Quite possibly the most beautiful, stunning sports racing cars in history were the Group C Le Mans cars of the 1980s and early '90s. So what if you took that kind of design, stuffed in a modern 602 horsepower V12, and lined the cockpit in leather?
[Welcome to the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, where I present you with the greatest, rarest, most desirable cars ever made and you decide if they should sit in our own collective collection. This is the return of this series after a six-year hiatus. You can see all the cars currently in the JFG at the bottom of this article. New entries in addition to the old will be voted on every week!]
This was the basic idea behind the Pagani Zonda. Argentine car designer Horacio Pagani made this as his first production car, something like a Sauber C9 for the road, if everyone lived in a Victorian-era future where all vehicles are done up in red leather and have toggle switches and pedals and levers and periscopes and little machined gauges.
Holy sweet jimminy cricket that is one gorgeous interior. I mean, you can do red leather, but you can never do red leather like Pagani.
Horacio Pagani started out making race cars back in his home country, but he got his break in the auto industry at Lamborghini, maybe not sweeping floors, but probably not far from it. He managed to learn about carbon fiber while working there and eventually climbed his way up the food chain to designing full cars. He was responsible for this utterly badass lightweight Countach Evoluzione prototype, something like a Superleggera before the Superleggera.
In any case, in 1999 he started his own company called Modena Design and started making a car called the Zonda. He managed to make five prototypes that he called C12, as the excellent Zonda Field Guide explains. The basic formula was already present — a clean, wedge shape / an airy, gorgeous cabin / three pedals and a gear lever for the driver / a huge, naturally-aspirated AMG V12 in the middle / power going to the wheels out back.
That and all Paganis have this unbelievable custom attitude in how they're put together. The factory is tiny, off a quiet side street. Prototypes do test runs down it, cars lining both curbs. Every single nut and bolt has 'Pagani' etched into it. Compared to the Zonda, even ultra-low volume cars like the McLaren P1 look mass-produced. When it comes to detailing, there's basically Pagani, hot rod and custom shops, and then comes everybody else.
Except for the instrument panel, which is a modified version of what you get in an old Lancia Ypsilon.
Pagani ended up getting a new engine from AMG — now seven liters instead of six, with horsepower climbing from 400 to 550. And with that came the C12S, then the upgraded 7.3 liter C12s 7.3, then a roadster, a not-very-successful GR racing variant, and the accompanying road version of the race version of the road car, the Monza.
That rounds up six years of Zonda development. I say development, since Pagani never creeped out of the double digits in production with the C12 and its iterations. Looking back on things, they almost seem like prototypes.
In 2005, Pagani came out with the car that, in my mind, most closely approached perfection: the Zonda F.
Pagani gave it the 'F' as a tribute to his fellow Argentinian mentor, the arguably greatest racing driver to have ever lived, Juan Manuel Fangio. The Zonda F was supposed to be good enough for Fangio, Pagani claimed. He wouldn't have used that praise lightly.
The F dropped 50 kilos compared to its 7.3 liter predecessor, thanks to a titanium exhaust (just like WRC rally cars have), forged aluminum/magnesium wheels, revisions to the weave of the body's carbon fiber, even where it's not visible, and lord knows what else. Despite its size, the Zonda F weighs just over 2,700 pounds dry (1,230kg), almost exactly the same as your buddy's FR-S. This is in a car that's nearly seven feet wide and just about twice as long.
Power sprung up to 602 horsepower and torque edged up to 760 (that's 540 ft-lbs). I've driven cars that are as fast to 60 miles an hour as this Zonda F, and I've driven cars with less weight and more power. I can tell you that 602 hp is more than enough. On most country roads, I'd call that kind of performance a handicap rather than a benefit. A very exciting, entertaining handicap.
For all that, it's not the stats that define the car. I mean, it's been nine years since the Zonda F came out, and we have road cars with twice the horsepower. There are more advanced stability programs, and more capable four-wheel-drive systems.
But there's a certain rightness about the Zonda F. You can't call it raw or old school; the thing even has traction control. You can't call it totally cutting-edge either; the car has a six-speed manual and the engine is naturally aspirated.
It's like a Goldilocks car — just enough tech to give you modern power and security, but not enough to get in the way of the driving experience you want.
And the car is supposed to be a peach. EVO ranted on about how easy the car is to handle over the limit, how it won't necessarily terrify you on a wet, winding mountain pass, and how its deeply impressive damping resolves rough roads. As we wrote back in 2006 when you could still buy this car for mere $741000, "[the Zonda F] is the easiest hyperextreme, way-the-fuck-out-there supercar a rookie can drive without playing nudge, nudge; wink, wink with The Grim Reaper."
The steering, the handling, the agility, the subtlety — that's what you want out of a driver's car and that's exactly what the Zonda F does so well.
It just happens to also have one of the best engines in recent history, screaming like a Formula One racer of the '90s.
The mid 2000s were boom years for the supercar as a genre. The world got the techy Veyron, the wailing Enzo, and the raw Carrera GT. It's the Zonda, though, that I would most want to live with, most want to own, most want to drive in the real world.
Part of that is assuredly nostalgia for sitting at my local newsstand, reading as one Zonda iteration improved on another, cresting with the F and then descending with too-gaudy, too-extreme variants after the 'R'. Part of that is certainly the interior, which is more exquisite than just about any car since. And part of that is the engine bay alone, which I could stare at for hours. I can look into the reflections on those gleaming aluminum intakes and see myself sideways up a mountain road myself, the V12 echo almost touching the sky.
What do you think, does the Zonda F deserve a place in the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage? Vote below for its inclusion or exclusion.
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