Alfa Romeo SZ | The Brave Pill

The maddest Alfa is starting to look like a rational choice

By Mike Duff / Saturday, June 26, 2021 / Loading comments

These days it feels as if there is a superabundance of car models, but that many of them are effectively interchangeable. If you feel the need to prove this then consider a fun family game of ‘MQB SUV?’ The rules are simple: print out pictures of all VW Group’s plethora of soft-roaders, from Arona to T-Roc. Then black out all visible branding and try to identify them all. Spoiler: it’s impossible.

But in the increasingly exotic and far-off land that was the late 1980s, the opposite situation applied. Car companies didn’t offer many choices, but an impressively high percentage of these were compellingly strange oddballs. None more so than the gloriously bonkers Alfa Romeo SZ.

Alfa had just four cars in its line-up in 1988. The newly launched 164 range-topper was still fresh enough to be receiving critical love, but beneath it the clan was looking both aged and off the pace. The 33 hatchback’s combination of boxer engines and part-time electrics was keeping mechanics in overtime and mildly racist comedians in material, the angular 75’s handsome looks couldn’t hide the fact it was largely based on the 1977 vintage Giulietta – and the Spider roadster was well into its third age, a much-facelifted version of a car that had been launched as long ago as 1966.

So how did Alfa choose to broaden its portfolio and boost its fortunes? By launching an angular, part-plastic sports car priced in close proximity to a contemporary Porsche 911, of course.

Beyond the sensible decision to build it around the 75’s rear-driven powertrain, pretty much everything else about the SZ project was deeply eccentric. The name was the first misnomer, this referring to the very stylish 1959 Giulietta Sprint Zagato. Embarrassingly for Zagato, the famous carrozzeria’s design for the new car had been rejected at an early stage with Alfa choosing the proposal from its own studio instead. Zagato’s role was therefore limited to building what was meant to be a run of 1,000 cars, but which actually ended up being 1,036.

The SZ was a total bitzer. Underneath it sat on a steel backbone chassis derived from the one which underpinned the Group A 75 touring car – this giving it an identical wheelbase to the standard 75. Power came from a slightly retuned 3.0-litre 12-valve version of the long-lived ‘Busso’ V6, this sending its relatively modest peak of 207hp to the back axle through a rear-mounted five-speed transaxle.

The SZ’s controversial bodywork has been splitting opinion to the extent of triggering multi-generational blood feuds since it was first seen. But while its lumpy lines and sizeable panel gaps have been apocryphally blamed on both the limitations of early Computer Aided Design and construction from injected moulding thermoplastic, the truth is that the brutish looks were exactly how the styling team wanted it to be. More surprising is the fact the composite panels are so hefty that they don’t actually save weight, the SZ weighing 35kg more than the V6-powered 75, despite being considerably shorter.

It was, in short, an Italian lash up. Only one that – Clarkson key change – worked amazingly well. The engine sounded great, performance was sportscar-acceptable for the era with a 7-second 0-60mph time and a 152mph top speed, and the chassis proved capable of generating barely feasible amounts of grip. The combination the SZ’s wide track, low C-of-G and the stickiness of its Pirelli P-Zeroes made it stickier than poo superglued to a blanket. Contemporary testing proving it could deliver up to 1.1G of lateral acceleration, unprecedented for a road car at the time. I drove a much-loved example for a PH Heroes story back in 2015 and was deeply impressed by how sharp and keen it felt 26 years after it was launched.

The reviews were positive, although often in a back-handed way. “Would you spend £35,000 on the world’s ugliest car? After driving it, we would” was CAR’s headline. Yet the SZ never sold well in the UK when new. Some of that was down to the fact it was only available in left-hand drive, and that Alfa’s dealership network was more miss than hit at the time. But a fair amount of the exclusivity was doubtless down to the seriousness of its price tag, one that made it £10,000 more than a Porsche 944S and only three grand less than a base 911. Only around 100 were bought here through official channels.

Like other left-hook exotics of the era – notably the E30 BMW M3, Mercedes 500E and Lancia Delta Integrale – the British population of SZs has ebbed and flowed ever since as both tastes in modern classics and exchange rates have fluctuated. Many cars have been brought in from elsewhere while others have departed, although there doesn’t seem to be any difference in value between original UK and imported cars.

While the SZ’s mechanical package is straightforward, there is always going to be more than enough risk to make ownership spicy. The engine and oily parts are well-known and well-supported but the bodywork and SZ-unique components are much more of a challenge. Any bodywork damage will result in big bills and the challenge of trying to track down obscure parts. Even some relatively simple maintenance tasks are complex and time consuming; the fuel tank needs to be removed to access the mounts for one of the rear dampers.

Yet it’s hard not to look at this SZ and see a potential investment. Prices have been rising steadily for years, but seem to have accelerated more strongly recently as the SZ’s status as a modern classic has been firmly established. Having dipped below £20,000 at the turn of the millennium the bottom of the market was around ten grand higher when I did the Hero story six years ago, and now our £47,995 asking price makes it the cheapest of the few currently advertised in the country.

That valuation is probably due in large part to the fact it wears 87,000 miles, too much for those who fetishize stuffed-and-mounted examples. Outside the PH classifieds there’s a dealer asking £75,000 for an 18,000 mile example. But our Pill seems to have been both used properly and loved, the dealer selling it reporting two owners from new and promising a full service history. The MOT record behind the obscured plates confirms the steady accumulation of mileage, one recent fail for corroded brake pipes and various non-alarming advisories for worn suspension components and one of those ‘oil leak, but not excessive’ warnings.

So not perfect, but a useable example of what – with the possible exception of the 8C Competizione – is the most historically interesting Alfa produced since Fiat took control. Or, failing that, certainly the wedgiest. When it was launched the SZ quickly got the nickname ‘il mostro’ in its homeland. But three decades on this is a monster you only need to be slightly afraid of.

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