KITS & PIECES
IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE THAT A MANUFACTURER PRIMARILY PRODUCING TRACTORS COULD PRODUCE A CAR THAT LOOKS LIKE THIS
The Lamborghini Countach was produced from 1974 through to 1990. It had the longest production run of any supercar and, to date, is the best known Lamborghini model, with the Miura coming a close second. The Countach evolved through various renditions throughout its 16-year production, cumulating in the grand finale — the 25th Anniversary Edition. This final example was not only the most refined but possibly also the fastest Countach as well. The Anniversary Edition was initially intended to be a limited run, but, by the time production stopped, it had become the bestselling rendition of the Countach, with over 650 sold.
Not surprisingly, there are very few of these cars in New Zealand. As an iconic model, it comes with a price, and it is a sad fact that the average Kiwi cannot afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it would cost to own one, let alone the cost of maintaining such a beast! Even if you could afford one, there is a strong possibility that the steering wheel would be on the wrong side, as only a small number of these cars were produced in right-hand-drive (RHD) format. So, how was it that I came to be sitting in a RHD 25th Anniversary Edition of this iconic vehicle on a damp Auckland day?
The thing is, its owner — Robert Nyenkamp — is also its creator. Under the skin of this amazing-looking car are the bones of a New Zealand kit car called the ‘Countess’. In the engine bay is a good old-fashioned and easy-to-maintain American V8.
There is nothing that Robert does not know about the 25th Anniversary Edition car, and it shows in the minute attention to detail evident in everything from the replica dashboard controls to the genuine Alpine stereo. Indeed, leaving the engine to one side, the replica’s faithfulness is so precise that pieces which could not be replicated, such as the curved side glass, are in fact genuine Lamborghini.
Best of the bunch
To understand this story, we need to turn the clock back 30 years to 1989, when Robert first saw the Countess prototype rotating on a turntable at the entrance to the New Zealand Sports Car show in Henderson. The Countess was a replica of an early ’80s LP500S, manufactured in the little town of Feilding by David Short. The kit price was $22K in those days, a price Robert saw as being almost affordable. After talking to David, the CEO of Countess Mouldings, he was almost sold on the idea.
But the decision to buy was stalled by the fact that he was about to go to America for a few years with his American wife, Karen. The job he was going to involved the procurement of parts for European cars sold in the US. Besides travelling throughout the US making contacts, he was also required to travel to Europe to identify parts suppliers. Naturally, this gave him the opportunity to look at other companies that manufactured Countach replicas. After having a look at 15 different companies in the US and England, he decided that the New Zealand example was the best of the bunch due to the solidness of its steel chassis, and the solid hinging of the trademark scissor doors.
In 1992, Robert decided to commit, so he contacted Countess Mouldings and ordered his kit, which consisted of chassis, suspension components, all the fibreglass panels, and a windscreen, having it delivered to his New Zealand home. Meanwhile, back in the US, Robert was starting to source parts to make the perfect replica. Although most Countachs were sold in the US, their V12 engines had proven unreliable and expensive to maintain, and, on occasion, they even caught fire, so several of them had their V12 motors swapped for American V8s. After production of the Countach stopped, the new Diablo was not as wild-looking, so the value of the V12 Countach suddenly started to climb. When Robert visited a company called Armstrong Motor Works in Los Angeles, it was in the process of removing a Corvette motor with a De Tomaso transaxle from a Countach to reinstall the original V12 motor, as the owner wanted to sell it for top dollar. Robert managed to get the 5.7-litre V8 motor with transaxle and gearbox for a good price and shipped it back to New Zealand. Although his V8 was not a genuine Lamborghini motor, it had come out of a genuine Lamborghini.
Besides doing engine swaps, Armstrong Motor Works was also in the business of producing Countach kit cars. It was selling LP500S kits similar to the New Zealand Countess, and a 25th Anniversary Countach as well. As most of the 25th Anniversary panels were designed to be attached to the LP500S body, Robert found himself reaching for his wallet and shipping a set of 25th Anniversary panels to New Zealand. Also shipped out was a lot of genuine trim pieces only found on the 25th edition. Robert went the whole hog and bought genuine Lamborghini door and quarter glass, which has a slight curve in it. Virtually every Countach kit uses flat glass for the doors, because it is easier to manufacture and assemble. It’s also a lot cheaper.
Genuine electric seats were sourced from England, where a Countach owner was converting his car for racing, and the heavy factory seats with their multiple electric motors had to go. Being in the right place, at the right time, ensured that Robert was
able to get them. Having acquired the genuine seats, the floor of the kit had to be altered three times to fit them. This included lowering the floor to make sure that the car could accommodate people who were over 1.8m tall. The instrument cluster has genuine Stewart gauges as per the original. At the time, Robert was earning good money, so he was determined to have the right bits.
It was a different story a few years later when he returned home to a double mortgage and a young family in New Zealand. Fortunately, he had already purchased most of the expensive bits, so he was able to start work on the car, although family commitments meant that the project had to be shelved, sometimes for months on end, until the necessary cash, expertise, or time could be found.
Robert is convinced that he would never have finished his car without the constant help and encouragement of his friends, especially Frank Van-lingen, who was always on call for whenever an extra pair of hands was needed. Andy Culpin, engineer extraordinaire, is another who was always there whenever an engineering problem seemed insurmountable. Andy is the sort of guy who always had a solution or a way of working around a problem, which was especially helpful when the car required certification. A mid-engined car is not a simple build, and David Short, who lives in Feilding, was always available to give advice on the project, and he popped in to view progress when he was in Auckland. Another friend, Vince Lettice, was to fibreglass what Andy Culpin was to engineering. He took on the task of converting to look, externally at least, exactly like the 25th Anniversary rendition. Panels made for a car manufactured in America did not necessarily fit the equivalent car made in New Zealand, and many panels required a bit of fettling. Michael Gibson, of Gibson Upholstery, took on the mammoth task of converting seven cow hides into bespoke upholstery, which Robert believes is superior to that found in the original.
Designed to be experienced
This incredible piece of machinery was built in a Skyline garage behind an average-looking house in suburban Auckland. It ranks among the best home-built cars that I have seen. In city traffic, it is quiet and refined until the right foot heads in the direction of the floor — at that point the car becomes a different beast. Under power, it sounds awesome, but the noise does not take over the cabin, as normal conversation can continue, even when the bonnet lifts under acceleration and the car starts rapidly heading towards the horizon. When on the road, the car attracts an unprecedented amount of attention. People will toot, flash their lights, and point their phones at you.
Most cars are designed to be driven, and, today, even a Toyota Corolla is easier and more pleasant to drive than this supercar; however, the difference between the two is that the Lamborghini Countach was a car designed to be experienced. Only those who own such a car can describe it. I was only the passenger, yet I was smiling the whole time. Even in normal Auckland traffic, you cannot shake the feeling that you are in something that is pretty special.
The quality of the finish in Roberts’s car is the result of many hours of research and hand-built componentry, much of which was built three times before being deemed as fit for purpose.
In New Zealand, there are only a few people who can write a cheque and drive away in a genuine Lamborghini, albeit sitting in the wrong side of the car! There are even fewer with the enthusiasm and commitment to build one in their shed. A cheque for several hundred thousand dollars is one thing, but it is a totally different thing to spend 20 years creating a car that is as good as — and in some instances better than — the original (it can be driven by tall people).
If you can afford to buy and drive your dream car, then good for you; but should you meet somebody who has built their dream car bolt by bolt, give them the credit for the artisans that they are. People have said in Roberts’s presence, “It’s only a kit car”. In my view, we should turn that phrase around and say, “Wow, you actually built this!”, because it takes a lot more effort, skill, self-sacrifice, and willpower to complete a project of this magnitude when compared with simply writing a cheque and driving a car away.
Yes, it’s a V8 — but it did come out of an original Countach