Convoy! CAR's seminal drive story appeared in our February 1977 issue. We drove a trio of Lamborghinis – the Countach, Silhouette and Urraco – from Sant'Agata to London
Lamborghini road trip (CAR Magazine, February 1977: Convoy!)
20 June 2012 11:00
Mel Nichols penned one of CAR's most celebrated drive stories: Convoy, published in February 1977. It was a never-to-be-forgotten journey in a convoy of Lamborghinis – the Countach, Silhouette and Urraco. Read the full, original story over the next few pages.
It had the unreal quality of a dream. That strange hyper-cleanliness, that dazzling intensity of colour, that haunting feeling of being suspended in time, and even in motion; sitting there with the speedo reading in excess of 160mph and two more gold Lamborghinis drifting along ahead.
Not even those gloriously surreal driving scenes from Lelouche’s A Man And A Woman were like this: that grey, almost white ribbon of motorway stretching on until it disappeared into the sharp, clear blue of a Sunday morning in France, mid-autumn, and those strange dramatic shapes eating it up.
What a sight from the few slower cars as that trio came and went! What a sight from the bridges and the service areas: they would have seen the speed! So would the police, of course, those same gendarmes who one after another apparently chose to look and drink it in, to savour it as an occasion rather than to act.
We hadn’t intended to travel so quickly when we left Modena with 1000 miles ahead of us. That we should, given the build-up, the delicious crispness of that early morning, the perfection of that road – and those cars – was inevitable; not to have done so would have been appalling now, for it was only a short time later that the French imposed their speed limits with a savage new will and such adventures may never be possible again. Yes, in German, in theory: but on those narrow German autobahns with their bumps…?
We arrived in Modena on Thursday night, spilling, tired, from an ailing Avis Fiat 131 hired with great difficulty at Milan airport: nothing has changed. For some inexplicable reason all the hotels in Modena were booked out, even our quiet little favourite the Castello out among the vineyards. Not even the talents of the desk clerk at the Real Fini could secure us a bed.
We lounged for an hour in his bar, glad to rest, while he telephoned. But Roger Phillips had a trump card: a key to the flat of Rene Leimer, the owner of Lamborghini, and we set off in the clapped Fiat again, weaving along backroads until we stopped at a trattoria in a village near Sant’Agata.
It was two in the morning but the place was still in full swing and Carlo the owner greeted Phillips like a long-lost brother and it was but moments until we had an excellent four-course dinner in front of us! No bill: there would be a grand reckoning when it was all over. And with that, we tumbled off to Monsieur Leimer’s beds, thankful that he was in Switzerland and thus spared the embarrassment of four guests.
Britain’s Lamborghini chief had come for his cars. About 10am he rang the factory. ‘Ah Phillips,’ – it was almost possible to hear sales manager Scarzi shrugging – ‘your cars? Perhaps this afternoon, perhaps tomorrow morning.’ The Urraco 3.0-litre was ready; even the Countach was ready. But the Silhouette…the Silhouette was still being painted.
Now Roger had been before, countless times, and David Joliffe who runs Portman garages, had been before and so had I; Steve Brazier, who runs Steven Victor, Lamborghini’s main London service agents, who hadn’t, could but tag along merrily for lunch and wonder. This time it was another of the remarkable Carlo’s establishments, a place of rather superior tone.
He waited on us personally, tirelessly and quite perfectly, recommending this, tut-tutting over that, sweeping away dishes not to his approval before we could try them and replacing them with others. We ate gloriously, and drank equally satisfactorily.
And then we were at the factory, that long fawn establishment set back a little from the road on the Modena side of Sant’Agata. Friday: no Dallara, no Leimer; not even Baraldini, that wiry little engineer who runs things now. He was off seeing the Germans about a certain forthcoming project that will consume a lot of Lamborghini’s time and production capacity and hopefully provide them with the economic answers they need, for things had taken a turn for the worse.
Leimer had been promised £1m by Italy’s answer to the National Enterprise Board. The little company needed it desperately but more than six months had elapsed and it still hadn’t been forthcoming, enabling them to begin putting their plan for future security into operation (see CAR July 1976).
Leimer, a Swiss, was and is, like other foreign investors in Italian industry, under pressure to get out. The Italian turmoil, the beginnings of a social upheaval, persists and foreigners are finding themselves accused of taking Italy’s money out for investment elsewhere. The fight goes on amid confusion and frustration.
There was no confusion, at that moment, down on the factory floor. The third strike of the day was over and the serious business of building Lamborghinis was under way once more. Ah yes – there was our Countach and there was the Urraco, waiting to go. Down on its own at the end of the line busy trimming Countaches – including an amazing blue one with gold-painted engine, gold cockpit and wheel arches, tricked up to look like Walter Wolf’s but apparently not in receipt of a 5.0-litre engine, and apparently bound for the highways of Haiti – was the Silhouette.
Around it clustered a team of men and women, buffing and polishing the fresh bronze-gold paint, painstakingly fitting the last bits and pieces. They’d be there for hours; there was no hope of our getting away before nightfall. The cars had to be checked and ‘sealed’ by the customs man from Modena yet, and waiting for him can be something else again. Better to wander around the factory, soaking it all up again. Thrilled just to be there.
We dined out yet again at the good Carlo’s and did ourselves no disservice at all. The grand reckoning was remarkably reasonable: about £25 for each of us for three excellent meals, a lot of wine and drinks and coffees. We availed ourselves of Mr Leimer’s hospitality yet again, but at an early hour this time. We were anxious to be on the road: next day, the serious business of ferrying three Lamborghinis to London would begin.
The noise of 28 cylinders, 12 cams, 14 sucking carburettors and eight howling exhausts rent the damp, still morning. Oh God, I’d thought, when Phillips tossed me the Countach keys; not the Countach to begin with. Not that, rhd drive and with no usable mirror on the left, to go through the villages and into Modena. Not that awesome beast with its awkward cabin and daunting visibility.
I tugged off my boots in order to have maximum control over the pedals deep down in the footwell, and while I was messing about the others were gone in a flurry of sound and exhaust vapour. I reached the gate, stopped to check the exit then eased on some revs and let the clutch out. The V12 spluttered and coughed; the clutch went in and throttle was pumped.
It picked up again with a roar as the car straddled the centre of the road, the clutch came out hard and we were away with a chirp from the fat Michelins and a quick waggle from the tail.
By the time I caught the others at the garage, filling up, I’d learned once more that my reasons for trepidation about the Countach were unfounded. How good it was, instead, to be back behind that outlandishly raked windscreen, with the little wheel between my knees. The first miles – yes, as little as that – had brought it all back: the incredible feeling of stability, the amazing precision of a car that has no other purpose in life other than to spear on down the road, as fast and as far as possible.
God, that feeling is so strong in the Countach it can take your breath away. And the pedals: I put my boots back on, those big insensitive boots, and never gave them another thought. We darted out into the traffic and stayed with it until we turned onto the motorway.
Even mild throttle and modest revs took us scampering past the rest of the traffic as we accelerated away from the toll booth to settle quickly into fifth for a steady 80mph cruising speed for the most, but varying it now and then to let the engines work at different revs for their first few road miles.
Running in with the Italian supercars – with any engine bedded in so thoroughly on the dynamometer – tends to be more driver discipline rather than the engine’s asking. They just feel ready to go, and indeed within two hours our speed was creeping steadily upwards until we were sitting on 110mph with the Fiats and the slower Alfas and Lancias moving out of the way well ahead as this £52,000 convoy sprang into their mirrors.
The pleasure to be had just from sitting there conducting the Countach at that steady, restful, seemingly slow speed was considerable. Again it’s the overwhelming stability that comes through strongest, and the absolute decisiveness of the car. The steering is not heavy, just solid. Turn it with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, s-l-o-w-l-y, and feel the car change direction without a millisecond’s hesitation. Feel it change direction at precisely the tempo and to precisely the degree you have commanded. Swing the wheel back and grin with pleasure as it comes back to its heading again. There has been no roll, nothing more nor less than you asked for.
Feel too, the messages being patted into the palms of your hands. I watched the Urraco and Silhouette, a little way ahead, riding over the bumps, with their tails dipping as one and rebounding so positively and economically. The Countach would go over the same bumps, and the feel alone said that it was dipping and rebounding even less than they were. And yet its ride is never uncomfortable. Oh yes, it’s firm, about as firm as that supplied by a modestly padded steel office chair resting on thick carpet when you jiggle up and down on it; but never uncomfortable. It simply feels to be honed as finely and magnificently as every other component in this king among supercars.
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