Not many 40-somethings can still stop traffic just by showing up, but the Lamborghini Countach does exactly that four decades after it debuted here in Geneva in 1971.
Marcello Gandini's masterpiece is this audacious, aloof, leering thing that avoids the overly curvaceous lines that long ago became Italian cliche. Instead it's a piece of Piedmontese origami, all creased, slatted, and ducted. It looks like it was designed yesterday in the way a Mies van der Rohe building or vintage Knoll table does.
Study the pure Countach LP400 to really take in Gandini's work, though in your mind's eye you're probably seeing a winged & flared LP400 S or 500 S, which graced the covers of car magazines for years and even bumped Farrah Fawcett off a few walls in their day.
Just as remarkable is the Countach drivetrain layout: To even out the weight distribution everything is sitting in there backward, with the engine at the far rear, transmission bolted ahead of it (requiring the engine to "face" the back of the car), and a drive shaft carrying power from the front of this arrangement back under the engine to the rear axle.
You don't need to drive a Countach to sample it: Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" did that and did so wonderfully in my favorite piece of automotive video. Long available on the Web only as a blotchy bootleg, I'm pleased to say the "60 Minutes" team has located and digitized a pristine official version of it that you see debuting below.
Watch factory driver Valentino Balboni handle the car, follow David E. Davis, Jr.'s sage appreciation of it, and grin at Morley's veiled terror as he gets "closer to 200 miles an hour than to 100". But most of all, just listen. (Then give me your best guess as to the red light blinking on the dash when Signore Lamborghini is driving!)
It's not a crime to be the bankrupt operator of an swingers' Web site facing the prospect of taking the bus when the lease on your runaway Prius ends in a few months. But in the court of Web-driven public opinion, it doesn't look good. And that's great news for Toyota.
Leaked reports about the investigation into James Sikes' runaway Prius in San Diego indicate the uncontrolled acceleration he described can't be replicated, and that the degree of wear on the car's brakes doesn't look at all like what you'd expect if he did in fact stand on them for miles trying to restrain a wildly charging Prius (such as that is).
Reports of unintended acceleration are typically traced back to driver error. And while the Toyotas involved in this fiasco are sold globally, most claims of problems and all claims of fatalities come from the U.S. Doesn't mean Toyota's blameless--not does it mean that about America's trial lawyers, either.
To my nose, this one stunk the minute it broke and that's a gift to Toyota. The U.S. media machine loves nothing more than to build up a hero (awe-struck coverage of Toyota's rise to No. 1), then tear it down, then raise it up again as a maligned hero that endured (what else explains Michael Vick finding employment outside of a parking lot?) If the San Diego Prius turns out to be a bogus story, it will almost certainly be the start of the "maligned hero" phase that restores the benefit of the doubt to the carmaker and props up a ladder it can climb back to unanimous public esteem.
I just hope that doesn't blot out the truth about what, if anything, is really going on with their cars.
So if you're one of the 29,000 people in the U.S. who will buy a new car today, let me point you to three car technologies I would pay for. These are solid, valuable every day and will keep that new car feeling new long after you've curb rashed the wheels and stopped washing it every week.
Live Traffic. If you get a factory installed GPS system today it really should have live display of traffic jams and be smart enough to automatically route you around them when you're under guidance. This is no longer a high end option: Even Kia is rolling it out this summer (so, no, I have no idea why some Hondas with GPS still don't offer it).
Sound extreme? Well, did you ever read the reports of drivers being unable to get their runaway Toyotas under control and wonder "why didn't they just put the car in neutral or turn it off?" I can't explain the neutral thing; blind panic I assume. But I can understand why some people might not be able to turn their car off in a tense situation.
Depending on the make & model of car with a pushbutton starter, it works different ways and it's never as simple and positive as turning a key a couple detents. Some cars require you press the button twice, or maybe three times in short succession. Sometimes it depends on how fast the car is moving or if the doors are open. Other cars require you lean on the button for 2 or maybe 3 seconds. Ever double-click the mouse on your computer a little too quickly or slowly to do what you wanted? That's the sort of easy-to-bungle dexterity some cars now demand in order to turn them off. And leaning on a button for 2 or 3 seconds in a runaway car when your brain is screaming IS IT WORKING?! isn't going to go well.
The Prius recall will only affect the current 2010 model. At issue are concerns about a momentary delay in braking under certain conditions, as reported by about 900 consumers. Toyota has sold about 330,000 of the recalled cars since it was introduced last May.
The Prius recall hurts because the car is a smash hit of technological and engineering proportions and Toyota's only really distinctive car. Also, it's made in Japan so they can't blame any Hoosiers for screwing this one up.
But the storm may have another front: A software bug. And this one could really make some rain.
The idea that a software glitch could be causing at least part of Toyota's nightmare has been kicked around – and utterly dismissed by Toyota – almost from the beginning. But a couple of days ago early Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told an audience he was convinced a bug was making his Prius decide to run up to 97 MPH on its own at times (quite a feat for a Prius, intentional or not.) And a day later, the U.S. NHTSA confirmed it is looking into the possibility electromagnetic interference is causing a digital glitch in some Toyota electronic throttle controls.
Automotive recalls are very common. Cars are complicated machines that will expose some weaknesses only after millions of miles in the field. (If only your computer or smart phone were anywhere near as well made.) But most are "customer satisfaction" issues that don't or barely sniff at a real safety problem. As a result, owners often ignore them due to the inconvenience of a service call in an era when cars barely need service at all.
That won't be the case for Toyota.