Driving the 'Coda Tronca' Alfa Romeo SZ Zagato
If ever proof was needed that lightweight and efficient designs could overcome a lack of power then the beautiful Alfa Romeo SZ Zagato is it
To many people, the golden era of the car world was the 1950s and '60s, 'when sex was safe, and racing dangerous'. The world was shuffling off the post-war poverty and everybody wanted to finally enjoy life. At that time the recipe for success in motorsport, except in the rarified atmosphere of grand prix racing, was fairly simple: a sleek aluminium body formed by hand, an engine full of character, and some sort of suspension working hard to keep all four wheels pressed to the road surface.
It seems unlikely that we can ever go back to that era, but that's all the more reason to soak up the beauty of the red, sensuous sculpture that lies in front, bathed in Italian winter sunshine. It has the fragile appeal of a butterfly. Everything made in Italy looks different; cars, airplanes, cutlery, furniture, everything. During the Second World War even Italian submarines looked better than German U-boats. Italians can design a coffee grinder so attractive that you immediately want to drive it.
A young child could easily wash the roof and polish it, so low it finds itself in relation to the ground: exactly 125cm. This Giulietta SZ Zagato, built in 1961 as part of the second production run, is a baby Gran Turismo. The proportions look familiar to any fan of coupé-bodied Ferraris and Maseratis of the same, but without their suggestion of girth.
The whole Sprint Zagato thing started when Zagato set out to rebody a crashed Giulietta Sprint Veloce (in 1956, on the Mille Miglia, driven by Dore Leto di Priolo), normal practice at the time, and the finished article ended up 120kg lighter than the original car, and noticeably faster. Eighteen cars were built, called SVZ, and proved very competitive.
Subsequently the Alfa Romeo bosses, who at first didn't like it because it could outrun the marque’s own steel-bodied SS, decided to capitalise on this, and ordered Elio Zagato to design a coupé for production at the Zagato factory.
The first generation of the diminutive coupé was presented officially in early 1960, with a stubby, rounded tail (Coda Tonda). Over 200 units were built, and later a new body was developed with a longer tail designed according to the discoveries of Wunibald Kamm. It was heavier, but with a greater top speed due to lower drag.
The Kamm-tail SZ with a panoramic rear window was called Coda Tronca and, typically, the exact number of cars built remains a mystery. The figure is usually quote between 30 and almost 50, but since some of the Series 1 cars were later rebodied, nobody really knows for certain.
The lightweight car was built entirely of aluminium with Plexiglas windows, using the mechanicals of the Sprint Speciale. It weighed in at only 840kg including the spare wheel and a set of tools – compulsory as per the race regulations then. A heavier driver would definitely spoil the fabulous power-to-weight ratio. Standing next to the butterfly-weight Alfa you can't help feeling clumsy and overweight.
The shape of the bonnet is unbelievably voluptuous. The seductively curled lip, which keeps the windshield wipers in its aerodynamic shadow, is, arguably, one of the best instances of shaped metal ever seen on a car. Simply stunning.
Lying beneath it, the engine is the familiar 1290cc Giulietta unit with twin overhead camshafts driven by chains, and an aluminium block and cast iron sleeves, developing around 100bhp and driving the rear wheels via a five-speed gearbox (when most fast cars had a four-speed, and family cars just three).
It has independent suspension in the front, and a live axle in the rear located with two trailing arms and an additional arm connecting the body and the differential housing. This late example is equipped with disc brakes in the front and drums in the rear, and the steering is by recirculating ball. And that's about it, as there is absolutely nothing on this car that is not dictated by the rules or by the necessity of making it go faster.
So how does it go? Like stink. Really. The SZ slices through the air. Decisively. The little red beast can reach almost 125mph, but it's more exciting to know how it gets there.
As you can imagine, it's pretty snug getting into the cockpit. The first thing you notice is the view in the dainty rearview mirror: the convex rear window distorts everything to a ridiculous degree. It’s like being heavily intoxicated – and I love it. It shows a complete disdain for anyone the Zagato rocket has left behind.
The engine has been pre-warmed by a Museo Alfa Romeo mechanic, and it starts easily with a metallic twang. It reacts instantly to every twitch of the right foot, with the twin Webers perfectly in tune. Easing the pressure on the clutch to move off, you note the lack of grunt low down but a lot of smoothness and tractability compensating for it.
Once on the move, the steering lightens and starts to load up nicely in turns. The engine loves to rev, but the gearchanges in the five-speed cannot be rushed: a heart-wrenching crunch is the result. You’ll need to guide the thin lever with more patience.
The narrow 155R13 Pirelli Cinturato tyres bite bravely into the tarmac and the red Zagato can be easily balanced in a neutral cornering attitude. It’s easy to see how one could drive a car like this to a race meeting, win it, and drive home without breaking a sweat. It's not the speed per se, it is the light-footed precision it shares with a hungry butterfly. It's as if the ugly face of inertia was suddenly banned by an order of the house of Zagato.
Above 4000 revs the Alfa twin-cam starts to sound different, clarion-like, and pulls smoothly all the way to around 6500rpm. The acceleration is never violent or scary, of course, with that little 1.3, but it is enchantingly progressive, and it feels stable right up to 160kph. You can easily imagine yourself piloting this aluminium projectile on twisty and slippery Sicilian routes.
SZ cars of the two production series contested over 160 races in its original racing career, including performing at Monza, Targa Florio, Innsbruck, Nürburgring, Oakes Field, Tour de France, Solitude, Trier, Vallelunga and Norisring, finishing on the podium 35 times. It was a good competition weapon with a lot of everyday civility thrown in and also extremely reliable for the period.
It’s easy to fall in love with this car. Compared to German sports cars of the era the Giulietta SZ is refined, sophisticated and elegant. There is no brutality here at all, only speed and lightness. Like in a butterfly. The golden age rules? You bet.
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