There is something inherently magical in naming cars after winds. Take the Pagani Zonda as an example, because we won’t talk about the Passat, the Polo, and the Golf. We’re venturing into something more exotic, just like Maserati and its Mistral, Khamsin, Bora, and Merak, names oozing velocity, adventure, and power.
But what is the Zonda? It is a vigorous wind blowing through the Pampas. The Zonda is so powerful that it reaches speeds of up to 150 MPH. Oh yes, we’re talking about the wind, at least at the moment. An automobile named after such a powerful force of nature is bound to become legendary, right? If you agree, prepare for a story about a sports car built out of pure passion, the Pagani Zonda.
First and foremost, let’s see what makes Pagani so special and adored among the connoisseurs? The Pagani brand stands above the market swarmed by companies offering otherworldly promises with no substance to back them up. Sometimes, shady money and cryptic financiers are involved too, and while shady money is what brought us gems like Pegaso and pop culture icons like the Delorean DMC 12, most of these cars turn out to be pompous revivals of long-forgotten brands or characterless studies lacking any aesthetic value-seeking for a quick profit. However, Pagani Automobili S.p.A. is a lot more.
The name behind this company is Horacio Pagani. Prior to founding his eponymous company, this Argentinean engineer was virtually unknown in the eyes of casual car fans and the wide automotive public, but was a highly regarded individual in top-tier motoring circles.
Born a prodigious child, Horacio Pagani fiddled with clay since his early age, making models of dreamed up cars and aged 15, he already built his first bike.
Mr. Pagani left his native rural town of Casilda in pursuit of a career in both arts and engineering. And as expected, he excelled at both – at the age of 20, he designed and engineered his first F3 car, and at 23, he already built a F2 car for the revered Renault team.
Under mentorship from Oreste Berta, young Mr. Pagani took the chance to meet Juan Manuel Fangio. Impressed with Horacio’s talents, accomplishments, and dedication to move even further, the respected Grand Prix driver personally contacted leading builders urging Pagani to become a part of their teams.
Following his call to become a sports car builder in northern Italy, Pagani traveled across the world while still waiting for any established manufacturer to write back. While there, he lived humbly with his wife, but no letters came. Ferrari didn’t reply and neither did the others, but Giulio Alfieri who then worked for Lamborghini eventually did.
There, Horacio Pagani started working from the bottom of the ladder, but soon climbed enough to be personally involved in a project. In fact, it was the Countach Evoluzione, a forward-thinking 1987 study in which Lamborghini explored the use of composite materials. Soon after, Pagani was included in P140 and Diablo projects. After falling out over an autoclave required for developing and building composite components, Pagani departed from Lamborghini.
The C8 and the F1 Fangio: Zonda C12 in development
Having borrowed the money for an autoclave, Pagani formed Modena Design in 1991, only to rename the company to Pagani Automobili in 1992. Now, he was ready to start again, this time with more experience and even greater dedication to succeed.
Horacio utilized working both as a design and engineering consultant to fuel his true passion: to become an independent automotive constructor. So, in 1992, he started designing and developing Project C8. This project was his personal vision of an ultimate Italian sports car and also an homage to the great Fangio who strongly believed in Horacio while he was still a student with a desire to make it in the automotive world. That’s why Pagani changed the name of the project from C8 to F1 Fangio while in mid-development.
As Fangio sadly passed away in 1995, Horacio decided not to capitalize on his only true inspiration and named the car Zonda after an untamable force of nature native to his home country. The Zonda C12 was presented at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show meeting universal appraisal from the automotive public.
Body of the Pagani Zonda
The construction of the shell had to meet certain criteria: to be lightweight, rigid, and aerodynamically efficient. From the structural standpoint, the Zonda benefited from Pagani’s prior experience with lightweight composites. It utilized carbon fiber central chassis with chromium-molybdenum steel front and rear space frame, carbon fiber, and aluminum panels, and in total, the whole car weighed just 2756 lb.
The aerodynamic profile of the development body was thoroughly tested in Dallara’s wind tunnels as early as in 1993, so Pagani could focus on the details that made the Zonda stand out. As an artistic soul with adequate formal education, Horacio took care of the looks too, creating an unorthodox and instantly memorable streamlined silhouette.
When you think of the Zonda, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it a short front end with elliptical twin headlights? Probably not. But the exposed rear end, complete with centrally mounted quad exhaust pipes? Well, now we’re talking!
The Zonda was so unlike any other car ever produced that it seriously challenged the way everyone looked at supercars. Some might still see the Zonda as just an odd-looking car, but to others, it’s masterfully idiosyncratic and still fresh for that reason.
A thoroughbred of Pagani’s dreams had to have a V12, but the research and development costs were too high for him to handle, so he had to choose from already existing engines. Italian V12s were immediately ruled out due to his then recent departure from Lamborghini and well-known reluctance from Ferrari, the choice had to go into two directions: British or German.
Pagani chose the latter and he chose wisely. While Gordon Murray went with BMW V12 in constructing the McLaren F1, Pagani struck a deal to source the powerhouse from Mercedes-Benz. It was a state of the art M120 60° V12 displacing 6.0 liters, producing 400 horsepower from the factory. After Horacio’s treatment, the power was bumped to 450 thoroughbreds with 435 lb-ft of torque. Combined with a lightweight body, the Zonda was a terrific performer, with a 0-60 time of 4 seconds flat and a top speed of 186 MPH.
Later iterations of the Zonda used more potent engines, all of them being V12 units sourced from Mercedes-Benz and AMG, but we’ll get to that later.
It’s a known fact that Mercedes-Benz rarely mated their most potent engines with manual transmission units, often opting for robust automatics and that was the case with the M120 engine too. Neither the R129 SL nor the W140 S-Class had three pedals, but that setup was not an option for Horacio.
The early 1990s were still an era of sluggish automatics with no dual clutch setups and paddle shifters, so in order to transfer the power of the M120 V12 efficiently, Horacio Pagani constructed a 5-speed manual gearbox unit with twin plate clutch and a mechanical self-locking differential.
Suspension, brakes and tires
The Zonda was never intended to be a straight line sprinter and sheer power was put under control thanks to a sophisticated suspension setup and beefy brakes.
The Zonda had aluminum alloy double A-arm independent suspension, helical springs and hydraulic dampers, while stopping power was provided via 4-piston Brembo calipers grabbing front and rear ventilated discs. Finally, low unsprung mass and grip was achieved via 18-inch OZ rims fitted with Michelin Pilot tires.
Specifications of the Pagani Zonda C12
Bore and Stroke
89 X 80mm
394bhp @ 5200 rpm
0-60mph in 4.5 seconds
Wishbones and coil springs
Wishbone and coil springs
The interior is what made the Zonda stand above all the competition, making it look passé, if not utterly boring. Whereas most supercars either had Spartan cockpits or interiors trying to be on par with high-tech exterior looks, the Zonda C12 was a unicorn among automobiles.
Once inside the Zonda, the driver could marvel at floating elements, beautifully tanned leather and woodwork, tasteful chrome accents and an attention to detail that made other exotic car builders look pedestrian. The Zonda C12 didn’t have a driver’s airbag, but it had a bespoke steering wheel, and the pedal box was a pure steampunk work of art.
Each and every car has been built to suit the customer’s tastes, so you won’t find two identical cars. But, what you will find are exotic wood and hide and bespoke details which will look incredible in centuries’ time.
Pagani Zonda C12-S
The improved variant of the original Zonda C12 came in the form of the 7.0L V12-powered Pagani Zonda C12-S. For this car, Pagani chose the AMG-tuned M297 twelve-cylinder with a significant power bump to a total of 542 horsepower. The C12-S had the same basic design with some tweaks and a total of 15 cars have been made.
Pagani Zonda S 7.3
As its name suggests, this Zonda saw increased displacement of the V12 engine with a slight bump in power. In this variant, the 7.3L V12 produced 547 horsepower, but the driver benefited from improved safety and driving dynamics thanks to ABS and traction control becoming standard. In addition to the coupé, Pagani constructed the first open-top Zonda which impressively weighed only 15lb more than the coupé.
Pagani Zonda F
Only after establishing himself as a prime supercar constructor, Horacio Pagani introduced his tribute to Juan Manuel Fangio, naming his next car Zonda F. The thoroughly re-engineered and redesigned car debuted in 2005 and pushed 594 horsepower and 561 lb-ft of torque, while other improvements came from a stronger gearbox, aerodynamically revised body and optional carbon-ceramic brakes.
The Zonda F roadster followed in 2006 with an impressively minor weight gain of just 11lb and a significant increase in power to 641 horses.
Horacio Pagani once again proved to be an automotive magician when he introduced the Zonda F Clubsport. This variant was further lightened thanks to carbo-titanium and was basically a plate-wearing race car. This car once held the Nurburgring record of 7:24.7.
Offered to the most die-hard customers, the Zonda R was a track-only car very loosely based on the Zonda F. It featured a 6.0-liter GT112 V12 engine sourced from the legendary Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR which produced 740 horsepower and the rest of the modifications were so thorough that the Zonda R shared only around ten percent of components from its road-going counterparts. A total of fifteen examples were produced between 2009 and 2011.
Over the years, Pagani got a dedicated following in Hong Kong, and per request of its exclusive dealer, the Zonda Cinque and the Cinque Roadster were supposed to be the last of the Zondas limited to five examples each. The most noticeable improvement over the previous cars was the inclusion of a 6-speed sequential gearbox. While the Zonda Cinque lost the third pedal, it gained in quickness thanks to more efficient gear changes.
Other special features of the Zonda Cinque were, but not limited to, improved construction and aerodynamics, and of course, more power from the 7.3l AMG V12, a total of 669.
With this edition of three Zondas, Pagani paid tribute to the Italian Air Force and its aerobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori. These examples were largely based on the Zonda Cinque, but what made it special is the fact that it was coated in nothing but clear lacquer, leaving the carbon fiber structure completely exposed.
The car that marked an actual end to the Zonda production was the Zonda HP Barchetta made to celebrate Horacio Pagani’s 60th and Zonda’s 18th birthday in 2017. It had a 789 horsepower engine, the seats and the suspension were from the Huayra and was limited to three examples, one of which remains in Pagani’s possession.
Zondas Upon Request
In addition to all Zondas built in one or two figure limited runs, there have been some truly unique examples with their own nameplates. These cars were built by special requests coming from the most dedicated and most discerning Pagani followers. Clients included early Zonda adopters, royals, entrepreneurs and other wealthy individuals.
The one-off program started in 2004 with the Zonda Monza, a track-ready car based on the GR race car variant. It followed throughout the production span finishing with truly bespoke 760 Series cars. This exclusive run of seventeen Zondas used the remaining chassis and were powered by the 760 PS M297 V12. Among others, clients included F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton.
Why Zonda Matters?
Rare are the cars that kept relevance 20 years after being built, let alone in the ever-changing supercar world. A genius constructor and a dedicated artist, Pagani did the impossible and made a car that still drives and looks relevant even though it’s over twenty years old and its development started almost thirty years ago.
The car has aged gracefully and is still one of the most impressive achievements in automotive history. When it debuted in 1999, many discredited Horacio Pagani as another one-hit wonder, but he proved everyone otherwise by single-handedly pushing the limits of his prime creation for almost two decades.
Fueled by passion and backed up by brilliant engineering, the Pagani Zonda is life’s work of an automotive genius.