ALFA ROMEO SZ/RZ
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To drive an Alfa Romeo SZ is a wholly frustrating exercise in preparing your excuses early, writing flaws off as character, dusting down a few Latin stereotypes and then realising that you’d completely wasted your time. In fact, it’s hard to think of too many sporting rivals that have shucked off more than a quarter of a century quite as well as the SZ. By comparison a contemporary Porsche 911 feels a bit of a relic, a Lotus Esprit closer to its kit-car roots than we cared to admit at the time, while here in Oz the Commodore VN SS represented our brave new world. Now there’s some perspective.
By contrast, the SZ coupe looked as if it had beamed in from a parallel dimension; a dimension of creatively demolished shoeboxes.
One of the first production cars to be designed with the help of a computer, the SZ project came about through a bit of naked opportunism at Alfa Romeo. During the late Eighties, a boom in the prices of exotic cars saw many delivery-mile Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches being flipped on dealer forecourts for double the list price. With the benefit of hindsight it was clearly an unsustainable bubble, but Alfa saw it as a chance to revive their fortunes, develop a headline-grabbing halo model and, at the same time, revive links with the Zagato styling house.
Three rival styling teams were commissioned to work on the coupe. Zagato were actually the first to be rejected, with Walter De Silva then going
head to head with a design team headed up by Fiat Centro Stile’s Robert Opron, the two concepts dubbed Project A and B respectively.
On 31st July 1987, Project B was chosen, with Zagato tasked to assist on detail design of components. Much of the running gear would be shared with the existing Alfa Romeo 75 3.0 V6 sedan to keep a cap on development costs, the first show car, the ES30, being unveiled to a collective thudding of jaws on floors at the 1989 Geneva Show. The production car was readied by the end of the year and hustled onto dealer floors carrying a price tag – in Europe – about that of a 911 Carrera. Unfortunately it arrived just as the exotic car feeding frenzy turned into a famine. Although Alfa reckoned the clever technique of bonding the Modar resin onto the steel frame using the adhesives as a structural component was good for building 10,000 cars per year, little over 1,000 SZs ever left Zagato’s premises in Terrazzano di Rho. Its drop top sibling, the 1992 RZ, fared even worse, with only 278 cars of a predicted 350 vehicle production run being built.
On a purely commercial basis, the RZ/SZ project was an abject failure. What’s more it failed to kick start Zagato’s fortunes, while a gun-shy Alfa Romeo would take another fourteen years before revisiting the idea of the halo sports model in the voluptuous shape of the 8C Competizione. This failure to hit too many of its pre-development targets coupled with the fact that the styling – for a while at least – dated very badly meant the SZ and RZ twins almost seemed to be excised from Alfa’s history for a while. Of late, their reputations have been rehabilitated, although whether that was necessitated by a long run of poor product from Alfa is point for debate.
You might recognise this particular SZ, as it has previously been bringing a dusting of the exotic to Unique Cars’‘Our Shed’ regular, courtesy of Unique’s digital diva, Mary Lee. I’m minded of the soaring values of these things as I’m handed the keys.
The shape is something that I don’t think you’d ever get used to. The bug-like lights, crazy planes, vertiginous haunches and bizarre surfacing shouldn’t work and many would say they don’t. The panel gaps are so wide that you could probably check the oil without popping the bonnet. The SZ’s elegant roofline sweep helps balance the brutal cubist superstructure, a salvation denied the sole RZ roadster in Australia that is also on board for our shoot. Drop inside the SZ and it’s all buttery tan leather, with a dashboard angled towards the driver and fantastic visibility courtesy of that show car glasshouse and filament-thin arching pillars. Headroom is a little pinched for taller drivers and the driving position might take a bit of lateral thinking to get comfortable with, but there’s no great pedal offset, a lovely Momo steering wheel and a roof lining that looks as if it should house a sunroof but doesn’t. Alfa’s ballsiness in not even attempting to fit rear seats raises a smile as does the surprisingly burly passenger panic
MARY LEE MELBOURNE. 1991 ALFA ROMEO SZ MARY AND husband Victor have owned this SZ – chassis number 666 – since 2011. “We’d both wanted an SZ for some time. We had this calendar from 1991 with a hero shot of the SZ and the Sydney-based importer got in touch with my husband (who is the National Coordinator of the Alfa Romeo State Clubs) and told him he had one in stock,” she explains. This was the second SZ in the state and, although the car would need some work, the Lees didn’t hesitate to make it theirs. “It had been exported to Japan from new, along with 99 others, and it needed a few small jobs. The radio only worked on Japanese frequencies, so we sourced an authentic Alfa-branded period head unit and had a guy fit an internal Bluetooth module to it. The clutch was on its way out and the carbon fibre spoiler was sun-damaged,” she says.
“We realised it would be a huge job to convert it to righthand drive, so we just looked after the car and waited until it was legal to run on club plates. I believe only one SZ has ever been converted to righthand drive and that car’s in South Africa.”
After driving the car we’re curious as to whether Mary and Victor will ever part with the thing. “No!
We’re not looking to sell,” she laughs.
“And no, we’re not tempted to add an RZ alongside. I love the fact that the SZ is so quirky. It’s got so much character and although it is unusual, everything makes sense when you drive it.
"We both say that when one rattle stops another will start, but in this car you just don’t mind at all.”
handle built into the front corner of the seat.
Key the ignition and the car fires on the first attempt, settling back into a tappety thrum.
The gearchange action isn’t at all bad for a car with its long throw ‘box such a long way from the stick, although you can’t rush the synchro: one-pause-two between gears. The Busso 3.0-litre V6 makes 210hp, differing from the 75’s installation with uprated intake and exhaust manifolds, tweaks to the cooling system and Bosch Motronic ML4.1 electronics. Despite Alfa having a 24-valve version of this engine in advanced stages of development, time was against the SZ and it got the existing 12-valve architecture instead. It’s still one of the great engines, pulling sharply from as little as 2000rpm right up to its power peak at 6200rpm, the exhaust note hardening as it comes on cam from 4,000rpm.
By today’s standards, the SZ is merely brisk, registering a 0-100km/h time of 7 seconds and a top end of 245km/h, but the design ethos for the car was to create a vehicle that was modern in execution but classic in feel and Alfa nailed that particular assignment. Chassis development was the responsibility of Giorgio Pianta, the man who had fettled Lancia’s rally cars for the likes of Markku Alen, Henri Toivonen and Walter Rohrl and his imprimatur is all over the way the SZ drives. He junked the torsion beam rear of the 75 in favour of Koni springs and dampers, and the SZ also got some very meaty Teflon suspension bushings. The chassis is stiffened, shock absorber mount points beefed up and the suspension tuned to the sidewall stiffness of the then-revolutionary Pirelli P Zero tyre. The car has a long-legged suppleness to its suspension that matches the low-end torque response of the engine. Drive it gently and it doesn’t feel like a sportster at all, but scruff the car a little and it responds in kind with great body control into corners and tenacious turn-in courtesy of a trademark Pianta front end: aggressive negative camber and zero aerodynamic lift.
In order to quell lift, the SZ sports a ride height
more usually associated with snowploughs which would prove interesting on a typically scabby Aussie country road, but you can press a button in the cabin to raise the ride height by 50mm.
It’s an imperfect solution, but just one of several work-arounds evident in the SZ. It’s hard to fault the hydraulically-assisted steering but the brakes are truly abysmal, with a heart-in-mouth dead feel for a huge arc of pedal travel. Attempt a heel and toe downchange and it turns into a kind of desperate heel and shin contortion before you give up, which is a shame in a car that’s otherwise so beautifully tailored to the keen driver. It’s nothing particular to this car as all SZs suffer the same delinquent brake feel. Punch them to the threshold of locking and they work well enough, slowing from 100km/h in a respectable 38 metres, but it feels like a clumsy, brutish interaction that jars with the measured tactility of the rest of the car’s controls.
As is usual with Alfas of this period, the interior squeaks and twitters like the queue for a One Direction gig, occasionally throwing in a bit of bulkhead bass note that sounds like the terminal phase of a Bond villain’s lair. You won’t care. You’re too busy laughing out loud.
At which point you realise the camera team are all wearing huge grins, as are all the onlookers Download the QR Code Reader from the Apple App Store or Google Play FIND YOUR NEXT .
who might otherwise be calling you in to the local constabulary if you were attempting similar cornering shots in a Falcodore. The SZ is that sort of car. It has a charisma that is infectious and hugely endearing. You know you’re making someone’s day when you spot them throw a U-bolt behind you and race up alongside, desperately trying to persuade their nonplussed passenger to shoot some pictures.
Before driving the car, I wondered if the SZ was a bit of a cynical charade; a 75 in a fright wig that only appealed to some due to its divisive styling. Spend a little time with one and it becomes apparent that you’ll love it for the very specific way it drives and the aesthetics become a secondary concern. It’s a truly lovely thing, and a car that’s wholly underrated by most. Perhaps only the idiosyncrasy of Alfa Romeo could bring us a computer-designed throwback, but though there is some truth in its description by the late Russell Bulgin as ‘a fairly creative stroll through the Alfa parts warehouse’, make no mistake, the SZ has no issue with its own identity. Although you can detect some Alfa 75 gusto in the way the SZ comports itself, it’s only a faint tang. Stiffer, lower and more potent, the coupe stands alone as a great Alfa driver’s car in a period where such vehicles were soon to become dispiritingly rare.
It’s far from the thuggish bull terrier you might expect, instead offering delicacy and nuance and, like the best sports cars, an ability to mirror your mood in the way it drives. And that styling? Well, if nothing else, both SZ and RZ prove one simple truth. Things are beautiful if you love them.
SMART BUYER'S TROUBLE SHOOTING Checklist • ALTHOUGH the body is plastic, this being an Alfa, its manufacturer has conjured a way for it to rust. No, really.
Under the SZ’s roof cover, just atop the rear fender is a reveal that collects water. In addition to that where the alloy roof panel meets the steel bodywork, electrolytic rot can also set in. • BODY PANELS can be hard to source, so don’t bin any SZ-specific part, no matter how far gone it appears.
Those headlights are particularly hard to track down, so if you’re buying, check carefully for cracks in the glass.
• THE PAINTWORK on the SZ varies enormously in quality from car to car and from panel to panel on individual cars.
Keep an eye out for any panels that have been poorly resprayed as they will almost invariably blister. • CARBON FIBRE technology at the turn of the 90s was a long way from where it is today. The rear wing can delaminate which will require a big investment to replace. The carbon on the dashboard of the RZ isn’t in fact carbon at all, instead being adhesive Fablon. But even this can crack and peel.
• YOU’LL be reassured to know that the electrics have a personality of their own. The big ticket item to give the once-over to is the variable ride height system. Also check the vacuum system for poor idle. • KNOCKS and rattles from the rear shock absorbers are common and because these Koni units are no longer made, they will need to be overhauled.
Another area for rattles when worn is the De Dion axle tube. Alfa dealers sold an anti-rattle kit for a while consisting of a uniball-housing, the uniball itself, 2 spacers and a clip.
• ALTHOUGH the Busso 12v V6 engine can be chipped for more power (often in tandem with the fitment of a freerbreathing exhaust) a wiser initial investment is the fitment of Ferodo D25 brake pads and braided hoses. • CLUTCHES can slip when you bang in a quick gearshift at high revs. The original Valeo plate is no longer available, so check that the master cylinder seals aren't deformed as this gives a 'slippy' feel to the clutch.
Helix in the UK offers a replacement high performance clutch kit with a plate from LuK and pressure group from Sachs.
ENGINE: 2959cc V6, dohc, 12v, normally aspirated POWER/TORQUE: 154kW @ 6200rpm 245Nm @ 4500rpm TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual SUSPENSION: transverse arms, oblique beams, coil spring, anti roll bars (f); de Dion tube, Watts linkage, coil springs, anti-roll bars (r) BRAKES: Ventilated discs all round, 284mm (f); 250mm (r) WEIGHT: 1260kg 0-100KM/H: 7.0s