There was a time when posters of lipstick red Lamborghini Countaches decorated the walls of every dorm room and teen-age boy's bedroom in America. These posters were ostensibly for Alpine stereos, and surely, during this time when Japanese subcompacts were not the hot rides they are today, more than a few of us bought Alpine stereos for our hatchbacks to fuel the Countach fantasy.
But that was when R.E.M. was just starting to be heard on the radio and Michael Stipe still had hair. Today, Stipe's hair is gone, and some of those Countaches might not have aged too well either. Fortunately, in this age of factory-certified used cars, Lamborghini is offering factory-certified restorations of its earlier creations.
The new restoration center will open officially in the spring of 2004, once the shop relocates to its new building, but the company has been restoring its cars since 2000, said Giorgio Gamberini, Lamborghini's after sales manager. The company can only do two or three cars a year, so it has completed five restorations and is conducting two others currently. So far, Miuras are the leading model, with three done so far and another scheduled for next year. The rest of the cars are a mixture of 350GTs, 400GTs and an Espada.
Lamborghini still has all of the tooling used to make the cars originally, and in many cases it employs the same men, so they can build the car a second time exactly as they did it the first time. Such work isn't quick or cheap, but it isn't as expensive as it could be. "A restoration takes a lot of time, and you don't have to hurry," said Gamberini.
The temptation may be to upgrade the old cars with modern parts, but that isn't Lamborghini's goal with the program. "Our philosophy is not to do the car better than the original," he said. Some parts, like the valve seats, are updated to accommodate unleaded gas, but the only real improvement should come from a more careful assembly process, since construction of the restored cars is so slow.
That leisurely pace could get expensive, especially when combined with shipping to and from Lambo's Sant'Agata Bologna headquarters. But labor rates in northern Italy are lower than in the U.S., so the company only charges 50 Euros per hour for work.
"The bill on a recent 400GT that was only about 90% complete and badly rusted came to 97,000 Euros," Gamberini said. A 100-point restoration by one of the few qualified shops in the U.S. would cost at least as much, and the finished product wouldn't carry the Lamborghini stamp of approval or its 2-year warranty.
"I'm sure that here in the USA you can get a quality restoration, because I saw some really well done cars here [at Concourso Italiano]," Gamberini said. "But I'm certain if the restoration was done 100% perfectly by Lamborghini or another shop, a customer will prefer a restoration by Lamborghini," he said, making factory-restored cars more valuable.
The guys in the shop don't mind seeing the old cars coming to pay a visit. "Driving them makes the same beautiful feeling as it did 30 years ago," said Valentino Baldoni, factory test driver. "But now it is only better."
In addition to the restoration shop, Lamborghini is now fully committed to providing its customers and other restorers any parts and technical support they need to refresh the company's product, Gamberini said.
Taking proper care of the old cars is critical, not only for Lamborghini's corporate pride, but because customers for the new cars will see how the company stands behind its products now, he said. "It is our customer because he owns a Lamborghini. Till now we didn't have this kind of organization, so each customer was alone. Now a Gallardo customer knows Lamborghini will take care of his car forever."
Today's cars should last a while longer before they need restoring, judging from the latest products to roll out of the Bolognese factory. Today's flagship Mucielago, shows Lamborghini's huge improvements in fit, finish and quality of execution. Most of the flaws that were once simply accepted as part of the Italian supercar experience are now, thankfully, history.
We can thank the influx of cash and know-how from VW's purchase of the company for the improvement. As a result, the Murcielago's pearlescent metallic yellow paint (with a hint of green in the sunlight) is as luminous and perfect as could be possible. The car not only looks gorgeous in natural sunlight, the color even glows under hideous street lights and fluorescent shop lights.
The unmistakable Lambo styling attracts attention like nothing else, topping even the Plymouth Prowler (Hey, it may have been a terrible car, but people loved it!) for questions and ride requests. The car had a following before it even arrived, as the delivery roll-back was tailed by a couple young Acura service technicians in a slammed Civic who spotted it on their lunch break. They peppered me and the Lamborghini delivery guy with questions for the rest of their lunch hour. Best to make a quick getaway when parking the Murcielago, or the same thing happens almost everywhere.
The slick styling is even better in person than in pictures, thanks in part to active air scoops that open wide only when needed. That lets the cooling intakes be smaller most of the time, making the car sleeker to the eye and the wind and permitting a higher top speed than would be possible with fixed vents. Lamborghini doesn't leave cooling to chance, as fans jet hot air out the back of the Murcielago with shop-vac intensity.
The flip-up scissor doors--they are not roof-hinged gullwings--open with a lift of the (also) flip-up release handles, providing exactly the appropriate effect on the gathered crowd (there is almost always one present with the Murcielago). Ingress and egress are challenging because of the small door opening, but the impression the doors create makes the difficulty worthwhile.
The Murcielago demands the same anti-theft dance as other expensive cars these days: insert key, disable alarm on key fob, then start engine. The starter spins with a high-pitched, almost pneumatic whine, and the engine quickly fires to a fast idle. The computer seems to chase idle speed at first, then it settles down.
Italian cars were once as renowned for their ludicrous driving position as for their shoddy quality and predictable unreliability. Now, the steering column tilts and telescopes, letting the driver choose the driving position, rather than having to stretch to reach the lower edge of a horizontally tilted wheel.
If only the Murcielago's pedals were similarly adjustable. The brake pedal is too high to be able to heel and toe the brake and throttle, which is a serious shortcoming in a sports car. The clutch pedal is stiff and difficult to modulate. With practice, it is possible to get the hang of it, but I stalled the Murcielago more times in a day than I've stalled all other test cars in the course of a year.
The trademark metal, gated shifter suffers long throws and notch action. I'd never suggest ditching the traditional gate; I'd only suggest making it vestigial. Build a proper, modern shifter with short, wrist-flick throws and silky action, then bolt a metal gate to the transmission tunnel that corresponds to that shifter's movement, rather than one that determines the shifter's movement.
Interior quality is excellent, with straight lines and even stitching throughout. The overall impression is of a solidly built piece.
The good news is that the right- and left-side mirrors are large and effective. And little that appears in them is of consequence, unless it bears a flashing red light. But the exemplary mirrors are important, because the view out the rear window is virtually non-existent. The line of sight is significantly obstructed by the fat roof pillars, and the shiny black horizontal louvers reflect glare from every direction, making the window essentially useless. Better to keep the car moving forward and not have to be concerned with the rear view.
Then there is the engine. Under the rear engine cover, the massive 6.2-liter twin-turbo V12 looks the part. Lamborghini wisely leaves all of the beautiful aluminum castings in plain view rather than hiding them under the acres of plastic that blight most new cars. At idle the engine emits a raucous, busy sound, hinting at the potential fury within. Rev 'er up, and bystanders will take a step back...just to be safe.
But such throttle blips reveal a sluggishness that feels like a heavy flywheel, not unlike that in current Volkswagen products. Underway--if you haven't stalled it--the all-wheel-drive system conspires to emphasize that sluggish impression.
It seems impossible that what is one of the fastest, if not the absolute fastest, car for sale in the U.S., feels average [among supercars] on the road. The stopwatch disagrees, but the seat of my pants says comparatively mundane cars like the 'Vette Z06 and Viper feel quicker.
All-wheel drive does that. The Subaru WRX suffers from the same effect. On dry pavement, the AWD system seems to just eat up horsepower and add weight. It is magical on slippery surfaces, but on sunny days it can make an enthusiast wonder whether it is worth it.
That concern is reinforced when driving at sporting, but legal, speeds on public roads. The awd invokes understeer that makes the steering also feel a touch vague and slow. On the track, however, the system comes alive. Knife into a slow turn and stand on the gas to rotate the car, and the tail will obligingly step out. But just before you have to catch it and balance the throttle for the drive out of the turn, the all-wheel-drive system sends more power to the front wheels and the car snaps into line and claws its way out of the turn with the throttle still planted on the floor. Impressive.
High-speed grip is probably aided by aerodynamics, thanks to a front splitter that looks functional, sculpted side sills that evacuate air from under the front of the car and an electric rear spoiler that pops up. A smooth underside contributes, but the car does lack a rear diffuser to exploit it fully. The impression over high-speed bumps is of a car being pressed to the ground, which is confidence inspiring.
On the street the brakes are more than sufficient for any situation likely to arise. At the track, again, the brakes are impressively powerful and stop the car quite effectively, but like the steering, they seemed a little numb. Ideally, when stopping as well as the Murcielago does, it would provide a little more information through the pedal about what the brakes are doing.
So perhaps in 20 years today's Murcielagos will return to the Lamborghini Restoration Center for a freshening. But the cars will surely need less attention than the old cars require today, thanks to the much improved quality. With luck, the company will continue to improve as rapidly, ironing out the remaining details, such as the check engine light we saw because the engine was running a bit rich. We can't wait to try the Gallardo and Quattroporte.