Against the odds
Every few months, it seems, a new supercar manufacturer is launched. Usually the lifespan of these companies is limited by the financial resources of the backer(s) as only very few ever become profitable. It is well known that in order to make a small fortune with the production of exotic or competition cars, it is best to start with a large one. A very rare exception to this rule is Pagani, which, ironically, is the manufacturer of one of the world's most exotic cars; the Zonda. It remained in production for more than a decade after its debut at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show and the target run of 100 examples has been exceeded by nearly two dozen. A replacement has been announced and production is scheduled to start shortly at a new, larger factory. To find out why Pagani has beaten the odds, we traveled to the company's small factory in a Modena, Italy suburb and sat down with founder and chief designer Horacio Pagani. His compelling story revealed that the recipe for success has been the right combination of talent, passion, determination and, above all, a well thought through plan.
A son of a baker, Horacio Pagani quickly developed an interest in engineering in general and cars in particular. He received some engineering education but he felt the local school in rural Argentina did not fulfil his creative needs. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, he went his own way and at the humble age of 17 he opened a small shop where he worked with a wide variety of materials. His fibreglass skills earned him a job to re-body a Formula Renault racing car. He employed the lessons learned to design and build a Formula Renault car of his own. It was a startling 40 kg (88 pounds) lighter than its contemporaries. Two examples of the innovative machines were built and their success brought Pagani in touch with his compatriot and racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio for the first time. After a visit to the Modena area and a meeting with Lamborghini's technical director Giulio Alfieri, Pagani decided to move to Italy in 1982.
Lamborghini hired him only for menial jobs like sweeping the floors and running errants but he quickly worked his way up the ladder. He eventually left the Italian company again and honed his composite skills with consultant work for various customers in the area. His passion for materials and lightweight constructions triggered his fascination for carbon fibre. He even mortgaged his house to buy an autoclave, which is a type of oven used to cure (bake) carbon fibre parts. At the time it was only the fifth autoclave installed in Italy. The most prominent of his clients was Lamborghini, for whom he designed and constructed carbon fibre parts. The body-kit on the 25th Anniversary Countach was one of the cars Pagani contributed to. For Lamborghini he also started work on a complete carbon fibre car but this project was binned shortly after Chrysler took control of the company. This was the cue for Horacio Pagani to pursue his dream building a supercar of his own design.
A long gestation period
Pagani played with the idea of his own car as early as 1988 but, preoccupied with his work for Lamborghini, he did not really started working on 'Project C8' until the early 1990s. By 1993 a model was ready for testing in the Dallara wind-tunnel. One of the project's earliest supporters was Juan Manuel Fangio, who supplied engineering feedback and also introduced Pagani to Mercedes-Benz. This helped secure the supply of the German manufacturer's AMG tuned 6-litre V12 engine. In honour of his childhood hero, Pagani had intended to call the new car the Fangio F1 but he, commendably, changed his plans after Fangio's death in 1995. He instead called the car the Pagani Zonda after a dry wind that often occurs on the Eastern slopes of the South American Andes mountains. During all of this Pagani had managed to keep his project off the radar and in relative quiet he soldiered on.
Well aware of the sensitivities in the market, Pagani carefully planned the introduction of the Zonda. Ahead of the Geneva launch, the design was finalised and the car was even fully homologated and certified for the road. This ensured that the prospective buyers knew exactly what they were getting. Showing a real car also helped to build the confidence of the suppliers and dealers, who were still reeling from the high profile demise of the Italian Bugatti. Pagani was reassured that he was moving in the right direction by the Mercedes-Benz chairman, who was the first person to sit in the Zonda after it was unveiled in Geneva.
When Horacio Pagani set out to design the car that would become the Zonda, it was perfection he was after. The long gestation period helped him achieve just that and clearly set the Zonda apart from its rivals. What, not surprisingly, stood out most was the fabulous carbon fibre work, which is all created in-house. That includes the monocoque chassis, making Pagani one of only handful companies capable of producing road going composite tubs. Even companies like Ferrari, Porsche and Bugatti use specialist suppliers for their carbon fibre chassis. Laying up every part in-house has enabled Pagani to get a unique finish with the weave of all parts running in the same direction on each side of the car, forming a v-shape from the tip of the nose back.
The design itself was inspired by the curves of a woman's body. This is most apparent when viewed from above. Other striking features were the relatively large cockpit and the centre exhausts with four pipes in a square. After the first examples the design was revised with a Formula 1 inspired elongated nose and a split rear wing as the most obvious changes. Further tweaks were made over the years as new versions were launched but throughout the production period the basic design was left untouched.
Mechanically the changes to the Zonda over the years was more dramatic. In its original guise the Mercedes-Benz supplied V12 displaced just under 6 litre and produced 402 bhp. Along with the first exterior design changes the Zonda received an AMG uprated version of the V12. It had grown in size to just under 7 litre, which helped raise the power to a more competitive 505 bhp. The final evolution of the engine was slightly larger still and eventually yielded over 600 horses. All this power was fed to the rear wheels through a conventional gearbox, initially with five forward ratios and from 2003 onwards with six. At the very end of the production run a paddle-operated version of the six-speed gearbox became available as an option.
Needless to say, each Zonda was built to the specific order of the customer. So, even though, various versions of the Zonda can be identified, no two were alike. Some cars were even finished in bare carbon-fibre to really show off the craftsmanship of the Pagani workers. Many of the earlier cars were later upgraded to the most recent specification. Pagani even performed the gearbox upgrade from five to six speeds for free.
On the track
For a car with the Zonda's credentials and heritage, going racing seemed like a logical step. In 2003 a Zonda was developed commissioned from Pagani by experienced GT team Carsport. The result was the 'Zonda GR', which debuted at Le Mans that year but failed to impress due to reliability issues. The car was withdrawn from its second attempt at the legendary 24-hour race after a testing accident at Vallelunga. The car has made several more appearances in the following years but the poorly funded effort never did the Zonda justice.
Horacio Pagani showed little interest in racing but nevertheless built the one-off Zonda 'Monza' for a customer with a strong track orientation in 2004. It would turn out to be the precursor for the ultimate development of the car; the Zonda R. Introduced in 2009, it was intended solely for track-day purposes and did not comply with international GT regulations. The R featured a very special AMG V12 engine. Displacing 6 litre, it had previously powered the highly successful CLK-GTR racing cars. In addition to a glorious howl, it produced upwards of 750 bhp. In June of 2010, it set a new lap record at the Nürburgring in the hands of Marc Basseng. He completed the lap in 6:47.50, which was over ten seconds faster than Ferrari's latest track-day special. Only ten Zonda Rs were intended to be built but by the time we visited Pagani, that figure was increased to fifteen.
By creating and building the Zonda, Horacio Pagani fulfilled his dream. During our conversation, however, he was quick to stress that this was just one of his dreams. He explained that he is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who was both an artist and engineer. The continuous improvement of his designs is what drives Pagani. He has also continued to perfect his much loved carbon-fibre. The latest development is the so-called 'Carbo-Titanium', which, as the name suggests, is carbon-fibre laced with strands of titanium. The titanium is weaved perpendicularly to the carbon fibres, giving the structure some elasticity in one direction, while maintaining rigidity in the other. The added elasticity makes the carbon-fibre less likely to crack or disintegrate on impact. Developed for the new car, the final Zondas featured carbo-titanium tubs. Pagani is also looking at carbon-fibre applications outside of the automotive industry and is working on a new patent for preserviving and restructuring historical buildings with the use of carbon-fibre.
Several years in the making, the big project in Pagani's immediate future is the Zonda replacement, set to be revealed to the public in Geneva in March of 2011. In good Pagani tradition, the new 'Huayra' had been completely developed before the cover was drawn off. Boasting the latest technology and a striking design, it has the difficult task to replace what is already considered one of the-all-time-great sports cars.
What struck us most during our visit to Pagani, is the incredible eye for detail that goes into every aspect of the business. This ranges from the extensive books detailing each individual car down to the serial number of the part and the person that handled it to our being welcomed by a Dutch flag flying on the roof of the factory. Horacio Pagani's unique approach has yielded considerable success and a pool of very loyal customers. If all goes to plan, and at Pagani it usually does, this pool will only get bigger in the coming years. Click here
for an exclusive 40-shot gallery from our visit to the Pagani factory.