1974-90 Lamborghini Countach 

Nobody thought a relatively new exotic automaker would seriously compete with Ferrari in the 1960s, when it was well-established, but nobody figured there would be a Lamborghini.

By the next decade, it seemed that every boy and young man in the civilized world put a poster of the wild 1974-90 Lamborghini Countach sports car on his bedroom wall, where Ferrari posters were noticeably absent. The Countach was the ultimate automotive fantasy poster car for more than a decade.

Enzo Ferrari gained fame in auto racing circles with Alfa Romeo race teams before World War II and started his own auto company with its racing arm after that war. Lamborghini didn't come along until the early 1960s, but it soon became a prime Ferrari road car rival.

The story goes that Lamborghini began building autos in 1964 after self-made multimillionaire Italian industrialist Ferruccio Lamborghini became unhappy a few years earlier with his temperamental Ferraris and told Enzo he could make a better car.

"You stick to making tractors, I'll continue making world-class sports cars," Ferrari supposedly told  Lamborghini, founder of the automaker that carried his name.

Ferruccio then methodically built an ultramodern auto factory near Ferrari headquaters in northern Italy, hired that country's top auto talent and began making cars many thought were superior to Ferrari road cars.

While Enzo Ferrari lived for racing his cars, Ferruccio Lamborghini didn't feel racing was necessary. Even Maserati, an old-line Italian exotic sports car builder and longtime Ferrari racing rival, pretty much gave up racing in the 1960s, partly because it had become too expensive, and concentrated on making fast road cars.

Lamborghini came up with the Countach because it needed a successor to its fast, wild-looking 1967-72 Miura sports car, which was the most exciting exotic Italian sports car of its day, topping Ferrari models.

The Countach was simply astonishing with its impossibly rakish styling and V-12 engine that whisked it to 175 mph.

The Countach would eventually produce 420 horsepower with four valve cylinder heads and would go even faster. I once quickly accelerated from 75 mph to 150 mph in a friend's Countach on a nearly empty interstate highway, and the car felt relaxed all the way, with exceptional stability.

The new Lamborghini's name was pronounced COONtahsh, which was a Piedmontese expression of amazement or wonder. It reportedly got its name from a Lamborghini worker who saw the car the night before it was introduced as an experimental model with no specific name at the 1971 auto show in Geneva, Switzerland.

That Lamborghini stole that show. Show visitors were amazed because nobody had seen anything like the mid-engine, two-seat Countach coupe, which seemed as if from the distant future.

Changes had to be made to the Countach show car to let it be produced. The final production version thus wasn't displayed until 1973 at the Geneva show, and the Countach went on sale the following year. It officially was designated the LP400, but almost everyone called it the Countach.

The first Countach had an awesome 4-liter, 375-horsepower V-12 that powered other Lamborghinis, including the Miura, with no less than six carburetors, four camshafts and four exhausts.

This was a complicated, hand-built car with a sharp-edged, nearly pyramidal body design from talented designer Marcello Gandini of Italy's Bertone auto body design firm.

The car's shape didn't follow established car design rules. And later, more-powerful versions looked more muscular and menacing as body scoops, scallops and spoilers were added. Some felt those additions were cool, but others felt they cluttered the original Countach design.

The engine was put longitudinally in a multitubular space frame, with fuel and water carried in twin side-mounted tanks and radiators. The Countach had nearly 50/50 weight distribution, which helped high-speed stability, although it took a while for drivers to get used to its ultrawide body.

The initial plan was to make the Countach a very limited-production car that would be available only to those who proved themselves skilled enough to drive a road car that acted much like a race car. Ferruccio Lamborghini was reluctant to even offer air conditioning because it might make the Countach civilized enough for unskilled drivers. But it eventually was decided to make air conditioning and even leather upholstery standard.

Rear visibility was terrible, though--you had to open the door and sit on the sill while looking over a shoulder when the car was in reverse gear. Steering was heavy, and the interior was cramped, with an overnight bag consuming most luggage space.

But such faults were expected in such an exotic car and were forgiven because the Countach looked spectacular and had a race car's speed, handling, braking and stability. And it was generally practical and reliable for a supercar-nearly as comfortable in city traffic as when moving flat out on Italy's no-speed-limit highways.

The Countach was continually improved. Four years after its arrival, it became the LP400S coupe and got a modified suspension, superwide Pirelli P7 tires on wider wheels, fender flares and a front spoiler. A large rear wing was optional to give it more stability at very high speeds and made it look more like a race car. Television star Jay Leno removed that  wing from his Countach because he felt that the chances of going so fast on Los Angeles area roads with the car that it became airborne were very unlikely.

The engine size was increased to 4.75 liters for the 1982 LP5000S model to handle new, power-robbing emission standards, although horsepower remained at 375. Lamborghini thought that wasn't enough, so it unveiled the 5000 Quattrovalvole model in early 1985 with a 5.2-liter V-12 that had four valves per cylinder and generated 420 horsepower--or 455 in European tune. It could now top 180 mph.

Unfortunately, most Americans missed out on Countachs from the mid-1970s to about 1982. That's largely because Ferruccio Lamborghini had sold the now-struggling firm, which had problems meeting new U.S. auto regulations.

Most potential Countach customers in America didn't want to bother with "gray market" importers of the car, although some Countaches were modified to meet the regulations and certified independently by American outfits--at considerable expense.

The rules eventually were relaxed, and even Chrysler bought Lamborghini in 1987 and owned it for a while. So did Germany's Audi, which invested a lot in it and made its cars more technically sound and reliable.

The Countach finally was replaced by Lamborghini's rakish Diablo model after a Countach Anniversary Coupe was produced.

The more modern Diablo was generally a better car, but it lacked the amazing allure of the Countach.