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Alfa Romeo SZ

Published: 21st Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Check the roof cover as it is a known rot spot and awkward to contain. Windscreen surround is another weak spot Check the roof cover as it is a known rot spot and awkward to contain. Windscreen surround is another weak spot
Square-eyed headlamps are becoming very hard to source so check them well Square-eyed headlamps are becoming very hard to source so check them well
Very odd cockpit presses the right buttons Very odd cockpit presses the right buttons
Cracking V6 isn’t that fast… Cracking V6 isn’t that fast…
Base for the striking looking SZ was the trusty 75 V6 but with avery special chassis rework Base for the striking looking SZ was the trusty 75 V6 but with avery special chassis rework
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What is an Alfa Romeo SZ

Walter De Silva, ex-Head of Alfa Romeo Centro Stile Alfa Romeo’s in-house design team says he was not responsible for the Alfa SZ. That an Alfa Romeo man should distance himself from an Alfa, any Alfa, is very unusual. But Walter is a hedonist, who surrounds himself with beautiful things; Walter probably never thought that the SZ was a pretty thing. A few people may well agree with him. His team came up with a design for a two-seater coupe, which, according to the briefing, had to look ‘special’; and so did a second team, headed by Mario Maioli, overall in charge of Alfa, Lancia and Fiat. It was 1987. De Silva’s team used pencils, paper and clay; Maioli’s used a new CAD/CAM technology, where the drawings and all the relevant information were fed into a computer connected to a milling machine, which then reproduced the ideas into a three-dimensional job. Maybe that’s why the SZ looks the way it does. Looks, they say are in the eye of the beholder and whatever your views are on the SZ there’s no denying it’s
not a superb driver’s car and a sure-fore modern classic.

History

Italians like to take their time for most things; even their ragú (meat sauce) takes three hours to cook. But the Alfa SZ went from being a blink in the designer’s eye to fullsize model in seven months. After that, Zagato (yes, the famous coachbuilder from Milano) got the order, and the car has been known as a Zagato ever since. It only took nineteen months from conception to birth.

Alfa Romeo wanted specific materials to be used for this car: light, moulded resin glassfibre composite for the main body of the car, carbon-fibre for the spoiler, aluminium for the roof panel. The mechanical parts were to come from the existing Alfa Romeo 75, and much was asked of the racing engineers who had created the 75 Evoluzione, a saloon with chillies in its pants. The choice for the engine was easy: a slightly modified version of the Alfa V6, already performing well in the 164 and 75, longitudinal (obviously) front position, driving the back wheels through a rearmounted five-speed transaxle. So, this car had the legs of a racing Alfa 75, a Zagato steel bodyshell, a champion’s V6 heart, and moulded resin panels. No wonder that the Italian press called it the ‘Mostro’, the ‘Monster’, probably referring to the Frankeinsteinesque philosophy which underpins the SZ’s entire ‘raison d’être’. The result of glueing the composite bodyshell to the steel inner structure, and reinforcing some areas like the load-bearing suspension points is immense stiffness, and a 20 per cent more torsional rigidity than a standard steel monocoque. Love it or hate it, nobody can ever be indifferent to the Alfa SZ.

It was just the same when the car was shown in Geneva for the first time in 1989. Though Alfa Romeo was quick in signing the car off, and presenting the running prototype in record time, it then took forever for the production cars to find their rightful owners. Alfa Romeo declared that the SZ would be made in limited numbers, to preserve its uniqueness, and no right-hand drives were ever made. Only a handful (100) were scheduled to come to this market but some 200 now exist in the UK. A true sports car, and a future classic, but the car was quietly dropped in 1993.

Driving

You always know when you’ve been ‘Zagatoed’. From a distance you wonder what on hearth the SZ is. You get closer, and realise that this beast virtually rests on the ground, to help with aerodynamics (in fact, the SZ has a coefficient of drag of a very respectable 0.3, amazing for a car which looks like a bar of WW2 soap on wheels). It is possible to raise the ride height, of course, but as an Alfa virgin you don’t know that, and just laugh at the idea of your missus taking it to the shopping centre with all those lovely bumps and rough surfaces. Your missus laughs at you for even conceiving the idea of owning such a strange car. She likes the Audi TT…

Anyway, you look around you to make sure that the owner is not around, and tap on the body, here and there. The sound it makes is a bit strange, hollow, and it feels like a toy, light and ‘plasticky’. Don’t be fooled into believing that this is a DIY car. Pirelli didn’t just make sexy calendars and it just so happens that it provided the Alfa SZ with some magical, asymmetrically treaded (now hard and pricey to obtain) P Zero tyres; Pirelli also gave advice about fine-tuning that fantastic chassis too that can pull 1.4g through the bends.

Alfa Racing cooked all the ingredients and delivered two working prototype chassis: the most extreme and uncompromising was chosen. After all, Alfa Romeo’s briefing did talk about a truly special car.

You peer in, and notice that there are only two seats, with a great big space at the back, though only for luggage. The cabin wonderfully is minimalistic, the seats in black leather. You actually wonder what it may be like to drive, and walk round it, to the back, where you find a badge that says only two letters: S.Z. Sport Zagato.By now you have feelings for this car, and you haven’t even tested it.

Fifteen years ago, the Alfa SZ’s rear wheel chassis was a truly spectacular achievement. At launch, some of the UK press felt that the SZ had the best chassis behaviour among the Alfa’s contemporaries, like the BMW 535i SE, Ford Sierra Cosworth S500, Honda NSX and the Lotus Esprit Turbo SE; the Spartan interior added to the feeling of ‘neo-racer’, a term coined by Alfa Romeo itself. Sitting so close to the driving rear wheels adds to the experience of being at one with the machine, and the ride is harsh, with a suspension travel shorter than Richard Hammond. The brakes, ABS-free as yet another sign of a pure racer, lack of feel and are not too impressing and something which could be said of most Alfa Romeos’ brakes, even more modern models. It’s a good thing that the SZ is so great in many departments because the one area where it disappoints, sadly, is outright performance. Sure, the engine sounds as wonderful as any Alfa but in straight 210bhp terms it’s not that quick. That said with 60 coming up in around seven and a bit seconds, it’s hardly a slouch either.

Prices

As there are only some 200 in the UK, prices are hard to pin down. When new the SZ carried a rather lofty £35,000 price tag. None are worth that these days; the best price you will pay is around £23-25,000 for a mint car and perhaps ten grand less for an average example, of which most are. In terms of their future values it’s a car that will surely rise over the next few year.

What To Look For

  • The Alfa Romeo SZ is mostly made of plastic (though a very special kind of it, called ‘Modar’), so what you need to look for is….rust. No, we’re not kidding. Check the roof cover. Underneath it, on top of the rear fender, there is a gasket whose destiny seems to be continuously fighting with water which cannot drain away (no, not another design fault!). Water pools under the gasket and gets in touch with the rabbet below. A neat engine, aerodynamic body, great chassis, advanced racing behaviour, and one bloody little rabbet which can rust away in two years.
  • Check the join where the alloy roof mates to the steel bodywork; electrolytic rusting is known at this point.
  • Body panels were discontinued years ago so you either need to make do and mend or rely upon the after market where certain pattern panels are available. Don’t dismiss cracked headlights. Those cute little square-shaped items aren’t made anymore…
  • Watch out for micro blistered paintwork. This is very common on the SZ and if you can’t find any then it means that the car has probably been resprayed. If bad, budget on a £3000 repaint.
  • It must be an Italian car, the Kevlar panels on the dashboard are not really carbon-fibre, just Fablon with a plastic coating. The trim is unique to the SZ and hardly the most durable so inspect it well. Also the carbon-fibre rear wing is prone to delaminating.
  • It must be an Italian car take two. The electrics are typical Alfa, which means it can be tetchy to say the least. Check that all the systems work and this includes the variable ride height, which is known to fail.
  • Still on the suspension, knocks and rattles from the rear shock absorbers are common and because these special Koni units are no longer made, they need to be overhauled. Another area for rattles when worn is the De Dion axle tube.
  • An SZ is a collector’s car, as so few were made. It really pays to have one with full service history (from a dealer or Alfa specialist), chassis number easily readable, immaculate body panels with that vibrant hue of Alfa Red (130) which suits the car.
  • Leading SZ expert Jamie Porter, based in Royston in Hertfordshire, reckons it’s a fantastic machine that he uses on the road and track – and much more a driver’s car than the Lancia Integrale. Praise indeed! However even though the car is such a rare beast in the UK he says that a good number (20 per cent or so) are very poorly maintained so be careful what you are buying.
  • Although the Alfa’s V6 engine can be chipped for more power (along with a special higher performance exhaust) Porter says do the brakes first and suggests fitting Ferodo D25 pads for fast road use.

Verdict

So, let us see: you can’t have one in green, (the only colour for an Alfa SZ is red, unless you are Dottor Andrea Zagato, in which case a special, unique one will have been built for you: all black). You can’t have one in right-hand-drive guise (though there is a RHD SZ, with a 3.5 engine instead of the original 3.0 V6, lurking about, somewhere in South Africa, the only conversion thanks to Autodelta UK). You can’t grow to love those looks (when was it the last time you saw one on the road?) and you can’t convince the missus that the Audi TT sucks. The verdict? Ditch the missus.



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