1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ Zagato’s lightweight racer

1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ Zagato’s lightweight racer

Zagato’s stubby-tailed take on the Giulietta was such a successful racer that Alfa adopted the SZ as an official model. We catch up with a superb 1961 example that originally raced in France. Story by Richard Heseltine.


Zagato racing perfection

It’s a shape that is uncluttered yet far from empty. Zagato has crafted countless landmark classics, and even if one or two horrors are thrown into the playlist every once in a while, it still makes other great design houses appear terribly unimaginative. By its own lofty standards, though, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ is a visual treat. Perfectly proportioned, and free of anything remotely like styling tinsel, it’s a masterclass in less-is-more subtlety. The minimal overhangs, front and rear, combined with a small front area, render it stubby, almost egg-like. It’s bloomin’ gorgeous.

1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ Zagato’s lightweight racer

“Just think, if there hadn’t been a crash at the 1956 Mille Miglia, the SZ may never have happened”

This particular example, restored over a seven-year period by Alfaholics, is all the more lovely because it isn’t red. Before you warm the acetone and pluck the chicken, please consider the fact that Zagato’s cars are, by definition, colour-sensitive. A scarlet Alfa is a thing of loveliness, for sure, but this blue SZ… we only wish we had the wherewithal. Just shy of £800,000 ought to land it. The remarkable thing, though, is that while we now lionise this raciest of Giuliettas, the SZ wasn’t liked by the suits in Arese way back when – at all. If anything, it was a source of embarrassment.

“Zagato’s Giulietta showed up Alfa’s SS with such regularity that it was accepted as an official model”

Backtrack to the early 1950s and Alfa Romeo was still tattered and bruised. The switch from small-series exotica to mass production brought with it inevitable growing pains in the immediate post-war years as Italy dug itself out of the rubble. The 1900 promised much but, for all its virtues, it failed to sell in the sort of numbers once envisaged, regardless of variant. The Giulietta would change that – although, for a brief period, it might just as easily have become another footnote in marque lore. Cash-strapped and on the hop, Alfa’s management famously conceived a novel means of raising revenue. With the Giulietta Berlina due for release in 1954, a lottery scheme was launched: punters would part with large amounts of money in the hope of winning one and, hey presto, there would be enough lire for manufacture to commence.

1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ Zagato’s lightweight racer

Except this is Alfa Romeo where best-laid plans are often the inverse of that. A date was set for tickets to be drawn and then it all went quiet. The media got the whiff of a story and a scandal began to brew. The ‘prizes’ were still in component form. To save face, Bertone was then tapped to cobble together a special coach-built Giulietta – the altogether sexier Sprint coupé – to appease aggrieved ticket holders. Everyone, or at least the winners, went home happy.

So the Giulietta Sprint went into production before the Berlina. It also caused a sensation, demand massively outstripping supply. With its achingly handsome Franco Scaglione-penned looks and allalloy 1290cc twin-cam ‘four’, there was little to touch it in its category in 1955, and not just in the showroom. The topflight Sprint Veloce soon began making its presence felt in competition, winning its class everywhere from the Mille Miglia to the Sebring 12 Hours, while also taking the occasional outright win such as the 1957 Tour de Corse. Accordingly, it didn’t take long for marque bosses to appreciate the potential of a ‘proper’ motorsport-orientated variant, Alfa Romeo having vacated Formula One and the premier class of the World Championship for Sports Cars earlier that decade. A production car-based racer was just the thing.

Step forward Bertone’s Sprint Speciale. Unveiled at the 1957 Turin Motor Show, and based on a Giulietta Spider platform, the SS was a study in streamlining. Scaglione produced another tour de force; one with a scarcely believable drag coefficient of 0.29. With a claimed top speed of 125mph, it was the world’s fastest 1.3-litre production car. Unfortunately, that didn’t make it a great competition tool. The initial batch of 101 cars built to satisfy homologation requirements had lightweight aluminium panels. The problem was, Zagato’s SVZ had already beaten the SS to the punch, and its car was lighter still. For all its wind-cheating properties, Bertone’s offering was simply too heavy to compete on an equal footing.

The SVZ grew out of a one-off commission by brothers Carlo and Dore Leto di Priolo. Having bent their Sprint Veloce on the 1956 Mille Miglia, they approached Elio Zagato to reclothe the crumpled remains. In amended form, and when driven by third sibling Massimo, this ultra-lightweight (785kg) aluminium-bodied device beat Jo Bonnier’s Sprint Veloce to the chequered flag at that year’s Coppa Intereuropa GT race at Monza by a full 22 seconds. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before other gentleman drivers and aspiring professionals made for Zagato’s Via Giorgini works demanding replicas.

Four SVZs were built in 1957, and a further 15 up until 1959 as the ovular outline was tweaked and honed into what passed for the definitive shape. This being a coachbuilt offering, no two cars were ever strictly alike, mind. What’s more, it reputedly took Zagato’s artisans 60 days to craft each bodyshell at a retail cost of $2000 on top of the donor car. Having coughed up nearly twice the price of a regular Sprint Veloce, you then needed one of Virgilio Conrero’s hot twin-cam ‘fours’ to be truly competitive. An Autotecnica Conrero unit meant a useful 114hp from just 1.3 litres (up from 90hp). In 1957 alone, Conrero modified Alfas claimed 28 overall or class victories. A year later, that figure had risen to 67, and in 1959 a belief-beggaring 84.

But still Alfa Romeo officially snubbed the SVZ and refused to supply Zagato with platforms and running gear directly. It persisted with the Bertone-made SS, even though meaningful race results were found lacking, save perhaps for a class win on the 1960 Targa Florio. On the same event two years earlier, an SVZ had finished eighth overall, beaten only by 3.0-litre Ferraris and factory Porsches. That same season also saw Bernard Costen and Roger de Lageneste claim honours on the Coupe des Alpes in their example, Costen and Jean Hébert going on to emerge victorious on the beyond-gruelling Liege-Rome-Liege rally one month later. Zagato’s Giulietta was a true giant-slayer, Milan’s most characterful carrozzeria surfing a publicity tidal wave as its wares notched up win after win.

The SVZ scored with such frequency, and showed up the SS with such regularity, that it was finally accepted as an official catalogue model in 1960, in line with the Giulietta’s revisions from 750 to 101 series. The SZ, as it was now known, was slightly chunkier and rounder than before, and quite possibly even lovelier. The car pictured here was among their number, and was first owned by privateer owner/driver, Pierre Orsini. A driver who was perhaps better known for his exploits on and off-piste in works Alpine-Renaults, his forays from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s nevertheless encompassed everything from Citroën DSs to assorted Abarths. The Corsican was quick, too, early successes including outright victory on his ‘home’ event, the Tour de Corse in 1959 (he would triumph again in 1962 and 1965).

The son of a judge, Orsini was barely 25 years old when he began campaigning the Giulietta. His exploits from 1961 to 1963 were many. However, deciphering chassis number 144’s race history is still a work in progress as we go to press. So far we have ascertained that it contested the week-long Tour de France Automobile in 1961, and again one year later. Orsini and his wingman Jean Canonici also participated in the 1961 Coupe des Alpes and the second-ever Criterium Jean Behra in 1962.

With the car came a pile of photos, one of them a Giulietta SZ – car 14 – competing on the 1962 Targa Florio. But by our reckoning, this may have been the seventh-place Scuderia Etna car driving by Coco/Arena, rather than this particular example. Whatever the truth, the SZ we have here is a wondrous thing. It was owned by Alfaholics’ Richard Banks for 17 years, and according to the car’s owner (and now vendor) Howard Wise: “During the restoration, retaining as much of the original body was a real priority. The roof, pillars, front scuttle, top halves of the front wings, rear bodywork and bonnet are all repaired original items. In addition, the beautifully-manufactured Zagato screen surrounds, aluminium finishers, window frames and internal screen cappings were polished and reused.”

The car has reputedly covered only 100 miles since the restoration was completed. However, it did venture trackside for the first time in more than half a century during the July 2017 Silverstone Classic meeting (where, we’re told, it bested the existing SZ lap record by four seconds). It was fielded in the RAC Tourist Trophy race for pre-1963 GT cars, the line-up comprising everything from the one-off Ferrari 250GT SWB ‘Breadvan’ to assorted Jaguar Lightweight E-Types. But then the Giulietta SZ always did mix it with the elite.

And just think, if Carlo and Dore Leto di Priolo hadn’t lost control of their Giulietta on the downhill section of the Radicofani pass on the 1956 Mille Miglia, the SZ may never have happened. And just think what it led to. The past half a century or so of Alfa’s motorsport history would have been very different had this shapely tiddler not existed, unwanted though it once was.

Spartan interior has lightweight glassfibre dashboard, very thin seats and skimpy doors. Bodywork is aluminium over a light tubular frame, with Plexiglas windows and Campagnolo alloys

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