting you to get comfortable. Drive it for a mile, and you’re ready to settle in for a cross-country cruise.

1996 SC400

In 1991 Lexus followed up with the 1992 SC coupe, which stunned Americans with its styling. In that era, most rear-drive coupes were boxy, long-hood, short-deck affairs—think ’89 Monte Carlo, or even ’64 Mustang. But the SC’s shape, all curves and no flat planes, was a novelty. The car was penned by Calty Design Research in California, and Lexus went so far as to design a bespoke hydraulic radiator fan drive to ensure the power package would fit beneath its desired hoodline. History has blunted the SC’s impact; the rest of the industry went bonkers with the no-straight-lines approach, and it became a cliché of 1990s automotive styling. That the first-gen SC stayed in production for eight years with few changes didn’t help much, either. At the time, though, no one had seen anything like it.

The SC made a strong counterpoint to those who thought the LS400’s styling and dynamics were too bland, and it proved Lexus could be flexible. Although it shared its bones with the LS, alterations to the wheelbase, steering, suspension, and gearing gave it a distinctly sporty edge. Inside, it featured a wraparound cockpit and maple wood trim that curved into the door panels, a sharp contrast to the more sedate LS. The SC400 debuted with the LS400’s V-8, and Lexus would follow with the SC300, featuring a 3.0-liter inline-six that would soon have a starring role in the ’93 Toyota Supra, coupled with an available manual transmission.

We took a drive in a vintage SC400, and it’s still a passable sporty coupe by today’s standards—a bit bookish, perhaps, but with a distinct sharpness to its responses. Most important, it’s a very different car to drive than the LS, a distinction that showed the world Lexus wasn’t a one-note brand. It’s not difficult to see why our 1992 staffers were so pleased with the SC400 we added to our Four Seasons fleet. After a year and 36,468 miles with the car, we wrote, “Toyota set out to make the perfect machine and, with the Lexus SC400, has come as close as anyone ever has. It is difficult not to turn a backflip for this car and the entire company that made it possible.”

1993 GS300

If the LS and SC put Lexus on the map, the 1993 GS300 showed the world where its sights were set. With the SC300’s inline-six, rear-wheel drive, and a de-chromed exterior, the GS300 was a shot across the bow of BMW’s 5 Series. This may have backfired on Lexus, because in the inevitable comparisons, the GS always came up short. In our first drive, we cited Lexus’s goal to build “a Lexus with a BMW persona. It isn’t quite, but we’re not unhappy with what we found.”

Our modern-day drive in a first-year GS brought the memories flooding back. The straight-six engine is a novelty today, but it lacks the snap of the LS’s V-8, while the exterior styling doesn’t have the SC’s visual excitement. Lexus eventually added an optional V-8, all-wheel drive, and a performance-minded hybrid powertrain, all much-needed improvements, but the GS 300 was the first indication Lexus wasn’t entirely infallible.

2003 RX300

You can’t talk about Lexus history without mentioning the 1999 RX300. At the time, the luxury SUV segment consisted of gussied-up trucks like the Infiniti QX4, a poshed-up Nissan Pathfinder (not to mention Lexus’s own Land Cruiser–based LX450). Toyota’s RAV4, our 1997 Automobile of the Year, had already introduced America to car-based SUVs—the term “crossover” was not yet in common use—and the RX 00 brought the same concept to the luxury field, in a more family-friendly size. (Mercedes was attempting the same thing with the ML320.)

Today we take it for granted that SUVs will drive like cars, but 20 years ago, it was a new concept. At the time, we were a bit confused by an SUV that couldn’t go off-road, but we certainly appreciated the soft on-road ride. The RX300 flouted the advantages that came with its transversely mounted V-6, including a flat floor and minivan-style center console separate from the dashboard. This was exactly the vehicle that upscale suburban moms were looking for. A year before it went on sale, Lexus predicted the RX would be one of its best-selling models. It was, and it remains so to this day.

Driving the RX300 in 2019 is a very different experience than the other vintage Lexus models. Aside from the expansive view out back—we hadn’t realized how small and pinched back windows have become—the RX felt perfectly ordinary. And that, we realized, is what makes it so amazing: What the RX300 pioneered 20 years ago has become today’s normal.

Today, Lexus is a luxury brand working hard to stay ahead in a very competitive segment. Ironically, it might not have to work so hard to compete had it not raised the standards for the whole industry in the first place.

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APlus, Ethos, News

Lamborghini’s Maurizio Reggiani on His Favorite Models, Electrification, and the V-12’s Future

Maurizio Reggiani is a car guy through and through. He studied engineering in Modena, Italy, before leading engine assembly at Maserati in the mid-1980s. From there, he had a multiyear stint at Bugatti, where he was responsible for the quad-turbo V-12 powertrain that found a home in the EB110 supercar. Reggiani joined Lamborghini in 1998 as head of R&D for powertrain and suspension; he became chief technical director in 2006. He also leads motorsports division Lamborghini Squadra Corse and has a hand in Polo Storico, Lamborghini’s factory restoration program.

Automobile Magazine: The industry marches forward with electrification and autonomy, as Lamborghini builds some of the wildest supercars ever. Isn’t that contradictory?

Maurizio Reggiani: It is not. Lamborghini was born in 1963 with a V-12, and in all of Lamborghini there were V-12s—in the 350GT, the Miura, Countach, Diablo, Aventador. If you have an icon, you cannot sacrifice the icon. We need to have something that has this icon to remain and stay at the top. We talk about super sport cars, cars that are not for daily use to go from A to B, but are really to enjoy yourself and to make a statement. It’s the emotion, the design, the experience you have when you sit in the car. These are our fundamentals.

OK, but how committed are you to the V-12 down the road?

We are convinced the top line of our products must stay with this [V-12]. We cannot delete our DNA and our statement inside this market. You see, in this market, if you want to make a statement, you need something unique, something that you can say, “We did this from the beginning, we built our success on this, and we stay with how we built our success.”

How do you keep that engine’s emissions compliant into the future?

The main task is really for EU7, something we have coming in 2024 or 2025, and we need to ensure we’re able to fulfill this European specification that will be even more severe, but it will be possible. It’s something really complicated because it means the engine must run with a stoichiometric ratio in every condition; there are several activities in the pipeline, from water injection to spark-advance control, much more sophisticated direct injection. I think the main issue is not will we fulfill EU7, because we will, but in what way can we guarantee we don’t have a loss of performance? Our job is to meet these tasks. (Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview, Lamborghini unveiled its Aventador-based, limited edition Sián supercar, featuring a V-12 but with hybrid electric technology.)

Is the V-10 just as important? Is a V-8 possible for the next-gen Huracán?

A V-10 at this moment is fundamental to the brand, but it is something that is less strategic for us. If you look back at Lamborghini, there was a V-8, not for the top-end car, but I will not have a problem to say the Huracán can be fitted with another type of engine for the new generation of motor.

Meanwhile, the Urus is selling very well…

One of the biggest tasks of the Urus was to guarantee it has the DNA of a Lamborghini but also at the same time to be a usable car. You have a car that can go from A to B, can do the shopping, carry a family. But when you go in Sport and Corsa modes, it becomes a real Lamborghini. It becomes much stiffer, the suspension goes down, the engine responds in a different way, and this is Lamborghini character. It is a success, and the waiting time is really long for the Urus; we produce 23, 24 cars a day, which for us is really a doubling of Lamborghini volume.

How about a Urus Performante?

I think we will see! You know, at Lamborghini, years and years ago at the time of the Gallardo, we defined this strategy. The Gallardo was the first one, and we continued with the Aventador and the Huracán. So we have the strategy, and we will maintain the strategy, but sometimes it’s clear you need to invent or reinvent yourself in an order that cannot be predicted. This will be our target also for the Urus. It’s difficult to talk about Lamborghini without mentioning the past models.

Can you pick a favorite?

I think the most elegant is the Miura. From an engineering point of view, the Countach, the first car with the engine done in the central tunnel to have everything precise, everything done with—especially the Periscopio—the smart way of applying some rules and it’s a car that really surprised. Nobody could expect in its time a car like this. For the beauty, the Miura, no doubt. From a pure engineering point of view, the Countach is so essential, so sharp that you say, “Wow!”

What do you drive every day?

An Urus. A standard Urus. It’s blue with a cream interior. It’s marvelous. It gets a super cool reception everywhere.

Do you own any classic cars?

Yes, but not Lamborghinis, so for this reason it’s best that I don’t say! No, I have a Duetto Alfa Romeo from 1966; it’s the same car as in The Graduate film. I loved them as a child. It’s from the year it was launched with a number plate original from Milano, where Alfa Romeo was located.

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The post Lamborghini’s Maurizio Reggiani on His Favorite Models, Electrification, and the V-12’s Future appeared first on Automobile Magazine.

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