We celebrate 50 years of V12 Lambo supercars
What better way to celebrate 50 years since the Miura than with a midengined V12 family reunion?
WHEN YOU drive a Lamborghini Aventador SV the world stops – five hundred-and-fifty-two kilowatts and a sound like a Lexus LFA and a Shelby Cobra duetting on a Black Keys cover will do that. Drive an SV slowly and people will freeze, rooted to the spot, and stare open-mouthed. Drive an SV fast and cars will disappear past the window like a streak of raindrops. And you do drive it fast; it’s impossible not to. Speed limits disappear in a blur of indulgence and velocity. The SV’ll get there so quickly you’ll find yourself indulging again and again, where every ounce of your common sense tells you that you’ll get caught. Resistance is futile so press the pedal, live for the moment – every moment – and soak up a sound that’ll have the environmentally conscious amongst us wince.
Thirsty, polluting, antisocially overpowered and dangerously fast in the wrong hands, a V12 Lamborghini is the crystallisation of why you first loved cars all those years ago, and why you still do. A blend of classic supercar charm and modern tech, Lamborghini’s most extreme production Aventador is a worthy recipient of the fabled Super Veloce badge. But is it the best Lambo ever?
One look at the Miura is enough to fill you with doubt. It’s a tiny car in the metal; 86mm lower even than the Aventador, as beautiful and delicate as a spider’s web, but it refuses to play by the accepted Lambo rules of supercar design: the slide rules. They’re angular and angry. But the Miura is soft, curvaceous, warm, sensual. If it were a Bond girl it’d be Thunderball’s Claudine Auger to the Countach’s Grace Jones. Money can hardly adequately capture the value of this girl. This one, just restored by marque specialist Colin Clarke, is worth over $2.4m. That value is as much to do with the Miura’s significance as its ethereal beauty.
You know the story: successful industrialist gets sick of his unreliable Ferrari, rows with the boss, claims he can do better, and creates his own car company to do exactly that. He starts with a bug-eyed GT with an engine commissioned by disgruntled ex-Ferrari man Bizzarrini, and then turns the world inside out with the mid-engined Miura. Presento, il supercar!
Technically, the Miura’s a bit of an oddball. It’s constructed of steel rather than aluminium and the V12 engine, though lifted from the earlier 400GT, isn’t merely mounted in the middle but twisted through 90 degrees and mounted on top of the transmission, just like BMC’s ’59 Mini. The first slim-hipped P400
cars (P for posterior, or rear; 4 for 4.0) produced 257kW, later bumped to 272kW for the 1968 P400S. But barring the one-off Jota, it’s the 1971 SV, the car we’re driving, that’s the ultimate incarnation of the Miura. That was the first outing for Lamborghini’s now familiar Super Veloce name, back then not a standalone model, merely an evolutionary step, but a hugely more serious Lamborghini all the same.
Fat arches covered wider but still plump-walled rubber, the earlier car’s effete headlamp eyebrows gone and the V12 teased to produce 283kW. Approach the Miura’s driver’s door and you realise just how much it hugs the ground, the roofline and doors so low that it’s like trying to operate one of those wheelchair-accessible ATMs.
Open the door and the slats, with their hidden release, come too. While it’s not as outlandish as the Countach’s scissor doors, from the front it mimicks the namesake of a raging bull, horns and all. The view from the other side of the glass is just as cool, the windscreen pillars so vestigial you feel like you’ve got trinocular vision from the recumbent seats.
There’s little in the way of dashboard beyond the aircraft-themed console looming over the open-gated shifter, its six small gauges supplementing the two main clocks that seem to float in the ether ahead of you. Twist the key (no starter button here, they were for uncouth racers) and instead of the grandstanding roar you’re expecting the V12 gently, almost apologetically, bumbles into life.
Hefty to begin with, the thin-rimmed steering wheel shrugs it off once you’ve eased the heavy clutch pedal out, wowing with delicacy and communication that you didn’t expect as the front tyres feel their way along the road. There’s no redline on the Jaeger rev counter but in deference to this car’s freshly rebuilt motor I ease into the ride, loathe to push it too far. The noise is immense under load, impossibly so by modern standards, a thundering wail of valve train, gear noise and induction roar from the brace of carbs sitting behind your head.
It’s more than bluster. Even just dipping a toe into the meat of the power band, this Miura feels rapid. Contemporary tests put the 0-100km/h time at six seconds and the top speed at around 274km/h – ample go given the feeble brakes imbue it with all the stopping performance of a road train. You want to be able to flick it around like a Ferrari Dino but the Miura is miles less capable as a driver’s car than its wedgy successor.
The Countach is a very different beast. Harder to get into and see out of, but much easier to send down the road. The 322km/h claimed top speed was pure bull, but to a nation tucking into the terminally tedious new Morris Marina in 1971, the Countach certainly looked more than capable.
Though again designed by Marcello Gandini – and borrowing heavily from his stunning 1968 Alfa Carabo concept – the LP500 prototype’s crisp sheet metal and outrageous scissor doors broke all links with the swoopy Miura. The chassis was now a steel spaceframe, and the V12 turned through another 90 degrees – Longitudinale Posteriore – but with the transmission tucked under the tunnel facing forwards, unlike most mid-engined cars.
The early 272kW LP400 production cars – narrow of body, wobbly of chassis and now worth almost four mil – might be closest to Gandini’s blueprints but it’s cars like this black LP500, all arch flares, deep-dish rims and arrow-shaped spoiler, that most minds conjure when hearing the word Countach.
The 1978 LP400S was first to get those mods, but ironically it mated them to a 15kW meeker V12, a flaw remedied on 1982’s LP500S when a hike to 4.8 litres returned power to the original’s 272kW. This is the ionic Countach as we remember seeing it for the first time. Big, ballsy and ready to give any Ferrari a black eye. Today it’s here in the flesh, and, almost unbelievably, the keys are in my hand, teasing me with its promise of sheer driving delight.
As with the Miura, you've still got an offset pedal box and limited seat adjustment to deal with, but with a steering wheel that actually had ergonomics in mind. It still feels like a Lamborghini. Flat windscreen. No indication where the nose is. Slightly scary. It may not be friendly to drive at first; the controls are heavy – even on the move the steering is weightier than the Miura's, the gear change stiff – but the chassis is so much better balanced.
The Miura might have been the first supercar, but the Countach is the first that looked and drove like one in the modern sense. You can sense the shared DNA between Lamborghini's second supercar and its latest, even if it's more philosophical than technical. Even if it doesn't have the kick of the later QV, this 500S (or 5000S as it's sometimes called) pulls impressively hard, pushing you deep into that strange buttoned therapist's couch that passes for a driver's seat, the claustrophobic cabin reverberating with a mix of exhaust beat and the voracious slurping of six twinchoke carbs. Period tests told of 5.6sec to 100km/h and 274km/h-plus top speeds without the optional wing, which held it back by 16km/h.
Most buyers bought it anyway, and kept buying the Countach long after its Ferrari Boxer nemesis had given way to the Testarossa. Constant evolution was the key, the final four valves per cylinder 5.2 Quattrovalvole iteration delivering a mighty 336kW – monstrous power for the time.
By 1990, Lamborghini again asked Marcello to draw its next supercar but new boss Chrysler didn't like the result, judging it too fussy, and reworked the design. The Diablo's raw materials weren't that different from those of the Countach, but that V12 was boosted to 5.7 litres and 367kW for a 325km/h top speed. A fourwheel drive VT arrived in 1993, and then more than 20 years after bowing out, the SV badge made a return in 1995. This time it was a standalone model; more dynamic than the standard car and – incredibly – for less money, something unthinkable in modern times. With more power and rear-wheel drive (rather than the all-wheel drive VT), it was lighter and faster.
Among pre-facelift cars (recognisable by their popup lamps), the SE30 and its track-ready Jota were even fiercer, but they couldn't compare to the evil looks of the GT; the wider wings covering those three-piece OZ rims, the huge bonnet vent, that monstrous rear diffuser. When the engine's running you're conscious of not getting too close to the giant roof snorkel – just in case the V12 snorts you down whole. Stretched to 6.0-litres and delivering its 430kW exclusively to the rear wheels, this example is running straight-through pipes: they simply hold the door open as a stampede of V12 noise charges through from the exhaust ports.
While it's tempting to dismiss the Diablo as the middle child, lacking the originality of the first models or the finesse of the modern stuff, the reality is much better. After the cramped Countach, the Diablo, with its strangely drooping window line, feels bright inside, the GT's gorgeous carbon-backed buckets locking you in pace in front of the leatherwrapped, alcantara-bossed wheel. The addition of power steering transforms the experience; low speed manoeuvrability feels less like a fitness test, and at higher speeds it's much easier to flick it about.
Yet despite that assistance, there’s still feedback aplenty, the wheel gently wriggling in your hands, and sufficient traction from the 335mm rear rubber to handle that massive 430kW. This car is the surprise of the day. I’ve driven a GT before but this one is even better than I remember – a brilliantly judged blend of classic old school Lamborghini scariness and modern usability. However, genuine modern technology didn’t really come until two generations later with the arrival of the Aventador in 2011.
Although the Murcielago and today’s Aventador might look outwardly similar, they’re totally different beasts beneath the skin. Where the Murcielago follows the Countach’s lead, hiding a steel spaceframe chassis beneath its skin, the Aventador is built around a carbonfibre mono-cell. Where the Murcielago uses an evolution of Bizzarrini’s four-decade-old V12, its successor’s V12 is genuinely all-new, a screaming short-stroke motor worth 515kW in standard form and stretched to 552kW for the SV. Instead of conventional coil-sprung suspension, the latest Lambo uses racingstyle inboard pushrod dampers.
But let’s not forget the Murcielago’s huge contribution to supercar history, bringing carbonfibre brakes and the hugely popular e-gear paddleshift transmission to Lamborghini’s V12 supercar and with Audi bums now firmly on the boardroom seats at Sant’Agata, quality was miles better too. The greatest fear was that Audi’s steadying hand would erode Lamborghini’s character, but a drive in any Murcielago proves those fears totally unfounded.
In its swansong outing the venerable V12, by now 6.5 litres and 493kW, is an absolute behemoth. Noisy, raw, shaking the cabin with feedback, that V12 dominates the driving experience. Newcomers will be first intimidated, and then blown away as the rev counter lunges for 8000rpm. Zero to 100km/h takes 3.0sec, compared to 3.4sec in the standard LP640, but the top speed fell from 340km/h to 336km/h – or climbed to 341km/h with the smaller standard wing.
There’s no mistaking the SV for a lesser Lambo: blackout composite aero parts feature front, back and side, along with a black coating for the wide 18in wheels. What you can’t see is that Lamborghini had ditched 100kg of kerb weight with those changes, or how sweet it was to drive, or how strong those carbon brakes are. But neither can they tell you how much better the Aventador SV is than even that.
The new-gen V12 engine is so much smoother, revs flaring with the barest flick of the throttle. It makes the whole car feel like it is without inertia, a sensation that the older cars can’t match. Fat pillars impede your view and the seats feel like they’re fashioned from slabs of granite, but get the SV rolling and it’s a revelation. Not supple, despite the adaptive dampers lesser Aventadors so desperately need, but nimble, flickable, and incredibly benign.
Although it retains an all-wheel drive layout, there’s so much less understeer than in the Murcielago — a pussycat in tiger’s skin. It’s easy to sense how Pirelli test driver Marco Mapelli was able to pull off a 6min 57sec lap of the Nürburgring. Resolutely secure on the road, it’s more than happy to let you tease the grip on track. No V12 Lambo supercar in the type’s 50-year history has been so entertaining, so forgiving.
Does that make it the greatest Lamborghini? While it’s certainly the most able, a Lamborghini is more about emotion than dynamics. Which you’d grab the keys for first might well rest on the generation to which you belong, which poster you had on your wall, whether your favourite film was The Italian Job, Cannonball Run or, er, The First Wives Club (Diablo fans really suffered for a fix). But over 40 years after it was launched, the Countach retains something truly rare in the car world, a true cross-generational appeal. It’s the origin of the supercar as we know it, and in our eyes the greatest Lamborghini of them all.
Wing slowed traffic dramatically but it did the same to the Countach, costing it 16km/h of top speed thanks to the significant drag Three separate generations but the common ancestry is clear. And nothing attracts attention like a Lamborghini