Pagani’s Zonda F remains the greatest new car I’ve driven, meaning it was still in production at the time it was tested. The way this car entertained you whether you were going fast or slow, is something that’s sorely missing today. It possessed subtle and obvious forms of vibrational communication, a superb engine and exhaust song, the absolute right effort on the pedals, steering, and shift knob.
Less than twenty years ago automotive manufacturers were typically referred to as “marques” or “nameplates,” and not the “B-word” (brands) that is widely used today. Making a marque particularly brilliant (or not) was how their product drove, and the sensations you felt from behind the wheel or in the passenger seat(s). Whether going fast or slow, at rest or full throttle, certain machines so fully engaged all of your senses that the encounter lingered for hours, days and even weeks after it ended.
For decades this type of immersive involvement was the primary ingredient that made the truly great cars just that.
So uncommon was their driving experience that it was like going to a gourmet restaurant, and ordering your favorite dish so you could savor its distinctive spices and flavors. And the encounter didn’t stop there, for the great marques changed the taste with each successive model, and all of them were different from what you would find at the competition. So if you wanted to relish a certain car, the only place you would find it was in that specific machine.
For instance, when sampling the menu of Ferrari, a 250 SWB “tastes” completely different from any 275 GTB, which tastes entirely different than a Daytona or 550 Maranello. It was the same at Lamborghini, where a Miura is an entirely different experience from a Countach, which is different from a Diablo or Murcielago. At Porsche, where my wheel time is more limited, 1974 2.7 Carrera is a completely different drive from a 930 Turbo, which is very different from an ’89 Carrera.
The characteristics of these cars (and marques) were so disparate that you could blindfold someone and put them in each, run them 0-120-0, and the experiences would be night and day different. Whether they hit 60 in 4 or 8 seconds was of secondary importance, for what you experienced while getting there was what truly lingered, and thus mattered. The way the suspension and chassis felt through the steering wheel, seat and floorboard, the sounds of the engine and exhaust, how the former pulls throughout the rev range, all the vibrations and minor nuances that bombard one’s senses…You commanded the car as it communicated and tested you and your skills in subtle and overt ways.
Loss of Individuality
Over the past 15-20 years, such individuality has been replaced by a relentless focus on what are, in many ways, meaningless numbers. After all, how many people can really tell the difference between hitting 60 in 2.8 or 3.1 seconds? This never-ending arms race for lower and faster times removed the subtlety that the master chefs (Alfieri, Dallara, Bizzarrini, Materazzi, Stanzani, Duntov, Guldstrand, Chiti and so many more) and their support staffs of engineers and test drivers baked into their cars—and the marques they worked for.
For me, this deletion of minute vibrations and noises that were actually forms of communication is one of the saddest developments in the automotive arena, and it goes hand in hand with the manufacturers now referring to themselves as “brands.” Toothpaste, refrigerators, cell phones, the vegetables you have for dinner, those are “brands”—an otherwise generic consumer good that is differentiated by slick marketing and packaging so it becomes distinct from the others because none of them possess a true personality or any real meaningful underlying differentiator.
All Uniquely Different
Cars never used to be that way. The character and temperament among a Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Iso, Aston, and whatever other marques you want to throw into this list was unique to each. Blindfold someone now, run them 0-150-0 in a current Ferrari, McLaren or Lamborghini, and the main difference will likely be the sound of the exhaust, and maybe the engine.
Which all makes sense in this era of “brands,” for it’s much more about the message than the actual experience. And the message today is “My 0-60 in 2.8 seconds is quicker than your 3.1, and my ‘Ring lap time is faster too.”
But There is Hope
From an engagement perspective (and many more), the relatively modern Pagani Zonda F still ranks as one of my all-time favorite drives, as talkative and engaging as an alloy-bodied Ferrari 275 GTB/4. Plus Porsche still seems to make engaging machines; later this year I will be out in a friend’s 911R, and another friend’s Cayman GT4, and am so looking forward to seeing how they “taste.”
I will let you know what I find, for I’m truly hoping there are still masterful chefs and kitchens out there.