For some people the fascination with extreme flavours is just that – an obsession with pungency – so they crave incendiary chillies, near-putrid game and other bombastic tastes. They are interested in the outer limits of what is manageable, but the moment you attempt to dilute experience, to them it becomes pointless. Anchovies that make you wince on a pizza? Fantastic. A mild anchovy flavoured soup? Minging.
I think this behaviour is mirrored in the world of car styling insomuch as people seem more willing to celebrate challenging styling so long as it is underwritten with real confidence. If you are going to do controversial, don’t do half measures. Make it so ugly children will scream and hide.
Like an Alfa SZ.
Alfa 75 donated V6 and live axle suspensionThe press wasn’t kind to the ES30 (experimental sports car 30, as it was known internally) in 1987 and when the covers came off the production version at the 1989 Geneva show knives were drawn. This was the time of the E30 3 Series, the Ford Sierra and W124 Mercedes: a world of conservative, inoffensive shapes. The SZ was massive two-finger salute and immediately earned the name ‘Il Monstro’.
In many ways it was the 8C of its generation. As per usual, Alfa was skint, lagging behind the competition in just about every area and badly needed a publicity injection. At first, it looked like the SZ syringe contained the wrong liquid, because people just couldn’t understand why it had to be so ugly and it possibly damaged the Alfa brand. Then they drove it.
Vast panel gaps all part of the ‘character’And wouldn’t you know it, a shortened 75 platform with race-derived suspension, composite bodywork allowing a 1,256kg kerb weight and a 210hp V6 made for something rather memorable. Apparently much of the credit must go to Giorgio Pianta, the man who developed many of the great Lancia rally cars, because he was the one responsible for the chassis. Alfa claimed it could sustain over 1G lateral cornering grip.
I have only driven an Alfa SZ once. I expected to be profoundly disappointed by it because on paper 210hp seems pathetic these days, and the 225-section rear tyres looked like they might offer too much grip. The car proved me wrong. It wasn’t especially fast, but the motor made music, the gearshift was tight and mechanical in feel and it didn’t feel too stiff. A car which rolls and pitches and allows a driver to use that information to judge grip level is a rarity these days.
Simple interior contrasts with mad exteriorIn for a penny
And I make no excuses for simply loving everything about the design and the styling, both inside and out. For some reason the SZ doesn’t photograph well: it is smaller than you’d expect, and wider – on the page it can look too tall and narrow, and this is not the case in real life.
Cars whose appearance tells the narrative of their conception are among the most enjoyable. The SZ was an early experiment into composite body panels, and just like its contemporary the Ferrari F40, some of the panel gaps are hilariously inconsistent, although in fairness they all look like the bonnet hasn’t been closed properly.
The irony of the ‘experimental’ title in the car’s internal code is that the SZ couldn’t really be more mechanically conventional. As a classic, this surely adds to its appeal because the motor is unstressed and yet dripping with character, but back in 1989 you might have expected a little bit more for your £40,000
Would you really want to be seen in one though?Inside and out
For obvious reasons it’s the SZ’s exterior that snarls all the conversation, but I love the cabin. The seats are, to these eyes, perhaps the best looking ever seen in a production car and there’s a driver-centric simplicity to everything I’ve always thought was a clever juxtaposition to the coachwork which, despite the name wasn’t entirely the work of Zagato. It’s a clever combination, bend as many heads on the outside and recline in soft-hide splendour as you soak up the attention.
So the SZ serves to remind me of two aesthetic tenets that I still cling to – that for some reason I love cars that cut a profoundly different shape among other traffic. That’s why I like the Panamera. And the brave decision to shock can only be executed with full-strength, overproof zeal – this is why I find the modern Zagato Astons so unappealing. They disturb the elegance of the factory styled machines but don’t supplement that disruption with enough madness. In those terms, the SZ is a masterpiece that is yet to be bettered.
Of course it is not beyond the realms of possibility that I am over-romanticising a plastic bodied Alfa 75 that no more deserves to be celebrated than the Arna. Best you tell me if I’m wrong.
ALFA ROMEO SZ
Engine: 2.959cc V6
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 210@6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 181@4,500rpm
Top speed: 153mph
On sale: 1989-1991
Price new: c. £40,000
Price now: c. £22,000 upwards
Photos: Tom Wood courtesy of RM Auctions – this car (full details here) sold for £20,720 at RM’s 2011 sale in London; there are three others currently in the PH Classifieds, starting at £22,995.