1983 LAMBORGHINI COUNTACH
Sitting amid a clutch of Ferraris in Terry Keys’ workshop, the Countach hogs the limelight. Terry and his sons had to rebuild the engine, repaint the chassis and re-invent.
‘I bought it from Colin Grant in London and had it for one year back in the Nineties,’ says Keys Motorsport’s Terry Keys of his Lamborghini Countach. ‘My boys loved it, and I promised them that one day they could drive it, but I ended up selling it to Jamie Colwell on the south coast.’
Terry’s sons, Jamie and Tom, now work alongside their father servicing and restoring Ferraris in their workshop behind Silverstone’s Woodcote Corner, and remember ‘Dad’s Lambo’ well.
‘I have childhood memories of sitting in the boot and crying while he tuned the engine,’ Jamie recalls. ‘I didn’t make you sit there!’ says Terry. Aural torture aside, the car was special to the family, but space, work constraints and rising values forced the decision.
However, a few years into Colwell’s ownership, disaster struck. ‘He had been taking the Countach to a BMW specialist for servicing,’ Terry explains. ‘They didn’t set up the float chambers on the six carburettors properly, there was a massive fuel surge and they caught fire while he was driving back from the garage.
Thankfully the fire brigade arrived just in time, because although the fire had spread to the electrics, fuel lines and oil system and the heat was causing the sides of the fuel tank to warp, it hadn’t buckled. Had that happened, it wouldn’t have been restorable because the car would have exploded, simple as that.
‘Obviously Colwell got the money back from the insurers, but he got the car back too. He phoned me up and said, “Terry, I want you to have it. I trust you’ll do a good job.” And he was right – it had been a long-term dream of the boys to have the car back, but we’d have to work together to get it roadworthy again. It was sentimental rather than in any way value-driven. We had the skills, it was just going to be a case of time and effort to get it finished.’
ENGINE AND GEARBOX
‘We had to grind molten metal and soot out of the valve guides’
‘The Weber carburettors had melted,’ says Terry starkly. ‘Molten aluminium had poured down the engine’s inlet ports, and the exhaust valve stems had broken off in the heat and fallen into the cylinder block. The glassfibre airbox was no longer there – it had evaporated.
‘It sounds like the engine was completely scrap, I know, but Lamborghini V12s are tough old blocks and it responded well to heavy-duty cleaning. We had to grind the combination of molten-reformed metal, carbon and soot out of the valve guides with boring equipment, taking care not to deform the sides. The inlet manifolds, however, had welded themselves to the ports and had to be cut off to get to the inlet tracts.
‘When I rebuilt the engine, I fitted hollow sodiumfilled valves with much stronger stems than the standard items – they’re prone to snapping even when they’re not on fire! The airbox, obviously, had to be remoulded – new ones aren’t available. We also had to remake the coolant pipes, oil and fuel lines – you can’t buy any of these things either.
‘When I took the gearbox apart, I found it had suffered a common Countach problem. They have a reputation for having a very heavy clutch pedal, and while it’s not exactly light, it’s made worse by a bent clutch release fork, which pinches the release pin. Often people soldier on for years with bent release forks, just assuming the clutch pedal is supposed to be like that. New release forks and bearings are £3000 from Lamborghini, which I couldn’t really justify, so I straightened out the original item with heat from an acetylene torch and a metal press.
‘The exhaust, though, was completely rotten. We had to cut off what was left and entrusted the creation of a bespoke replacement to Quicksilver Exhausts. ‘Fitting the engine was incredibly difficult. The combined engine/gearbox unit is taller than a human – it’s nearly nine feet long – and needs to go in vertically. We couldn’t get enough height on our engine crane in the workshop, so we slung a chain over a roof beam and lowered it in gradually. There was hardly any room under the car, but Jamie still had to crawl underneath to check it was going in straight.’
‘Supercar engines are engineered to very fine tolerances,’ says Terry. ‘You need to measure everything you’re replacing to ensure it’s within tolerance when you fire the engine up. On a Lamborghini V12, the crank is bulletproof but everything else can be problematic – timing chain set-up especially. It’s a two-day job to set valve clearances.’
‘All the dampers, suspension bushes and ball joints had melted’
‘It wasn’t corroded, thankfully, but it was very original,’ says Jamie Keys euphemistically of the Countach’s chassis. ‘All the suspension bushes, dampers and ball joints had melted and the petrol tank was rippled. Just unbolting everything, cleaning it up and replacing it isn’t a straightforward job on a Countach. All the nuts and bolts have a very fine castellated crown with a pattern unique to Lamborghini, and they’d all seized.
‘It ended up being a lot of hard graft, stripping the whole thing back to bare metal, etch-priming it and rust-protecting it with two-pack chassis paint and Dinitrol. In the factory, Lamborghini saw fit to protect it with just a single layer of black paint, which practically falls off in your hands. We chose the two-pack paint after studying photos of chassis when they were new, to make sure it looked right.
‘Amazingly, we managed to keep the original bolts. I ground the hardened carbon deposits off them, being careful not to upset the castellations, then they were re-passivated – an electroplating process where they are dipped in an acid bath before being finished in gold. ‘When I took the brakes apart, I found they were actually BMW calipers with the BMW lettering ground off – they must have had someone at the factory whose job that was. The fire had spread to the brake lines so all the rubber pipes, liners and seals had melted and needed replacing. On the rear suspension, the bespoke rosejoints needed changing. It’s a set-up straight from a Le Mans racer, but it’s complicated by the fact that no two Countachs are quite the same…’
‘Check for looseness in the chassis legs of cars with rose-jointed suspension,’ says Jamie. ‘Rose-joints knock, and within a few thousand miles of punishment they can work loose, trap water and rust from the inside. Have a lot of shims to hand for camber adjustment – it’s just a case of being thorough, but everything on a Countach needs to be set up shim-by-shim. By contrast a Ferrari is designed to be adjustable and easier to live with.’
Jamie with the bedraggled Countach. Luckily the fire brigade turned up before flames reached the cockpit. Engine looked like scrap but responded well to cleaning. Unbolting the chassis and suspension was a nightmare – every nut and bolt was seized. Just setting the valve clearances of the Lamborghini V12 was a two-day job. A quart being squeezed into a pint pot. Fitting the engine was incredibly difficult.
All the fuel and oil lines and coolant pipes had to be made from scratch. Jamie shows Classic Cars the new springs. Back and front were the wrong way round on the pre-fire car.
‘By being careful, we managed to save the original interior’
Thankfully the flames never penetrated the cockpit – had this happened the case for restoration might have been more marginal – but the intense heat from behind the bulkhead, coupled with regular use prior to the fire, had left the original banana yellow leather seats discoloured, and there was smoke damage to the cloth rooflining.
‘We carefully stripped out every leather squab and meticulously cleaned it,’ said Tom Keys. ‘By being extremely careful we managed to save the original interior rather than having to remake anything. We used spirit wipes to gently scrub the seats, door cards and so on back to bare, uncoloured leather, then built it back up layer-by-layer consistently to avoid cracking later on. ‘We sourced the correct banana yellow hue by finding a section of leather in the passenger-side footwell that hadn’t discoloured, and colour-matching dye to it. Lamborghini keeps no records regarding its interior colours, so it was a case of trial-and-error. Surprisingly, the fabric headlining responded well to a good clean.’
‘Luxury car leather tends to get sporadically reconnollised by different restorers in different places over time,’ says Tom. ‘This results in uneven interpretations of colour and consistency built up over the years, resulting in a messy-looking leather seat regardless of how much money’s been spent. To get a consistent finish you have to take the whole panel back to bare leather.’
‘Nothing was salvageable from the main wiring loom’
‘This was a very nasty job,’ Tom groans. ‘The main wiring loom had borne the brunt of the inferno and nothing was salvageable. What was left had to be cut from the bodywork because it had melted to it, and a new one fabricated.
‘We used original Lamborghini connectors, but it’s difficult to get the wire lengths right. Heat is a major issue on Lamborghinis – you need to route the wiring out of harm’s way, especially away from the exhaust manifolds. Lamborghini didn’t think about this – the original loom feeds the amplifier coil pack in such a way that the wiring chafes against the radiator pipe. We re-sited it on top of the inner wheelarch, relocating the fuses to the top of the fans for accessibility too. We managed to keep the original Dimplex ignition box, though. Incredibly it wasn’t damaged – the fire had shorted the rev-limiter but other than that it was unscathed. Most are replaced with an American MSD unit during restoration but we wanted to stay original.’
‘Just be patient!’ says an exasperated Tom. ‘But relocate multipin plugs behind the bulkheads away from heat sources, and relocate the trips for charging systems somewhere accessible, so the electrics can quickly be isolated if there’s a problem.’
BODYWORK AND PAINT
‘The rear louvre panels were badly burnt but salvageable’
‘Aluminium burns!’ laughs Tom. ‘All the aluminium on the right-hand rear wing had just gone. The rear louvre panels were badly burnt but just about salvageable. James Sidwell in Coventry cut out the remains of that rear wing and panel-beat a replacement.
‘The radiator, which is mounted underneath that shoulder air-scoop, had been damaged in the blaze and the glassfibre rear wing had gone. A glassfibre specialist removed the passenger-side engine-bay glassfibre moulding, which was still just about intact, took a scan using a CAD programme, and created a mirror-image glassfibre panel mould for the driver’s side by reversing the shape via computer.
‘Obviously the whole car needed repainting. Great care had to be taken as Lamborghini bonded all glass panels in – light clusters as well as windows – so to keep them original we had to remove all the body sealant by hand with craft knives. You have to cut the old stuff away without damaging the adjoining glassfibre wings, because they’re irreplaceable.
‘We managed to source the last known unused righthand rear wheelarch extension in America. We actually had to fly out there ourselves in order to bring it back securely, because we couldn’t risk it being damaged in transit. Also, the private seller didn’t want to ship it to the UK and asked for a lot of money when we requested it. We had to go over to ensure it was what he said it was and not something from a replica – it did seem odd that a private seller would have such a thing, and would be selling it on eBay!’
‘Don’t underestimate how badly an aluminium car can corrode when wrapped around a steel tubular spaceframe,’ Tom reminds us. ‘They take as much preparatory work as steel, and aluminium is very thin and easily dented over time, so even expensive cars can be full of filled dents as reprofiling aluminium is a very involved process. Electrolytic corrosion builds and the construction hides it well too, especially on Countachs around the rear wheelarches, which pick up a lot of stonechips and act as natural water traps. It wasn’t a car made for English weather, and it’s very difficult to clean properly.’
Fixing the electrics was a nightmare – the entire loom had to be recreated from scratch. After restoring the Countach, Terry, Jamie and Tom racked up 400 miles during a holiday trip.
Car taken back to bare metal because of rust, then repainted. Fire spared the cockpit but the heat discoloured the leather. Spirit wipes were used to scrub it before recolouring.
Lamborghini keeps no records of its interior colours so Tom matched it to an unspoiled patch in the footwell. Lights were bonded in and all the glue had to be picked out. New rear wing was hand-beaten out of an aluminium sheet. An unused right-hand rear wheelarch extension was found on eBay in the US. Colour consistency is superb because entire cockpit was stripped. Terry proudly fettles the finished Countach. With six carbs, it always needs tweaking.
‘We took it on holiday last year up to the Lake District’
‘It’s part of the family now,’ says Terry. ‘Restoring it has fulfilled my promise to the boys, and they drive it to car shows now.’ When the car made its postrestoration debut in the July 2014 issue of Classic Cars, Jamie drove it down from Silverstone to Chobham in Surrey to star in the Gone In 6 Seconds cover feature.
‘We took it on holiday last year, up to the Lake District along with a Ferrari F40,’ says Terry. ‘It was a relentless weekend blast around Ambleside and Coniston, covering 400 miles in total. It gets used well for a Countach, and nothing’s needed doing other than oil changes and lots of polishing.
‘It’s easy to keep in tune once it’s set up. With six carburettors there’s always something you could do to make it perfect, but that’s half the fun of living with it. It’s easy to drive at speed, and while it’s never going to be a good city car, it’s not too punishing to use on ordinary roads either. Well, unless the clutch release bearing fork bends again.’
Thanks to: Keys Motorsport (ferrari-servicing.com)
Black paint on the chassis looks original but is actually far more resilient modern two-pack. Even the Countach’s tyres were troublesome. They took six months to arrive because Pirelli only makes them Intermittently.