The Audacious Sprint Zagato
If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably know that one of my favorite Alfa Romeo models is also one of the less celebrated: the Junior Zagato. Here's the story of these innovative little coupés...
By the late 1960s, Alfa Romeo had successfully established itself as a small yet profitable specialist manufacturer, the pride of Italy's vast landscape of state-owned companies. With a healthy balance sheet and a burgeoning Italian economy, it was the perfect time for niche projects like a stylish two-seater coupé aimed at younger buyers: a somewhat sportier and more dashing alternative to the established Giulia GTs.
Given the low production volume envisioned for such a unique product, the new Alfa coupès had to use an existing platform and running gear, thus relying mainly on weight reduction and efficient aerodynamics to provide higher performance. Back then, this meant going to Zagato, as light and slippery bodies were the Milanese coachbuilder's specialty.
The chosen base platform was that of the existing Spider, due to its shorter wheelbase (2250 mm) than all the other Giulia variants. Zagato's designer Ercole Spada then drew an uncompromising wedge shape with a pointy front end and a stubby, sharply cut-off tail section.
In order to reduce the car's front cross-section to a minimum, Spada designed the Junior Zagato's front end to wrap as tightly as possible around the underlying mechanical components. The Junior Zagato's wiper mounts were concealed to further improve aerodynamics, anticipating future design tendencies.
But one of my favorite details is the front-end treatment, with the four headlights under a plexiglass cover and the traditional Alfa Romeo "shield" that's merely suggested through some brightwork. To this day, it remains one of the most original ways this iconic styling element has ever been treated, and I love it.
Ercole Spada worked on the proportions to give the car a sense of dynamism even when standing still, with a relatively long, dart-like front and a short rear overhang. However, this necessitated a modification of the existing floorpan and a new fuel tank design, as the shorter tail no longer left space for it. Few people know it, but the 1300cc Junior Zagato actually uses the same fuel tank as the Montreal for this reason.
The Junior Zagato was presented in October 1969 at the Turin Motor Show and went on sale shortly after at a rather steep 2.3 Million Italian Lire, when the regular GT Junior, equipped with the very same running gear and a four-seat cabin, retailed for around 1.6 Million.
Such price was mainly due to the Junior Zagato's convoluted production process: the Spider floorpan came from the Pininfarina factory near Turin, where the Spiders' bodies were made, then went to another Turinese company, Maggiora, to be modified and built into a Junior Zagato bodyshell. These bodies then were trucked to Zagato's workshop near Milan to be painted and outfitted with interior and accessories. Once that phase was completed, the Junior Zagato bodies were again trucked to Alfa Romeo's Arese production site, where the engine and running gear were finally installed. Such hilariously inefficient arrangements weren't uncommon in the Italian automobile industry back in the day: Alfa Romeo didn't consider it worthwhile to tool up for making so few Junior Zagatos each year, so it didn't.
Production of the Junior Zagato equipped with the 1.3 liters engine ended in 1972 after a mere 1108 copies were produced, but that wasn't the end for this model, which was relaunched with a 1.6 liters engine the same year.
These later Zagatos are easily recognizable by their longer rear end equipped with tail lights from the 2000 saloon. The longer overhang kind of spoiled Ercole Spada's perfectly judged proportions but allowed to use the Spider's floor pan and fuel tank without modifications, thus reducing production costs. But by then, times had changed, with the 1973 oil crisis crippling sales of sports cars across the board. Consequently, the updated Junior Zagato's production ended in 1975 with just 402 examples made.
It may not have set the world alight when new, but the Junior Zagato nevertheless is one of Ercole Spada's most remarkable designs, at least in my view. Viewed side by side with the classic Bertone GT, it's hard to imagine these two models were sold alongside one another, as the Zagato looks ten or more years newer. I consider it a powerful reminder that design should look ahead rather than backward, as it's all too often the case lately.