ALFA ROMEO SZ RUSS SMITH ASSISTANT EDITOR
It’s often joked that all classic Alfas are red; with the SZ it’s true, apart from the black one Andrea Zagato had built for himself. The other potential downside – from a UK perspective, at least – is that none were built in right-hand drive. So why am I recommending a red (with grey roof) left-hooker? Because unless you object to either of those factors, the SZ is brilliant in so many ways, and looks unlike anything else.
Time has been kind to its brutal, cubist lines. Rather than a monster (it was dubbed Il Mostro at launch), the Sprint Zagato simply looks dramatic today; a shape you cannot take your eyes off. It looks best from the rear three-quarter view and had this magazine’s design team salivating over the photos. The print-outs even garnered an enthusiastic huddle around the office printer from even those on non-motoring magazines. Nothing looks like an Alfa Romeo SZ, and it’s likely nothing else will in future.
Only 1020 SZs were built, along with about 250 of the convertible RZ model, which even in total makes them rarer than Ferrari F40s. A further addition to their ‘buy now’ collectable status is that from last year the first of them became eligible for personal import to the US under its 25-year rule. Prices quickly jumped by ten per cent, and the best can fetch $100k once over there, so expect some kind of exodus until supply and demand evens out. But such trade can only push prices one way.
Adrian Jardine of SZ specialist Alfa Aid Ltd is the Alfa Club’s SZ registrar, and a great ambassador for the car. It’s his SZ we’re driving today. ‘I’ve owned this one for six months but have had about 15 over the years – I buy one, don’t use it enough, sell it then miss it, and round we go again.
‘Aside from the looks they have such great handling – that’s the car’s unique selling point and is largely down to its 50/50 weight distribution. Its only driving flaw is that it doesn’t stop well for a car with this kind of performance. I usually fit uprated pads to improve bite and reduce fade.
‘They’re generally easy to live with, as long as you buy the right one in the first place. Most have been well looked after but there are a few horror stories out there. Problems can be hidden because there are a variety of composite and glassfibre panels built on to a steel Alfa 75 frame. It’s actually rare to encounter serious rust because most cars have been garaged, but you still need to check areas such as the bulkhead below the windscreen. If it rusts here, water will leak into the fusebox so you must fix it before the electrics go haywire. This is a screen-out job, and the screen will almost certainly break.
‘Also look for bubbles where the alloy roof joins its steel frame, and at the bottom of the C-pillars. Some items like headlamp glasses are getting scarce, but most stuff can still be sourced and we’ve started remanufacturing bonnets and bumpers.’
Anything Zagato is in demand at the moment, and it built the SZ. It’s often wrongly assumed that it designed it too, but those radical lines were actually penned at Fiat Centro Stilo by Robert Opron, best known for that fellow icon of otherness the Citroën SM, with detail work by Antonio Castellana.
But it didn’t hurt to have the famous styling house as part of the car’s name and with its ‘Z’ logo on the sides. It helped justify the premium price Alfa Romeo asked for it back in 1989. And it does so once again – values have risen about 33 per cent in the past two years and, with the US factor, show little sign of let-up.
But the SZ is about a lot more than investment; the driving experience makes this the kind of car you can love owning whichever way its price is going. The power’s not outstanding – this is a cruiser not a bruiser – but there’s more than enough grunt to back up those looks, and it does have that glorious rasping Alfa V6 engine note that I want as a track on my iPod.
The steering is super-smooth, with loads of feedback – why can’t all cars feel as delightful and communicative as this – and a height and reach adjustable wheel deals with any concern about Italian short legs/long arms driving positions. This car feels so easy to drive quickly. It stays poised and confidence-inspiring at speed through damp corners thanks to totally neutral handling and sharp turn-in, and the cabin mixes luxury trim with the seats’ sporting embrace. It’s hard not to love the SZ. And the colour red.
QUENTIN ON THE ALFA SZ
Last September Bonhams sold a delivery-mileage Alfa SZ for only £67,200 and we all thought it was surprisingly reasonable for what was probably the best surviving example of only 1020 SZs ever built. The car was ‘as new’ and had covered a tiny 349km.
Since then interest has galvanised and all SZs are in demand as enthusiasts realise that this is a massively distinctive and underpriced modern. We’ve also taken to those shocking lines and it doesn’t look nearly as ill-tempered as it did in 1989. Alfa needed something sensational to invigorate its ailing brand so gave the SZ – based on the V6 75 floorplan – cubist lines, resin panels, alloy roof and carbon fibre spoiler.
But it went a lot better than it looked and testers pulled 1.4g on corners and reported scary levels of grip. Like any Alfa there are issues – paint micro-blistering, duff electrics, electrolysis with the alloy roof and so on. Pricing is fuzzy at the moment and there are several mid-mileage cars around for £50k, but Joe Macari in London has an ultra-rare RZ convertible version in yellow with 34,000km for £55k.
For the rarest production Alfa ever, that’s strong value. Alfa’s drastic plastic Zagato is finally being seen both as a significant moment in Alfa’s history and one of the bravest car designs ever. With only 682 SZs and 198 RZs known to survive, they’re also really exclusive. They’re well worth coveting.
TECHNICAL DATA 1991 ALFA ROMEO SZ
Engine 2959cc alloy V6, sohc per bank, Bosch ML4.1 Motronic fuel injection
Power 207bhp @ 6200rpm; 181lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual transaxle, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers. Rear: semi-independent by de Dion axle, transverse link, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers
Steering Rack-and-pinion, power-assisted
Brakes Vented discs front and rear, servo-assisted
Weight 1280kg (2819lb)
Performance Top speed: 146mph / 0-60mph: 7.0sec
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Cost new £42,573 (1992 UK)
Values now £14,000-£36,500
‘Alfa’s drastic plastic Zagato is finally being seen as one of the bravest car designs ever’ QUENTIN WILLSON
Limited production, and about threequarters are left. Interior ergonomics are good, in a distinctly un-Alfa way. It may only pack 207bhp but it sounds truly glorious.