Not long ago, 400 horsepower was a big deal for an exotic car. Now 400 horses is the ballpark for a nice pickup truck, and 600 horsepower seems to be the new magic number for an outrageous car. Clearly, the exotics of today are faster than their antecedents from a quarter-century ago. But does faster always equal better? I took a 1988 Lamborghini Countach 5000s Quattrovalvole and a 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish to the Pacific Coast Highway to find out.
The Vanquish is the replacement for the DBS and offers a long list of exotic credentials: carbon-fiber bodywork, aluminum backbone chassis, 565-hp naturally aspirated 5.9-liter V12. The key is made of crystal and the doors open with a slight upward tilt, a graceful reminder that this is not a normal car. By the all-out performance standards of a Ferrari F12, the Aston is a step or two behind, but this is what I’d classify as an experience car rather than a numbers car. When you hit the red sport button on the wheel and open up the exhaust bypass valves, believe me when I say that you will neither know nor care whether the 0-60 time is three seconds or four.
If the Aston is an icon of modern front-engine V-12 coupes, then the Countach is the aesthetic progenitor of the geometrically aggressive mid-engine hellion. Before the Countach, exotic Italian cars tended toward organic, feline shapes. When the Countach arrived in 1974, it looked like the future. Circa 1988, I had a poster of this car on the wall. Everyone had a poster of this car on the wall.
There is a camp of car snobs who believe that the early version of the Countach, the LP400, is aesthetically superior. I am not in that camp. Call me a cretin, but I’ll take my scissor-door Lamborghini with angry fender flares and a large park bench bolted to the rear deck. This car rejects subtlety like a bad organ, so why not go all the way and indulge its salacious possibilities?
After all, the reason you hate that rear wing, if you do, is because this is the rear wing that launched a thousand poseur Civics. The 5000, though, was the progenitor, the Ur-wing, the headwaters of outrageous awesomeness. You shouldn’t judge the Countach based on its imitators, any more than you’d disdain Van Halen after hearing a bad tribute band belt out "Hot For Teacher." Speaking of ’Halen, it is indeed the sound of a Lamborghini V-12 that so enlivens “Panama.”
Driving the Countach, you can barely see the road — not from the heat coming off it, but because you’re sitting two inches off the pavement looking through a windshield that seems to stretch, horizontally, from your toes to your forehead. Flip down the sun visor and you can’t see anything. Rear visibility consists of red Lamborghini appendages filling every mirror. The shifter moves like the dead bolt on a medieval drawbridge, the clutch fells like you’re pushing the pedal through a bucket of wet sand and the low-speed steering effort evokes arm-wrestling a Bulgarian Olympic shot-putter.
The Countach doesn’t like sitting in traffic, the air conditioning barely works and the pedals are so close together that you need to remove your shoes and possibly segments of your feet. And on and on it goes. A horrible car, right? No, on the contrary. The best car.
At the wheel of the Countach, the lyrics to as-yet unwritten Motley Crue songs appear as if in a vision. Your chest gets hairier, your pants tighter. The passenger-side vanity mirror is detachable. According to the Countach, "Miami Vice" was a documentary.
As brutal as the 5000 is at low speeds, high revs and higher speeds bring an entirely different experience. The V-12 clears its throat and smoothly pulls toward redline, where it’s putting out a still-impressive 450 or so hp. The sound ricochets off tunnels, guardrails, other cars, asteroids in outer space. The steering morphs into one of the most deliciously subtle and communicative wheels I’ve ever felt—with no power assist and not much weight on the front end, a crackle of kinetic energy beams from the road right up through to your hands. You realize that the shift effort is calibrated for someone on an adrenaline rush, which you will be by 5,000 rpm.
And meanwhile, everyone, everyone, is doing a double take because cars just aren’t supposed to look like this. When I had to stop for a school bus, the five- or six-year-old boy who stepped off involuntarily let out a shout of amazement when he spied the Countach out on the street. I loved that, because that’s exactly the reaction I would’ve had at that age. Except for this kid, a Countach is an antique car. Surely he didn’t know what he was looking at, but he still knew it was an object of reverence. I hope he gets a poster.