A Lesson Learned While Living With A Lambo
“The death of a car is to let it sit” was the theme we examined last week. So to highlight why cars shouldn’t remain sedentary, this week we bring you Exhibit A: Lamborghini Countach LP400 chassis 1120056.
In 1998 it wasn’t worth even 4% of what it is today, so I stretched my finances and went out bought it. I’d always admired the LP400 for the purity of its design, and felt the later versions with wings and flares and such were caricatures of the original. Plus back then I was telling anyone who would listen, if I could load up a warehouse with just onecar for financial appreciation, it would be LP400s.
I thus took notice when friend and Lamborghini guru the late Al Burtoni put 1120056 up for sale for a client. Cosmetically it looked quite original, save a mediocre orange repaint and wing on the back. The wheels were unchipped, the body was arrow straight, and the hard-to-find tool kit resided where it should be, nestled inside the spare wheel. Mileage was relatively low, and on a couple of test drives, the Lambo felt super tight mechanically.
This was still the days of an active gray market, where people would bring cars not originally imported into the U.S., and have them “converted” to American standards at a compliance shop. Without today’s all-pervasive technology, some importers wouldn’t convert the car, and simply register it without much of an issue.
To make sure 1120056 wasn’t one of those, I called Dick Merritt at the Department of Transportation in Washington D.C., and asked what they had on it. The next day my fax machine started humming, and there was Dick’s reply on DoT stationary stating they had no knowledge of the car being in the U.S., and would seize it if they knew its location.
I returned to Al Burtoni, and produced the fax. The Lambo’s owner had been pretty recalcitrant to any type of negotiation, and suddenly became much more amenable to an offer. I bought it for $42,000 (30% under the “ask”), and assumed the risk of getting it converted. Over the next several weeks Burtoni worked his magic to make it legal in the U.S., and I obtained the proper paperwork and registered it.
World’s Fastest Car
One reason 1120056 was so alluring was some research revealed it had been featured in Car & Driver magazine in 1975. The article stated it was a factory hot rod built especially for preferred Lamborghini client Alberto Silvera, and was likely the world’s fastest car. A fax to former Lamborghini chief engineer Gianpaolo Dallara (who had returned to the company when 1120056 was built) confirmed the story to be true—as did the compression test during the pre-purchase inspection.
To add some spice and fun to the test, I had Al give an over/under line on the compression, and we wagered a dollar per cylinder on what the results would be. If memory serves me correctly, he said 175 psi and took the under, so for every cylinder with a reading of 175 or less, I owed him a dollar, and for every one at 176 or more, he owned me a dollar. He ended up paying me $12, as every cylinder was between 215 and 225 psi. This V12 was indeed pumped up and super healthy.
Fix it All
After the conversion was done and rear wing was removed I drove the hot rod Countach home. While it ran quite well, it was soon obvious the car had some minor maladies from extended sitting. Over the next several weeks, I got stranded three times and had the Lambo flatbedded back to Al’s. We ended up with a list of everything needing attention, and my instructions to Al were simple: I never want to return with any of these issues.
A good number of weeks later that marvelous Countach was completely dialed in, and that’s when the real fun began. An LP400 is barely 41 inches tall, and at 6’3” I needed more headroom to be able to drive it for an extended period. We ended up removing the seat frame rails and bolting the seat directly to the floor, which gave me a range of about 100-120 miles before it was time to consider seeing the chiropractor.
The Real Test Drive
On the first day of “real” driving, a flying saucer would have had difficulty getting more attention. In the days before YouTube and everything being videoed on cellphones, seeing a Countach (and particularly an LP400) was as rare as discovering a gold mine. While I was filling it up at a gas station a butcher ran out of a shop from across the street, his apron still on, to see the car up close. Small children, no older than five or six, craned their heads to get a better look. Their parents, and numerous others, stopped, pointed and stared.
Getting in and out was amusing, but once settled into that supportive bucket seat, the interior was surprisingly conventional compared to the flamboyant exterior. Eight gauges were housed in a rectangular instrument binnacle, and the 10,000-rpm tach had no redline (it was 8,000). The small steering wheel’s thick rim felt ideal in your hands, as did that hefty gearshift lever. The pedals were properly placed for heel and toeing, and the transmission tunnel was an excellent brace for one’s knee during hard cornering.
Mashing the accelerator at low rpm on this particular LP400 caused it stumble, but once above 3000 rpm the carbs’ 24 throats cleared and the Countach literally blasted off to the horizon. The shove was unrelenting as you blew through 130 mph, feeling as if it would easily run with (or beat) a mid- to late-1980s Ferrari Testarossa.
No question it had superior poke to a standard LP400, and was very likely the world’s fastest road car in the mid-1970s. One time that prodigious performance let me wave goodbye to a Corvette that wanted to play.
Under full throttle the factory-installed Sport Exhaust had the most delicious bellow that gloriously overwhelmed the cabin, its rich, complex baritone voice several times louder than a stock LP400. The gearbox was a marvel with ideal weighting and precise shifts, the slotted gate feeling beefy and robust, perfect for guiding the stubby lever as your ran it hard through the gears.
Overall Drive Feel
Surprisingly, what may have been the car’s most impressive and overlooked attribute was how, even in its “souped up” state, the ride was a marvelous compromise between firmness and cosseting. Pushed hard into turns there was minimal body roll, and the steering was direct, quite communicative, and nicely weighted, the nose going exactly where you pointed it, NOW! And whether you were pottering at 20 mph in town or 120 mph on an empty freeway, it only jarred when crashing through a severe pothole.
During three years of ownership, this utterly luscious Lambo was driven at least once a week. I would always wait for it to get up to proper temperature before truly opening the taps, and made sure to run it to 7500+ rpm in 1st, 2nd and 3rd with my foot fully in it, before putting it away. I always went up and down through the gears several times to keep the synchros in shape, used a variety of pressures on the brakes, and tried all signals and lights at least once.
Moral of the Story
So what’s the moral in all this? When I reluctantly sold 1120056 in 2001, she was in as good or better condition than when I bought it. With regular exercise, oil changes, cleaning and detailing, this most exotic of exotics was nearly as reliable as your next-door neighbor’s Ford or Toyota. It was quite tractable in minor traffic, and a chariot of the exhilaration gods when your foot was fully in it. The only malady after three years of consistent use was the carbs were becoming slightly out of tune.
In sum, if you have some A-list exotic, let alone any collector car, the best thing you can do to keep it in top shape is briskly exercise it at least once a month. You, your family and friends will enjoy your car all the more, and it will go a long way in ensuring that your pride and joy remains happy and healthy—and not some arthritic or cantankerous beast like the Aston, Ferrari and Split Window Corvette we looked at last week.