Ugly Beautiful Touring’s Alfa Romeo Praho show car previewed an alternative future for the marque; we take it for a drive to realise and analyse its vision. It’s not the prettiest Alfa, but this Touring-bodied Praho show car provided an alternative vision of the marque’s future in 1960 as a maker of aloof, sedate coupés. Words Rob Scorah. Photography Adam Shorrock.
UGLY BEAUTIFUL There’s more to this Alfa Romeo Praho than a Maserati-aping profile
You’d think it would be the Germans, but somehow it’s the Italian designers who manage to create the most severe beauties of the automotive world; cars with an absolutely no-frills poise that suggests a haughty disdain for anything even vaguely showy. This car, the Alfa Romeo Praho, designed by Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni while at Touring, has just such an austere elegance.
You know what ‘austere elegance’ means..? Well, it means you can’t quite decide if it’s actually just a little ugly, but there’s something in the lines and form that stirs you on a quite visceral level, while, paradoxically, creating a strange calming balance.
‘The Praho has almost a pointed stubbornness to be “nothing but” a calm, swift tourer’
The car as a whole is more than a little reminiscent of the also-Touring Lancia Flaminia GT. The side-on view is probably one of the Praho’s best aspects. Look at that straight-through line, nose to tail, the slightest bow in its passage over the car. Some might have been tempted to add a little sensuality with the hint of a Coke-bottle kink behind the door, but not Anderloni in the Praho. There’s no indulgence, except perhaps the angular detailing – somehow easily missed on first look – in how the wings rise, their contours spreading out to form the headlight pods, or how the bonnet is sunken.
But that front end. Hmmm; that could split opinions somewhat, I think. There’s something about Alfa front ends as they get wider, the aesthetic that looks so sharp on their smaller cars started to go a bit... well... wrong. Odd; BMW manages to make its signature kidneys look right on all sorts of widths and angled noses through the decades. Looking at the rather smiley but angular Praho face, I’mtempted to say ‘echoes of Ford Edsel’ – there is something ever so slightly American about it. But that is really too harsh; I’m still going with ‘sober elegance’.
‘Anderloni’s design for the Praho was inspired by boats he had seen in Thailand’
‘The feeling you get from seeing the car from the outside is completely different from being in it,’ observes Corrado Lopresto, the Italian collector and former architect who has owned the Praho since 2005. He admits it was love at first sight when he encountered the car at an event organised by Touring at Bassano in 1988. He notes how airy the glasshouse cabin looks and feels with its thinnest of steel roof supports. He points out one of the car’s signature features – the huge convex rear window, which carries more than a hint of Mercedes-Benz Pagoda SL W113. ‘Anderloni’s design was inspired by boats he had seen in Thailand,’ Lopresto explains. ‘The shape of that window comes from the rear of the boats.’ He adds that that the same window profile can also be found in Anderloni’s design of the 1961 Touring-bodied OSCA 1600 GT. With his predilection for Italian rarities, Lopresto owns that car too.
Glancing between that window and the controls in front of, or more correctly, around me, I certainly feel I’m in a very different space from an average, even up-market average, end-of-decade Fifties coupé. Because of the lack of a conventional dashboard, the steering column itself becomes a feature. It and the tall gear stick rush at you, as if the car is thrusting the controls into your grasp; drive me. The instruments sit in a tall binnacle to the driver’s right. This big cowled display, with its over-sized clocks and squared-off silver levers below, has a nautical vibe, but I’m feeling Riva speedboat rather than old-world canoe. Of course, the Praho was a one-off, but in production would have been aimed at the kind of people who owned the speedboat too.
More than from other cars of this period, I’m channelling a very strong and specific lifestyle vibe, an expectation of a particular way of travelling; airy, relaxed, insouciant. Actually, I’m feeling slightly awkward too – you can’t get these ‘show car’ seats to contort to where you want them to be – or more accurately, where you want your back to be. But I’m going to ignore that minor inconvenience because of the strange charm the Praho is already beginning to impart.
However, as I start the motor – the ignition is down to the driver’s right on the centre binnacle – the engine note slightly halts my reverie. It’s immediately Alfa and very much a four-cylinder; brusque, with barking carburettors, brittle separated tones and a quick answer to the throttle. It immediately makes me think of tight turns and quick gear changes. But it is perhaps the signature sound of a smaller car. I think I’ve been intoxicated by the Praho’s lines, and, fleetingly, thoughts of the Maserati 3000GT or Ferrari 250GT Pinin Farina have also flashed through my head. Was I subconsciously expecting a multi-cylinder sonority?
Still, it’s a great sound, a classic sound, and a good one to savour as I pull the Praho out onto the road. I’m just realising that these pedals are floor-mounted, though they still manage to have that near perfect spacing and feel that most Alfas have. You can dance and work them beautifully with light gestures, your right foot easily balancing both throttle and brake. And the gears, the shift hard by my knee, snick though smoothly over the light clutch. A down-change to pick up the pace is a second’s work. That said, they aren’t keen to be taken too quickly, and the whole draivetrain feels happier if you take a slight beat – and change up sooner rather than pushing towards the tacho’s red line.
The steering feels better worked in a more easy-going manner. The big wheel is right in my lap in that old-school Italian way – of course, I can’t shift the backrest – and it feels a little too languid to go hard charging into tight turns on those tall, thin tyres. Nor am I feeling a huge surge of power to go bursting out the other side. But oddly – considering my previous if brief thoughts of the Ferrari 250GT – none of this really bothers me. The car quickly lets me know how best it feels on the road. I think I’d mixed up the messages – my feet feel like they’re driving an Alfa Giulia, but my hands maybe a Fifties saloon. My head – and heart – very quickly realised that in its heart, this car is definitely a relaxed and measured GT. The Praho resonates far more with a relaxed but swift ‘long straight, fast sweeper’ style – measured movements, no surprises. In that capacity, it is very assured. I find myself using small light movements, to which the car responds – within its own chosen parameters – quite promptly.
It’s the kind of car where I want to see mountains in the distance through all that big glass – destinations far away. It’s definitely a car I would drive to Milan or Paris Fashion Week; I feel I should don a double-breasted grey linen suit just to sit in it. It’s probably that aloofness again; and this interior.
When I open that long angular door, I know that someone was definitely thinking upmarket – the doors cavities are lined in so much bright metal. And that whole colour scheme; the deep rich tan and the sand against the darkest green of the body carries a sober but profound sensuality. It has a very patrician feel. Sliding onto the driver’s seat is almost like slinking into a Gucci boutique... okay, that’s not so patrician. And just look at those chrome-plated bosses – medallions almost – in the seat backs. What makes it better still is that this is the original ‘show car’ hide. Lopresto was very keen to keep the rest of the car as original as possible. While the leather allowed that, the carpets were a different matter. ‘I didn’t want rubber mats, though those would have been much cheaper and easier,’ he recounts. ‘I wanted the car to be as it was originally built.’
Eventually they found a workshop in Brianza near Milan that could undertake the task, though work on the car was going on right up until the night before it left for the Villa d’Este Concours. By this time, Lopresto had also had the Praho repainted in its original darkest green, replacing the dark silver-grey scheme it had worn for the previous four decades. ‘We found some of the original colour tucked away in crevices to guide us,’ he recalls. Green suits it better. Silver or grey – especially with that cursive Touring ‘Superleggera’ script on the bonnet edge – feels slightly Aston Martin. And it feels a Sixties colour.
But was the Praho a Sixties car? True, it was presented at the 1960 Turin Motor Show… But it was built on Alfa’s 2000 chassis, a platform whose underpinnings were themselves carried over from the 1900 saloon of 1950. Touring had already built several cars on that basis; the 2000 Berlina and the much more seductive 2000 Spider – both from 1957. Even so, in 1960, Alfa’s hard top coupé in the upper-mid-market slot, the 2000 Sprint, was a Bertone design. That coachbuilder had also provided the design for the 1954 1.3-litre Giulietta Sprint, the final shape penned by Franco Scaglione.
The diminutive Giulietta had really put Alfa on the map as a wider-market but still quality car-maker. The 2000 Sprint coupé had been worked up by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro who had refreshed the Giulietta design in 1958. If you were to to look at the 2000 Sprint and the Praho side by side, the Bertone car, with its more integrated front grille design and aerodynamic rounded rear, would certainly seem the more forward-looking Sixties machine.
Sitting in the Praho, I’m not sure what decade I’m feeling. Actually, I think I’m back with the speedboats again – that slightly aero-cum-nautical vibe. But I’m also wondering how it would have fared if it had gone into production. The ultra cool and aloof coupés often have a hard time of it later in life. The Maserati 3000, Lamborghini 400GT and, later, the Ferrari’s 400, Lancia Gamma Coupé and even BMW’s 850i E31. Shall we throw in the Rolls-Royce Camargue? They were perhaps seen as the connoisseurs’ choice, but once those rarefied tastes had finished with them, they lost out heavily on the second-hand market to the more visceral roadburners. Perhaps the BMW M635CSi E24 only just made it out of that group. It’s only years later that people suddenly look around for a good ’un and cry out, ‘what have we lost?’
The Praho was spared that fate.
‘After the  show, it stayed with Touring,’ recounts classic car consultant Simon Kidston, who has come across the car several times in his career. ‘It was used by Anderloni on special occasions, though still not actually road-registered. After the firm closed it was sold to the Alfa main agent [Minetti] in Milan.’ That same year, 1966, the Praho acquired its silver-grey paint. The Alfa stayed in Italy until 2002, but was then sold to an English collector living in Hong Kong. Even so, it had become firmly fixed in Lopresto’s consciousness. Not only had he seen the car at Touring’s event, but he had also personally known ‘Cici’ Anderloni, both as a great engineer and a Villa d’Este judge. Acting as an intermediary, Kidston was able to broker a deal and the Praho once again came back to its home country.
‘It is a very special car to me,’ says Lopresto. Even in his collection of significant one-offs, it remains one of his favourites. Returning the car back to the collection after a drive, to sit amongst those significant others, I can see his point. For some reason beyond its abilities, and its almost pointed stubbornness to be ‘nothing but’ a calm, swift tourer, there is huge desirability. And every time I look back at the car, I notice something new – this time the slightly elongated tail and those weighty rear lights. There is a heavily suppressed glamour in there too.
The Praho’s era was already waning as it was pushed onto the show stand in 1960. Perhaps with the 2.6-litre that the 2000 Sprint would inherit, things might have been different, but there was a whole new aesthetic flowing into the automotive world, not to mention new ways of working and building cars. Many of the carrozzerias themselves would soon be gone. From our longer perspective, none of that matters; the Praho’s class and beauty are timeless.
Steering column and central pod inspired by nautical design. Plenty of character, but was the Alfa four-cylinder motor the right choice? Alfa badging is curiously sparse for a show car; only the Carrozzeria Touring wings adorn the bootlid. The lack of a swooping beltline gives the Praho both an elegant and purposeful demeanor.