Mirage Countach replica Bull by the Horns. How two blokes in Manchester built better Countach than Lamborghini. Some kit cars are terrible. But a few blokes from Manchester borrowed a Countach and ended up making one better than Lamborghini. Well, according to Ferruccio himself... Words Sam Dawson. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
Enjoying. The untold story of the replica Lamborghini Countach that was better than a real one. Prova/Mirage Countach. How a spot of Manchester ingenuity helped create a Countach so good that the Lamborghini family wanted one for themselves.
ACCEPTABLE IN THE '80S Great Modern Classics from the ultimate decade of excess.
The 1980s was the era of the high-profile, hard-sell supercar. Apparently. But it didn’t feel like that in Manchester, where such things were an empty aspiration in a rapidly deindustrialising work climate. Opportunities to make big money felt increasingly scant – but how better to do that than to build a millionaire’s plaything for a fraction of the cost?
The day-brightening promise of seeing something that merely looked like a supercar was enough for glassfibre and composite moulding companies to diversify from industrial contracts and beer-garden playground equipment and offer approximated-lookalike exotic-car bodies of questionable quality. Most of them took advantage of the VW Beetle’s rear-engined layout in the same way 1950s specials firms built an entire industry around rebodied Ford Populars.
'The thumping offbeat leaves you in no doubt it’s being propelled by American iron'
But then a group of Lamborghini enthusiasts decided to enact a much more audacious plan. In 1985, and decades before the area’s reinvention as the hipster-magnet Northern Quarter, the walls of Ancoats echoed to the incongruous howl of an Italian V12. The culprits were Gary Thompson and Darryl Kersha win a new Lamborghini Countach QV, rented from Town & Country on Wilmslow Road in leafy Didsbury. After threading their way between the dilapidated hulks of Victorian warehouses they came to a halt in the disused Crusader Works cotton mill in Chapeltown Street on the banks of the Ashton Canal. Inside, glassfibre moulding equipment had been prepared. What resulted was christened ‘Venom’.
Paul Lawrenson, the composites expert tasked with getting the replica bodyshell production-ready, recalls: ‘They only had time to take a lightweight mould – they were panicking a bit as they had to get the car back to the hire company.' It was third-time lucky for Lawrenson, who had already created approximated Countach-lookalike bodies for Kingfisher Mouldings and PanacheCars on Beetle chassis. ‘I made it feasible, making the return moulding bucks, with the panel thickness varied for the correct load-bearings.’
Pete Jacksonwas the business brain behind the whole project. ‘During the moulding process the windscreen surround came off, and a blob of glassfibre gel ended up on the leather interior,’ recalls Jackson today.
‘When we took it back to Town & Country, they tried to sue us for £16,000 – £6000 for the damage and £10,000 for "future loss of income". We sent our own engineer out to check the car, but every time he attempted to see it the car was out on hire, which completely undermined their point. It turned out it wasn’t actually Town & Country’s car anyway – they had borrowed it from David Jollis, Lamborghini’s concessionaire in London.’
Thompson started selling Venom bodyshells for £4000 each, optionally supplied with Ford GT40-copy chassis acquired via replica ﬁrm GTD. However, the accurate bodyshell mouldings were now on the open market, and several talented engineers had set to work devising their own cars around them. Kershaw mounted his on a Lotus Esprit chassis and called it the Conan. GTD even offered a Venom-bodied car alongside its GT40. However, it only sold a handful. Within a few years 14 UK ﬁrms sprang up offering a Venom-based Countach, and most disappeared just as quickly.
‘Thompson and Jackson could’ve become millionaires with that bodyshell,’ recalls Lawrenson. ‘Within ﬁve years 49 companies worldwide were setting up businesses around the Venom. Instead though, they just palmed the money and went to Australia with it. It was then that Peter Filby, editor of Which Kit? magazine, gave me the idea of offering complete cars with a bespoke chassis. So in late 1985, I set up Prova in an old mill in Farnworth, Bolton. By 1988, it was clear that we were the only ones capable of knocking out the bodyshells at a rate fast enough to meet demand.’
It wasn’t all perfect. ‘Gary couldn’t get the doors to ﬁt properly, and the roof sagged,’ recalls Jackson. ‘We had to get proper Lamborghini hinges in the end. We also copied a one-off windscreen from a genuine item. Gary and I were carrying it out of my sister’s ﬂat where we’d been storing it, en route to a glazier to get it productionised, when Gary slipped on a patch of moss by the front door and dropped it, and it cracked. Thankfully they could still pattern it from the bits. We got it made for £1800 and we ended up buying them 10 at a time.
‘The chassis wasn’t such good value. GTD was charging us £2200 per unit so we weren’t making any proﬁt. I had a word with Lee Noble, who was establishing Ultima at the time and making his name as a top race-car designer, to see if he could adapt his chassis to ﬁt.
'We shortened the Ultima chassis by two inches and altered the rear end to take a Renault 30 transaxle. Our chassis jigs ended up at £600, and the chassis featured Spax coilovers all round. The ﬁnished car was a lot lighter than a Lamborghini, which showed in the way it cornered. It wasn’t as hard on its springs, and with Noble’s rod-linkage gearbox set-up it was much smoother-shifting too.’
The advantage wasn’t all Prova’s for long, though, as salesman Gerald Dunbar explains. ‘After we’d built the ﬁrst few, Lee Noble made the chassis commercially available to anyone who could afford it – and that included Thompson’s new Mirage operation in Northamptonshire.’ With the exception of a few tweaks Mirage made to the bodyshell to correct the overly thick window pillars originally devised to make the glassﬁbre easier to extract from the mould, the two ﬁrms were essentially selling the same package – Venom bodyshell, Noble chassis and drivetrain based around a reversed Renault 25 gearbox as used in the Alpine GTA. Prova’s demonstrator used a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 too.
The Prova and Mirage weren’t traditional kit cars with every last part available in a comprehensive package, Caterham-style. Customers were usually skilled engineers and completing the car involved either having to source genuine Lamborghini parts or fabricating identical items. Interiors were especially difficult to complete, and before long hosts of unﬁnished Provas and Mirages were a regular sight in the back pages of kit magazines. However, the people who could make them work – like Paul Swann, the owner of this white example – were experimenting with full-force supercar urge in the form of small-block V8s from Rover and Chevrolet. Swann’s Mirage has a Corvette engine tuned by TVR Power. The result is a top speed in excess of 160mph.
Remarkably similar ﬁgures were posted by journalists testing the real Lamborghini Countach, with the factory’s estimate of 190mph never quite attainable, but most road-testers admitting it could achieve something substantially above 160. Naturally, this got the specialist car press wondering aloud – could a car considered by many to be a shameless counterfeit be as good as the original? A better ownership prospect, in fact, given how a mass-produced American V8 is far easier to live with than a handbuilt Italian V12. The glassﬁbre body panels didn’t corrode or entail horrendous repair bills like Lamborghini’s aluminium either. A chassis/body kit cost £3000, and the remaining parts were £9000. A fully ﬁnished car cost in the region of £20,000.
Lawrenson and Cheetham enjoyed the success this brought, but with it came concern – what if Lamborghini took umbrage? The world’s most famous 1980s replica – the Corvette C3-based McBurnie Coachcraft Daytona Spider used in Miami Vice attracted the attention of Ferrari lawyers. Maranello demanded that McBurnie stop making the bodyshell, and offered the TV producers use of a real Testarossa if the fake Daytona was removed from the show – it was destroyed with a missile in the episode When Irish Eyes Are Crying. Mysteriously, and more alarmingly, before the court case with Ferrari had been settled McBurnie customer James Schwartz burst into the kit car maker’s premises carrying a gun and a can of petrol and proceeded to set ﬁre to the moulds.
‘We got a letter in 1986 from the Mimran brothers, who owned Lamborghini at the time, saying “we know you’re copying our car,”’ Jackson remembers. ‘They didn’t actually have enough money to sue us, plus I knew that as the design was originally unveiled in 1971, what copyright there would have been was about to run out.’
'They only had time to take a lightweight mould – they were panicking as they had to get the car back to the hire firm'
The Venom/Noble cars succeeded commercially – they sold 10,000 compared to Lamborghini’s own 2042 – but do they succeed as Countaches?
Behind the wheel with the engine off, the Mirage is faithful to the original, the driving position identical, although the pedals are more widely-spaced. There’s no rear visibility, but in the Mirage the instrument binnacle is wider to incorporate a rear-view camera screen.
Turn the key, and this car's V8 ﬁres with a deep, bassy rumble. Thanks to its more aggressive TVR camshaft proﬁle, there’s a slightly more strident note in its exhaust, but the thumping offbeat leaves you in no doubt that it’s being propelled by American iron.
The pedals are nicely weighted – the real Countach’s clutch is nowhere near as oppressive as legend has it but it’s not as light and slick as this – and the Mirage burbles away on a surging ripple of subterranean torque; no need for inch-perfect metering in the pedal box. There’s a slight vagueness to the gearshift that you don’t get in a real Lamborghini though. There's a short lever that looks like it should snick neatly between the ratios, but it feels long-winded in reality. However, unlike a genuine Countach where you’re constantly soaring up through the rev-range and snatching the next gear en route to a never-reached but shatteringly fast top speed, that Chevrolet V8 encourages a different style.
There’s masses of low-down torque, and this, coupled with the one-ton weight of the car, means effortless acceleration even when the noise from the engine bay seems relatively subdued. All the progress you need on the road, you can get from second and third. You could say something similar of a Lamborghini, but they feel on-edge and reluctant to cruise like this car does.
The Mirage is lighter than the car it imitates – with the centre of gravity low in the steel chassis and powerful brakes, the Mirage twitches its way through corners precisely, without rolling or jiggling, the heavy unassisted steering lightening up beyond rolling pace. The square- to-the-road body control coupled with progressive damping produces a faithful arc through the bend.
So, rather than feeling like a shoddy imitation of a speciﬁc supercar, driving a Mirage is like experiencing a plethora of supercar greatest hits. The Lamborghini remains its greatest muse, but there are elements of Corvette, Pantera, Esprit and Alpine-Renault. You wouldn’t be disappointed with a Mirage even if you have driven a real Countach.
The Mirage and Prova almost represent a parallel-universe alteration to the Countach design, rather than a complete rip-off. When Ferruccio Lamborghini founded his ﬁrm, his original intention was to make fast GT cars that were easier to live with than their equivalent Ferraris. The Miura was chief engineer Paolo Stanzani’s diversion from Ferruccio’s template, and only its popularity kept the boss from canning it.
The Prova and Mirage make the Countach a more comfortable touring machine and an easier ownership experience without actually sacriﬁcing any of its performance, and it’s lighter too. As for the glassﬁbre?
Well, it was good enough for the Lancia Stratos…
The first two cars to leave the factory in 1985 get ready for new homes. This is no shed creation – building the Mirage required proper engineering experience. Getting the doors to fit properly required custom-made parts or Lamborghini originals. This example, powered by a TVR Power-tuned Chevrolet V8, can hit 160mph. Just like a real one. All you need to build your own. Well, actual talent and patience might be needed too – and a very understanding other half. It may rumble rather than shriek like the original, but running costs are simpler. Hence less shrieking from owners.