Design Study: Pagani Zonda

By Bruce McCulloch


Out of the many fantastic supercar designs that have emerged in the past some ten years, the “Pagani Zonda” arguably boasts the most “out there, over the top” design of the crop. Indeed, it’s not conservative, nor is it quiet in its design elements and it’s most definitely a car for the extrovert rather than the introvert. One could even go as far as to say the Zonda has a design which truly is an acquired taste; you either hate it or you love it.

Myself, well, I’m most definitely one of the latter. I’m one who appreciates the vehicle’s great use of thematic, bold and extrovert styling elements; I’m all for the “racing car mixed with a F-16 jet fighter” look, as it truly is one of a kind.Though I can completely understand if one feels it’s too clever by half, and thus feels the vehicle’s design is very much bordering on overkill.
I think that to fully appreciate the Zonda from a design point of view, one must understand the Zonda’s design philosophy and premise. And here today, I hope to give you further insight into this spectacular design – both for the curious and for already-existing fans of the vehicle who wish to learn more about it.

Now of course, most every design has some sort of inspiration and when it comes to this Italian wonder, the general design concept was inspired by that which is the Mercedes-Benz “Sauber C9” (a Group-C racer) of the late 1980’s. No surprise then, this is when the Zonda (then codenamed the “Fangio F1” for the car’s human inspiration, Juan Manuel Fangio) was born. From thereon, the company’s founder and vehicle’s designer, Horacio Pagani, would continue to creatively “stretch” the inspired design of the C9 while adding his personal touches of eccentricity.
I do think it’s only appropriate for me to inform you on why borrowing inspiration from 1987 C9 was such an important thing to Horacio Pagani and his vision of the “Fangio F1”. The reason for such was that Pagani’s long-time childhood idol had been the 5-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio, possibly the greatest racing driver that has ever lived. After successfully designing a Renault Formula 3 car in Argentina – Pagani’s place of birth – the young Horacio was eventually afforded the chance to meet his idol and from there on, Fangio befriended his young fan and introduced him to Modena where he would later take a position at Lamborghini Automobili, and later still opening his own design/industry supply company under the name “Modena Design”. Shortly thereafter, it was all history – wanting to create a supercar in Fangio’s name, Horacio set off with the goal of drawing inspiration from Fangio’s favourite company, Mercedes-Benz.

Additionally, Horacio tells the great story that Fangio said to Pagani that if he was going to create his own supercar in Fangio’s image, “it must have a Mercedes-Benz engine; I’m a Mercedes-Benz man”. So it goes without saying then, after that wonderful anecdote, that implementing Mercedes-Benz style into his supercar was a big priority.

’89 Mercedes-Benz Sauber C9

Zonda Concept drawing

Once one does learn that the Zonda draws inspiration from a race car, the design may perhaps be interpreted as more coherent. The resemblance is clearly evident too – Swooping, high front wheel arches with minimal metal gaping; a low front end with a bubble canopy giving the sensation one is driving between the wheels and a swooping, wide and low rear-end. Individual similarities in design elements between the Pagani and Mercedes are also evident. For instance, the Zonda S’ “frog-eye” mirrors are purposely meant to mimic that of the C9, and the Zonda S Roadster goes as far as mimicking the C9’s individual air vents found on the side and rear wheel arches of the vehicle.

Detailing Elements:

Though the general silhouette draws inspiration from the C9, the Zonda very much has its own distinctive character – particularly through its detailing. That is of course, with much thanks to Horacio’s eccentricity as an artist.
Zonda C12 (1999)

Zonda C12

Released in 1999, the “C12” version of the Zonda was the first road-legal production Pagani automobile. Its quite that it’s less bold than its successors, but it’s still shocking enough to drop most anyone’s jaw. Key styling elements with the C12 are: conjoined circular tail lamps, it’s one piece rear spoiler, swooping under-tray diffuser; frog-eye mirrors and it’s square-cut front bumper with it’s quad circular head lamps.

Zonda S (2002)

Zonda S

The C12’s successor which arrived in ’02, is arguably even crazier. Much of the design focus with the Zonda S was to rework the rear-end and thus is evident by it’s: two separate spoilers; additional body flaps on the rear; separated tail lamps; accentuated quad pipe system; and “C12” badge, just behind the bubble canopy, in a circle on the rear bonnet. Whilst the rear-end received quite a theatrical makeover, the front end received a great deal less. In fact, the only visible change is the addition of that of a formula-one inspired arrow integrated into the front bumper; which ultimately, is meant to pay homage to the famous “Silver Arrows” Mercedes-Benz racecars.

Zonda F (2005)

Zonda F1

While one might have imagined that the Zonda S was going to be the pinnacle of Horacio’s output, he proved all us wrong in 2005 when he released the S’ successor, prominently referred as the “F” (which is meant to represent Juan Manuel Fangio, of course).

If you followed the Zonda prior to the F’s release, it wouldn’t have been hard to see the styling changes. From head-on the signal lamps were integrated into the headlamp units; the bottom aero-dam was re-designed with more curves and unexposed fog lamps. Also worth noting is that nose arrow had been accentuated by 50mm, thus further increasing the Zonda’s already aggressive qualities.

But similar to the C12S transformation, the F’s biggest design re-work had been with it’s rear-end. Horacio, aiming to keep the Zonda looking modern and technologically advanced, meant the implementation of not only more carbon fibre parts, but contemporary styling details were of huge importance. And I think it really has worked. The Zonda does appear to have very much of a classical design theme, without looking the least bit dated or derivative. The rear-end, for example, differs from the Zonda S as it features a one-piece spoiler which ultimately allows cleaner air flow, less drag and more down force. The engine air-cooling grills had been interestingly reshaped so that they partially wrap around the exhausts and give a freer flow to the design of the body. The biggest change, however, is undoubtedly taillights; where the brake, reverse and signal lamp have all been separated and placed in a horizontal position. Not only are they LED-equipped, but each of the lights are wrapped with a silver lining. The actual block which the tail lamps are situated upon remained untouched, though the once-visible bottom seam is nowhere to be seen.

Zonda F2

From a side angle, the mirrors had notably relocated to the front fender; finished in unpainted carbon fibre and sculpted for aerodynamic efficiency. And even the rims differ from the Zonda S; though originally based upon that which were previously seen on the Zonda Roadster, they differ with the addition with what would appear to be, for the lack of a better word, “teeth”.
Other such features are the various scoops and holes throughout the body. The front two behind the front fenders serve their purpose to help keep the brakes cooled; while the vents on the rear fenders help to both cool the brakes and reduce air pressure at the rear of the vehicle.

And as opposed to the “C12” model, the F differs from previous iterations by the implementation of a clear plexi-glass engine cover just behind the canopy. And just when you think the detailing cannot get anymore comprehensive, Pagani decided to finish the “F” in the Zonda badge in the exact cursive script in which Mr. Fangio wrote the “F” as part of his own name.


People often misinterpret the Zonda’s dimensions as big and bulky; assuming that because it looks like a NASA rocket, that it’s also sized like one too. Though the redesign of the Zonda F actually lengthens the Zonda, some might be surprised to find out that the vehicle isn’t as big as it looks in photos. At 174.6 inches it is the same length as a Porsche 996 GT3 and at 44.9 inches in height it is .2 inches taller than a Lamborghini Murcielago. It is however, .4 inches wider than a Murcielago. But, overall, certainly nothing abnormal from a size perspective.

Aerodynamic Design Influence:

When introducing the Zonda F, Pagani had wanted to rebut one particular criticism of his vehicle, the aerodynamics. And it’s true, the Zonda’s aerodynamics were always a little wonky. As a result, the design philosophy for the F version was to make sure the car was more aerodynamically efficient than previous iterations, without compromising the Zonda’s unique sense of style.

The problem with the Zonda S was that once the air flowed over the bonnet it was interrupted by the positioning of the highly placed mirrors, and then further bounced off the dual spoilers. Additionally, Pagani claims that while redesigning the Zonda, he noticed that the radiator in the Zonda S hadn’t been working to its full potential; once the air entered the nose it was continuously thrown around, failing to hit the radiator inlets head-on.

And most, if not all, of the additional details on the F helped increase the Zonda’s aerodynamic efficiency. For instance, the reworked undertray diffuser combined with the front aero dam and rear spoiler considerably increases downforce at 200mph from 700kg to 900kg and brings the Zonda aerodynamic air distribution to F46/R54. Meanwhile, the drag coefficient has undergone a significant drop from the Zonda S; .39 versus .36 respectively. And this effect is further accentuated with the suspension being 10 millimeters lower than previous versions.

So there you have it. An in-depth look into what is certainly one of my favourite designs of all time. And to think I didn’t even touch on the subject of the interior…

COPYRIGHT – All Rights Reserved

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at

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  1. Great article! I love these cars and it’s interesting to the design evolution and the reasons behind it.

  2. To me the cars just look tortured, like they’ve been sacrificed on the altar of downforce and aerodynamics.

  3. I’m a woman and i think this is the most amazing looking car there is, my family and friends think i am crazy because of the way i go on about it.

  4. Won’t it be interesting to see how these rolling monuments to wretched excess do sales-wise in the new economy that we have now in Europe?

    The price is very dear and the possible use of such a car is very small. It could very well be that cars like this will be tough to shift on the showroom floor.

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