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.