Quitters Never Win
The Lamborghini that never was, a supercar with two v8’s welded together, and a copycat to the Lamborghini Diablo. These are all things that have been said about the supercar Cizeta (pronounced chi-zet-a), a collaboration between former Lamborghini engineer, Claudio Zampolli, and renowned designer Marcello Gandini. Considering misinformation surrounding Cizeta Automobili I made an appointment with Zampolli to find out about the man behind the car and what motivated him to design and develop the world’s first and only supercar equipped with a 16 cylinder transverse rear-mounted engine.
It’s a breezy Saturday afternoon in Costa Mesa, California where I’m meeting Zampolli for a coffee at Vitaly Cafe. I let him chose the cafe since I know how important good coffee is to Italians. I settled in for what I thought would be a discussion about the car, but what turned into the story of the rise and fall of the only new car manufacturer to rival Ferrari, Lamborghini and Bugatti in the last 60 years.
Born in Modena, a hub for Italian car manufacturing, Zampolli was the only one in his family to take an interest in cars. He recalls stowing away in a stranger’s car to go to the Autodromo test track in Modena to glimpse the Ferrari race cars being test-driven. Hanging off the fence, stayed for hours watching and listening to the roar of their engines passing by. Without any doubt…he was in love with race cars, and at the age of twelve began tinkering with engines. He tried to impress his mother by wiping grease on his face in an attempt to emulate the mechanics he’d seen in town. His parents were proud of their little mechanic and with their approval, he went on at the age of fourteen to do a four-year apprenticeship and then to engineering schools in both Italy and Switzerland.
He would not complete his engineering education, but with his aptitude for mechanics, he was hired at Lamborghini at the age of twenty-five as a technician/engineer and test driver. After seven years of working in the factory, he was sent to the U.S. to organize the Lamborghini dealer network. Beginning in NY in 1974 he established the import and distribution of Lamborghins into the States. Later, he would drive across the United States to test drive several Lamborghini car models though Colorado and then on to California. The barren deserts of the American south west, Nevada and Colorado brought the cowboy and Indian stories he'd seen in movies to life. But when he arrived in California, it was the lure of the high life in Hollywood that captivated Zampolli.
A few years earlier, in 1967, the EPA along with the Department of Transportation, tightened the safety and emissions regulations in the U.S. Lamborghini, after going through a series of ownership changes, was not ready to comply with the new standards, putting their U.S. dealerships and Zampolli’s work on hold. He called the factory in Italy to find out if he could stay a few months more to train mechanics at a factory in San Pedro and they agreed. He soon realized his skills were in demand since there was a general lack of knowledge on how to repair Lamborghinis, and he found his niche servicing the cars of the rich and famous of Hollywood. “These were my best days,” he said. “It felt like I was living a dream.” This is where he would meet Giorgio Moroder, record producer and future partner of Cizeta Automobili.
After another ownership change at Lamborghini, Zampolli was unable to continue Lamborghini warranty services which had become the cornerstone of his business. It was around this time in the early 80’s when he began realistically thinking about designing his own supercar. He began conceptualizing the car starting with the engine. It would be the first-ever transverse V16 block, made from a single aluminum casting. After perfecting the engine he commissioned his former colleague at Lamborghini, Marcello Gandini, to do the body design. Gandini is renowned for his many Lamborghini designs, including the Miura, Countach and Diablo. In fact, he was designing Lamborghini’s Diablo at the time he agreed to work on the design for the Cizeta. From the first Cizeta model prototype, friends and family of Zampolli praised Gandini’s design, but there was something lacking for Claudio. He didn’t know how to get the courage to tell Gandini this design was not the one. After a long dinner in a Modena trattoria, Zampolli decided to come out with it, and before he could finish Gandini said, “I agree, I don’t like it either.” With the weight of the world lifting off Zampolli shoulders, the two began designing the second Cizeta prototype, drastically changing the rear-end of the car.
A few months later, Gandini came to Zampolli’s Modena factory with a model prototype of the new car design. Nervous to see it and skeptical of all the yes men in his life at the time, Zampolli locked his friends and family outside so that he and Gandini could view the prototype privately. Once the two were alone, Gandini opened the trunk of his car to reveal the new improved model prototype. “That’s it!” exclaimed Zampolli. They’d finally agreed on the design, a Gandini front end with a Zampolli rear, and they were ready to move on to the next step - building a full-scale prototype.With that, Zampolli needed to find a body man and there was only one man in Modena for the job - Giancarlo Guerra, the maker of the Lamborghini Countach, and most of the Ferrari racing cars at Scaglietti. It took months of discussions (and cash incentives) to convince Guerra to come work for the new automaker, but he eventually agreed. Soon it was just Zampolli, Giancarlo Guerra, Ernesto Barbolini and Luca Schiavi (both experienced body technicians) working day and night to get the first Cizeta ready in time for the unveiling in Los Angeles. Making all of this possible was funding from Giorgio Moroder, now a 50/50 partner in Cizeta Automobili.
They finished the prototype just in time and the reception was sensational. The car was unveiled in December 1988 in Century City and then shown at the L.A. Auto Show followed by the Auto Expo in Geneva. The media was clambering to get a glimpse of the world’s first V16 transverse engine on display in a glass case next to the prototype. The barricades could barely hold fans back and Zampolli could not believe the positive reception they were getting for the Cizeta. Of the attendants, 167 people were interested in the car and from those, fourteen put a $100,000 deposit down to get one of their own. Zampolli was ecstatic at having made $1.4 million in one weekend, but even more thrilled to have the chance to build his dream car for the world.
The excitement surrounding the new supercar was short lived. Soon after learning the cars would take 2-3 years to tool before beginning production, Moroder began looking for a cheaper faster way to build the Cizeta. He went to Germany to speak to a Porsche designer about making the Cizeta with fiberglass instead of aluminum. Moroder knew Zampolli would not have approved this change to the original design of the Cizeta, nor would he agree to the BMW motor he was considering. “No way!” exclaimed Zampolli when he found out about Moroder’s plans to make Cizetas cheaper and quicker. “Fiberglass is like paper to metal, and the engine I built is a jewel in a crown,” said Zampolli. Nobody else had a 16 cylinder transverse engine configuration, and to change this would be to make it into an entirely different car. With Zampolli’s refusal to compromise on the quality of the materials used to make the Cizeta, he and Moroder were at a crossroads.Thus began the end of the Zampolli-Moroder partnership and consequently, the funding for Cizeta Automobili. They met in Geneva and agreed on the terms of a split, giving Moroder the first full-scale Cizeta prototype and Zampolli one hundred percent ownership of Cizeta Automobili. Determined to succeed despite the odds, Zampolli returned to Modena and began working on the fourteen cars he had already sold. For a short while, things were going well. Although Cizeta was not street legal in the United States, there was a lot of interest from Japanese and European buyers. He and his small team of highly trained technicians would finish one car and recycle the proceeds back into production. Every part of the car was assembled in-house and made by the same machine shops in Modena contracted with Ferrari and Lamborghini. In this fashion his team completed and delivered nine cars to international buyers.
With five more cars left to produce, things are coming to a head in Modena. One afternoon, Zampolli received a call from the main branch of his bank notifying him of a reduction in his credit line. Zampolli was shocked to hear this as Cizeta Automobili was not in the red and had good relations with the bank. The credit line reduction was drastic - from $500 million lira to $30 million lira. “I couldn’t even buy a wheel for that!” Zampolli exclaimed. Shortly after that the machine shops changed their terms, requiring him to purchase the remaining five engines all at one time instead of one at a time as they had previously agreed. With no credit, he was unable to meet the new terms and was beginning to get the feeling that Cizeta Automobile was not welcome in Modena.
Local machinists were afraid to do business with Cizeta. Claudio was infuriated to see his engine blocks sitting in the shop with the owner telling him it’s all or nothing. With a car completed for a buyer in Austria except for the engine, Zampolli pleaded with a local machinist to finish just one engine block for the nearly completed car. He initially declined, but was swayed by the determined Zampolli who convinced him to work at night and on weekends so that any Ferrari employees stopping by to check on production would not see the gigantic Cizeta engine. Zampolli eventually wore him down and he agreed to finish one last engine block. The car was completed and delivered to an Austrian buyer.
That would be the last completed Cizeta ever built. Eventually, the Italian IRS began scouring Zampolli books and investigating his business practices on an anonymous tip that he had been cycling drug money through his factory. Though they didn't find any evidence of this, Cizeta Automobile was fined for 10 million lire ($5,000 dollars) to justify their involvement. Zampolli would hire an attorney to help him navigate the Italian tax system and his ensuing legal troubles. However, it would not be enough to save his Modena factory. In September of 1994 the City of Modena filed bankruptcy for Cizeta Automobili. With that Zampolli collected what he could of his files and equipment and loaded them into crates bound for California.
We had long finished our coffee when I looked down at my watch to see that three hours had passed. I’m frustrated for Claudio that over thirty years after the Cizeta’s much anticipated unveiling, he’s still working on building the original fourteen cars he sold at the 1988 Auto Show in Geneva. Before I go, Zampolli took me to his Santa Ana shop to see what remains of Cizeta Automobile. With metal tools strewn across table tops and wooden crates stacked neatly to the ceilings, it’s organized chaos. There are two Cizetas under covers currently being serviced and a partially finished car on a lift. He takes the cover off one to reveal the signature extremely wide rear end of a shiny red Cizeta. Running his hand along the paint, he shows me the engine vents at the rear hood behind the transversely positioned 16 cylinder engine, the inspiration for which came from the design of a dam. The openings cool the engine and provide the unique style features of the car. He explains how every aspect of the car’s styling serves the purpose of cooling the engine and improving aerodynamics. The car’s rear is 82 inches from end making it one of the widest on the road. The Cizeta is a supercar by any definition and one of the fastest cars ever made with a maximum speed of 210 miles per hour. After the Cizeta came out, we have seen wider rear ends from both Ferrari and Lamborghini, signifying the undeniable influence Cizeta has had on the exotic car market. This is evident with Lamborghini’s Diablo, a V12 released in 1990, which looks strikingly similar to the Cizeta.
Zampolli is one of a handful of people who have attempted to design and produce a supercar, and the only person ever to have successfully made a 16 cylinder transverse engine. He put in over 50,000 test miles on the original prototype without any engine problems. Each part is handmade by technicians with over forty years working in their field. In the tradition of Italian craftsmanship, only the finest quality parts are used with no compromise. Zampolli’s nature and education as a technician would not allow him to compromise the design of his dream car in the face of financial insolvency. Some might accuse Zampolli of poor business practices, but to know and understand Italians, there is a right way and a wrong way. Period. When I ask him what he wants people to know about Cizeta Automobili he says, “we are still breathing!” Over thirty years after working with Marcello Gandini on the design for the Cizeta, Zampolli is still convinced of the car’s unique greatness and spends his days fixing and thinking up improvements to the car. As I round a work bench in the back of the factory, I notice a sign on the wall that reads “QUITTERS NEVER WIN.” I think I finally understand what drives Zampolli at 76 years old to continue working on creating the world's ultimate supercar.
The sun is setting as I leave Cizeta Automobili. I thank Zampolli for spending the afternoon with me, when I notice a dented grey Toyota truck parked next to his shop. "Wait.....is that your car?” I ask. “Yes,” says Claudio with a smile. I just assumed after all this talk of v16's, speed and horsepower he would drive something a little more fast. We walked to my car laughing about the fact that after all these years he’s never made a Cizeta for himself. Thinking back to earlier in our conversation, I gather that it’s not so much the outcome, but the process of building the car that Zampolli enjoys the most. That and he’s still the world’s premiere Cizeta technician and test driver.