MARK RECHTIN

The glorious agony of the Espada

MONTEREY, Calif. — Anyone who has strolled the grounds of a concours d'elegance has, at some point, fawned over some streamlined sweep of vintage sheet metal.

Be honest, how many times have you muttered the phrase – at least in your head – "If I had the time, and the money, I would totally have that car."

Neophytes in the vintage car world have an inkling of the soul-cleansing joy that driving one of these vehicles could provide. But what accompanies that is hours of knuckle-bloodying, cerebellum-twisting repair and maintenance required to keep such a car running.

Take Aaron Robinson's 1970 Lamborghini Espada. Please.

Robinson, a former scribe for this publication and now with Car and Driver, is on his second Espada – a V-12 projectile with four seats. Well, the back seats are more like places to stash your camera and spare parts, but the intentions were good.

When running, an Espada makes a lovely gargling at idle, and a throaty snarl when angry. It smells of the fury of the Clean Air Act being set alight with Nancy Pelosi's hairspray. Best of all, it's a Lamborghini for the rest of us, priced in the mid-five figures when in good condition. But the maintenance can quickly ruin a mortgage if you depend on professionals to keep it running.

Robinson – who knows his way around a set of spanners – rescued and restored his first Espada from oblivion, then sold it to someone else willing to endure the engineering quirks of Sant'Agata Bolognese.

He swore that was the end of Italian romance. But that dark green Espada had planted a seed in his heart, and recently Robinson acquired a pea soup green Espada that needed similar mechanical attention.

Robinson drove the Espada up the California coast to the Concorso Italiano – the open-shirted, gold-chained uncle of Monterey Concours weekend. But his Espada was running poorly, the six carburetors tired and troublesome. Robinson rolled the barking and detonating Espada onto the Concorso parking green. He knew he was in trouble. He doubted the car would get him back to Los Angeles.

Calling on a village

Robinson had a friend break into his house and shepherd north the spare set of carburetors he had been planning on installing at some future date. In front of an admiring audience of helpers, gawkers and groupies, Robinson then performed the automotive equivalent of open-heart surgery in a grassy field.

When it comes to fixing Lamborghinis, it takes a village. And there could be no better place to have help with sockets, pliers and screwdrivers than at Concorso. Robinson bolted on the six fist-sized carbs in 28 minutes, with the help of two Lamborghini club members working on the engine's left bank. Impressed nods all around.

Then it was a matter of getting the Espada started from dead cold and bone dry.

As the ignition turned and fuel pump kicked in, the engine began its plaintive turning of gears and valves.

Brrrrrrippa-furr-furrfurr-furr-furrfurrfurr-furr-friffafriffafurrfurrfurr…

After about five minutes of repeated efforts, the engine made more hopeful noises.

Fluh-fluhfluh-fluh-fluhfluhfluh-fluh-fluh-fluhfluhfluhfluhfluhfluh…

And then the V-12 turned over. Golf claps and a scattering of cheers.

But everyone knew that this is where the real work would start. Tuning six carburetors to make a Lamborghini V-12 sing is nerve-wracking work that reeks of gasoline and requires arcane diagnostic tools.

Aaron Robinson begins the laborious process of installing the six carburetors in his Lamborghini Espada, as two Lamborghini club members provide assistance. Photo credit: MARK RECHTIN

A rotating crew of volunteer shade-tree mechanics assisted Robinson for more than an hour, with slowly improving results pocked by occasional false starts.

One helpful mechanic's CV amounted to, "I own parts of two Isleros," to which the growing crowd respectfully stepped back to give him more room to work. A Ferrari-Maserati factory technician strolled by, said he repairs vintage Lambos in his spare time, and offered advice about idle settings. I was conscripted to shout out engine rev levels and coolant temperatures from the cockpit.

One cynical bystander asked why Robinson hadn't performed a common swap-out for a Chevy small-block engine.

Before Robinson could respond, someone snarked, "We're not here for an easy life."

As the afternoon grew long, most of the Italiano attendees departed in their Gallardos, Daytonas and Fulvias. Robinson soldiered on. I felt terrible excusing myself for a dinner engagement.

I pictured Robinson's support network evaporating as evening encroached, with him working into the dark to get his temperamental Italian machine running properly.

Barely an hour later, as I cruised through downtown Monterey, I spied a pea soup Espada at an adjacent intersection.

Could it be?

I looked closer. Sure enough, it was Robinson. I waved and whooped congratulations. Robinson chirped the horn, then blipped the throttle. The V-12 snorted with a glorious racket.

He leaned out the window, grinning from ear to ear.

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