The impossible 16-cylinder Italian exotic that nearly succeeded

On screen, Sammy Hagar throws his Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer 512 into a howling skid and comes spinning to a stop in the video for I Can’t Drive 55. His personal mechanic comes walking up for a cameo.

“It’s so smooth into the curves,” Hagar says. “What’d you do, Claudio?” Claudio Zampolli grins back at Hagar. It is 1984, and Zamolli is well-known among the Beverly Hills elite as a sort of horse whisperer for fine Italian automobiles. Many of the rich and famous entrust their highly-strung machines to Claudio, and he’s carved out a lucrative niche for himself. However, there are already plans afoot for something more audacious than mere wrenching. Another musician is about to enter the picture, an improbable engine is taking shape, and on the inside of Zampolli’s head an utterly insane supercar is taking form. He will give it his initials (the Italian pronunciation, anyway), and it will consume most of his life.

More than three decades later, Zampolli seems reluctant to talk about his life’s work. Reached for comment at his business in Fountain Valley, he is a typical engineer with little time to chat. Claudio Zampolli makes his excuses; he must return to his workshop, where he’s working on an engine. What kind of engine?

“A V-16, of course,” he replies with mild surprise. “There’s nothing else I do.”

Cizeta-Moroder V16T V-16 engine
Cizeta-Moroder V16T rear detail
Brian Wiklem

Born in Modena, Zampolli grew up watching Ferraris at the Autodromo di Modena test track and was hired on by Lamborghini at 25 as a test driver and engineer. Later moving to the U.S. as part of Lamborghini’s efforts to organize a dealer network, he soon found himself in California, the natural home of many an Italian supercar. He set up a new Lamborghini dealership on Wilshire Boulevard. Later, he moved into servicing Ferrari, Maserati, and other Italian marques.

Around the same time that Zampolli was rubbing shoulders with celebrities. Eddie Van Halen credits Zampolli with introducing Sammy Hagar into Van Halen – the engine sound in the song Panama is from Eddie’s Miura that Zampolli worked on. Claudio’s celebrity brought him into contact with Giovanni Moroder. Better-known as Giorgio, Moroder is considered the father of disco music and established himself in the 1970s with a string of hits produced for Donna Summer. It can also be argued that Giorgio Moroder was responsible for much of the soundtrack of the 1980s. He has three Academy Awards, most notably for Best Original Song for Take My Breath Away from the Top Gun soundtrack.

As befitted an icon of the 1970s and ’80s, Moroder drove a Countach, which meant he eventually found his way to Zampolli’s garage. Moroder wasn’t Zampolli’s first potential partner. According to Brian Wiklem, author of a comprehensive book on the history of the Cizeta V16T, Sylvester Stallone was originally considered, and photographs exist of a “Cizeta-Stallone” branded engine cover. Still, whether it was because of their shared Italian heritage or simply a love of exotic machinery, Zampolli and Moroder formed a partnership. The idea of the Cizeta-Moroder was born.

The Cizeta half of the company took its name from the Italian pronunciation of Zampolli’s initials C.Z., “Chey Zeta.” He further took the blue and yellow colors of the Modena’s coat of arms and adopted a wolf’s head motif based on the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus.

yellow Cizeta-Moroder V16T profile

Zampolli had already been working on the concept of a boutique supercar since the late 1970s. From a practical standpoint, his idea was to return to Modena, where small workshops provided the sort of high-level craftsmanship he could depend on. On the less-practical side, he wanted to build a car around a transversely-mounted V-16 engine.

Sixteen cylinders. No one had ever attempted such lunacy before: Cadillac had a V-16 in the 1930s, but that was provided plenty of space by a lengthy hood, and lived an unstressed, low-revving life.

In Zampolli’s version, the engine would be formed by two flat-plane-crank V-8s based on the architecture of the eight-cylinder in the Urraco P300. The block would be a single bespoke aluminum casting, made by a Modena specialist, and intended to mount transversely, with a longitudinal ZF five-speed gearbox. This T-shaped layout gave the V16T its name, and was inspired by the configuration of the Lamborghini Miura.

Zampolli knew that a mere V-12 wouldn’t grab headlines the way a V-16 would, and he had an experienced chief engineer in Oliviero Pedrazzi. Displacing 6.0 liters, the V-16 featured 64 valves, eight camshafts, two fuel-injection systems, four cylinder heads, and twin timing chains. It produced a claimed 540 horsepower at 8,000 rpm and 400 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm.

Claudio Zampolli working on the V16 engine for the Cizeta-Moroder V16T
Claudio Zampolli Cizeta

Fitting such an enormous engine into a low-slung exotic required a master of design. Happily, through connections made in his Lamborghini days, Zampolli was able to approach Marcello Gandini, father of the Countach. The commonly-held belief is that the Cizeta V16T is the Diablo as Gandini originally intended it, before Chrysler’s 1987 takeover of Lamborghini neutered his original design. This is partly accurate, but Gandini’s original design didn’t entirely meet Zampolli’s approval either. Claudio wondered how best to broach the subject with the famed designer.

When he began to speak, he found Gandini already in agreement and the final product was a partial collaboration. The front half of the car is as Gandini intended; the back half contains far more of Zampolli’s influence. Part of the V16T’s shape is dictated by how huge the 16-cylinder engine is. At its widest point, the Cizeta spans 81 inches – the modern Lamborghini Aventador is more than an inch skinnier. The chassis uses a classic tubular space frame, and the bodywork is made from hand-formed aluminum rather than composites. The quad pop-up headlights were a late addition, one more unusual facet to an outrageous machine. Despite the engine’s hugeness, the V16T’s mechanicals were designed for service. A January 1989 review of the V16T in Car magazine noted the tidiness of the engine bay.

Zampolli wooed master craftsman Giancarlo Guerra away from Lamborghini and added experienced body technicians Ernesto Barbolini and Luca Schiavi. Moroder had a 50-percent share in the company, so he provided funding as Zampolli’s team worked feverishly to bring the prototype to life.

red Cizeta-Moroder V16T front
Brian Wiklem
Cizeta-Moroder V16T driving
Brian Wiklem

black Cizeta-Moroder V16T profile
Brian Wiklem
Cizeta-Moroder V16T interior
Brian Wiklem

First shown in California in December of 1988, the Cizeta-Moroder V16T narrowly beat the Diablo to unveiling. Consumate car guy Jay Leno presided over the event, and the V16T was later brought to the Los Angeles Auto Show, where it generated serious interest. Fourteen initial deposits of $100,000 were placed for the car.

Problems began almost immediately. First, Zampolli’s unyielding vision of the V16T as the ultimate expression of handmade exclusivity was not a pathway to profit. Car and Driver estimated the price at $280,000 in 1989 (that’s almost $573,000 today). In the UK Car said the Cizeta would be $400,000 ($818,000).  As of 2002, a V-16T would set you back $649,000 to order new ($905,000). The issue wasn’t the cost of the cars, it was making them fast enough.

Production was slow enough to frustrate Moroder who, despite his Italian ancestry, had spent enough time in Berlin to develop a strong sense of Germanic pragmatism. Unbeknownst to Zampolli, he began speaking to engineers from Porsche, looking into the use of fiberglass for the body instead of the finicky aluminum. The eventual disagreement would dissolve the partnership. The break-up ended with Moroder retaining the first prototype, which he still owns today and has serviced at Canepa in California. The car is still referred to as a Cizeta-Moroder by many fans, but the production models bore the Cizeta name alone.

The larger issue looming over Cizeta was that the V16T wasn’t street legal in the U.S. Happily, initial orders were strong from Asia and the Middle East, including two from the Sultan of Brunei. However, the collapse of the Japanese bubble was just a few years away.

red Cizeta-Moroder V16T
white Cizeta-Moroder V16T rear 3/4

Cizeta-Moroder V16T low rear 3/4
Brian Wiklem

Five cars were built in the initial run, each one a hand-finished masterpiece. Yes, the build process was sluggardly, but the attention to detail of Zampolli’s small team was second to none. Lamborghini built cars faster but didn’t necessarily build them better. Further, the engineering was sound. The V16T’s suspension featured double wishbones and inboard Koni dampers, the brakes were 12-inch rotors with four-pot Brembo calipers, and the 17-inch OZ wheels wore 245-section Pirelli rubber up front and 335-series out back. Performance was a claimed 205 mph top speed, with a 0–60 time of 4.5 seconds, though the Cizeta never saw a wind tunnel, nor were these claims measured. Regardless, the shape and the sound fired the imagination. Featured in all the major publications of the day, the Cizeta V16T looked poised to break into the exotic market, appealing to those who viewed a Testarossa or a Diablo as far too common.

Things unraveled quickly. Zampolli had sold some of his own personal sportscars, including a Miura and a Ferrari 250, to fund the project initially, and had been rolling profits from the sale of each V16T back into Cizeta. When the market collapsed –- the 1990 recession in the United States was followed by Japan’s stock market crash in 1991 –  the company floundered. Cizeta’s credit with small-scale orders from the Modena workshops was slashed, and further, those suppliers suddenly started demanding larger orders be placed and paid for in advance. Zampolli’s own health issues further complicated things, making travel between Los Angeles and Modena difficult. Creating the V16T was one thing, but keeping it in regular production proved impossible.

Cizeta relocated to Los Angeles, and Zampolli went through personal bankruptcy. Only nine cars were produced in the initial run, far short of the intended dozen per year, and the company seemed fatally stricken. Still, Cizeta struggled along with his original idea while the rest of the automotive world moved on. A convertible version, the Cizeta Fenice TTJ Spyder, was finished for a Japanese client in 2003, and shown at the Concorso Italiano in Monterey, California. At the same time, Zampolli and his company went through a period defined by lawsuits and legal trouble.

Cizeta 16-cylinder engine

Most famously, Zampolli sued Jay Leno for $150 million in damages for defamation over heated comments made by the comedian at a February 1999 car show in Van Nuys, California. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but Zampolli’s friendship with Leno was irretrievably damaged, and a later ugly rift emerged between Zampolli and his lawyer.

In 2009, federal customs agents arrived at a classic car dealership in San Juan Capistrano and seized a red Cizeta. The V16T was still not street-legal in the U.S., but the car had arrived in 2001 on a one-year mechanic’s bond to have some work done. The bond had been extended by a few years but was long expired by this point.

Zampolli eventually managed to reclaim the car, which is rumored to belong to an Austrian owner. However, even now he is involved in several public feuds, including with former Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni. His Facebook page also attacks Brian Wiklem (the author and Cizeta fan with whom he was formerly on friendly terms) as well as Jay Leno, Jay’s assistant at the time, and Zampolli’s original attorney Tristram Buckley.

Despite everything, Cizeta persists. The workshop is there, as is the tooling. As Zampolli says, the company is still “breathing.” He responds in the affirmative as to whether a customer could still order a Cizeta today.

“There was time delay due to the relocation of the entire equipment,” he says. “But the V16T is still available—of course on special order only.”

black Cizeta-Moroder V16T front
Brian Wiklem

Even if Zampolli had closed up shop, given up, the achievement of building the V16T in the first place would be a worthy achievement. Because so few were made, it’s occasionally fashionable to label the car a failure. The V16T wasn’t the roaring success Zampolli had hoped for, but what other exotic was ever made with 16 cylinders—and how few engineers have dared to gamble it all on pulling a car from the ether?

The Cizeta V16T was first a dream, then a reality. Then it became a bit of a nightmare. Thirty years on, it remains perhaps the most exotic of all the supercars: impossibly rare, improbably daring, doomed but triumphant. What’d you do, Claudio? You created something incredible.

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