1989 Alfa Romeo SZ
It looks like nothing on earth. Goes in a similar fashion. Can you forgive the former for the latter? Alfaphile Nathan is just the man to get under the skin of this rare and controversial car as he endeavours to uncover the… Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Dean Smith.
Alfa Romeo SZ Beauty or beast? A North Devon coastal drive proves decisive
DRIVING beast-hunting in Exmoor with Alfa’s Il Mostro
The Alfa Romeo SZ may not be traditionally pretty, but the way this monster from Milan corners is truly beautiful. Devon's coast beckons.
If you speak to the locals, there’s a mythical beast that roams Exmoor. It’s said to be a black or tan large cat. A bit more than the average feline: it's thought to be a cougar or black leopard, released from a private zoo in the 1960s or ’70s after it was ruled unlawful to breed them in captivity outside public zoos.
Despite such cats living at most 15 years, the Beast of Exmoor has been spotted many times over the decades, bringing in inquisitive monster spotters – for which the local tourist board is no doubt thankful.
We’ve brought a beast of our own – ‘Il Mostro’, the monster in Italian, or Alfa Romeo SZ to give the car its proper title. One of the most controversial and divisive cars, let alone Alfas, ever made, it looks like something conjured from Dante’s A-Z of demonic cars. It also sounds like the Beast of Exmoor having a mournful cry. As we dive deep into this dark and mysterious corner of the English countryside, the exuberant blare from its Busso V6 reverberates around the small quaint villages, heralding the SZ’s coming with a plaintive warcry.
Pedestrians stop and stare, other drivers do double-takes – and even a practising line-dancing troupe pause their machinations to take in this searing red vision of otherness. If ever a car's looks and sound lived up to its nickname…
But there’s so much more to this car than the way it looks, as we’ll discover. But is it beast or pussycat?
Let’s find out.
You can’t get away from how it looks, though. Whether you like it or not, it holds your attention, which was the plan all along. When Fiat took the Alfa Romeo reins from the Italian government in the mid-1980s, some feared that Alfa's spirit may be lost via Fiat's beancounters.
To fight this thinking, Alfa needed a halo car, to capture the imagination after years of underfunding. Alfa's chief engineer, Stefano Iacoponi, said at the car's launch: '[We] wished to give tangible proof of [Alfa's] determination to enhance its role as a marque specialising in technically advanced and high-performance cars.'
Coming at the dawn of the computer-led design age, the new car – codenamed ES30 – would go from approval to the Geneva Motor Show in just 19 months.
The uncharitable may look at the panel gaps and say that wasn't long enough. Others may look at its stubby shape and wish they hadn't bothered. Me? I love it. Those panel gaps? Designed to promote more downforce, especially around the front, and to direct airflow around the car. It may look like it has the aerodynamics of a lobbed anvil, but the SZ boasts a slippery 0.30 drag co-efficient.
It's a riot of materials: the body is composite glassfibre draped over a steel Alfa 75 frame, while carbonfibre pops up on the rear spoiler and interior dials. Initial sketches were penned traditionally, but pioneering use of computeraided design allowed changes to be tested in polystyrene rather than time-consuming clay. Even so, the final prototype was only finished a month before show time. You'll have already made up your mind on the looks. In the 31 years since it broke cover in Switzerland, Roberto Opron's unmistakable design has dominated discussions.
But there's so much more to the SZ than the way it looks. From the surprisingly spacious interior, the only thing that's focusing my attention is the glorious sound rasping out of the back of it. Under the glassfibre bonnet is a 12v version of Giuseppe Busso's V6, in 3.0-litre single-cam form. The SZ was meant to have the new 24v version that debuted in the 164 and 75, but the project ran out of time. Each minor toe poke in fifth on the long motorway slog from SZ specialist Alfa Aid's Maidenhead base has elicited a cat-like meow, largely thanks to the workshop's brand-new stainless steel exhaust system. Now, the M5 but a brief memory, it's time to open it up. Suddenly, that cat is shrieking like it's having its first bath…
Throttle response is immediate, charging up to 3500rpm with a deep, baritone growl before developing into a howling, mournful blare as it comes on cam and charges for the 6500rpm limit, all operatic harmonics that can't help but fizz your cochlea, warm the heart and force a grin to your chops. If ever an engine proved those clichés about Italian passion and soul being real, this is it.
It's not particularly fast in a straight line, though. Its performance figures are about on-par with a Golf GTI MkV. Could the design and the engine note be flattering to deceive? Is it all bluster, no muster?
Emphatically no. Three decades of bellyaching over its looks have obscured its true talents. It's far more than its paper numbers and its saloon-derived underpinnings. For its time, it was about as close to the full tarmac rally car experience as you could hope to get in a production car. That's because underneath that concept car exterior is… well, a tarmac rally car. Alfa Romeo's efforts with the 75 in Group A touring car racing had been a bit of a dud. The Turbo Evoluzione was outgunned in the turbo class by the Ford Sierra RS500 by a deficit of about 100bhp, and out-nimbled by the naturally aspirated M3 E30.
About halfway through the 1987 World Touring Car Championship, Alfa bowed out to focus on other projects. The most famous of these were the Brabham F1 effort and the associated 164 Procar, but the most practical programme was the Giro D'Italia. This round-Italy event took in stage rallies and circuit events, and allowed cars run to IMSA rules. Shorn of its Group A restrictions, the 75 Turbo Evolution's wick was turned up to 400bhp.
More importantly, the race car chassis was to form the underpinnings of the SZ, and with names such as Patrese, Biasion, Nannini and Larini acting as chassis test engineers, the best men were on the job, all under the watchful eye of Fiat/Abarth/Lancia/Alfa Corse motorsport supremo Giorgio Pianta (see opposite page). Working with Zagato, who would build the car rather than design it, Pianta developed a car that though clearly related to the 75, was very different. The standard 75 suspension was junked for an independent system with transverse wishbones at the front, and a rigid de Dion rear axle with converging rods and a Watts linkage. Hydraulic telescopic dampers, anti-roll bars and uniball joints were put in place fore and aft. There's a limited-slip diff with a 25 per cent lock out back, and the ride height is adjustable via the cabin. All space age for the late ’80s – and a feeling of hyperspeed is what happens in the bends.
Forget the acceleration stats and horsepower figures. Instead, this is about searing cross-country pace. Keep the engine on cam and the car simply keys in. Sharp steering is a hallmark of any good Alfa, but most have a little lightness around the dead-ahead before firming up as you get more adventurous with physics. The SZ is different — it's still super-sharp (3.2 turns lock to lock) but that lightness is gone. Instead, you've got intuitively accurate, responsive steering, and a weighting that's as perfect as an expensive Swiss timepiece. It feels… well, just right.
Then there's the suspension compliance. Sharp shocks rattle through the cabin. Because all SZs are left-hand drive, your coccyx will soon recognise individual brands of drain covers from vibrations alone. More important, however, is the way the SZ works the cambers and undulations in the road, absorbing them rather than skittering off them. You can push harder and faster, your inputs seemingly acting on the SZ's blunt nose as if by telepathy, while the rear rarely feels overwhelmed. In the dry, the SZ is unstickable; there's so much grip you can happily pull 1.5g in the corners. Remember — this is a car released in 1989. Soon you're threading together corners in single-minded fashion. You even forget you're sat on the 'wrong' side of the car. It's less forgiving in the wet – its very short wheelbase gives you a tiny window of opportunity to save it if your luck runs out.
You can tell the competition breeding, though the plush interior may convince you otherwise. The cabin was meant to be much more spartan, but that wouldn't do for the company's flagship that touched Porsche 928 S4 money. The dashboard wraps around you, the dials glowing green in the dark. There are also beautiful tan leather chairs, a Momo steering wheel and acres of space. I even had to move the seat forward a bit – a novelty, that. On smooth A-roads it's comfortable – well, aside from the occasional grate or pothole trying to reorganise your spinal column – but there's no getting away from that engine, either through the glorious yelps as you give in to temptation and charge to 6500rpm again, nor the heat wanting to join you in the cabin.
The gearchange may cause you to sweat. The box is at the back, contributing to a well-balanced 56/44 front-rear weight split, but it's a cable change. First to second takes a degree of faith, and reverse is a trip into a fantasy land where the correct ratio appears with all the certainty of a passing deity. This isn't a change that likes to be rushed. Shame, because the rest of the car's abilities, and the manic energy it encourages, are almost stymied. Almost...
Instead, you learn to live within its five, fairly widely spaced ratios. The throttle response is so quick, and its feelsome grip level (in the dry) means that you can keep it on cam for longer, riding the torque, scanning the horizons and reeling off corners like Miki Biaision in his pomp. There are class-A narcotics less addictive than this. You may think the car is ugly, and be unable to forgive it that. But the way this monster handles is truly beautiful.
You probably made your decision on this car when you saw it on the cover. Brutalist Italian design – from the Fiat Panda to the Maserati Shamal – isn't for everyone. The SZ has to be the most extreme version of this style language, more than Gandini's final take on the DeTomaso Pantera. Sadly, it came at a time of great uncertainty. The collector car era was booming, so lots of deposits were taken. Then the economy crashed, and SZs were no longer the must have thing. What followed was a decade of ’50s/’60s retro obsession in new car design, leaving the SZ and others like it in a fashion limbo. Prices fell below £20k.
That's certainly not the case now. Like the Shamal, Delta Integrale and Ghibli Cup, prices have rocketed as the style has come back into fashion. You're looking at £50k to get into a good SZ these days. Even so, for something so iconic, so special, and so good to drive, that still doesn't seem dear. It's rare too – little more than 1000 SZs were built.
When you compare that to how much BMW M3 Sport Evolutions go for, that's about half price. Tellingly, back in the day Performance Car's car of the year 1990 test didn't really rate the M3 at all. 'Miles of understeer followed by sudden oversteer about which you can do nothing… undriveable… dangerous.' The SZ? 'Everyone said it had the best chassis of all the cars assembled. Some said it had the best chassis of any car.'
Okay so the Alfa finished second (to an Audi Ur-quattro 20V, which arch-VAG man JJ will no doubt comment on). But in the three decades since the M3 has been deemed a paragon of dynamic virtue, while the SZ has been remembered only for its looks – which does it a disservice. Some reckoning is needed, I feel.
Elsewhere in this magazine JJ has claimed the Elise as the ultimate modern classic. It is a fine car, no doubt. But, for me, the SZ holds a greater claim to that title. It's a brutal clenched fist to the tired old notions of what a classic car should be. It's loud and uncompromising, and subversive. You'll find no chrome here, no swooping appendages that hark back to a 1950s Le Mans racer. The SZ was all about a future we never quite got, from its design to the way it drives; it really does feel as agile as any ’90s Japanese 4WD rally car in the dry. It may not accelerate as fast, but the way this car holds the road is light years ahead of everything else in 1989.
Even as a lover of Italian cars, I appreciate that more than a few trade on their aesthetics to mask iffy abilities. Not here – because however ugly you may or may not think the SZ is, it is truly beautiful to drive.
Monster? No, it’s an absolute masterpiece.
Thanks to: Adrian Jardine at SZ specialists Alfa Aid (alfaaid. co.uk) and Mike Ibbs.
Engine 2959cc, 6-cyl, SOHC
Transmission RWD, 5-speed manual
Max Power 207bhp @ 6200rpm
Max Torque 181lb-ft @ 4500rpm
0-60mph 7.0 sec
Top speed 152 mph
Economy 24 mpg
WHAT TO PAY
Does it flick your switch? Let us know via Inbox. Loud, rude and lairy when it rains. And an SZ. Designed by Citroen SM stylist Opron but built by Zagato. SZ just missed out on 24v Busso V6. Snug seats, but plenty of room for the tall. Cornering prowess honed in competition.
‘I EVEN HAD TO MOVE THE DRIVER’S SEAT FORWARD A BIT – A NOVELTY, THAT’
GIORGIO PIANTA: THE COMPETITION KING
If there was Italian car winning in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, it was highly likely Giorgio Pianta had a hand in it. After joining Abarth's competitions department in the ’70s, he made his name developing the Fiat 131 Abarth that Walter Rohrl took to World Rally Championship glory. He was quickly promoted and managed the Lancia 037 and Delta S4 projects. When Fiat bought Alfa in 1986, his attention turned to the Milanese firm.
Despite taking a more managerial role, he still insisted in being involved in Lancia’s rally car set-up.
The Group A 75 project wasn't successful on the global stage, but he was instrumental in the SZ set-up and testing. The ’90s were far more successful. The 155 won the DTM on its first try in 1993. Then Pianta set his sights on perhaps the most challenging series of all – the BTCC.
Despite many saying a non-Brit-run team could never do it, Gabriele Tarquini led a dominant year. Pianta returned to try to turn the tide of a disappointing few DTM years, but left Alfa early in 1996. He died in 2014, aged 78.
Perfect to channel your inner Miki Biasion. It's a pity we couldn't include a CD of its noises.
‘THE UNMISTAKABLE DESIGN DOMINATES DISCUSSIONS’
There's not much of a boot to speak of… Just 1036 SZs left Zagato's workshops. Suspension height is adjustable from cabin. Interior feels much more vast than it looks.