Lamborghini road trip

Lamborghini is 50. To celebrate in true evo style, we took an ’80s Countach and the latest Aventador on a trans-European adventure

The Countach ahead is 
swallowed by yet another tunnel and now it’s my turn to dive from dazzling sunshine into the inky unknown. For a split second, it’s like the lights have been turned off, and it’s all the more bewildering because the noise of two V12s is contained, amplified and thrown back at me so instantly and loudly that I duck for cover. Then my eyes adjust to the dull light, the Countach’s throttle is lifted as the tunnel bends to the left, and the four tailpipes take turns to jet yellow and blue flames. It’s just another perfect snapshot of a perfect journey, and evo’s idea of a proper party to celebrate 50 years of the maddest and most extraordinary car manufacturer there’s ever been.

Lamborghini has its own idea of what constitutes a party, and over the coming days a 350-strong convoy will take in stunning cities, picturesque villages and some fabulous restaurants on the Lamborghini 50th Anniversary Grand Tour. I’m sure it’ll be fun.

We’re en route to the starting point at the Piazza Castello in Milan, where our own Harry Metcalfe will join the tour in his Countach. But we couldn’t help thinking the official procession all sounds a bit too civilised. So before we get there we’re indulging in our own celebration of irreverence, noise, fury and fire: Aventador Roadster and Countach QV from the UK to Milan, via Reims, the Autobahn and the Alps. Three days, five countries, 1000 miles, 700 litres of super-unleaded, the best hookers that money can buy and a fistful of amphetamines. Okay, I made those last two bits up. evo’s accounts department checks the receipts far too carefully these days, so we make do with some scorchingly sour Haribo and a furtive look at Playboy in a service station near Strasbourg.

It doesn’t feel very rock ‘n’ roll
as I quietly glide into Ashford International rail station in Kent. For very Italian reasons, this is where the Aventador Roadster is being delivered. Photographer Dean Smith arrives by taxi, I’m on the dreaded train, and Harry, being Harry, rolls in to the tune of a 5.2-litre V12 and T’Pau blaring out of his recently fitted period Alpine tape deck. It’s 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning but a Countach makes any time feel like the best Saturday night you’ve ever had. When the matt white Aventador Roadster rolls to a stop behind it, Dean, Harry, myself and everyone waiting for taxis and buses spontaneously burst into laughter. What a sight!

Lamborghini wasn’t yet 25 years old when this very QV appeared at the British motor show in 1987 and was subsequently bought by a Mr Cramer of Leeds for £82,000. Back then, Lamborghini’s sci-fi wedge had only just been ousted as the fastest car in the world by a new generation of supercars from Porsche and Ferrari that went by the names 959 and F40. Even so, I imagine Mr C was pretty pleased with his new car’s performance. The QV’s 5167cc V12 produced 455bhp at 7000rpm and 369lb ft of torque at 3200rpm, and its tubular-steel chassis, aluminium panels and Kevlar bonnet and engine cover meant a kerb weight of 1488kg sopping wet. At the time, Fast Lane clocked a QV (one without a rear wing, like Harry’s) from 0 to 60mph in 4.2sec, from 0 to 100mph in 10.0sec, and to a top speed of 190.1mph. Harry says it still feels pretty mighty even in 2013, although it’s not beyond belief that the contemporary press cars were, shall we say, ‘optimised’.

Twenty-six years later, the £82,000 of 1987 is the equivalent of around £202,000, which won’t get you anywhere near an Aventador Roadster with its list price of £294,665. However, with a carbonfibre tub, inboard pushrod suspension, a 6.5-litre V12 producing 690bhp at 8250rpm and 509lb ft at 5500rpm, and a lightweight seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox, the four-wheel-drive Aventador remains the stand-out supercar bargain in a world of Huayras, Ageras and Veyrons. It’s also just about the most extraordinary-looking car that money can buy, just as the Countach was a quarter of a century ago.

Sadly, the weight has ballooned along with the price, and the Roadster tips the scales at 1625kg dry (the QV would be around 250kg less than that without fluids). Even so, the Aventador predictably blitzes the Countach in performance terms, running from 0 to 62mph in 3sec dead (0.1sec slower than the 50kg-lighter coupe Aventador) and on to 217mph.

Of course, this journey isn’t about the numbers or charting the progress of the supercar. We want to celebrate Lamborghini by chewing through a continent as fast as we dare, taking in the sights and sounds of these two wild cars. We want to seek out some great roads and we want to find out if the Aventador and Countach feel like products of the same company. There’s a suggestion amongst many that when Lamborghini was absorbed into the VW mega-empire, its creations were fundamentally changed, and not necessarily for the better. So did the real Lamborghini die in July 1998, or are we celebrating a genuine 50th anniversary? The sun is shining in Calais as we roll out of the Eurotunnel carriage and we’ve got 1000 miles ahead of us to find out.   

To spare the gorgeous 21in rear wheels of the Aventador Roadster we’re using the Eurotunnel carriages usually frequented by lorries and coaches. But this morning, every other vehicle is a Lamborghini: behind are a couple of early Diablos without power steering (ouch), a 6.0-litre VT, a yellow Gallardo Spyder and a blood orange Aventador. It transpires they’re meeting another dozen cars in Reims at lunchtime, which sounds like a fine idea, so we decide to join them and treat northern France to a raucous, bombastic convoy.

I’m in the Aventador. Trimmed in sober but classy brown leather, it feels like a quality item. The driving position is fantastic and everywhere you look you’re reminded of how low and wide this car is. The door mirrors are filled mostly by intakes and sharp lines that stretch ever outwards to contain that V12 and the vast tyres. Glance up and there’s a tiny window framing a glimpse of the world vanishing rapidly behind you. I can see dead ahead just fine thanks to a huge windscreen, but the sweeping A-pillars act like blinkers and I wonder quite how I’ll negotiate the Alpine corners that lay some 750 miles away and about 2000 metres up. Yet once you adjust to the width of the LP700-4, it’s incredibly easy to drive. There’s no heavy clutch to negotiate, the ceramic brakes are (finally) pretty easy to modulate, the throttle pedal is sweetly linear and the V12 has an abundance of torque once you get through the slightly reluctant first 3000rpm or so.

I shouldn’t admit it, but I’m really enjoying just how refined the Aventador is at a 100mph trot. The pushrod suspension might make for a jarring low-speed ride, but once above 40mph it smooths out beautifully and at motorway speeds it’s more supple than, for example, a Renaultsport Mégane Cup. Sure there’s some tyre roar – you’d hope and expect for nothing less with optional 355-section(!) rear rubber – and the V12 never slips into silence, but it feels built for taking great chunks out of Europe in a single stride. I can’t imagine that Harry or the drivers of those Diablos are having such a soothing time. More impressive still, given that this is an open-top car, is that the steering column feels rock-solid and there’s no hint of flex or shudder from the chassis.

The two-piece carbon roof is easily removed and stowed in the front luggage compartment but does rather dent the Aventador’s GT credentials because you’ll need to pack very light if you want to be open to the elements. Photographer Dean Smith takes the minimalist ethos to extremes, sacrificing his glasses to the Aventador’s slipstream while he’s taking some tracking photos on the autoroute about 30 miles short of Reims. So we now have a blind snapper. And after a fruitless hour or so searching a mile of the A26 on foot, followed by a Metcalfe ‘shortcut’, we arrive at Reims half an hour after the other Lambos have noisily departed. So we’re alone and we have some serious miles to cover. Just the way I like it. And it’s my turn in the Countach.

The quickest way to Milan from here is a slow trundle through the Mont Blanc Tunnel near Chamonix and then a short blast across north-west Italy. Instead of that, we head east on the A4 to Strasbourg, aiming to cross into Germany and then search out 8000rpm in top gear on the largely derestricted A5 that follows the Rhine to Basel in Switzerland. I’m glad I’m in a Countach because the 215-mile schlep from Reims to Strasbourg would be deathly dull otherwise. The A4 is empty and beautifully surfaced, and the temptation is to simply cruise along at 150mph. However, I’m not sure Harry would forgive me if I got his QV confiscated by the gendarmes virtually on the eve of the Grand Tour. So we settle into a restrained 100mph cruise.

The Countach loves this sort of speed. The low-speed heft to the steering is gone, you’re past the dreadfully stiff first few millimetres of throttle pedal travel (it initially feels more like a clutch) and the engine spins away busily but with so much in reserve. The real fun begins when you slot second and then squeeze every last rev from the V12, then repeat the process in third before selecting fourth, throttling back and listening to the exhaust’s crackling firework display. If this car doesn’t burrow incisively into your soul, then you’re irredeemable.

The Countach’s five-speed dogleg ’box is heavy and slow but that only adds to the experience, the long punctuation of the V12’s furious noise making it seem even more fantastical when the note hardens and howls once again. And the QV does feel genuinely fast. It pales next to the violently accelerative Aventador, of course, but it’s got more engine than chassis and brakes, which is probably how a Lambo should be.

On the fast sweepers of the A4, the Countach is far from perfect but it immerses you in adrenalin. The way it wanders around at speed and the dead spot around the neutral steering position are also mildly terrifying. At anything over 120mph it almost feels like it’s towing a trailer, and it’s easy to get steering input and chassis horribly out of sync. I’ve driven other Countaches and never experienced this before, and Harry says the car was nailed-on during his last European adventure, so we conclude with no evidence that the tread depth of the new Pirellis (made in evo 174 to the original tread pattern but with a much softer compound) is too deep and they’re wobbling around at speed like winter tyres. Wearing them down becomes a matter of great urgency. Usually I’d volunteer, but we’re about to reach Germany and the lure of the Aventador is somehow stronger than ever…

It’s dark and the A5 is busy, allowing fleeting opportunities to flick through fourth and fifth and up to 150mph. The Aventador’s seven-speed single-clutch but dual-shifting-rod transmission is much improved compared to early versions, changing swiftly and smoothly in Sport mode and with tremendous speed in Corsa, with much of the old harshness eradicated. It’s not as startlingly fast as a Ferrari F12 ’box but it does suit the big Lambo perfectly, and it’s a world away from the unhurriable Countach manual. It means that the Aventador gives up its performance more easily, and as we enjoy Currywurst and chips in a service station, I reckon 200mph is on.

With a fresh tank of Shell’s finest 100-octane in its belly, the Aventador rips down the slip road onto an A5 that’s now beautifully empty. It leaps to 150mph almost with disdain and is through 175mph in what feels like a blink later (not that I’m blinking very much). At 180mph the acceleration slows, but not by much, and the 6.5-litre engine just keeps on revving, all the way past 7500rpm in seventh. At 198mph I spot an indicator in the distance as a car pulls out to clear a lumbering lorry. Another second or so won’t hurt. I see the ‘2’ flash up and instantly brake hard. 201mph, just like that. What a machine.

It’s 6:30am on day two of our 
little celebration and finally the mountains are within touching distance. We’re in Switzerland, aiming for Saanen and the Col du Pillon that rises above it, after which we’ll head south to Martigny and east to Brig, where the Simplon Pass will deliver us to Italy and give the Lamborghinis the canvas they’ve been crying out for since we left Calais some 750 miles ago.

It’s cold, it’s wet and the Col is shrouded in a fog so thick that even the Countach’s flaming exhausts can’t burn it off. It’s a narrow, craggy road and the Aventador tramlines and weaves, while the softer and much smaller Countach ducks and dives. Only when the road opens out right near the summit can the Aventador press home its massive performance advantage and – even more significantly – utilise its incredibly powerful ceramic brakes. Dispirited, we head to the wide, fast Simplon Pass, but fog and rain is waiting. We have little choice but to stop short of the pass and sit it out overnight.

It proves an inspired decision. The sky is a flat grey come day three, but the Simplon is dry and there are already patches of backlit golden cloud by 7am. At its summit and on the spectacular descent down to the border, it’s all sunshine and smiles. Yesterday the Countach was something of a revelation in the wet. Those deeply treaded Pirellis worked beautifully, soaking up all the power that the V12 could muster, and the more pronounced body roll of the old stager meant it felt predictable and, dare I say it, benign. We weren’t pushing at ten-tenths or anywhere close, but it was the board-stiff and more responsive Aventador that felt edgier and demanded more respect. In Sport mode (splitting the torque 10:90 front to rear), the Aventador actually felt a little loose if you touched a white line on corner exit or really tried to lean on the tyres. There’s still some built-in understeer but not anywhere near as much as the early cars had, and once you drive through it the Aventador can really kick sideways quickly. In Corsa mode (20:80), it was much more stable and reassuring. But that was then, and now it’s dry, sunny and the temperature is rising.

So I pull down the Countach’s door and it locks into place with an old-school metal-on-metal click instead of an Audi-spec thud. The engine takes an age to start but when it does it’s worth the wait as it whirs and slurps and rattles and roars. Harry has fitted electric power steering to his QV and you can adjust the level of its assistance with a little rotary switch. It’s a genius system because you can wind it right back, making the weight bearable at low speeds and still almost entirely natural in quicker corners. The Countach rack never fizzes with feel anyway, so it’s worth a layer of separation to make the car more exploitable and forgiving.

Of course, ‘forgiving’ is a relative term and maximising the Countach’s potential is a battle of will and perseverance. You have to be almost methodical with gearchanges, patient with the front-end to make sure it bites and stays on line, and you have to really think about braking distances. The brakes aren’t terrible by any means, but they just don’t give the margin of a modern system with ABS and planet-sized discs. Remember the QV has 15in wheels and smaller brakes than a modern Clio RS, but arrives at corners pretty bloody quickly. So you think ahead and try to eliminate any surprises, because any sudden direction changes or panicked stabs of braking unsettle the balance, suddenly making the Countach feel very short of wheelbase and very heavy over the rear axle. You can really lean on this car, but you never really hustle it – you cajole and persuade it instead.

Bizarrely, the Aventador has many similar traits. Like the Countach, the steering is too heavy and slightly dull, the brakes have a dead patch at the top of the pedal’s travel and there’s that same initial layer of understeer, too. However, unlike the Countach, you can jump up and down all over this car and it will keep coming back for more. The gearbox encourages you to grab another downshift as you brake deep into an apex or pop in an upshift just as the corner opens out, while the ceramic brakes occasionally go a little soft but have phenomenal power.

In the dry, Sport once again becomes the Aventador’s default setting for a little more adjustability, but I do find myself missing the ferocious gearshifts of Corsa – perhaps Lambo should allow a mix-and-match program, like Audi’s RS models. And the noise is just unreal with the roof stowed and the 6.5-litre V12 spinning out to 8500rpm.

With the sun now beating down and the Aventador pouring down the mountain, running flat and hard around the corners, sharp V12 noise shrieking furiously, the thought that this car isn’t a ‘real Lamborghini’ is patently absurd. It’s every bit as outrageous as the Countach and every bit as wonderful.

We trickle into the piazza at 11am. Locals and tourists want to hear the V12s bouncing off their limiters and jump back in shock when we oblige. There are lanyards and route books being handed out to tour participants. It’s incredible to see so many Lambos in one place. But ‘our’ Aventador Roadster and Harry’s Countach are the coolest cars in the square.

Why? Because they’re peppered with insects and thick with road grime. Because they’ve just done 1000 hard miles and sucked fuel with all the glee of a kid ingesting an upturned tube of Smarties. The Aventador has just 1800 miles on its odometer but has already done 201mph in the dead of night and scared me half to death in the wet, and its tyres wear that marbled look right to the edge of their treads. The Countach has lost an indicator repeater and gained a few stone chips, but it’s been driven. That was our Grand Tour and I’m glad I’m on the first flight out of Milan.

Happy birthday, Lamborghini.

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