Modena, Italy Yes, this is a motor–and motor racing–town, home of Ferrari and Maserati, a place where the local Fiat dealer, Stanguellini, made its own racing cars for decades and where a great many other hallowed and/or forgotten names have been attached to extraordinary automobiles. The lavish, round, failed Bugatti factory is just up the road in Campogalliano, and the Lamborghini works is not far away, either.
But long before internal-combustion engines existed, long before the now-gone twentieth century changed the face of the world with exotic machinery, Modena was a center of emotional and spiritual activity. There are absolutely extraordinary churches in the city, seemingly at every other intersection, outposts of the all-powerful Church to the south in Rome, with its various quantified moral structures: a holy trinity, ten commandments, and seven deadly sins. The last of these might be a little harder to avoid here than in less impassioned environs.
Horacio Pagani, an Argentine dynamo who came here in 1982, has done more than his share to put the temptation to sin before the Modenese citizenry. Compared with him and the intensity with which he works, almost every other human is guilty of Sloth. Admire one of his Zonda GT cars, note the details of its design and finish, check out the superb handmade shoes in matching leather that go with each car, and try to deny that Covetousness is stirring in your heart. Look at what Pagani has accomplished in the nineteen years since he and his new bride arrived in Italy, living in a tent and scrabbling at odd jobs to survive, and you are a good person indeed if you are not just a little bit touched by Envy. And there must be other would-be carmakers in the area who are all but consumed by Anger, seeing the apparent ease with which Pagani has reached his goals while they suffered and failed.
Given all this, you might well expect Pagani himself to be filled with overweening Pride. But no, the man is modest and unassuming, giving credit to others for the help they have given him, understating what he has managed to do in getting his company up and running and his complex cars certified in Europe, Japan, and America. “Without waivers,” he stresses.
Pagani has liked cars and design since he was eight years old, but he lived in Casilda, Argentina, a rural town in an agricultural country, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of bakers. His future was charted for him by family destiny: He would be a baker, too. Except that there was Auto Mundo magazine, enough contact with the automotive world to fire the enthusiasm of a boy who loved cars–racing cars, especially. Then a whole new world opened when he saw his first copy of Style Auto magazine, a forerunner of today’s Auto & Design, both created by Fulvio Cinti.
Pagani specifically recalls seeing a picture of Gandini’s Bertone Alfa Romeo Carabo when he was twelve, a sight that gave him goose bumps. An adult friend had a collection of magazines and books that Pagani yearned to buy, but his father said no. Young Horacio then made a deal to buy the material on a one-year contract. He kept it all out of his father’s sight under his bed. His mother knew, of course, but tactfully said nothing to father or son.
Pagani was fascinated by the work of a model builder in one of the publications and began crafting his own car models. Knowing that cars had to be designed by someone, that they did not just happen, motivated him to study industrial design at La Plata University, but student political activity during the years of the military dictatorship closed the school for three years. He tried his hand at customizing his father’s Torino, a hodgepodge of a car with a Rambler American body restyled by Pininfarina, powered by an old Kaiser L-head engine fitted with an OHC cylinder head conversion, made and marketed by Renault. He liked the hands-on aspect of working directly with metal, but he went twenty-five miles away to Rosario to study engineering all the same. The school’s rote, noncreative approach was all wrong for him, so he decided to design his own educational curriculum, starting with studying the life of Leonardo da Vinci, his great inspiration and model, and trying to figure out manufacturing methods on his own.
He was fascinated by materials, he says, and established his own small shop, making chairs and tooling for bending tubes. In 1977, he designed and built travel trailers, including their suspensions. Because he could work with fiberglass, he was asked to rebody a race car. He did the job in only three weeks, the car came in second in its first post-Pagani outing, and the die was cast. He would design and build a racing car from scratch, a single-seater fitting a local Renault-powered promotional formula.
It took a year, working after dinner each evening. Pagani designed every part, including the brakes (which, he ruefully reports, did not work), and his project came in 88 pounds lighter than others in the category. That car sits in the Pagani showroom in a Modena suburb today, showing a lot of very original thinking, in particular in the arrangement of springs, shocks, and roll bars entirely within the body. The rear subframe bolted onto the rest of the chassis, allowing easy changes of wheelbase. Altogether, Horacio Pagani Competicin made just four cars, but they caught the eye of Argentina’s (and, to Pagani, the world’s) greatest driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, whose influence certainly smoothed the way for Automobili Pagani to source its engines from Mercedes-Benz decades later.
In fact, says Pagani, he would have called his GT car Fangio instead of Zonda (a wind of the pampas) had the great man lived long enough to see it, but he did not want to trade on the Fangio name without direct approval, a nice reticence not everyone would have observed. For all the success of his race cars, the whole situation in Argentina, commercially and politically, was “grande confuzione,” and Pagani wanted out. His heart was in GT cars, anyway, “a fixation,” he says, so, in 1982, he came to Europe to look around. He met Giulio Alfieri at Lamborghini, who gave him very slight encouragement, but his mind was made up: He would come to Modena no matter what. In answer to a question about fellow Argentine car builder Alejandro de Tomaso, Pagani gives a short answer. He has never, ever spoken to de Tomaso. Period.
Returning to Argentina, Horacio announced to nineteen-year-old Christina that they would marry and go to Italy to live. Neither of them spoke Italian then, but Spanish was close enough to make starting out a little easier, although a tent in a campground is far from the little white cottage with a picket fence of romantic stories. Pagani worked at Lamborghini for a while, in menial jobs. He swept the floors, moved things around, but did not get his hands on the creation of cars. He showed his enthusiasm by being first in each morning at six a.m., and he was the last one out each evening at eight. “Okay, I do this, but remember that I came here to make the most beautiful cars in the world,” he told Alfieri before leaving.
Because he was competent in composites from his experience with chairs and trailers, he was able to get odd jobs around Modena, and eventually he returned to Lamborghini as a consultant designer. He designed molds and made the body parts for the Countach Evoluzione and the first competition GT, all without the use of an autoclave. He also did the styling and fabrication of parts for the Anniversary Countach.
That work gave him enough of a start to rent a small shop in Sant’Agata, buy his first autoclave–the fifth to be installed in Italy, where there are now more than 400–for curing carbon fiber parts quickly, and make experiments that led to more work with Lamborghini. Pagani says that the Diablo is about 50 percent composite, but that there was an all-composite project under Chrysler‘s ownership that was stopped with the sale of the company, an event that probably precipitated Pagani’s determination to build a car on his own.
Pagani is adamant that two-ton supercars are silly, pointing to the 3960-pound weight of the Bugatti EB110. “The McLaren was about 2500 pounds. That’s more like it.” Pagani’s Zonda C12 S is heavier than that, at 2750 pounds, but that seems a very reasonable result for a car costing only a third as much as the million-dollar McLaren, long considered to be the ultimate exotic. And Pagani’s is really meant to be a road car, not a racing car for the road.
As you approach a Zonda, you are struck by the careful detailing of both hardware and surfaces. At first glance–and after careful study as well–the design seems excessively busy, almost baroque, with, as Salieri is supposed to have said about a Mozart composition, “too many notes.” In the cockpit, you are impressed by the sheer opulence, the richness of materials, and the perfection of their assembly. A Rolls-Royce interior is a monument to careful craftsmanship, but it has nothing on a Zonda. Every stitch in the soft trim is precisely placed, perfectly tensioned, and artfully decorative in itself. Unlike any mid-engined Lamborghini or Ferrari I have ever occupied, the car is actually comfortable and does not rely on the magical aura of hallowed name and exotic mech-anical specification to induce you to ignore limited space, awkward control placement, and small seats.
Pagani explains that he is well aware that people who can afford his car are probably well along in years, fairly big in all dimensions, including girth, and not as flexible as a Formula 1 pilot, so he has made sure that there is more headroom, more width, easier entrance conditions, and more all-around comfort in his car than in other Italian machines in the supercar category. His awareness of customer requirements includes making sure that the machine has an easy ride and that all control forces are light.
We were supposed to use the silver development car when its test driver came back from Bergamo in the afternoon, but, as that worthy did not want to work on Saturday, simply repeating the same route, he just kept going to Munich, so we had to take the yellow car that was sitting ready for delivery to an American customer. From the first turn of a wheel, it is easy to see that the brief–making a daily-driver supercar–has been met, not least because of the AMG Mercedes engine, surely as bulletproof and practical a V-12 as has ever been made, despite having 550 horsepower. The gearbox, a Pagani design, is particularly light in operation; only fingertips are needed for each quick, silent change. Not that gearchanging is really vital in a light car with a ton of torque.
Leaving the modern Pagani works (Horacio Pagani, architect), Pagani charges away with furious acceleration, obliging photographer Martyn Goddard, following in a Corvette Z06, to use all of that car’s ample performance to keep the Zonda in sight. As we approach an S-curved bridge over railroad tracks, Pagani slows not at all, just turning the wheel and getting off, on, and back off the throttle as the car lifts at the top of the ramp. It seems anodyne, but Goddard, a skilled rally driver in his own right, says he had his hands full keeping the Z06 on the pavement at the same speed.
Rural Italian roads can be utterly terrifying. They tend to rise above surrounding fields with sharp-edged dropoffs. Put a wheel off the side, and the whole car is likely to follow, probably not right-side up. So, when Pagani starts whipping the Zonda helm from left to right and back again at around 100 mph, for all the world like a Formula 1 driver warming his tires, there is every reason to be apprehensive. But the Zonda simply darts from one side of the road to the other and back again with no tendency to break traction, another manifestation of the otherworldliness of this extraordinary and quite improbable automobile.
Stopping for a driver change and photos, we examine the car in the light of that brief, initial on-road experience. Interesting features and thoughtful details abound, such as the matching-leather suit bag that hangs behind the seat, hooked over the headrest, or the luggage carriers in the rear flanks, beautifully made from carbon fiber and held in place with elegant straps that make you think of a Bugatti Type 35.
It is easy to imagine one of these cars fifty years on, a lovely rich patina on all the original parts but nothing looking shabby. One sees that look of time-proven quality on unrestored 1930s Bentleys sometimes, but most modern cars with their plastic bits and approximate fits announce their imminent deterioration before you drive them off the showroom floor. In the Zonda, every weld, every bolt, is done to aircraft-quality standards, and there are no loose ends, sloppy dabs of sealer, or other indications of mass production.
The engine is subdued compared with shrill Italian twelves, the road noise from tires and suspension is minimal, and it is easy–apart from the financial considerations–to imagine using a Zonda as your commuting car. It is relaxing if you want it to be, exhilarating when you push it to its limits. It would be a tour de force from any well-established factory. That it comes from the creative impetus and organizational efforts of just one man is almost unbelievable.
There are 106 individual pieces of carbon fiber in the Zonda, so with chassis number 21 in the jig when we visited, thousands of carbon-reinforced parts have been turned out, each and every one documented in a double bookkeeping system as used in the aircraft industry. Every part of every car is traceable. The company is not yet ISO 9001 certified, but “it will be, soon.” Some mechanical elements are made outside, of course, but to Pagani designs. The six-speed gearbox is one such component, made locally. The steering rack is another, but made by TRW, a major industry supplier. The taillights come from another vehicle, not surprising when you realize that the tooling costs for bespoke lamps run to about $350,000 per unit, but everything else you can see, and a lot you cannot, is specific to this car. Every casting is X-rayed, every part carefully inspected by nondestructive but exhaustive methods. Nine Zondas have been delivered, and if the letters Pagani showed us mean anything, they are trouble-free and delight their owners.
In many ways, Pagani’s ultraclean, hyperefficient, 20,000-square-foot operation is the prototype for car companies of the future. Only twenty-five people are employed within the building, as subassemblies are made and painting is done outside. Ferrari and TVR are probably the smallest-volume car companies making their own engines, although we would not put it past Pagani to decide to make his own one day. For the moment, Mercedes has ensured a supply until 2004, for up to 100 units. They are already working on a bigger twelve, a 7.3-liter unit that will turn up 7000 rpm against the present 7010-cc unit’s 6000. Of course, you can buy the plain Zonda C12 with only 394 horsepower from six liters if you want to be excessively reasonable.
The one mystery of the Pagani story is how this near-miracle is financed. No one in the company wants to talk about that, although Pagani would have you believe that the capital all came from his little plastics molding shop, which seems improbable. At the same time, it is clear that money has been put to good use, not conspicuously wasted, as it was in the Bugatti adventure.
Certainly, there are big savings in personnel costs: Pagani makes his own styling sketches and presentation renderings, does blueprints, gets his hands into every bit of the project. He is chief stylist, chief engineer, chief executive, and head of public relations, in which capacity he does not fail to tempt visitors to the sin of Gluttony, offering a huge platter of Modenese specialty sandwiches for lunch and, as his baking background demands, wonderful cookies with the selection of exotic teas he prepares each afternoon in the Argentine tradition.
Christina and Horacio Pagani have two sons, Leonardo (of course), age thirteen, and Christopher, who is twelve. They now live in a house fine enough to receive the millionaires who buy their cars as overnight guests, a long way from their extremely humble beginnings in Italy.
And the last deadly sin? Lust has no place here. This is a family business.