Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

| 17 May 2022
Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

Alfa Romeo and Zagato are intrinsically linked, a sporting tradition that dates back to the early 1930s with the superb 6C-1750.

The great Milanese marque’s allegiance switched to Touring for its competition models during the later pre-war years, but the connection with Zagato flourished during the Giulietta era.

The origins of the first Sprint Veloce Zagato were literally the result of an accident. In May 1956, Massimo Girolamo Leto di Priolo entered his newly acquired SV in the Mille Miglia, but the gentleman racer was hospitalised just four days after its collection when he crashed heavily on the famous road race.

Rather than rebuild the Alfa’s production Bertone body, the wreck was dispatched to Via Giorgini where di Priolo instructed Elio Zagato’s team to transform it into a lightweight GT.

A frame of thin steel tubes was mounted on the original Giulietta platform chassis, which then carried a lightweight aluminium body. With a total weight of just 750kg (the Sprint Veloce was 895kg), the SVZ’s performance and handling were transformed.

The newly completed ‘special’ made its debut at Monza in the Coppa InterEuropa where di Priolo dominated the 1300cc class, beating all the standard Bertone-bodied SVs.

Inevitably, there was a rush of rivals to Zagato’s door for similar conversions and the SVZ (later SZ) was unofficially born.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

The Alfa’s Kamm tail previewed the TZ that followed

The competitive success of Zagato’s modified Giuliettas pleased Alfa engineers Orazio Satta and Giuseppa Busso – the fathers of the brilliant 750 Series – although both were also worried about the commercial damage to the production SV.

So they instructed the furious Nuccio Bertone to create a faster, more exotic variant, and the dramatic Franco Scaglione-styled Sprint Speciale, launched at the ’57 Turin motor show, was the outcome.

Dismayed by the lengthy process of dismantling a completed Giulietta, Zagato, after hearing about the SS, approached Alfa management to discuss the direct supply of chassis and mechanicals.

To his delight, an official agreement was put in place to develop a new competition model.

Elio himself was a talented driver, which in part explains the SZ’s success.

The prototype was completed in spring 1960, then delivered to Alfa for appraisal and further development by works test drivers Consalvo Sanesi and Guido Moroni.

The lightweight was subjected to a punishing programme, mixing rough Alpine passes with circuits such as Monza.

Sanesi loved the car and recommended that the SS be marketed more as an exclusive road car, and the SZ be the focus of competition sales.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

The evocative Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus crest on this classic Alfa Romeo’s flanks

Word soon got out to wealthy Italian enthusiasts about the new SZ’s fine handling, and it became a favourite in the 1300cc GT class – both in race and rally events – with more than 171 built.

Its closest class rival in the early ’60s was the super-light Lotus Elite, and the dominance of Colin Chapman’s sleek monocoque eventually forced Zagato’s hand to further refine the SZ.

With the Giulietta’s mechanical development already at the limit, aerodymanics became the focus.

Throughout ’61, Zagato and designer Ercole Spada evaluated various extended profiles that produced extra speed on the Milan-Bergamo autostrada but resulted in steering problems on twistier routes.

Eventually, the theories of Wunibald Kamm were adopted and the ‘Coda Tronca’ was born.

Back on the autostrada, the altered shape – with dramatic clipped tail – was clocked at 227kph (142mph).

The new design was optimistically entered for the Sant’Ambroeus Cup at Monza, with Zagato at the wheel.

Although the specs remained unchanged – including track and wheelbase – the longer, lower and narrower Coda Tronca instantly proved faster on the high-speed track. Zagato took pole and dominated the race.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

This Alfa’s wind-cheating shape

The revised styling – finished in a dramatic silver-and-red scheme – was displayed at the Turin show in October ’61, alongside an Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato.

Priorities at the Alfa factory were focused on a new GT model to replace the outdated Giulietta, but demand for the Coda Tronca was strong enough for 44 orders, including several owners of ‘round tail’ SZs who wanted their cars updated.

Zagato’s attention also switched to the new prototype TZ racer during production through 1963, though Coda Troncas were a familiar sight for a few years in international events – including Le Mans and the Targa Florio, where privateers relished its remarkable handling and forgiving character.

The stunning example featured here is chassis 00197, which was completed in March 1962 and delivered to Bologna-based Sergio ‘Kim’ Pedretti of Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus.

Mysteriously, the new car remained unraced for most of the year – possibly due to its delayed completion.

Unconfirmed research suggests that the car made its debut at Montlhéry for the 1000km de Paris, where it was no match for the sensational Elite of Trevor Taylor, which even led the 2-litre class until engine problems forced its retirement.

Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus patron Eugenio Dragoni ran two SZs that came third and fourth in class behind the demon Abarth-Simca in this highly competitive group.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

The Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ has a very aerodynamic nose

The following year, the Alfa was put it through its paces by Romolo Rossi at the Le Mans test day on 6-7 April, but the equipe was fined by L’Automobile Club de l’Ouest for presenting it with red roundels.

Come the main event in June, Giampiero Biscaldi and Pedretti were the designated drivers – plus Carlo Facetti as reserve.

With extra spotlights mounted on the nose – and sporting a correct black-on-white 35 – the Alfa ran strongly, dicing with the rival Coda Tronca of Romolo Rossi and Giancarlo Sala until 11pm when the officials spotted the SSA team pouring in extra oil, resulting in disqualification after 70 laps.

Just prior to the 1964 Targa Florio on 26 April, Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus sold 00197 to Count Girolamo Capra who, teamed with Luciano Galli, finished an impressive 21st on the Sicilian classic.

Capra continued to compete internationally – often under the SSA banner – contesting the Nürburgring 1000kms where, with Fernando Wissel, the two-year-old SZ started 54th after a 10 mins 59 secs qualifying best, and came 43rd out of 94.

Capra clearly liked the Alfa and raced extensively through 1964-’65, including in the Italian hillclimb championship.

His highlights included competing at the Circuito del Mugello, and an impressive sixth around Monza with Galli in the ’65 Coppa InterEuropa.

The experienced Count then upgraded to a more powerful TZ and sold the SZ to Danilo Parnetti of Puglia, who continued to take part in local hillclimbs.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

The SZ’s sensitively refurbished cockpit, but with a smaller wheel and a discreet rollcage

By the 1980s, 00197 had been repainted red and found its way to Japan, where it joined Yoshi Hayashi’s spectacular collection.

The Coda Tronca sat in storage for many years, lined up alongside a sensational group of historic Alfas featuring the Pininfarina Giulia Sport Speciale, a TZ and a Sprint Stradale.

When the Japanese economy took a dive, the Hayashi collection was eventually split up and 00197 headed to America’s Great North-West, an area well known for Alfisti, where historic racer Bruce Bradburn kept it until 2007.

Once mechanically refreshed, the long-tailed red SZ was extensively campaigned once more.

US-based Dutch consul Peter Hageman was the next owner, and the Kirkland Concours founder clearly had more grasp of 00197’s history because he reinstated the ex-Le Mans car’s Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus livery.

To celebrate the restoration, Hageman entered 00197 for Pebble Beach – but was upstaged in the Postwar Sports Class by Ron Hein’s TZ.

The car was back in France in 2010 after being consigned with Hall & Hall at Rétromobile, where it was snapped up by Pascal Perrier before the premier Paris show had even opened to the public.

Perrier’s motivation was an entry for that year’s Le Mans Classic, but the famous La Sarthe return proved problematic because the unfettled SZ made a habit of spinning.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

The 1600 twin-cam is a tight fit under the Alfa’s lower bonnet

The fraught July weekend encouraged Perrier to entrust 00197 to British specialist Alfaholics for a full rebuild.

“The owner was frustrated by the SZ’s unreliability and handling problems,” recalls Max Banks. “The car came to us in February 2011, with a brief to sort the mechanical side and a repaint.

“But once we’d stripped the shell, there were clearly issues with the sills, which were rotten and weak. The best option was to take the body off and the owner agreed.”

With the go-ahead, the Clevedon-based team painstakingly removed the Alfa’s delicate aluminium skin from the skeletal steel frame.

“The front and back come off in single pieces, but the roof stayed on,” Banks explains. “The superleggera construction isn’t as extreme as contemporary Lancias, although the tubular body support is pretty minimal.

“We saved metalwork wherever possible, but the nose had been badly repaired with poor welding and had to be remade. The spotwelds were tidied up, too, because some were very crude.

“All of the repairs to the underside were completely ground, filed and sanded because the client wanted it to look as good as the top.

“There was a long debate over the grille shape – which had been modified over the years – but we machined a copy from billet aluminium and shaped it to fit the nose.”

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

‘The SZ’s turn-in is exquisite, and its precise controls continually inspire’

The windows were scratched and marked, but all of the Perspex originals were salvaged after careful sanding and polishing.

Zagato stamped numbers into many bespoke parts and these are important to the authenticity of an SZ.

As Banks points out: “It’s one of the key ways to check that a car is genuine – dash, seat runners, A-pillars and grilles are all stamped.

“We’ve restored round-tailed SZs before, but the shape of the Coda Tronca is totally different. To get the reduced height, Zagato further cut down the bulkhead top by 3in, which also required dropping the steering column. As a result, it’s pretty snug under the bonnet.”

The distinctive Zagato-style seats are an essential part of the interior’s character, but the originals were warped and twisted: “There was very little to reconstruct, so we made copies incorporating stronger runners that were safe for historic competition.

“We sourced the correct trim grain from an Italian supplier. All of the factory parts were stored in boxes.”

The rebuilt car now has the option of two engines – 1300 and 1600cc – as well as long and short gearing for Le Mans and hillclimbs.

“With the tall axle, it’s geared for 150mph,” Banks says, “so we’ve converted to a solid propshaft for safety reasons. The original doughnuts were troublesome. In period, they’d smash the driver’s knee when they failed at high revs.”

Alfaholics has a reputation for great-handling cars, but the SZ had to be tuned to suit modern racing tyres: “The geometry is really good, with a compliant rear and a roll-resistant front end. The original set-up was quite roly-poly, which matched the soft ’60s tyres, but today the rubber is much harder.

“We paid special attention to the suspension weight, the size of the anti-roll bar and damper settings, but kept it quite soft because weight transfer around the car is important to achieve a fine balance. We know all of the 105-series tricks, although the SZ blew us away straight out of the box.

“With no modifications, it was better than a GTA. I’ve been underwhelmed by TZs in the past, but this felt almost as quick.”

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo SZ: the fastest Giulietta

‘It likes to slide a little yet you can position it exactly where you want on the road’

A morning drive around north Somerset couldn’t be further removed from the test tracks of northern Italy or the Alpine passes where the SVZ’s delightful character was honed by Sanesi and Moroni, but its appeal is addictive after a few miles.

With a 180bhp 1600cc engine – as it ran after 1964 – and long Le Mans gearing, it feels genuinely quick and brilliantly nimble on narrow English lanes.

Round-tail SVZs have dazzled me in the past – the extra weight loss enhancing an already superb production model – but this just-finished Coda Tronca is even sharper and beautifully balanced.

Its turn-in is exquisite and, combined with the impressive grip, its precise controls continually inspire.

The twin-cam’s lusty punch and the ideally weighted steering encourage ever-quicker pace, although the tight back-roads and encroaching stone walls limit the potential of this sublime driver’s GT.

“On a track, it’s very neutral,” concurs Banks. “As you’d expect with a live-axle car, it likes to slide a little yet you can position it exactly where you want on the road. An Elite would beat us in the 1300cc class, but this would be competitive with the 1600 specification. It was just 3 secs slower than our GTA racer at Castle Combe.”

Superbly sorted and exactingly presented, it’s the perfect tribute to Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus. The Banks family has discovered the ideal combination of preserving one of the most famous SZs and preparing a competitive historic race car.

Images: Tony Baker

This was originally in our March 2014 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


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