Part 55 Lamborghini – New Models, New Owners

The History of the Italian Automobile

Part 55 Lamborghini – New Models, New Owners

By David Cavaliere

The early 1970s brought the first of many changes of ownership to Lamborghini. It was a fact of life for the company up until 1998. In 1974, the LM 500 was finally brought into production as the Countach. Its name is roughly translated as “Wow, look at that!” although it originally had a somewhat cruder connotation…The car’s unconventional image graced the walls of teenaged boys as often as that of Farah Fawcett. It was one of the top selling posters during the 1970s and 80s. The car enjoyed a production run through 1990 and continued the Lamborghini tradition begun by the Miura – to build cars that were challenging and exhilarating to drive at speed – in other words, cars that could scare the bejesus out of the driver.

The Countach was styled by Marcello Gandini of the Bertone design studio, the same designer and studio that designed the beautiful Miura. Gandini was still in his early 30s when he designed the car. He was not terribly experienced in the practical, ergonomic aspects of automobile design; however, by the same token, he wasn’t hindered by convention either. His design was anything but ordinary. The Countach’s shape was striking – only 42 inches high, its angular, wedge-shaped body was a blending of flat, trapezoidal panels. The doors, now a Lamborghini trademark, were the first production scissor doors. The design was Gandini’s and was used for the 1968 Alfa Romeo 33 ‘Carabo’ concept car.

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The main reasons for the use of the upward swinging doors was the spaceframe chassis design and extreme width of the car. It would have made opening conventional doors in most parking environments impossible. The very wide door sills of the Countach did provide an unexpected benefit. The car’s poor rear visibility made it impossible to see while reversing, so drivers took to sitting on the sill with the scissor door open to look see behind them when backing up.

The LM 500’s original styling was progressively altered as the Countach evolved to improve handling and performance. This first major change was the introduction of large NACA ducts on the doors and rear fenders. This was necessary to adequately cool the engine. There was also a large vent directly behind the driver (reducing rearward vison even more). Later changes included fender flares to accommodate wider tires and a large rear wing, which looked aggressive, but didn’t really provide any aerodynamic benefit. But all things considered, the visual identity of the car remained intact from the first prototypes built in 1971 until the last Countach left the factory in 1990. The car was impractical, uncomfortable, extremely tiring to drive at slow speeds and the dream of car enthusiasts everywhere.

The car used the Lamborghini V12 engine mounted longitudinally with a mid-engine configuration (the Miura’s was transversely mounted). For better weight distribution, the engine pointed “backwards” – the output shaft left the front of the engine to the gearbox, with the driveshaft running back through the engine’s sump to the differential at the rear. The first production cars used a 370 hp, 4-liter engine. Later advances increased the displacement to 4754 cc and finally to the “Quattrovalvole” 5167 cc engine with four valves per cylinder.

The Countach’s styling and visual impression has made it an icon of great design to almost everyone except automotive engineers. The superior performance characteristics of later Lamborghini models, such as the Diablo and Murciélago, appealed to performance car drivers and engineers, but they never had the originality or outrageousness that gave the Countach its distinction. The fact that the car made it into production as the oil/gas shortage was in full swing and that it survived the automotive dark ages of the late 70s and 80s is nothing short of a miracle. A total of 2,042 cars were built during the Countach’s production life, with more than half built during the final five years of the run.

The 70s were not an easy time to be in the automotive manufacturing world, especially if you were the maker of expensive supercars. Lamborghini would find itself being passed around three times between 1974 and 1978, before finally filing for bankruptcy in 1978. In 1980, Swiss sugar tycoons, the Mimran Brothers, purchased the company; however, their efforts to revive the company ultimately failed and in 1986 they approached Chrysler as a potential buyer. This dysfunctional partnering which began in 1987 would also end in separation. For Lamborghini, this game of partner swapping would continue right up until 1998.

In 1976, Lamborghini introduced its Silhouette P300. It was a two-door, two-seat mid-engine rear-wheel drive sports car, but was made in miniscule numbers until 1979, with only 54 units built. It was based on the earlier Lamborghini Urraco, but was distinguished by more angular styling. It was the company’s first car to employ a targa top roof. The Silhouette later evolved into the similar looking, but more successful Lamborghini Jalpa. The car had a 3.0 liter all-aluminum alloy V8, expanded to 3.5 liters in the Jalpa. Official performance figures indicated 0-62 in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 160 mph. The Jalpa was intended to fill the role as a more affordable Lamborghini, a story that began with the Urraco years earlier. It was far less expensive than the flagship Countach. It too was designed by Bertone. When compared to the Countach, the Jalpa was much easier to drive, having better visibility and being more tractable in heavy traffic and at slow speeds. Introduced in 1981, the model was cancelled in 1988 by Lamborghini’s newest owners, Chrysler. A total of 410 units were produced during its eight-year production run.

The next supercar produced by the company was the Diablo. Built between 1990 and 2001, it was the first Lamborghini capable of attaining a top speed in excess of 200 miles per hour. The design of the car was contracted to Marcello Gandini, designer of the Miura and Countach. When Chrysler bought the company in 1987, it provided the money to complete its development and had a Chrysler design team (in Detroit) execute an extensive redesign. This left Gandini so disappointed that he would later go on to realize his original design in the Cizeta-Moroder V16T (see part 20 of this series – Cizeta Automobili, June 9, 2016).

The first series Diablo produced 485 hp from its 5.7 liter V12. This was enough to propel the car from standstill to 62 mph in 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 202. The Diablo was better equipped than the Countach; standard features included fully adjustable seats and steering wheel, electric windows and an Alpine stereo system. Later, power steering and anti-lock brakes were added. Roughly 900 of the first Diablo variant were built. The Diablo VT, introduced in 1993, differed from the standard Diablo in a number of ways, by far the most notable change was the addition of all wheel drive. About 400 of this model were produced, with another 200 roadsters, but by 1994, the seven-year inch was upon Chrysler and it placed Lamborghini on the selling block.

Next week – Audi takes over and brings new models, new engines and new markets to the brand.

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