“I suppose you do have to be brave to own one…” Despite that, owner Tony Wates tells Malcolm Thorne, the Lamborghini Urraco doesn’t deserve its reputation for unreliability. But then, he did restore this one himself. Photography Tony Baker.
Lamborghini Urraco The restoration that rebuilds the reputation of a much-maligned car.
amborghini. There is something about this hallowed marque that is guaranteed to send a shiver of excitement down the spine of any enthusiast worth their salt. It’s a name that inspires images of impossibly glamorous supercars as eye-catchingly radical in their styling as they are monstrously quick. Maybe you grew up with a poster of a Countach on your bedroom wall or dreamt about piloting a Miura through the Alps in an attempt to emulate Rossano Brazzi (preferably without the angry Caterpillar 944A). Or perhaps you just like the idea of Ferruccio sticking up two fingers at Enzo’s arrogance. Fact or fantasy, this is a manufacturer that causes us to slip into a world of reverie. As a car nut, you haven’t earnt your wings until you’ve driven one.
It may sound unlikely, but Drive-My’s chief photographer Tony Baker would not describe himself as a car enthusiast. Not even close. Our resident Action Man is far more interested in pedal power than horsepower. After 25 years on the magazine, he harbours a deep-seated mistrust of Italian cars, and Lamborghinis in particular. “They always break down,” is the standard response whenever he discovers that we will be encountering one, so it is with little joy that he receives the assignment to photograph the Urraco P250S that you see before you.
Such a scathing opinion is not based entirely upon prejudice – if they are not treated in the correct manner, old Lamborghinis can be highly strung – so it makes the subject of our story all the more fascinating. “I rebuilt it to be usable and reliable,” says the Urraco’s hands-on owner Tony Wates. “Life is too short to spend your time detailing cars for shows. It needs to work to drive it, and you need to drive it to make it work, so this is a machine that gets used.”
Wates’ rebuild of this Lambo began in 2007, but he first encountered KYP 936P several years before that. “It belonged to a mate of mine who is a painter and decorator,” he recalls today. “He had it standing in a shed and, having always dreamt of owning a Lamborghini, I told him that if he decided to sell it that I would be keen to take it off his hands. He wasn’t interested, but three years down the line circumstances changed. He offered me the Urraco for £8000, to which I replied that I’d give him £6000. He declined, but a couple of months after that came back to me and said he’d let me have it for £6k – at which point I replied that I only had five and a half. So that is what I ended up paying for it.”
Today, £5500 for a classic Lamborghini may sound like a steal, but remember that the world was a different place a decade ago – as indeed was this particular car: “The Urraco was an underrated model, and the market had yet to experience the massive growth in values, so it was a fair price – not least because it was in a pretty parlous state, mechanically at least.”
Thankfully the body was sound, with just a few odd dents and nicks but no major rust. “I don’t know where to start with bodywork,” says Wates, “so the fact that it was in great shape encouraged me to buy the car.” Even the paintwork was reasonable, a previous owner having had the Urraco resprayed during his custodianship, changing the colour from white to yellow – the third different hue to have graced the car since it left Sant’Agata in 1975 (it was originally red with a brown interior). Among the minor repairs that were necessary to the metalwork was the area under the rear seat, which had become corroded as a result of the damp shed: “Luckily the damage was largely superficial and it cleaned up nicely, because serious bodywork on one of these needs a specialist with genuine artistry.”
Although Wates was fortunate enough to avoid the complication and cost of restoring the car’s structure, mechanically it was a different matter. The Urraco’s slatted engine cover may be a wonderfully period style statement, but it does little to protect the transverse 2463cc V8 from the inclement British climate: “The engine was basically full of water and had eaten itself from the inside out. I’d hoped that I might get it running after just a thorough service, but at best it was firing on five cylinders. It took me three months just to rebuild the carbs.”
Wates bit the bullet and tasked a local engine builder, Modus of Tunbridge Wells, with sourcing the replacement parts while he hauled out the lump and began stripping it down. “A lot of people shy away from working on a Lamborghini unit,” says Wates, who cut his teeth on Minis as a teenager. “Ultimately, though, it’s just an engine – albeit with twice as many components as a four-cylinder unit. There’s nothing inherently complicated about it but, having said that, through no fault of my own I did end up having to do it twice! The V8 has an alloy block with steel liners, and there are no seals at the bottom of those. The outcome was that the coolant would leak out of the bottom. A specialist that I spoke to said that I should use high-temperature silicone sealant, which is what I did the second time around. Since then, it’s been fine.”
Other work on the motor included new main bearings, big and small ends, plus piston rings, valves, seats and guides, while Modus took charge of the jobs that Wates couldn’t do in his shed, such as the crank polishing. The cylinder heads, meanwhile, were sent away to be skimmed, with copper spacers added during reassembly to maintain the correct compression ratio: “We had no idea how many times they had been skimmed before, so it was tough to work it out. The car has done nearly 5000 miles since the engine was rebuilt, and happily during that time it has performed faultlessly.”
Rather than a full-blown restoration, perhaps the best way to describe this Lamborghini is that it is the automotive equivalent to Trigger’s broom: it’s had a long career – “The speedo says 39,000 miles, although I’m not convinced” – during which it has continually been repaired, rebuilt and improved upon. “I must have had the engine out three or four times to do various jobs,” says Wates. “I can now remove it in as little as two and a half hours. I did once adjust the valve clearances with it in the car; a good mate helped me and it took seven hours… There was a lot of swearing that day!”
The list of work undertaken by this dedicated owner is as long as it diverse, and has included everything from a comprehensive rebuild of the suspension to overhauling the braking system, as well as a replacement gearbox and new diff seals: “A few of the things that I’ve done would offend the purists, but my goal was always drivability, even if that was at the expense of originality.” As such, Pertronix electronic ignition has replaced the standard set-up, while softer pads have greatly improved the braking.
“One of the things to be aware of with any old Lamborghini,” he points out, “is that they were made in tiny numbers, so very little is bespoke. As a result, if you want to restore one you have two options: use branded parts, which can be eye-wateringly expensive, or do a bit of detective work and establish where the components originally came from. In the case of the clutch plate, it is shared with a Mercedes. Order one for the German car and it’ll cost you £80, whereas the Italians want £600. Similarly, the brake calipers are from a BMW 2002ti with spacers for Lambo discs, while much of the suspension is courtesy of the Fiat 127. You can save a fortune if you know what you’re looking for, because using Lamborghini parts turns a £30,000 restoration into a £60,000 one – a set of original Cavis HT leads, for example, is £600 – and they aren’t even very good! I had mine made for £70 by a chap I found on eBay. The same goes for the exhaust, which was produced by a specialist in Ashford.”
Some parts do remain a mystery, though: “Not even the factory knows where the suspension top mounts came from. Rumour has it that they might be from some sort of commercial vehicle, but nobody has been able to confirm that. As a result, I reverse-engineered my own and can now supply them to other owners.”
“Old Italian cars get a lot of bad press for electrical problems,” continues Wates, “but I’ve not had any issues. I have had the dash out to replace all of the lights, though, while other electrical modifications have included twin 10in fans to replace the original, as well as incorporating relays in several of the circuits. The windscreen wipers are rubbish, though, so it doesn’t come out much in the rain.” The Weber carbs are also often criticised for going out of tune, but again this owner has found them to be trouble-free: “They only do that as the engine wears, so it’s just not the problem people seem to think. The complicated bit is balancing them: with four carbs and eight chokes, it takes patience!
“People often ask me what the finished car is worth, to which I reply that I’ve no idea. I must have sunk £25,000 into it, but it’s worth whatever someone’s brave enough to pay – and I suppose you do have to be brave to own one, even if the reputation for unreliability is not true. To me it’s not about money, though, and I believe it is important to let others experience it – I’m always glad to let people get in it at shows, although I do have a rule about no ice cream!”
Slip into the cockpit, and it’s easy to understand the appeal because there is a real sense of occasion. You sit low in a wide and roomy cabin where little thought seems to have been given to such prosaic matters as ergonomics. A broad expanse of brushed aluminium is home to no fewer than eight white-on-black Jaeger dials, with the rev counter (redlined at 8500rpm) and 180mph speedo angled inwards at opposite ends, a couple of feet apart. Between them, a cluster of half a dozen large rectangular warning lights that appear to have been blagged from a 1970s computer nestle behind the lovely thin-rimmed steering wheel. “That looked completely wrong when I first got the car,” recalls Wates, “I eventually worked out that it was because someone had covered the spokes in leather.”
The Urraco is very much of its era – all haphazard switchgear and randomly placed but satisfyingly chunky rocker switches – and is all the better for it: this doesn’t seem like a mainstream 21st-century motor. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that it feels so docile and userfriendly on the road. This is no snarling beast that sets out to terrify its occupants, but rather a comfortable, refined place to enjoy the drive. At 2426lb it’s no flyweight, and with just 220bhp and 162lb ft of torque acceleration belongs to the brisk rather than storming category, which is very much in keeping with its character. In spite of the name, this is no hooligan. The anchors are firm but effective – “A servo is next on the list” – while the ride on those tall tyres is compliant and satisfyingly free from rattles and creaks.
Best of all, every journey is accompanied by a deep bellowing soundtrack that lies a couple of decibels to the subtle side of loud, while the steering is sublime – light and deliciously full of feel at anything over parking speed. The overall effect is a package that lies somewhere between sports car (it’s softer than you might expect) and grand tourer (it’s a bit too raucous for crossing continents, although it is hugely practical thanks to a boot that can swallow a remarkable amount of luggage). Above all, it feels as if it would gobble up mile after mile of A-roads, which are perhaps its natural environment.
“It’s not a Mini Cooper,” says Wates, whose latest project is just such a car, “and I wouldn’t want to drive it up the motorway to Manchester, but in the right environment it’s superb.” In spite of Baker’s pessimism, the Lambo impresses by being utterly trouble-free: neither overheating while waiting for an endless flow of traffic to clear, nor throwing its toys out of the pram when expected to perform repeated passes for the camera. And that surely vindicates its owner’s dedication to pragmatic improvements and the many hours spent lying underneath it in his shed: “When setting out on a restoration, many people are keen to have everything as it left the factory – even if that means retaining something that doesn’t work very well. That’s because many cars are now just investments, and originality counts for everything. To me, though, this one is worth far more because it works properly. Ultimately, that’s all I care about.”
Work in progress
Urraco as bought: fortunately, the body was solid
Wheel spokes were leather-clad in tatty interior
Subframe prepared and ready to return to the car
So bad, he rebuilt it twice! Leaks were hard to fix
Rebuilt V8, with skimmed heads, comes together
Above: revered badge features the bull of Sant’Agata. Main: owner Wates is justifiably proud of his work, but isn’t afraid to use the Urraco.
From top: interior has undergone a stunning transformation, with yellow-piped seats and wraparound fascia; shape is remarkably close to the Ferrari 308GT4, also a Marcello Gandini original.
This page, from top: wonderfully 1970s slatted engine cover offers little protection for the V8; elegant Campagnolo alloys; on the road, the Urraco isn’t the hooligan you might expect.
Wates has found it easier to pull the engine out for major servicing. Right, from top: slender mirror is a delicate detail; rather optimistic 180mph speedo.
“IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR WITH PARTS, YOU CAN SAVE A FORTUNE”