Lamborghini Countach Evoluzione


Imagine being the first to turn its key.

It's 1986 and you work for Lamborghini, the supercar maker that has been in bankruptcy for eight years. The world's best-known supercar, the Countach, was the halo car in its range that also included the entry-level Jalpa and misguided LM002.

Swiss businessmen Jean-Claude and Patrick Mimram were in control during the administration process, working hard to make the company attractive to potential buyers.

They'd started restructuring and invested money back in 1980, but it takes time to resurrect a sunken ship, no matter how beautiful the cargo. Who wants to work at a bankrupt car company, anyway?

Someone who's looking to make a name for himself.

Argentinian Horacio Pagani had moved to Italy to pursue his dream of building a supercar, with a letter of recommendation from his friend and mentor, Juan Manuel Fangio.

He was young, hungry, and full of ideas.

Aerodynamic changes were made compared to a standard Countach. Subtle ones, like the lower front spoiler and reshaped side sills; obvious ones, like the fitted discs over the wheels.

Like Colin Chapman, who founded Lotus, Pagani believed in lightweight vehicles. But Pagani focused on making supercars lighter, not basic sports cars like the 7 and Elan. 

From the 1981 McLaren MP4/1, carbon fibre monocoques—a vehicle's main chassis structure—had become the standard in light weight and safety for all Formula One cars, some of the fastest machines on the planet.

Pagani's focus on techniques to shed weight led him to an obsession with the material: What can be made with carbon fibre? How do you make it? What are the benefits?

Designers at Lamborghini's arch-rival Ferrari were playing with the material, too. After all, the company's participation as a manufacturer in Formula One forced them to adopt the material to stay competitive, and were now starting to make carbon fibre parts for their road cars, starting with the limited production 1987 288 GTO Evoluzione and, later that year, with the legendary F40 supercar. Both had carbon fibre body panels.

At around the same time, either Lamborghini's administration or Pagani made a startling realization: Who would want to buy the company if we were selling cars that were a step behind the competition?

Instead of just producing body panels in carbon fibre, Pagani's team decided to leapfrog Ferrari and produce an entire car's structure in the material—the very first road car so constructed.

Lamborghini didn't have money for an all-new car, of course, so a prototype was constructed using the plans from the firm's iconic supercar, the Countach. Even then, Pagani's design influence was evident.

The cars now produced in his name leave many materials—especially carbon fibre—exposed, allowing their natural beauty to become part of the design. This special Countach would be left unpainted so that its cutting-edge construction could be shown off. Its brushed silver fenders and doors were aluminum, while the rest was carbon fibre.

Aerodynamic changes were made compared to a standard Countach. Subtle ones, like the lower front spoiler and reshaped side sills; obvious ones, like the fitted discs over the wheels.

Pagani wanted a stout engine, so the 461 horsepower motor that would normally power a Countach 5000QV was re-tuned to deliver at least 490 horsepower. The team chose traditional carburetors over a more modern fuel injection system, surprising, since other supercar makers had long abandoned carbs.

Then again, the goal was a light supercar at the expense of all else. At just 980 kg (2160 lbs.), it weighed 500 kg (1102 lbs) less than a normal Countach.

That's 120 kg (265 lbs.) less than the 1987 Ferrari F40. It's also 82 kg (180 lbs.) less than the lightest McLaren F1, the 1995 LM road car.

So imagine being the first to turn its key. You're in the most advanced prototype road car ever constructed, with a sonorous V12 engine at your back. As a rolling test bed, it saw the most advanced, weapons-grade features: active suspension with variable ride height, ABS brakes, and an adjustable four-wheel drive system.

Wrrr-click-k-RA-THRUM: cylinders 1,7,5,11,3,9,6,12,2,8,4,10 are now filled with gasoline, spark, and explosion.

Inside, there is barely an interior. Carpet covers up the wiring for the car's instrumentation and electrical systems. There's a tachometer, and gauges for the fuel level, water temperature, and oil pressure. Who needs a speedometer when Polizia sympathetic to Lamborghini patrol the roads?

You're down low, snug in that shape, that famous body now proudly drawn in exotic materials and reduced to its most basic form: no headlights, no rear wing, and no windshield wiper. You close the scissor door. Make no mistake, you know you're about to drive something special.

The key clicks over and you can hear the fuel pump engage. The starter whines and the spark plugs flash into action. Wrrr-click-k-RA-THRUM: cylinders 1,7,5,11,3,9,6,12,2,8,4,10 are now filled with gasoline, spark, and explosion. 

Like a jackhammer, all 12 pound at fractions of a second. They pummel the entire car, from the prancing bull on its pert tail to the ant-catcher front spoiler. Your body—from toes to spine to fingertips to brain—is vibrating in tune. Anything within 50 feet of the car is affected, too. Windows, asphalt, guardrails, and native Modena flora is at the mercy of your right foot.

And holy shit, does this earthquake move. Tests blessed the Evoluzione with a 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) time of about 4 seconds, and a top speed of 330 km/h (205 mph)—no doubt limited because of the car's sexy-but-unstable shape.

Thing is, you're driving the fastest thing on the road and don't know it. How can you? This is long before instant data collection. Besides, who has time for screens? Each shift, each dip of your right foot fires you fast forward. You're driving by the seat of your pants.

The Lamborghini Countach Evoluzione marks the moment in time when, knowingly or not, Pagani and his team pushed road car design into the next century. After it, the first carbon fibre supercars would take nearly a decade to appear. 2014 marks the first year in nearly 30 when relatively mainstream cars—the Alfa Romeo 4C sports car and BMW i3 electric car—are available for purchase with a carbon fibre chassis..

History didn't wait for this fighting bull, though. It was poked, prodded, and tested to destruction—at the time, its construction techniques were too exotic and expensive for production. One last question was asked of it: how does carbon fibre hold up in an accident?

And so the Evoluzione was ended in a crash test, with a blunt strike to its jaw. From the carnage would rise a new supercar maker and a method of building cars that automakers are just beginning to understand. 

But that's a story for another day.

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