The Stunning Alfa Romeo Protéo
The history of Alfa Romeo is full of missed opportunities. Cars that, for one reason or another, never got their chance to shine beyond the lights of a motor show. In this case, the 1991 Geneva motor show. This is the story of the Alfa Romeo Protéo.
The name derives from the adjective "protean." Rooted in ancient Greek mythology, it expresses versatility, the ability to change quickly and easily, much like the Protéo, whose party piece was a folding glass roof that disappeared into the trunk at the touch of a button.
Work on a sports car based on a shortened 164 floorpan started in late 1989 at Alfa Romeo's Centro Stile, then directed by Walter DeSilva and still located in the old "Portello" factory premises.
Exterior designer Alberto Bertelli initially went for a more traditional wedge-shaped coupé with pop-up headlights, but that was later discarded for this folding-hardtop model. It was still very much a wedge but with a somewhat softer and more modern design language.
Although onlookers at the 1991 Geneva show couldn't yet know, it's now evident to our eyes that the Protéo's final design, especially the front end, was influenced by Enrico Fumia's "916" GTV and Spider, which were in development in the same period and would be launched in 1994.
The construction of the Protéo was contracted out to the Turinese company Stola. Initially, the Protéo was to be a simple, non-running showpiece but, once Fiat's top brasses saw the folding hardtop in action, they decided to go all the way and make the Protéo a fully-operational automobile, and quite an advanced one at that.
A laboratory on wheels
Based on a shortened and reinforced 164 floorpan, but with exterior panels made of carbon fiber, the Protéo was equipped with a prototype version of the upcoming 3.0-liter quad-cam 24-valve "Busso" V6 coupled with a 5-speed manual transmission. It produced a healthy 260 HP and could propel the Protéo up to a claimed 250 km/h. The permanent four-wheel-drive system, which wasn't yet called "Q4," but "Viscomatic," used a Ferguson viscous coupling to split the torque between the two axles depending on driving conditions.
On top of that, the Protéo featured four-wheel-steering: the steering input was mechanically transferred to the rear steering box, which could turn the rear wheels up to 5° in either direction. The rear wheels steered in phase with the front ones while driving at speed for greater stability, but in town, it improved maneuverability by turning in the opposite direction to the front wheels.
The amount of sunlight passing through the retractable hardtop's glass could be adjusted, thanks to an intermediate layer in which an electrochemical reaction could reduce its transparency. Made in collaboration with PPG and Fiat's research center, it completed a technical package decidedly few manufacturers could match.
Presented in a stunning dark metallescent red paintwork, the Protéo stole the show at Geneva, and Alfa Romeo's detailed press kit, rich in technical information that was unusual for a show car, led many to speculate that the story wasn't going to end there.
They weren't wrong.
A limited run of 1000 cars destined to enthusiasts and collectors was indeed being considered, and Fiat ordered Stola to build three more cars to use as development mules. However, that order was canceled soon after, leaving the one and only Protéo made to become an exhibit at Alfa Romeo's Museum in Arese, near Milan, where I filmed this footage.
Unfortunately, the poor sales performance of the SZ was partly to blame. These striking Zagato coupés are beloved classics now, but back then, Alfa dealers had a hard time getting rid of them because of their divisive look and the worsening economic climate of the early '90s. Add to that the less-than-ideal financial situation of Fiat Group as a whole, and it's easy to see why the Protéo was consigned to the museum.
A colorful legacy
Although the Protéo never made production, its drivetrain did, except for the four-whee-steering system, that is. Moreover, the concept car's elegant dark metallic red became a staple of Alfa Romeo's color chart throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
And if you've ever wondered why that color was called Rosso Protéo, now you know.