The tenacious Alfa Romeo SZ may have been dubbed ‘the monster’ but 30 years later the stylish Italian Zagato is a desirable classic.
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Whilst in the process of trying to rejuvenate the Alfa Romeo brand they had acquired in 1986, The Italian marque steered the brand in a less conventional direction.
It was a certain Vittorio Ghidella, then President of Fiat, who personally launched the ‘Experimental Sportscar, 3.0-liter engine’ project. Ghidella’s brief to his development team specified a puristic coupé that would deliver both performance and sensational design.
This aspirational project was to be called ‘ES30‘.
Three teams were allocated to the Herculean task, with Walter de Silva heading the Alfa Romeo design department, later also significantly involved in the iconic Alfa Romeo 156.
Project manager Robert Opron, previously the designer of the Citroën-Maserati SM who headed Fiat Centro Stile, and design studio Zagato, responsible for some of the most spectacular and most successful models from Alfa Romeo in Motor Racing.
The end result was an avant-garde design with narrow, square triple headlights and a distinctive wedge shape that resembled an Austin Princess on steroids, which ultimately earned ES30 the nickname ‘Il Mostro’ or ‘the Monster’.
The backhanded compliment undoubtedly meant the tenacious ES30 was probably the most radical thing that existed at that time as a production vehicle.
The elaborate body made of Modar TM, a glass fibre reinforced synthetic resin, was manufactured by the Italian specialist Carplast. A new process ensured a particularly smooth surface.
A steel ‘skeleton’ served as the load-bearing structure, which not only provided high torsion and rigidity but also guaranteed low weight. With a roof structure being assembled from aluminium, the finished vehicle finally weighed in at a comparatively low 1,256 kilograms.
A drag coefficient of 0.30 was achieved which was also excellent for the time. The result of extensive tests in the wind tunnel was a top speed of 245 km / h and a time of 7.5 seconds for the sprint from a standing start to a speed of 100 km / h.
In order to achieve the required suction effect, the body was designed with a low ground clearance (around six centimetres) that would have led to problems with driveways and other issues.
The solution was an electrical level control, with the help of which the body could be raised by five centimetres if necessary.
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Since Ghidella’s other request was to keep the development costs within reasonable limits, the team used the tried-and-tested technology of the Alfa Romeo 75. Alfa Romeo’s racing department adapted this system to the desired requirements.
The torsion spring bars on the front axle gave way to conventional McPherson struts, heavy-duty universal joints instead of the conventional rubber elements, eliminating any unwanted movement in the chassis.
The rear axle built on the DeDion principle also received some upgrades, including a limited-slip differential. The fine-tuning on the test track was carried out by racing driver Giorgio Pianta, who later became the team boss responsible for Alfa Romeo’s victories in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM).
The technicians chose the 3.0 V6 petrol engine from the Alfa Romeo 75 America and increased its output to 210 hp.
Since project ES30 was not intended as a pure sports car, more a grand tourer in the classic sense, standard equipment was relatively extensive.
Air conditioning, leather seats, leather-clad dashboard and power windows were all included as standard equipment.
Only the body colour Rosso Alfa Romeo was offered in combination with the dark grey roof and natural-coloured interior. The only exception was the copy made personally for Andrea Zagato. The director of the Carrozzeria of the same name received his ES30 completely in black.
After just 19 months of development, just in time for the planned world premiere at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1989, the ES30 project was ready for production but still needed an official name.
Since the production at Zagato was to take place in the Milan suburb of Rho, the name was changed to the now instantly recognisable combination of letters – SZ for “Sprint Zagato”.
Despite the relatively high basic price of initially 80,000 Deutschmarks (around 41,000 euros), later more than 100,000 D- Mark (around 51,000 euros), exactly 1,036 Alfa Romeo SZ went to customers between 1989 and 1993.
In 1992 the Cabriolet Alfa Romeo RZ – for “Roadster Zagato” – supplemented the range in which the aluminium roof was replaced by a fabric roof.
Today, both variants of the ES30 project – the last series-produced vehicle of the brand with rear-wheel drive until the launch of the Alfa Romeo Giulia 2016 – are sought-after classics.
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