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Superclash - Showdown: Countach v Boxer

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They were the definitive ‘Supercars of the Seventies’. But which was the best of the best, Boxer or Countach?

I'd be lying if I told you I’d slept well the night before. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had something of an irrational weakness for the Lamborghini Countach – and here I was about to spend the day in the company of one, along with its fiercest of ’70s rivals, the Ferrari Boxer. Fed on a diet of carefully crafted prose from the likes of Blain, Setright, Cropley and Nichols throughout my childhood, it was hard not to be convinced by proxy that the unmistakable Countach was something very special indeed. But my biggest worry was that the passage of time would have dulled its impact.

I needn’t have worried. As the early morning mists were burned away by the autumnal sun, I set eyes on it for the first time. The car in question, an early LP400 Periscopo finished in burnt orange, looks fabulous. Low, squat, wide-haunched, fat tyred and implausibly wedgy. With its scissor doors open, the Countach appears as removed from the traffic around it as it might have done back in the 1970s. The Ferrari 512BBi alongside practically goes unnoticed.

Imagine the impact the Countach must have made at the Geneva Motor Show in 1971, when the original bright yellow 5-litre prototype was shown for the very first time. Another flight of fancy? Of course. Bertone’s Marcello Gandini had grown in confidence as a stylist since penning the Miura. He’d obviously gone for shock and awe with the Countach, celebrating its mid-engined layout with a cab-forward design like no other. In reality, Lamborghini needed it like a hole in the head, especially as the Miura was at the height of its Ferrari-humbling powers. 

No matter, the Sant’Agata factory announced that it would be building customer versions. Considering how radical the original looked, the retail proposition hadn’t been too compromised. Sure, it had sprouted box-like air intakes aft of the side windows and a pair of NACA ducts on its flanks but, other than that, the Countach retained its concept car looks.

Under the skin there had been considerable development work to make it production-ready. The prototype had already abandoned the Miura’s transverse engine layout, but other challenges included incorporating those cooling system upgrades, the loss of its digital instrumentation, making the transmission reliable, and abandoning the big-bore Bizzarrini V12.

In 1974 the production Countach went on sale, and immediately found itself thrown into the centre of a storm. In the wake of the 1973 energy crisis, demand for supercars evaporated, with many industry pundits forecasting the death of the motor industry. Italy’s industrial relations were shattered too, and as a consequence of unstable and ineffectual government regular strikes crippled production at Sant’Agata.

After the overwhelmingly favorable climate that the Miura had thrived in, it was a stark reversal of fortunes for Lamborghini. The company ended up lurching from crisis to crisis throughout the strife-torn ’70s, the only constant through it all being the Countach’s continued production, albeit sporadic.

With all that going on in the foreground, the Countach’s obvious strengths as the ultimate supercar continued to shine through. And it’s easy to see why: its credentials were impeccable.

Although no independent road tester could ever get close to matching it, Lamborghini boldly claimed that the Countach’s maximum speed was 195mph. Given that its closest rival, the Ferrari 365GT4BB, was all done at 188mph (again optimistic), that made it supposedly the fastest production car in the world. In reality, neither the Boxer nor the Countach would go much beyond 170mph, but that didn’t matter one iota.
 
Because controversy was what the Countach was all about. Its all-aluminium engine pushed out 375bhp, it had six downdraught twin-choke Weber carburettors, four camshafts, twin fuel pumps and two tanks that needed feeding with five-star. Under the skin, it was special, too, featuring a multi-tubular spaceframe beneath an aluminium, steel and glassfibre body.
 
But what of the Boxer, the car that the Countach so comprehensively overshadowed during the ’70s? Some say that the big Ferrari was a latecomer to the supercar party but, with the Daytona being such a success with mile-munching playboys, who’s to say that it needed to produce an answer to the Miura with any degree of haste? Certainly, when it arrived in 1973, the 365GT4 Berlinetta Boxer was a massive departure – not only for Ferrari (the mid-engined Dino’s V6 was transversely mounted) but also compared with the opposition.

The BB’s Pininfarina styling was a masterclass of beauty and subtlety, and it housed its unusual engine/transmission package quite elegantly. Echoing Ferrari’s dominant Formula One cars of the mid-’70s, it had a flat-12 engine (hence the name), which was slung atop a five-speed gearbox. Given the packaging constraints that layout imposed, it was a marvellous effort.

The Boxer’s body/chassis unit was similar in concept to the Countach’s: a square-tube perimeter frame, strengthened by sheet steel, was clad in alloy and glass-fibre. Alike underneath, but what about on the road?

The first thing that strikes me about the Countach is its size. When new it was lambasted for its sheer width, but now, mixing with modern traffic, the Countach seems perfectly sized. The driving position is low and reclined, and driving behind the taller Boxer the view is dominated by that car’s transmission casing and exhaust pipes. It’s a wonder how taller owners manage, as it‘s all a bit of a squeeze. Despite that, the panoramic view of grand-scale countryside is as perfect as it gets.

There’s no time to admire the Alcantara and leather interior though, because the open road beckons and I don’t want to wait. Meeting a hero, and all that.

Starting the Countach is straightforward. Prime the carbs with the throttle, turn the starter, let it cough into life... two, four, six, twelve, then blip the throttle to clear its throat. Like the Miura, it’s racecar music controlled by the right foot. Sadly, the Countach likes to intimidate – all three pedals are heavy, and a quick check of the  mirror tells you very little. Whatever, it’s time to go.  

Given the Lamborghini’s legendary reputation, it’s tempting to immediately nail the throttle and see how fast the Countach will go but, as crisp and responsive as this one sounds, it’s best to learn its little foibles before really going for it.

With its tall gearing and cammy power delivery, driving smoothly is difficult to begin with. But beyond 3000rpm that’s all forgiven and there’s genuine shove. Once the 5000rpm barrier is breached, the soundtrack that overlays the yowl of the V12 with the whine of the transmission becomes operatic, while acceleration ramps up to almost savage proportions. The Countach is still every inch a pure-bred, full-fat supercar.

The steering is alive but less frantic than the Miura’s, and when you dive into the corners the Countach feels planted in a reassuringly no-roll kind of way. And for me that’s a blessed relief because it’s confirmation that the stream of superlatives in Countach drive stories during the ’70s was completely justified.

As the miles roll by, confidence in the Countach increases to the point where its inherent speed becomes almost a natural state of affairs, and only when we catch other cars does its ground-covering ability become obvious. It’s also increasingly difficult to contemplate handing back the keys to its enthusiastic owner.

And there’s one final surprise on this memorable day in the North Yorkshire Moors: it might have been an uncompromisingly sporting car back then, but one aspect of the Countach’s chassis set-up that impresses is the compliant ride – factory test driver Bob Wallace obviously felt little need to develop the suspension set-up at the Nuerburgring…

Unsurprisingly, after the Countach the Boxer feels altogether more civilised. And so it should. Inside, it’s more commodious and luxuriously trimmed, while the driving position is less compromised. Our Michelin TRX-shod 1982 Ferrari 512BBi was more contemporary with the Countach LP500S, and proof positive that fuel injection and low-profile tyres really were massive leaps forward in automotive development.

Once fired up, the Ferrari’s flat-12 sounds delightful. The throttle is light and responsive, and there’s little in the way of flywheel effect, so blipping it to release that music becomes a bit of a naughty pleasure.

It’s mighty tractable underway, too. Low-down torque is ample, throttle response is clean and acceleration feels every bit as strong as the Countach’s, but without the multi-faceted power delivery. In many ways it lacks the drama of its Sant’Agata rival, a fact borne out by the lack of attention it gets.

But it’s a joyous-sounding beast. At low revs it’s subdued but, as the speed picks up, it emits a spine-tingling scream, especially towards its 6500rpm red line. For once, Lamborghini doesn’t have it all its own way in the musical stakes.

The Boxer is poised, too, and although there’s been much criticism from seasoned testers about its snap-oversteer and too-high centre of gravity, on dry moorland roads it’s grippy and helped along by communicative steering. The open-gated gearchange and clutch are heavy, but not wearingly so – they just add to the well-engineered feel.

I might not have slept too well the night before, but that certainly wasn’t the case afterwards. Both the Boxer and Countach are physical cars to drive, but I’d come away having touched greatness. For me the Countach was the star of the pair, just as I’d hoped, but considering its reputation for ungainly handling the Boxer runs it surprisingly close on these challenging roads. And I’m delighted about that, too.

Thanks to Stephen Ward, Les Arrowsmith and Mark Baxtrem.

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