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Pagani Zonda: history, reviews and specs of an icon

Pagani's first and most iconic model changed the supercar game on its arrival - this is why

Pagani’s growth from being a relatively unknown start up to one of the automotive industry's most illustrious supercar builders is almost entirely down to the success of this one model: the Zonda. Founder Horatio Pagani, a former Lamborghini engineer and one of the fathers of carbonfibre composites, defied the odds to create one of the most beguiling supercars ever – and built a modern day supercar dynasty on its back.

The Zonda has been such a success, demand from wealthy customers has kept it in production, despite the introduction of the all-new Pagani Huayra which was intended to replace it. This trickle of new builds transformed the Zonda from being a relatively affordable supercar at its launch in 1999 to a commissioning piece for the super rich.

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The 760RS we drove is one of the commissioned cars, based on the notion of offering the performance of the track only Zonda R on the road. To fulfil its brief, it was the first model to utilise a set of engine upgrades liberating around 750bhp from its V12 engine. With F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton as one of these customers, I can’t think of any higher praise for a car and company to receive.  

History 

To understand the Pagani Zonda, you need to understand the man behind it. The car in question does not so much fit into a supercar niche, but arguably defined the notion of a car transcending established super qualities, offering luxury and exclusivity on a new level. The Zonda was not super just in performance terms, but in its build quality, detailing and execution too. Compared to its contemporaries, the Zonda was a small town supercar, but it put many of them to shame with its attention to detail - an ethos driven by the man behind the name.

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Horatio Pagani, the Argentinian born company founder, is known as the father of carbonfibre due to his breakthrough work with Lamborghini in the 1980s. Hit by a global recession in the early 90s, Lamborghini put a halt to its advanced materials research, so Pagani decided to go it alone, creating a composites research and development company with the sole purpose of funding the creation of his own supercar. 

The result was the Zonda C12, a culmination of Horatio Pagani's passion for composite materials and exquisite attention to detail. Upon its launch, the Zonda C12 featured a 388bhp V12 connected to a five-speed gearbox, with only five cars built from 1999. In 2002, Pagani released a more potent C12 S, upgrading to a hand-built 7-litre with a much higher 542bhp peak power. These S models also gained an uprated 6-speed gearbox and featured subtle tweaks to the exterior styling.

After 15 units and less than a year in production, Pagani uprated the engine again to a 7.3-litre unit, only representing a 5bhp increase over the previous 7-litre, but forming the foundation for the Zonda’s numerous future iterations. Subsequent Roadster, F and Cinque models all utilised the same basic engine, each being built in extremely limited numbers and at significantly increasing prices. The Zonda’s popularity kept it in demand even beyond the launch of it’s intended successor the Huayra. To appease his most loyal customers, Horatio is still building excruciatingly expensive one-offs like the 760RS.

Engine and transmission 

One of the most intuiting parts of the Pagani story is how a small Italian start up were able to get Mercedes-AMG on board in the first place. Horatio Pagani, an Argentinian national living in Italy, had reached out to five-time F1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio for a recommendation letter he required to secure his Italian residency. After striking up a personal friendship. it was Fangio that connected to this little known Italian engineer to the Mercedes-Benz corperation which would eventually power his future supercar.

As one of Mercedes-Benz’ honorary directors, Fangio's job was to convince his fellow directors to agree to an engine supply deal – arguably giving the Pagani Zonda the prestigious partner it needed to impress prospective buyers. In honour of his involvement, Pagani initially intended on calling the Zonda the Fangio F1, but decided against it after his death in 1995 in respect to the Fangio family.  

The engine itself is a fairly ancient Mercedes-Benz V12 codenamed M120. It has been in production since 1991, being utilised in various Mercedes-Benz flagships in the 1990s and 2000s. But the engine that ended up in the Zonda 760RS is by no means a normal Mercedes-Benz V12 engine, having undergone significant redevelopment by both AMG and Pagani engineers over the years and now built by hand exclusively for Pagani.

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With a total of 749bhp at a spine-tingling 8000rpm, it is truly one of the most spectacular engines ever fitted to a car – with a combination of scintillating high rev performance underlined by a big, torquey push that you only get with a swept capacity that’s more akin to a medium sized locomotive.

The RS model we drove was saddled with a brutal 6-speed sequential gearbox, although subsequent owners - including one Lewis Hamilton – had theirs fitted with a 6-speed manual.

Suspension, steering and brakes 

Being built to the owners individual specification, the 760 range all vary in terms of set up, but are based on the same combination of exquisite forged aluminium strut supports, all sitting within one of the most aesthetically pleasing mechanical layouts of any car. 

At its core, the Zonda is based around a carbonfibre tub (or carbo-titanium in the case of later models - that is carbonfibre laced with a strand of titanium that goes some way to alleviating carbonfibre’s natural tendency to shatter under impact). Sitting either side of the tub are extruded aluminium sub-frames, which hold the suspension and powertrain.

Connected to each are individually forged and machined wishbones, connecting to the wheel hub and carbon ceramic brake disk via a centre lock wheel nut. Each forged aluminium/magnesium alloy wheel is then machined via CNC before being painted and shod in Pirelli PZero tyres. 

The sheer attention to detail lavished on the Zonda would almost justify its existence without the utterly beguiling driving experience attached, but thankfully the Zonda 760RS does both.

Interior

All the attention lavished under the skin continues in the cabin. During the design process, Horatio Pagani emphasised a fighter jet like feeling for the cockpit, granting the light filled cabin with surprisingly good visibility. This is backed up with an array of finely crafted components made from the best materials, combining milled and machined aluminium with fine leathers and perfect carbonfibre work.

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The relative luxury of earlier cars was pared back in the pursuit of weight reduction for the 760 models, although this is not to be mistaken for a dive in craftsmanship. As per the owners specification, the 760RS was finished with a plethora of carbon components, with most aluminium components being finished in anodized black aluminium.

Rivals

The Pagani Zonda’s closest rivals are period hypercars like the Porsche Carrera GT and Ferrari Enzo. These were built at the height of pure internal combustion drivetrains allowing smaller boutique manufacturers like Pagani to be able to match the performance levels of the big supercar dynasties. The difference is that in the preceding years, Pagani constantly refined the package whereas rivals like Ferrari and Porsche pursued the hybrid technology that since formed the backbone of their latest LaFerrari and 918 Spyder hypercars.  

An equally ambitious startup that appeared at roughly the same time as Pagani was Koenigsegg, mirroring Horatio in the constant refinement of a central product line. But the Koenigsegg Agera and all its subsequent variations have classically been based more on the abject of ultimate speed, lacking the fastidious attention to detail and aesthetic sentiment that has defined the Zonda from its inception.

Specs - 760RS

EngineV12, 7219cc
Max power749bhp @ 8000rpm
Max torque575lb ft @ 4500rpm
TransmissionSix-speed semi-automatic, rear-wheel drive
Tyres255/35 ZR19 front, 335/30 ZR20 rear
Weight (dry)1210kg
Power/weight619bhp/ton (dry)
0-62mph2.6sec (claimed)
Top speed217mph (claimed)
Priceunknown

What we said

We were given an exclusive chance to drive the Zonda 760RS in the Modenese hills before the car was shipped to its owner in South America. Keep reading for one of evo’s most extraordinary experiences ever. 

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