The Ugly Duckling of Alfa Romeo

In the Merriam-Webster english dictionary under the word “beautiful”, it would not be surprising to find the Sistine Chapel, Amazon rainforest, or Elizabeth Olsen listed as examples.  Suffice to say, you would probably also find a picture of an Alfa Romeo there too. 

Back in the day following World War II, the Milanese-marque was the one setting the beauty standards in the realm of automotive design.  Though often overshadowed by their nephew Ferrari—whose Pininfarina and Scaglietti-bodied cars were gorgeous in their own right—some of Alfa Romeo’s best work have remained at the pinnacle of timeless automotive design throughout the years.  Cars such as the Giulia Sprint Speciale, Giulia TZ2, 33 Stradale, and the Montreal come to mind.  Even the newest fleet of Alfas, from the 8C Competizione to the Giulias and Stelvios, contribute greatly to the catalog of jaw dropping cars that wear an Alfa Romeo badge.

I must admit however, although somewhat begrudgingly, that not all Alfa Romeos are made equal… A transfer of ownership in 1986 to the joint “Fiat Alfa Lancia Industriale S.p.A.” changed Alfa Romeo for good.  Gone were the golden days of Alfa Romeo, and although Alfa would continue to use their own motors, most of their design control was in the hands of Fiat.  Demoralized by falling sales as a result of their acquisition, Alfa Romeo decided they needed to go back to the drawing board and create a new car to revive their sporty panache. The car in question: the Alfa Romeo SZ

The Alfa Romeo SZ is something of an oddity and defines the idea of what it means to be a “forgotten motor”. Only just over a thousand of these self-evident “bad boys” were made but surprisingly—they sold like hot cakes when new.

That was a lie.  Alfa Romeo barely sold any SZs when they were new. In fact, only about 100 were sold in the UK alone, which was one of Alfa Romeo’s biggest markets outside of Italy at the time. The reason for the awful sales performances? Well, besides the questionable looks, lukewarm power, and the Italian press’ decision to call it “Il Mostro” (yes, that translates to “The Monster”), one can conclude that the deciding factor was that the SZ was just too damn expensive.  Priced between a Porsche 911 and Lotus Esprit Turbo, $43,000 (about $84,000 in 2021 money) was just way too much for the amount of car given.  One would imagine this car to be producing some mind numbing performance figures that would give it an edge over the Lotus and Porsche. Well… sorry but no. The Lotus was about $5,000 cheaper, produced 264 hp from its turbocharged I4, made 261 lb-ft of torque, and was capable of 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds (faster than a 2021 Mustang Mach-E).  It also looked absolutely gorgeous. The Alfa, however, was only capable of a mere 207 hp from its Busso V6, 181 lb-ft of torque, 0-60mph went by in 7 seconds, and…  while you’re welcome to make your own conclusions…  the SZ isn’t the prettiest face to look at. 

Common stories exchanged between the Alfisti claim the SZ was designed so oddly due to the design-team’s inexperience with the design software they were being forced to use.  This claim is not really supported by much evidence, but seems plausible since the SZ was designed in the late-80s.  To make matters worse though, the “Z” in SZ denotes ‘Zagato’, an italian design house that needs no introduction.  Misleadingly, they had almost no input on the design. 

I mean look, I’m not willing to die on any hill that involves saying the SZ is gorgeous, but there is something about it that I like.  That being said, it does look a bit like an Alfa 75 that was forced to eat a whole lemon, had an anaphylactic reaction, and is now regretting its decisions… but I digress.

The story of the SZ doesn’t end there.  Tasked with coming up with clever ways to sell the SZ, the designers over at Alfa Romeo decided the best route would be to shave off the roof and sell it as a spider.  And hence, behold the Alfa Romeo RZ. Unsurprisingly, the RZ sold even worse than the original SZ.  Only 350 units were planned to be built, but only 252 were completed before the Zagato factory producing them went into receivership. An additional 32 were then built bringing total RZ production to a mere 284 units. 

Part of me wishes there was more to report on this car, particularly something to redeem it as a cult classic or something along those lines.  Unfortunately, there really is not much more to the saga of the SZ.  Fiat had to learn the hard way that reviving a car company, specifically one with as much provenance, history, and enthusiasm as Alfa Romeo, is no simple task.  That much is true, but it’s especially true when the car you end up producing is considerably ugly and pales in comparison to its closest rivals in its segment. Thankfully, Alfa Romeo has been on an upward trend ever since the 90s and their brand has come back swinging with the 4C, Stelvio, and Giulia.  Still though… the SZ is emblematic of a very rough patch in Alfa’s lineage.

Oddly enough, I have had the opportunity to drive one of these rarities and—like most cars that we critique online before having the opportunity to drive them—I was surprised at how fun and quirky it was. Looks aside, it really is the quintessential Italian 80s/90s car.  To start, the car performs like a champ on the road, regardless of its flaws. It puts the little power it makes down on the pavement quite nicely, it handles like a modern hot hatch, and it makes one hell of a sound (thanks to that almighty Busso V6, which is perhaps this cars’ saving grace).  Uniqueness, a trait that many car enthusiasts can appreciate, is of no short supply with the SZ.

I can vividly remember the owner telling me, “Remember, this is not a modern car, in order to shift you have to go from first, to neutral, let it have its wine break, to second, back to neutral for the appetizer, to third, back to neutral for the main course, and so on and so forth”.  A funny and succinctly Italian way of explaining that I needed to double-clutch the car, but the man really was not kidding. Instead of banging gears left and right you really had to take your time and let the car settle. The SZ hated when I shifted too fast but rewarded me when I let it sit for a second or two. All in all, I got out after my drive wearing a smile tinged by confusion.  A good—but odd—driving experience nonetheless. 

That being said, the Alfa Romeo SZ probably deserves to be left in the past.  Its flaws are plentiful, it’s a bit of an eyesore, and it’s certainly not going to land you a hot date. Truth be told, the SZ has a face only a mother could love, but hey… it’s certainly one way to add to the legend that is Alfa Romeo.

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