Glam Shock - Driven: Lamborghini Espada

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With their odd styling and costly habits, Espadas have long been the neglected members of the Lamborghini family.

You could love this or hate it. On paper, there’s everything to love and only fuel consumption, a reputation for corrosion and hefty parts prices to hate. But in the metal, an Espada divides opinion like nothing else.

This car represents the culmination of a life-long dream for its owner, who first came across one in 1973 and lusted after it from that day on. It’s apparently a common affliction, for we’ve been inundated with enquiries about this feature ever since we first let on our plans for it three months back. But other readers have sent vehement hate mail on the Espada, outraged that we should consider publishing even the smallest picture of such a ‘monstrosity’.

There’s no right or wrong to it. How could there be? But the Espada, with virtually the same engine as a Miura, is overlooked and under-valued, with decent examples going for around £16,000 in the UK and $35,000 in the US. Not a minor amount, but relatively small outlay for a 150mph four-seater supercar.

So here we are with one of the UK’s best Espadas, and I have to admit something from the start; that I’m afflicted with the great British love of the underdog, a bit of sympathy for the devil, and for me the Espada joins the ranks of cars that I quietly admire, even though I know I shouldn’t. That’s Ferrari 308 GT4, Porsche 914, Maserati Khamsin, Aston DBS...

Like the 308 GT4 and the Khamsin, the Espada was a product of the Bertone design house. Marcello Gandini, then a young, rising star at Bertone, had already worked closely with Lamborghini engineer Giampaolo Dallara on the Miura, but soiled his reputation with the Marzal prototype, a radical interpretation of how a four-seater GT Lamborghini should look.

With gullwing doors, a rear-mounted six-cylinder engine and stretched Miura chassis, the Marzal looked odd and handled badly. There was no way it could replace the idiosyncratic but stylish 400GT that occupied the company’s four-seater slot at that time. Instead, Ferrucio Lamborghini chose a less radical reworking of the 400GT – the Islero – by Mario Marazzi.

But Carrosserie Bertone couldn’t sit back and lose such a lucrative contract, so Gandini was instructed to rethink his four-seater GT ideas, and emerged with a new front-engined design. But to Ferrucio’s disapproval, this new V12 still made use of gullwing doors, to allow easier access to the rear seats. 

Ferrucio preferred conventional doors and folding front seats, and Gandini returned to the drawing board. He quickly came back with a revised design, doing little more than swapping the gullwing doors for front-hinged equivalents. This is the design that became the Espada, named after a matador’s dagger – a further play on Lamborghini’s fighting bull logo. The small badges on the front wings depict a dagger.

The Espada was completed in time to be shown off at the 1968 Geneva Motor Show. It was powered by Lamborghini’s usual 3929cc, twin-overhead camshaft, 60-degree V12, seated four in comfort and, with 325bhp, was capable of 155mph and a 0-60mph acceleration of under eight seconds. Over the following ten years, 1217 Espadas were produced in Series I, II and III designations, making it one of Lamborghini’s most successful models. In contrast the Islero, initially sold alongside the Espada, sold just 125.

The car you see here is a Series III, generally thought of as the best version of the Espada. At the risk of appearing to be an Espada bore, let me quickly tell you that the Series I, or 400GT, built from March 1968 to November 1969, is known for its hexagonal instrument console shape (similar to the ill-fated Marzal’s), vertical slats on the lower rear window and center-lock Miura wheels. The Series II (400GTE, December 1969 to November 1972) lost the oddball dash, gained extra ventilation for the rear passengers, five-bolt wheels, ventilated disc brakes all round and optional power steering, as well as receiving a boost from 325 to 350bhp.

So then we get into the Series III (built until 1978) and why not use the car here as an example? The first impression is of size, its 1.86m (6ft 1in) width swallowing up all available road space. And the shape... well, it’s bizarre of course, an odd mixture of muscular curves (like over the rear wheelarches) and incredibly large, flat panels, while the narrow front snout and long, tapering rear overhang suggest a little clumsiness from some angles. But – and this is a cliché I know – it does look better in the metal than in pictures. It’s deeply imposing, aggressive from the front and surprisingly delicate at the rear.

Compared with a Series I or II, its appearance differs in the detail only.

The front grille treatment is a little neater and the rear lights more rectangular, incorporating reverse lights rather than having them hang under the bumper. US models were fitted with larger ‘impact’ bumpers, which became standard equipment on all Espadas after 1976, but this car still has the slim bumpers. They’re beautifully formed in stainless steel, with perfect sharp creases and deep shine.

Inside, there’s an all-new dash that wraps around the driver. It curves round from the center console, lessening the flight deck effect of the earlier cars’ central panel and edging far enough away from the driver to make it feel a long way off. That’s no bad thing, it just adds to the general feel of airiness in the cabin, with its masses of glass, thin pillars and low door tops, widely spaced seats and, of course, all that space behind you – there really is a lot of room for back seat passengers and plenty of luggage behind them.

I could loll around in those lovely leather seats, click-clack the chunky rocker switches on and off over and over again, and just stretch out in the charismatic space. But I want to know how the famous Lamborghini V12 will sound in the Espada, having experienced it bellowing behind my head in a Miura.

It starts after a powerful-sounding second-long churn on the starter. It catches, revs to the tune of a deep, smooth roar then settles down to a perfect idle. At no point can the sound of an individual cylinder be heard.

The clutch is heavy and the gearlever needs a long, firm movement to engage first. Through the gearknob I can feel the synchromesh working, unfussed, doing its own thing at its own speed (this is not a gearchange to be rushed).  I’m expecting waves of torque from the 4-liter engine but, although the car pulls away without needing much in the way of revs, it would clearly benefit from a heavier right foot to make the most of its 365bhp (up from 350bhp for the Series III).

There’s a little hesitation, roughness even, as it moves off, which is simply the six individual Weber carburetors taking it in turns to move off their idle jets and onto throttle control, which they should do in synchronicity – but keeping six Webers perfectly synchronized really isn’t possible for long.

What follows next is this: the Espada moves off at a reasonable speed accompanied by an unreasonable (albeit enjoyable) amount of noise. With electric windows up, the soundtrack is dominated by a deep, bellowing intake roar but wind down a window and the twin exhausts take over, to great effect. On every gearchange the car dips up and down slightly, like a boat over gentle waves, while the speed builds up to 70mph and way beyond. Only after several miles does it become obvious that the best way to drive this machine is to forget its Grand Touring tag and rev it harder, pushing it a long way past 4000rpm, at which point the engine takes a harder, more aggressive note and the car heads for the horizon at a noticeably more rapid rate.

The steering, although power-assisted as standard on the Series III, is heavy at low speeds but evens out to give a decent feel once on the move, before it goes light at 100mph-plus when the 1970s aerodynamics come into play, and the car begins to shows its aspirations towards manned flight – 150mph might be scary. At least the brakes are strong.

Unsurprisingly, this big, heavy machine needs some hustling through the bends, but it handles well despite the tall tyres, which you can feel flexing when you’re pushing hard. Through competent design and a much heftier build quality than you might expect, the Espada manages to give a comfortable ride and reasonably composed, flat cornering. With a few days to learn its limits, I reckon an Espada could be hustled cross-country at seriously high speeds.

Certainly this car’s owner doesn’t hang about. Phil James is a man who likes his cars fast and stylish, and the Espada had been top of his list for most of his life.

‘It’s the ultimate ’70s plutocrat chic,’ says Phil. ‘It’s such a buzz having one, I’ve waited 30 years to own one; I never wanted something so much in my life.’

Phil first came across an Espada when his step-father’s brother, Gregory, turned up in one in 1973. Gregory was employed as Alistair McLean’s chauffeur and regularly arrived in Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows, but the Espada was something very different. ‘It looked like a spaceship’, says Phil, who was seven at the time. ‘I’d wanted one ever since. A few years back I nearly bid for the Shah of Iran’s Espada but thought I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I looked at a few for sale after that, but they weren’t what I was after.

‘Then I was in a car storage warehouse and I recognized an Espada under its cover. I peeled back the cover – it was an S3 (the only one to have), in dark blue (just what I wanted) with tan leather (perfect!). I contacted the owner and told him that if it ever came up for sale, I wanted it.

‘Not long after, he contacted me and I just had to have it. In the boom [late-1980s] it had been bought by a group of investors, who’d had the shell completely rebuilt, without any filler. A Lamborghini specialist did the drivetrain, and all new seals and bits and pieces were shipped in from Sant’Agata. Then the market crashed and the car was sold on.

‘My real horror was that it would drive like a truck, but I just had to have it and I didn’t test-drive it. Turns out it drives properly and feels really tight. I don’t burble around in it worrying about oil pressure, because these cars were properly built. Its natural cruising speed is about 110mph – it’s turning at about 4000rpm at that speed – and the fastest I’ve had it up to is 130mph. It’s run much better since then; it’s smoother and it starts more quickly.

‘Lamborghini really got the driveline right – it shouldn’t give any problems [Phil is MD of Zeroshift, manufacturers of a revolutionary gearbox, so he understand the engineering behind the Espada]. You can see it’s built by craftsmen. Some parts are expensive – you could lose your shirt buying an original exhaust but I had one made in stainless steel by a real artisan – and you can find other parts really cheaply. I paid $800 for a set of clocks but picked up lights for $60.

‘But what I really like is the reaction of other motorists. They seem to like seeing it driven as it’s meant to be driven.’

And with that, Phil floors the accelerator. The Espada squats down, bellows and roars and disappears down the road in a haze of unburnt petrol and ’70s nostalgia. Sure, it’s just used another gallon of fuel, and will struggle to top 20mpg all day. Sure, it’s kind of odd looking. But it does have a certain style.


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