Horacio Pagani hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a young car enthusiast stranded half a world away in Argentina, desperate to work at one of the supercar makers of Italy’s Motor Valley. So now that he builds supercars of his own in the very same valley, his attitude to access is egalitarian. His cars cost millions, yet for about $37 anyone can book a tour of his new factory, and unlike Ferrari’s policy you don’t have to be a customer. As I arrive, a small group of tourists is being shown around. They’re busy photographing the carbon-fiber washbasins in the bathrooms.
They’re also among the first ever admitted, and I’m the first journalist. Pagani, 61, isn’t an architect, but he designed the place himself with the same verve and originality he injects into his cars. You’ll find the occasional direct reference to them throughout the facility. It’s an extraordinary place, and the fact it exists at all is even more extraordinary given the difficulty of establishing an automaker from scratch.
Although his company hasn’t yet acquired the same fame or scale or racing success as the houses that Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini built, few others have been able to develop a supercar largely unaided as Pagani has. And though he’s inextricably linked with those Italian legends, given his history and factory location he’s arguably better compared to engineers such as Gordon Murray or Ettore Bugatti—men who ran benign dictatorships that tended to produce better-engineered cars.
“A car has to make you dream. … If a car can light you up every time you see it, it has done its job.”
When Pagani walks into his factory, there’s the usual flurry of activity that surrounds the arrival of a very important person. Conversations end abruptly as attention swivels in the direction of the man who has become one of the great figures of Motor Valley in his own right, though he’s far from the uptight, needy attention-seeker type. A diminutive, avuncular figure, he’s dressed for our meeting in a Pagani tracksuit top (the zipper pull is in the shape of his trademark quad exhaust pipes), purple jeans, and gray Diadora sneakers. Abundant salt and pepper hair is pushed up and away from his face.
We’re having coffee before taking the tour, and his sharp, expressive eyes dart around behind thin-framed glasses. They settle on a spotlight in the ceiling of the room. It isn’t pointing in the right direction. He summons son Leonardo, named after da Vinci, who supervised the factory’s construction. Leonardo appears with a ladder and aims the spotlight correctly.
You might be familiar with Pagani’s story. Born in Argentina to Italian immigrant parents, by his early 20s he had designed and built his own open-wheel Formula 2 car. But local work as an automotive designer and engineer was limited to making camper-van conversions. So in 1983 he set off for Italy with little more in his pocket than a couple letters of introduction to the titans of Motor Valley from none other than favorite Argentinian son Juan Manuel Fangio, which helped him get a menial job at Lamborghini.
“When you are selling cars before you have made them, your sense of responsibility toward your clients increases dramatically.”
His rise was meteoric, but his thinking eventually became uncomfortably constrained by his employer. The Countach Evoluzione concept he led the development of was among the first road cars ever constructed with a composite chassis, cutting a third of the mass from the standard car. But Lamborghini wouldn’t invest in an autoclave to make its own carbon fiber, so Pagani borrowed the money to buy one of his own and installed it at the company. He took the autoclave with him when he left to found Modena Design in 1991.
There he made carbon-fiber parts for Ferrari’s Formula 1 team, among others. He started devel-opment work on his first car—the Pagani Zonda—in 1993, and it was shown at the Geneva show in 1999. His first factory and that autoclave have been overwhelmed by demand ever since. I ask him why, when dozens of other sports car and supercar startups have failed in that same amount of time.
“All the engineering and technology must be at the highest possible level,” Pagani says in Italian. “But the client doesn’t buy a car because it weighs a few kilos less than another. The client probably doesn’t give a damn about that fact. The car has to give you a strong emotion. A car has to make you dream. It has to light you up. If a car can light you up every time you see it, it has done its job.”
The new Pagani factory is a couple minutes down the road from his old production facility in San Cesario sul Panaro, near Modena. With a footprint about the size of a large car dealership, it isn’t exactly huge, but the facility will eventually allow the company to double production to roughly 50 cars per year.
“We designed all of it, my sons Leonardo and Christopher, our design team, and me” he says, waving a hand around. “Everything reflects our way of thinking, even our bath-rooms. We didn’t use an architect.
“The support of my family has been very important because I have been able to concentrate on the cars. I couldn’t forget about that side of things. I think the results are OK.”
He takes me outside into the public area, an L-shaped space that houses the museum on one side and a customer area on the other. Its steel frame supports vast glass walls and was inspired by an iron-framed greenhouse designed by Gustave Eiffel on the grounds of the French chateau of one of Pagani’s customers. Some of the steel beams have been designed to look like a Pagani suspension arm.
“The theme is the same as you see in our cars,” Pagani continues. “Our inspiration is Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was a designer. He studied engineering and combined the technology of 500 years ago with art. And that’s what we attempt to do. We pay attention to the aesthetics, even the parts that aren’t visible. Like the suspension arm, we want it to stand alone as a beautiful thing that could be exhibited in a display case. We care about beauty. It’s a word the world has almost forgotten. But because the Italians created beautiful things in the past, we have a responsibility to keep beauty in mind.”
A dozen or so Zondas and Huayras are on display alongside a Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary, his Renault-engined F2 car, and a mini moto he made in his teens. It’s an extraordinary sight. This is the only place in the world other than perhaps Monterey Car Week (see page 102) where you can use the phrase “lots of Paganis.” The company bought back some of its early cars from customers because the founder couldn’t afford the luxury of keeping them for posterity in the early years. Their climbing values would have made them a good investment. The museum’s back wall is adorned with memorabilia, including the letter Fangio wrote to introduce Pagani to Enzo Ferrari.
“We could increase our profits to 500 million euros a year. But I don’t give a damn about that kind of thing.”
He leads me from the museum through a brick corridor and into the main assembly area. It has Roman arched windows that frame a finished and perfectly lit Huayra BC parked in the final inspection area. “Outside, everything is made of steel and glass,” he says. “Inside, we have tried to create an Italian flavor, right down to the bricks and the type of construction, and marble from Carrara—many things to make the project feel Italian.”
And I thought the Ferrari factory was the most Italian place in Italy. Pagani has decided to out-Italian the old guard but with a sense of humor. The main assembly area is about the size of four tennis courts and is laid out like a piazza. There are original street lights, and in one corner sits a brick campanile, or bell tower, complete with a bell that tolls on the hour, sourced from a foundry established in the 15th century. Pagani needed to disguise an elevator shaft and thought this might be a fun way to do it. As he shows it to me, a worker strolls past whistling the theme to “The Godfather.” Maybe they do that for every foreign visitor.
The atmosphere is more like a high-end furniture showroom than a car factory. It’s quiet and smells nice, chiefly because little dirty work is done here. This is mainly an assembly operation: The cars are bolted together from a menu of exquisite parts, mostly made by outside suppliers and delivered in cut-foam trays like jewelry. Although the engine, gearbox, trim, and paint are outsourced to other suppliers—and there’s no shortage of good ones nearby—the carbon fiber could only be done in-house. Its intelligent, beautiful use has defined Pagani’s career.
So in a room on the mezzanine (where there are fewer dust particles than at ground level) held at a precise 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees F) and reverberating to a bad ’80s rock station playing Toto’s “Hold the Line,” about a dozen people, mostly women, press every curve of a Pagani into a mold by hand. Other carmakers might claim to build their products by hand, but panels are generally stamped out by a press. On a Pagani, every sinew really has been formed by hand. It’s the modern equivalent of the way a coachbuilder in the past would have shaped a panel with an English wheel. The idea of having a minor crash in one and asking these people to start that vast rear clamshell all over again is too embarrassing to contemplate. As I visit, they are making the first pieces for the new Huayra Roadster. Even at roughly $2.4 million apiece, all 100 were sold to existing Pagani customers before the silk was pulled off the car during the 2017 Geneva auto show.
“When you are selling cars before you have made them, your sense of responsibility toward your clients increases dramatically,” Pagani says. “That’s why all of us, not just me, have to give so much more than we ever imagined. Why? Because the clients trust us. They send payment for something that they will have in two years, and we use the money they send to build the car. That’s a lot of faith.”
The same faith might allow him to expand the output of this new factory far beyond 50 cars each year. But in contrast to other CEOs who talk endlessly of expansion, Pagani would like to keep things this way.
“We arrived in 1999. That was the starting point, day one,” he reflects. “Without any financial support it was a very, very difficult task. But we believed in it, and we did it. We not only created a new way of building cars, but we created a name. Now we could create a second line of cars, thousands more of them, to increase our profits to 500 million euros a year. But I don’t give a damn about that kind of thing. We never wanted to be a second Ferrari or Lamborghini. With respect to the love and passion for Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and the motor history of Modena, we want to be something small but intelligent. We want to be here, in our place.”