Gene Ondrusek is a man who should have known better. In the late 1980s, prices for Italian exotics were heading for a level they have still not recovered. Just as with American muscle cars today, it wasn't only short-wheelbase Ferrari 250 California Spyders that exploded past the seven-figure mark, but a rising tide that elevated prices of anything with a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati emblem on it. A look at Hemmings Motor News from 1989, when Gene bought his 1975 Lamborghini Urraco, shows Italian cars a year or two old selling for twice their list price, and only a handful of Lamborghinis for sale among page after page of "cars wanted" ads.
Gene's reasoning was that in a market as hot as that, no project was off limits. Even if you poured your heart, soul and equity into a car, you'd be assured of coming out ahead if you chose to unload it down the line. "Everyone was looking for the rusted exotic in someone's barn," said Gene. And he found it, in an ad in the Dallas Morning News.
That logic developed out of more than a sense for the market. Gene's prior car was a Lotus Europa, into which he realized he could sink tens of thousands of dollars, and still end up with a wonderful, $9,000 car. He was also contemplating a Renault Alpine, but the same reasoning suggested that, all things being equal, it made sense to put his time and money into something that he could at least feel made financial sense. "Which abyss of cash did I want to get into? I thought, 'the Lambo may have more potential.' There's a saying: If the car was popular when it was released, it will be popular when it's restored."
The Urraco had suffered the one thing exotic cars can't survive: deferred maintenance. "It was pretty trashed," he said. As the car was running, the original plan was for a cosmetic restoration. Plans started to change after 25 miles of driving, when the timing belt broke as Gene was leaving a stop sign. "I didn't appreciate the weird 1970s technology, where the timing belt is located outside the engine." Placed there to facilitate setting the timing, it's also very vulnerable. When Gene surveyed the damage, it became obvious that it had broken once before, and the tensioner installed incorrectly when the engine was rebuilt. "It was a ticking time bomb," he said. "It began to look like this wouldn't be cosmetic."
Thankfully, the V-8 had eaten only four of its 16 valves, which meant that later on when a tiny package containing the new ones arrived COD at his door, Gene only had to cut a check for $3,000. "Luckily, there were no kids to send to college. They call it the poor man's Lamborghini." And now you know why.
He started deconstructing the car. "It's kind of depressing, as you keep taking pieces off, and you realize, this is screwed up, this part sucks, and then you have parts all over the place." Some more serious issues emerged as well, particularly in the floor pan in the front compartment that holds the radiator, spare tire and battery. The battery had leaked at some point, and as far as he could tell, the owner had allowed the sulfuric acid to work its magic on the floor pan. They cut it out, and Gene's mechanic mentioned he had an old Volvo hood hanging around that was about the right size, marking the first of four other European countries that contributed to the car.
There were other problems in there. The radiator sends its juices rearward through aluminum tubes, which are brittle to begin with. "If you let the car sit and don't run fresh fluid through, it starts to corrode. You can either break the car driving it, or break it sitting," he said. "There's no third option."
"But if you do it right, and make a few updates, it can be fairly reliable." Metal mesh fuel lines in place of rubber and polyurethane bushings may result in a slap on the wrist from judges, but if you own a car that must be driven to stay driveable, it makes sense.
Gene sent the engine out for bottom end work to Louis Unser (uncle to Al and Bobby) Racing in Los Angeles. Louis, then known for building offroad truck engines, has since died, but Gene remembers it as a straightforward rebuild, and states they did have the crank balanced.
The valves weren't the only sickeningly expensive small part on the car. When putting the engine together, three oil return tubes had to be crimped into place on each side when the head was torqued tight, and a call to GT Car Parts in Phoenix, Arizona, revealed they ran $150 apiece. Gene's mechanic noticed they looked an awful lot like a VW oil return tube, so Gene took one over to the Off-Road Warehouse, which supplied the dune buggy, and thus VW, market. "How much?" he asked. "We've got a big box of them," they said. Forty bucks for all six, and he was out the door. Despite GT's dire warnings, they seem to have handled the intervening 15 years just fine.
In the last days of leaded gasoline, he contemplated modifying the valvetrain in the 10.4:1 compression engine for unleaded, and ultimately decided that if it required assistance, he'd use lead substitute. In the end, he's run it on straight high-octane pump gas without a supplement, and hasn't seen any evidence the valve seats are about to burst into flames.
He ended up at Off-Road Warehouse again when rebuilding the four Weber 40 DCN carburetors, used on many Italian cars, and popular with racing VW engine builders. He's not sure he'd be able to complete the restoration as easily today, as at the time he could take small parts to any number of local shops for cad or chrome plating. Environmental regulations have since driven many of those operations out of state, out of business or underground.
Back at his rented garage in San Diego, Gene prepared the car for painting. While taking apart the interior, he found it had originally been silver leather, later dyed red, and faded to pink. He took it to Ocean Beach Boat and Auto Upholstery in San Diego, California, with a photograph from a book and the instructions, "Make it look like this," a classic Italian tan scheme. "Here's everything, here's what I want, and I'll be back," he said. It's a complicated interior, with many cuts and folds and a vestigial rear seat, "But I came back two years later, and they were very diligent in keeping track of everything." Aside from the color, the dash upholstery is also non-original. From the factory, it came upholstered with Ultrasuede®, and by the early 1990s it was out of fashion and unobtainable, so Ocean Beach used the next best thing: actual suede, which has held up far better than the original synthetic.
A few more items turned up in the interior. Behind the dash, Gene found a rat's nest of wiring from an earlier stereo installation, and was able to simplify the loom dramatically and reuse it. The car was originally shipped without a radio, so he tracked down a period Becker tube receiver to finish the dash. "The factory manual wiring schematic wasn't too helpful without an electron microscope, and you had to speak Italian," he mentioned.
He was also able to use some of his Lotus experience and construct new fiberglass enclosures for the rear speakers, which Lamborghini mounted above the rear seats, and had disintegrated beyond saving.
Once the car was down to the (monocoque) shell, Gene chemically stripped it and then had it sandblasted (to this day, he still sometimes finds a trickle of sand emerging from somewhere). As he and his mechanic were contemplating the bare shell, his mechanic mentioned he had a friend who applied spray-on truck bedlining. "I might not do it again, but it's held up," said Gene. They sprayed the entire interior and the engine bay, the only place it's visible. "I didn't have the sophistication to think about future judging, I just did it for long term durability." He also thinks it helped reduce the noises he didn't want, which is helpful, as he took some steps toward encouraging the noises he likes.
When the car went out for painting, "To some little hippy dude my mechanic knew," the body man came back and asked him how many collisions it had been involved in: None, to Gene's knowledge. The largely handbuilt car was full of body filler from the factory, smoothing out the hammer dents from Sant'Agata.
Gene didn't replace insulation around the exhaust, which was fiberglass and aluminum: "It was ugly and it didn't do much, so I didn't replace it. Now, it's more-or-less got headers." He also uses a K&N air filter arrangement, saving the large factory airbox for shows. The result is an even louder version of the V-8's already triumphant scream.
As the major parts were completed, it was time to think about reassembly. "Two years later, I was looking at all the Ziploc bags, with all my notes, and wondering, "What did I mean when I wrote that down?" They no longer made any sense." He tracked down another local car, and made several visits to compare.
To reinstall the engine, he ended up using his rented engine hoist to raise the body, and dropped it over the engine, which is on a separate support, located with six large bolts. He speculates that this was a service decision made by the factory. "They must have thought you'd be taking the engine out so often, it should have its own subframe," he said.
"I still remember the day it was all hooked up. It had fuel, everything looked like it should work." He turned the key, and it cranked over a few times and burst into life for the first time in three years. Then it started spraying fuel from half-a-dozen places. "Note to self: Seal all the fuel lines," he said. "The good news was it didn't blow up. The bad news was watching all the engine paint drip onto the floor." It came back out, and a new coat of Eastwood high-temperature block paint went on. "One of the fun things in a restoration is watching all the work you did undone by an error."
With the car in working order, Gene took a short shakedown cruise to the local Pep Boys for supplies, and pulled into a parking spot at the end of a row of handicapped spaces. As he sat in the car, he watched as "some grandma-mobile, a Chevy Citation or something, saw all these empty handicapped spots and pulled in inches away from me. She opened the door and smashed it into mine. I went ballistic." He squeezed himself in between the cars, "And I told her not to get out. She's telling me to let her out and I'm thinking, I'm going to hell for cussing out someone's mother." The beautiful, Bertone-designed razor crease along the door was half-an-inch flatter than before, and back went the door to the hippy dude.
The Urraco could have made Gene money instantly. Immediately after buying it for $18,500, the broker who sold it to him tracked Gene down with offers up to $25,000. "Who knows what the future holds? I'm sure the market will continue to vacillate, but it will incrementally be worth more because it's old, it's a Lamborghini...and it's perfect. An Italian exotic such as this needs to be reserved as automotive art," he said. "Besides, it's my longest-term relationship."
Source: Feature Article from Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car
December, 2006 - David Traver Adolphus