Interest around the Alfa Romeo SZ and its ragtop sister RZ has been steadily increasing over the last few years, with asking prices for the finest examples edging into six figures territory at the time of writing.
Being coachbuilt Alfa Romeos built in limited numbers, the SZ and RZ were inevitably bound to be collectible, so it's perhaps difficult to imagine now that hardly anyone wanted these cars when they were new. This is the story of the Alfa Romeo SZ, perhaps better known as "il Mostro."
Marking a new era
Our story begins in the immediate aftermath of Fiat's takeover of Alfa Romeo, which ceased to exist as an independent corporate entity on the 31st of December 1986.
During its turbulent last few years as an independent automaker, Alfa Romeo had too often been in the news for the wrong reasons. So in February of 1987, the CEO of Fiat Auto, Vittorio Ghidella, instigated the development of a new two-seat sports coupè to mark the beginning of a new era for Alfa Romeo.
A bold design
Designing a two-seat sports coupè for Alfa Romeo is arguably every designer's wet dream. Still, Walter de Silva and his team at Alfa's Centro Stile weren't left free rein, as the same brief was also given to a Fiat Advanced Design team in Turin that included Robert Opron, formerly head of design first at Citroen and then at Renault.
Full-scale models of the two competing proposals were presented to Ghidella in July of 1987, and the one developed in Turin ultimately got the nod.
Ghidella had demanded a design with a "strong emotional impact," and the concept from Opron and Antonio Castellana certainly fulfilled the requirement, albeit perhaps not always in a positive sense.
As elegant and subtle as a punch in the face, the blocky, brutal wedge shape of what was then known as the ES 30 was shortly after handed over to Zagato to complete its development for production, which was to take place at the Milanese company's workshops.
The ES 30 prototype broke cover at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show, and the car went on sale as the Alfa Romeo SZ a few months later: it had taken less than two years to go from the initial sketch to the showroom floor.
While the SZ's design very much broke with any established aesthetic convention, the model's remarkably short development time meant that the underpinnings of Alfa's new sports coupé remained resolutely old-school.
Old and new
Alfa Corse's engineers drew from their experience with the Alfa 75 Turbo IMSA to prepare the sophisticated rear-drive transaxle architecture that debuted back in 1972 with the Alfetta for one last glorious encore before leaving the stage forever.
The torsion bars that characterized the Alfa 75 front suspensions were abandoned in favor of compact coaxial coil spring-shock absorber assemblies, also adopted at the rear in place of the separate spring and shock absorber elements used on the production Alfa 75.
To better clear curbs and parking ramps, the SZ and RZ were equipped with an electro-hydraulic system that lifted the car's ride height by a maximum of 40 mm, actuated via a switch on the center console.
Wheels and tires were substantially upgraded compared to the 75 V6, with a staggered setup of 16" split-rim OZ Racing alloys 7" wide at the front and 8" at the rear. The brakes were derived from the Alfa 75 Turbo Evoluzione, and there was no ABS or traction control.
The result was a car whose handling and roadholding characteristics have led many journalists and owners to wish the SZ had been given more power, as the chassis could easily have handled it.
Under the hood
The three-liters V6 engine used on the SZ is a close relative of the unit used on the late Alfa 75 V6s, known by the nickname "Potenziate," which is the Italian for "more powerful."
Compared to earlier iterations of the "Busso" V6, the adoption of a more modern Bosch Motronic 4.1 system in place of the older L-Jetronic simplified the hardware and allowed more precise engine management.
The version used on the SZ and RZ had a different injection map and new pistons for a higher compression ratio, resulting in 207 HP at 6200 Rpm versus 190 at 6000 Rpm for the 75.
The SZ broke new ground for Alfa Romeo in body construction, with thermoplastic injection molded composite body panels applied to the underlying steel monocoque, built from an Alfa 75 floorpan modified in the rear due to the SZ's much shorter rear overhang.
However, using composite materials didn't transform the SZ into a featherweight: in fact, the finished car weighed nearly as much as the Alfa 75 V6 it was based upon, and the SZ's superior top speed was primarily due to its lower drag coefficient.
Available exclusively in "Rosso Alfa" with a tan leather interior, the SZ was manufactured by Zagato in its atelier of Terrazzano di Rho, a stone's throw away from the Alfa Romeo factory in Arese, where all the running gear was produced. The list price in Italy was a whopping 93 Million lire, roughly equivalent to 90.000 Euros today and enough to buy two Alfa 75 V6s or a Porsche 911 Carrera.
Yet, despite looks only a mother could love and panel gaps you could walk through, what ultimately doomed the SZ was, for the most part, plain old poor timing.
Envisioned amidst a collector car boom, the SZ was launched right on the verge of an economic recession that saw demand for classic and exotic cars collapse, meaning Alfa Romeo soon found itself sitting on unsold SZs, despite a production run of just 1000 cars.
In an attempt to "move" the unsold stock, Alfa Romeo organized a one-make racing series for SZ owners in 1993. Thirteen cars were converted into race cars, and some have been cropping up for sale in recent auctions and events.
The convertible version of the SZ, called RZ (for Roadster Zagato), was produced between 1992 and 1994.
Although they look almost identical, all body panels were different save for the front wings and boot lid. The RZ had a revised bumper and door sills, and the bonnet no longer featured the ridges seen on the SZ.
RZ buyers could choose between three paint colors, black, yellow, and red. Yellow and red cars got a black leather interior while black ones came with a rather lovely burgundy interior.
However, chopping the roof arguably did nothing for the car's looks, and the RZ's intended production run was never completed. Unsold roadsters and coupès could reportedly still be purchased at a discount until as late as 1995.
What's even sadder is that the cold market reception received by the SZ spooked Fiat's management into canceling the planned limited production run of 1500 copies of the widely acclaimed 164 Protéo, presented at the 1991 Geneva Motor Show.
However, it seems the time has finally come for these quirky, distinctive Alfa Romeos, as a new generation of enthusiasts embraces their idiosyncratic style and thoroughbred underpinnings.