Spanish drive in a Pegaso Z-102

After dazzling the crowds at the 1955 Turin and Paris shows this quad-carburettor Pegaso Z-102 returned to a life in Spain. We let the horses run at its current home on the Mediterranean coast

Words Phil Bell Photography Charlie Magee

Crickets mark time with a lazy rhythm as the morning sun prickles the tops of my ears. The air is filled with the rich, warm fragrance of rosemary, thyme and camomile, laced with a light whiff of petrol. Aaaah, Bisto! The culprit is lurking in the shadow of Manuel Ferrando’s garage – one of 66 survivors from Spain’s ambitious programme to build the most advanced sports cars in the world. This is going to be a good day.

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Sizing it up

His 1955 example wears one of the best-looking bodies available on the Pegaso Z-102 chassis, designed and built by Touring in Milan to the patented Superleggera principle. As I run my eyes over its compact fastback profile, drawn with a network of fine steel tubes and skinned in aluminium, I can’t help but think it would have worked even better if some of the chrome detailing had been applied with a lighter touch. The vertical and horizontal bars forming a cross over the radiator intake look particularly heavy handed, and the triple air vents let into the front wings seem uncharacteristically fussy for Federico Formenti, the man who gave us the simple purity of the Alfa 1900C and Aston Martin DB4. Mind you, compared to some of the clumsy detailing foisted upon Ferraris of the period by the likes of Vignale it’s an exercise in minimalism.

Manuel raises the bonnet for a final checkover ahead of our day’s driving; like a kid arriving at Hamley’s shop window a week before Christmas, I’m transfixed. Four towering Weber 36 DCF3 carburettors, topped with pairs of intake trumpets, crowd into the valley formed between banks of polished aluminium cam covers. My eyes fall to the valleys either side, finding four NGK spark plug caps in each before climbing to the second banks of cam covers. When it dazzled the world in 1951 the original Pegaso 2.5-litre V8 was the first quad-cam engine available in a road car. And this is in the ultimate 3.2-litre capacity, good for 208bhp at 6000rpm with that full set of twin-choke Webers. It was also available as a 2.8, and with one or two Webers instead. And one or two superchargers.

Time to break my trance and head for the driving seat. It’s a black leather bucket that sets me bolt upright with the Nardi steering wheel in my lap. The metallic grey dashboard’s heavily sculpted shape thrusts three saucer-sized Jaeger gauges to my attention, with speedo and odometer flanking the central set of instruments offering clues to the engine’s health – TEMP. AGUA, TEMP. ACEITE and ACEITE PRESION. Easy enough to work out, even without my holiday phrasebook. It’s all good-looking in a functional sort of way – no design flourishes here to distract you from the main event.

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Twist and shout

Left hand reaches up to twist ignition key, plucks the pull-knob below and the whirr of electric fuel pump syncopates with the cricket rhythm outside. Thumb nudges starter button and their relaxing chirp is blasted aside by the chuntering throb of V8.

Manoeuvring out on to the road the car feels lumpy, unhappy with tentative inputs and filling the cabin with whine from the five-speed transaxle not terribly far behind my left elbow. And then comes the power – 93bhp at 3000rpm, 135 at 4000 and 180 at 5000rpm. For the headline 208bhp you have to rev it out to 6000rpm, but it’s a happy spinner, sweeping aside gear whine with booming thunder punctuated with exhaust blatter as the revs soar and fall between gear ratios. First gear has the unusual fist-shaped gearknob rubbing my left thigh, with reverse forwards towards my knee and the remaining four ratios H-patterned to the left. I need to concentrate on that for the first few shifts, but at least the clutch is progressive if weighty, and the long-throw lever slips lightly across the gate. Without synchromesh to smooth the changes it takes practice to find the optimum revs for the cogs to mesh willingly, and my skills are further challenged by this car’s over-adjusted idle speed. But as the kilometres blur beneath the Borrani wire wheels, this uncompromising Spaniard and I are starting to bond. It’s one of those relationships that you have to work at. 

There must be five inches of play at the rim of the Nardi, and it feels frankly alarming at first, considering all of the kinetic energy that it has to direct. But as I relax, so does my grip, until I’m guiding it lightly like I would in a small aircraft, rather than fight it with correction and counter-correction for every bob and weave.

The brake pedal feels solid, unyielding, so it’s hard to judge leg effort. I squeeze gently and progressively – the Z-102 is still doing a lot more hurtling than slowing. I change tactic, stamping more forcefully, and the six-inch rubber chirps in protest. Okay, somewhere in between then. With wheel-filling alloy finned drums and dual hydraulic circuits they were as advanced as anything the Italians or British were producing at the Z-102’s launch.

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Settling into the saddle

Taking up the slack in anticipation of a hillside hairpin reveals a precise and fluid action from the worm-and-screw steering box. Keep the power on and it weights up quickly, right up until the rear tyres softly release their grip on the hot tarmac. With its compact 2.34m wheelbase I expected the Pegaso to be a twitchy little fella, but as road kilometres inure me to its idiosyncrasies the driving experience becomes more fluid.

Punching out of the corner, that V8 is pulling hard from just 2500rpm, strident exhaust savaging the dusty hillside with percussive aggression. Cresting the hill, the road opens out briefly and my view ahead is channelled beneath shallow windscreen, past mesh-filled bonnet outlets allowing waste energy to escape that ferocious engine, and onwards over the swell of front wings to the shimmering azure of a distant Mediterranean.

A sun-bleached village, a deteriorating road surface and I’m expecting the poetry to be shattered, but this hard-charger doesn’t overreact at all. Beneath the pretty Superleggera bodywork the Pegaso isn’t so light after all.

There’s a rigid box-section structure of welded steel that helps the Z-102 to a substantial 1200kg and the suspension to do its work properly. The independent layout up front uses wishbones, longitudinal torsion bar springing and Pegaso-designed telescopic dampers. Semi-independent rear suspension is achieved with a de Dion tube and fabricated leading arms that meet at a point on the chassis aft of the differential for optimal geometry. Lateral location is taken care of by a small wheel attached to the middle of the de Dion tube that runs up and down a vertical channel section on the front of the transaxle casing, while Pegaso dampers and transverse torsion bars take care of damping and springing. Jaguar and Ferrari both clung to leaf-sprung live axles until the Sixties.

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Flag carrier

The Pegaso Z-102 had two important roles – to act as a showcase for Spanish technological capability, and to create a project exciting enough to attract highly qualified workers to state-owned parent truck and bus company ENASA. On the face of it, the car achieved both. The project was led by Barcelona-born Wifredo Ricart who had worked at Alfa Romeo, designing the 512 Grand Prix car with its mid-mounted horizontally-opposed 12-cylinder engine, and was about to take up a role at Studebaker when he was lured back to Spain by a job offer at ENASA.

Pegasos would be built in the old Hispano Suiza factory in Barcelona, mainly with a mixture of ex-Hispano staff and 30 ex-Alfa Romeo people: engineers, mathematicians and designers whom Ricart recruited from Italy, including Medardo Biolino who styled the ENASA-built Berlinetta body for the 1951 Paris Salon reveal, and the brothers Ettore and Aldo Pagani. Ettore was the right arm of Ricart for the Z-102 design and Aldo would have a key role building the brand-new Barajas factory, near Madrid.

It was a heavy-handed design, and heavyweight too, at 1280kg, so Ricart called on his friend Felice Bianchi Anderloni to see if Carrozzeria Touring could come up with something lighter. This former law student had learned bodycraft on the job, and established Touring when, in 1925, he took over Carrozzeria Falco, which made airframes using light alloys. His mantra, ‘Weight is the enemy; air drag is the obstacle,’ inspired him to adapt aircraft construction techniques to cars, hence the superlight Superleggera method of body construction.

Federico Formenti, who had joined Touring in 1940, penned a spider – named Tibidabo after the 512-metre mountain overlooking Barcelona – and the Berlinetta prototype, both constructed in late 1952. His coupé turned out only 80kg lighter than the primitive ENASA body but it was much prettier, even more so compared to the gothic weirdness offered by Saoutchik of Paris. Not surprisingly, the Touring Berlinetta was the most numerous body fitted to Pegasos, accounting for 24 of the 84 cars built.

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Post-prototype

After that 1952 prototype they were made in two series, the first continuing with exhausts emerging from behind the rear wheelarches and set into the bodywork before finishing with slash-cut openings surrounded by flutes. There are numerous detail changes, but the most obvious include a single horizontal grille bar in place of four, and an opening footwell vent panel on each front wing. Inside, the flatter dash panel with central instruments was replaced by a more sculpted one that continued to the second series.

This started out with the inset exhausts before adopting conventional pipes popping out from beneath the rear valance. In their place appeared wraparound bumper blades.

At the front, the bonnet beak became narrower to allow wider air intake nostrils, and another cooling slot appeared down on the front valance, beneath a raised moulding housing a pair of fog lamps. The front wings now each sported a triplet of chrome-trimmed air vents. At the rear the tail lights moved from the bootlid nostrils to the outer edges of the rear wings.

Manuel’s Z-102 is one of the ten second-series cars built, and enjoyed its moments of glory at both the Turin and Paris Salons in 1955, wearing eye-catching whitewall tyres and what could be either light metallic gold or grey paint – as far as I can tell from the black and white photograph I’ve seen. Show duties over, it was sold in 1956 to Valeriano Barreiros Rodriguez in Madrid, of the rival truck-making family. He only kept it for three years before selling to José Tejero Vásquez in Huelva, down on the Atlantic coast near the Portuguese border. The next time it changed hands was in 1968, when it also changed colour, its white body with a broad central stripe of yellow flanked by red, recalling the ill-fated 1955 Le Mans Spiders. When Manuel Ferrando found it in 1984, the Pegaso had moved up the coast to Valencia and had been owned by Salvador Oriola since 1983. Manuel had his otherwise highly original find repainted red and has kept it ever since.

If you think the Touring Berlinetta evolution is complicated for a 24-car production run, consider also the eight Panoramica Z-103s with wraparound windscreens and overhead-valve V8 engines, five factory race cars, including the three Le Mans Spiders, a solitary booted coupé and the spectacular Thrill show car for a total of 40. The remaining 44 Pegasos were made up of 19 ENASA-bodied machines, including various competition, show and road cars, 18 by Saoutchik before they went bust in 1955 and seven Spiders by Barcelona coachbuilder Pedro Serra.

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A little-known legacy

Nosing the Touring Berlinetta down to the Calpe seafront, I’m still searching for the real reason why these spectacular cars didn’t make more of an international splash. With Manuel’s influence – he knows everyone in this town – we get to end our journey on the promenade, the 332m Peñón de Ifach rock to one side, and sea sparkling with early evening sun on the other.

Mechanically, aesthetically, dynamically, the Z-102 could take on the best in the world. But it was ferociously expensive, listed at £7800 at the 1952 London Motor Show when an Aston Martin DB2 could be had for £2724 and, let’s face it, Astons have never exactly been cheap. In the end, the government ran out of patience for the costly exercise before Ricart could activate his plan to manufacture the Touring bodies in Barcelona, and the Z-102 story came to an end in 1956.

But what a legacy. With the setting sun turning Peñón de Ifach from ochre to burning red, Manuel’s Pegaso seems to glow with pride as the tick-ting-ping of its cooling metals is joined by another chorus of crickets. After decades of international obscurity, these cars are starting to get the recognition they deserve. Clearly the Spanish government should have shown a little more patience.

 Thanks to: Pegaso author Mario Laguna

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1955 Pegaso Z-102 Touring

Engine 3178cc V8, dohc per bank, four Weber 36 DCF3 twin-choke carburettors

Power and torque 208bhp @ 6000rpm; 200lb ft @ 4700rpm 

Transmission Five-speed manual transaxle, no synchromesh, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: de Dion axle, leading arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers

Steering Worm and screw

Brakes Aluminium finned drums, inboard at the rear

Weight 1200kg Performance Top speed: 125mph(est); 0-60mph: na

Cost new: £7800 in 1952 Values now: £650-£750k

Lewis PlumbPegaso Z102, 1955, V8