Upstart in the Backyard of Italy's Supercars

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SAN CESARIO SUL PANARO, ITALY -- Don't be fooled by the building's homely exterior of brown tile and glass, or by its location in a nondescript industrial area some 20 miles northwest of Bologna. Inside is the two-story workshop of Pagani Automobili, maker of some of the world's most advanced -- and most expensive -- cars.

To aficionados, the name Pagani is associated with supercars of exceptional performance and a level of craftsmanship achieved by a near-maniacal attention to detail. The price tag might seem crazy, too: the latest model, the Huayra, starts at 989,500 euros, or $1.3 million, before taxes and options.

Paganis "are not cars," said Alessandro Pasi, deputy director of the Italian edition of Evo, a magazine devoted to high-performance cars. "They are objects bought by people who get pleasure from owning something unique, like a Picasso painting. The more unique the object, the happier they are."

It is Leonardo da Vinci, not Picasso, whose inspiration is most often cited by the company's founder, Horacio Pagani, an Argentine-born designer who turned his childhood passion into his profession.

The da Vinci ideal was "that art and science could work hand in hand," Mr. Pagani, 57, said in an interview at the factory here. "Leonardo's brilliance was his humanity, his curiosity that made him constantly doubt what he was doing. That's what's behind our work."

The Huayra (pronounced WHY-ra) is the embodiment of the Pagani philosophy. It is named for the Incan god of the winds and inspired, Mr. Pagani said, "by the moment when a plane is accelerating, just when it's about to take off."

An observer could be forgiven for thinking that the Huayra looks like something that came flying out of the Batcave. The aerodynamic shape helps the Huayra reach a top speed that Car and Driver estimated at 224 miles an hour, and air brake flaps, which mimic those used by airplanes during landing, help it slow from such an extralegal pace.

In gushing reviews, writers have reveled in the car's handcrafted details, its carbon-titanium chassis and gullwing doors. Praise has been lavished on the 720-horsepower twin-turbo V-12 engine, developed for Pagani by the AMG group of Mercedes-Benz, and on the 7-speed automated gearbox. There's a titanium exhaust system, which helps keep the car, at a little more than 3,000 pounds, relatively light.

Inside is an audio system by the Italian company Sonus Faber; premium leather covers the seat and the six matching pieces of luggage that tuck into various nooks. There is also a special key -- a miniature model of the Huayra, in aluminum, that costs more than $1,300 each to make.

Mr. Pagani was born in Casilda, Argentina, into a family of bakers. He honed his interest in cars as a boy, carving models out of balsa wood that are in a display case in the factory's showroom near his single-seater Formula 2 racecar from 30 years ago.

As a university student, Mr. Pagani enrolled in industrial design courses and began a mechanical engineering degree before dropping out to start a design business, which spanned objects as diverse as furniture and camping trailers.

He moved to Italy in 1983 to pursue his dream of designing exotic cars, carrying a letter of introduction from the Argentine driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio, which eventually got him a job with Lamborghini. There, he worked with composite materials, collaborating with the team that built the Countach Evoluzione, a pioneer of carbon-fiber chassis construction.

In 1991 he founded Modena Design, which designed and molded components for companies in the automotive, aerospace and military sectors, while he worked on his first supercar. He chose to stay in an area of Italy that is home to what are today some of his chief competitors: Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrari.

"To build a supercar here in Modena was an incredible challenge, like climbing a mountain," Mr. Pagani said.

His first car, the Pagani Zonda C12, was introduced at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show under the brand Pagani Automobili, grabbing headlines because it was not simply a prototype for display, but a showroom-ready model. The Zonda went through various incarnations, with the most recent -- and final -- version, the Revolucion, introduced this year.

The Huayra, introduced in 2011, went into production last year. Like earlier models, it will be a limited edition -- in this case, only 125 cars. Nearly two dozen have been delivered, the company said. An additional 90 Huayras are on order, including 12 destined for the United States.

It took some doing for Pagani to meet the regulatory requirements needed to enter the American market. Riffing off Mr. Pagani's admiration for Leonardo, the comedian Jay Leno -- a fan of the cars, but not an owner -- joked on an episode of the "Jay Leno's Garage" TV series that unlike Pagani, da Vinci "never had to design his art around government regulations."

The brand is expanding globally. There are now three dealers in the United States -- in Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"There's been a lot of excitement, because Pagani never sold in the U.S. before," said Francesco Zappacosta, Pagani Automobili's managing director. His family owns the 6.3 percent stake in the company not held by Mr. Pagani's family.

Last month, Mr. Pagani was in Japan, opening a dealership. "If we were totally dependent on Europe, it would have been difficult," Mr. Zappacosta said.

Pagani produces about 20 Huayras a year, but that is expected to double once a new factory, across the street from the current one, is completed in mid-2014.

"We want to optimize production," Mr. Pagani said. Even so, he added, the "request is always several times more than what we can produce, which make the cars all the more exclusive."

There are no assembly lines at the factory in San Cesario, just a handful of mechanics working on one car at a time, in a room that is barely larger than a home garage, though probably much cleaner.

Every step of production is monitored and logged in an individual binder,where it can be easily found in the future. Each engine is assigned to, and assembled by, one mechanic, and each of the 4,700 pieces in the Huayra is accounted for.

"We can track exactly who did what," Mr. Pagani said. More than 240 controls and tests are carried out on each car. He said the tailor-made approach would not change even after the move to the new factory.

The 18 official Pagani dealers around the world are authorized to service the cars. There is also what he calls a "flying doctor" -- a mechanic who can be flown to cars with problems, wherever they occur.

Some owners prefer to transport their cars directly to the Pagani factory for servicing.

"These are people who don't have money problems and can easily fly a car here from Hong Kong," said Luca Venturi, the company's spokesman.

The company is discrete about the identities of its clients, but it does say they include American venture capitalists, Arab oil sheiks, Ukrainian oligarchs and Chinese scions -- along with celebrities that include a former Italian movie star and an American reality TV actress. One client is said to have paid $6.6 million -- not including taxes -- for three cars that he intended to use mainly as home décor.

"Actually, we make cars for people who have worked hard all their life, and the pleasure of owning a Pagani is a reward for that effort," Mr. Pagani said. "Each car is made to measure, fitted like a suit, so we look at renderings together," adding that he regularly travels to visit prospective clients to get a sense of their lifestyles.

"The relationship with people is beautiful," he said.

For customers, the love is evidently requited.

In an e-mail to Mr. Pagani, Thomas Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, noted that he had owned some of the most exclusive sport cars: a McLaren F1, Bugatti EB110, Porsche Carrera GT, Ferrari 599 GTB and Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder.

But his Huayra belongs in a different category, Mr. Perkins wrote -- that of "aesthetic engineering," like a Patek Philippe watch or the three-masted sailing yacht named Maltese Falcon that Mr. Perkins commissioned from the Italian shipyard Perini Navi.

The yacht "is famous throughout the world, has won every prize and is extraordinarily beautiful," Mr. Perkins wrote. "In 100 years it will be the only thing that I will be remembered for. You and the Huayra are the same. Therefore, my purchase was inevitable."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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