An Interview with Horacio Pagani

Pagani’s Zonda was “inspired by race cars, not road cars”

In the spring of 2006, I had a chat with Horacio Pagani, whose eponymous company builds the Zonda. It is published here for the first time in its original English.

Horacio Pagani, immaculately dressed, is sitting in a makeshift meeting room smack in the middle of a sprawling Socialist-era exhibition hall in Kőbánya, one of the working-class outskirts of Budapest. While Kőbánya translates to quarry, Pagani’s cars are anything but: for the first time since a rebuffed tractormaker set out to beat Enzo Ferrari at his own game, the Modena establishment is witnessing a successful newcomer. Pagani’s Zonda is very much on par with Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s best.

Pagani the man has been part of that establishment since he left his native Argentina to pursue his dream of making supercars in Modena, which has been the ground zero of the business for decades.

Horacio Pagani

“The Modena scene all began with Maserati, to be succeeded by Ferrari, then Lamborghini. They have created a legacy here, a tradition. In the beginning, they were all mainly engine producers, while the chassis were made in Torino by the famous carrozzerie like Pininfarina and Bertone. Nevertheless, the cars were always assembled in the Modena area, and it became prestigious to set up shop here. The suppliers followed, and the locals learned how to successfully work in this business.”

Making supercars is undoubtedly a weird business to be in. Unforgiving economics, long development times and finicky customers conspire to put all but the most determined—or lucky—out of business. Pagani’s career at Lamborghini progressed from sweeping floors to designing the 25th Anniversary Countach. He then left Lamborghini to become a consultant in making carbon fiber, the lightweight, brittle, handmade plastic all modern supercars are made of. And like most boys, Pagani dreamed of building his own car one day.

But unlike most, he followed through with it.

“I have cultivated my dream every day. I tried to turn all the difficulties into fuel to continue and, at a certain point, I put together a good team of people. You cannot do anything on your own. Basically, I believed in what I wanted to do—and I did it.”

One of those people was Loris Bicocchi, an old Modena hand, who has helped sort out cars for pretty much everyone in the area, moving from Pagani to Koenigsegg to Bugatti. His wife Roberta is Pagani’s spokeswoman and it is she who keeps our conversation flowing, translating between my English and Pagani’s Italian.

“My Zonda was inspired by race cars, not road cars! Mainly from the late Eighties. From back when racecars were still quite elegant and romantic, and not designed through aerodynamics like they are now. There have been other sources of inspiration outside of cars, like Patek Philippe watches, Riva speedboats and fighter jets. All these components have combined to make the Zonda as it stands today.”

Pagani is a boutique manufacturer even by supercar standards. Yet in a move that signals just how much the company has grown since its debut at the 1999 Geneva Auto Show with the Zonda C12, Pagani now has trouble counting the exact number of cars he’s built:

“We have delivered 67 or 68 of them. 64 of them are street legal like the ones parked outside [an F and a Roadster F], and we have also made three which are not. They were made on demand for different customers who wanted to have something special.”

Horacio Pagani turns his back on a Bugatti Veyron

Something special! It is at this point when I consider a profoundly disturbing question: how does it feel to have your life’s work culminate in a sublime car and know that most of them will be bought by people with mountains of money and very little taste? How do you cater to a tasteless demand you cannot refuse? Everyone from Ettore Bugatti on must have come across this unpleasant but vital aspect of building machinery that happens to be very, very pretty. Green and polite and a little bedazzled, I let the question slip and we turn to the Zonda’s Mercedes-sourced V12 engine instead:

“It was Juan Manuel Fangio, my mentor, who made the first contact with Mercedes–Benz. He believed it would be good to have a Mercedes engine for a car all about desire. I knew I would need a good, reliable engine, because I couldn’t build my own, and Mercedes has proven to be a fine choice in that respect as well.”

It had admittedly crossed my mind to play the prank of addressing Pagani as Mr. Paganini and ask him about his violin playing skills but I decide to go for a more subtle nag at his ego: what would his car of choice be for a drive across Europe if he couldn’t take the one he built himself?

“It would have to be another supercar! I like all the supercars. It wouldn’t make a difference whether I’d take a Porsche Carrera GT or a Ferrari Enzo. I drive a Zonda anyway when one is available at the factory. If not, I use my Mercedes–Benz CL coupé.”

Horacio Pagani rides a Zonda-themed chopper

As futuristic as it still appears, the Zonda is seven years old now. Pagani turns to his plans for its successor:

“We began developing a new car three years ago. You will certainly see it share familiar traits with the Zonda and I’m very enthusiastic about where the design is headed. Now that we have established ourselves as a carmaker, it is an even bigger challenge to build a new car. People now have expectations! Nobody had expected anything when they first saw the Zonda. So yes, building a worthy successor will be very challenging, but I’m quite happy with the way the design and development process is going.”

Before we say our goodbyes, Pagani inquires about the Zonda’s status with the car nerds of Hungary. I mention the relative scarcity of first-hand knowledge: there is one known owner here, a Kuwaiti man who owns at least three of those 67—or 68—and had, in fact, organized this very exhibition. I express my wishes to double that number one day.

We shake hands and I emerge into the open hall, flanked by two Zonda F’s and circled by a throng of gawkers furiously striving for the best phonecam shots of the cars. Pagani’s cell phone goes off with the sound of a Zonda V12 engine in the red. Even though he’s got the phone in his hand, he lets it ring a few times before he picks it up and goes back inside.

This interview was conducted in April 2006 and a Hungarian translation was posted on Totalcar. It has never been published in its original English before. Pagani has since manufactured an additional 30+ Zondas, which you must already know from our field guide.

Published on Wednesday, February 18th, 2009