The cars we loved.
The late 80’s to early 90’s was a period that get little respect among some auto design enthusiast. Sure there was the birth of the Viper, Ford Probe and the Mazda Miata, but those were not the only original form factors of the period. Take for instance the wildly innovative Alfa Romero SZ or code name ES-30 (Experimental Sportscar 3.0 Litre).
Originally developed as a concept, it was produced in very limited numbers from 1989 to 1991 in coupe form. Later a convertible called the RZ was produced from 1992 to 1994 in even smaller numbers. Alfa had hoped to get the attention of the automotive world by developing a halo car that would inspire future products. A special racing class was developed called the SZ Trophy to showcase the performance potential of the SZ.
The SZ was against the curve in its approach to the application of technology. While it was in vogue for many performance cars of the time (especially in Japan) to showcase many advance technologies in one platform such as all-wheel drive, active suspension and turbocharging. The SZ set out to push traditional technologies to their limits using simple straightforward methods. The most advance thing about the SZ was its overall shape, a silhouette that anticipated the organic wedge that inspired the Talon/Eclipse, Celica and was actively seen in the new Ford Probe.
The SZ, unlike those cars was a pure high performance sports machine under a sport coupe shell. It’s engine, chassis and body panels were a joint effort between Alfa Romeo, Fiat and fabrication houses in France and Italy. The end result was a light weight car with a 3.0 litre 210 hp engine that moved the SZ from a stand still to 60 mph in about 6 seconds. Corning grip of 1.4g was made available thanks to a hydraulic dampening system made by Koni and sticky Pirelli P Zero 16 inch tires all around.
SZ’s were only available in Red with a dark grey top and tan interior (like a Talon or early 4th gen Camaro). In an effort to keep the limited number of SZ associated with performance driving, all cars were available with only with 5-speed manual transmission. The choice to forego an automatic transmission effectively limited its appeal to casual sports car enthusiasts while upping its performance pedigree. All the cars produced sold quickly and when the production of the hard top was capped in 1992, a waiting list had already developed for the convertible. The RZ was available in Red, Yellow with black interior or Black with red leather interior.
The SZ did its job of jump starting Alfa’s image in the 90’s. It’s sales potential was hampered somewhat due to it’s polarizing design (some said it looked like a hyena) and limited availability. Also the economy had put a serious damper on the luxury car market and the SZ was not immune to its fallout. By the time the final RZ had rolled off the production line, less than 300 had been produced. Les than 1500 total for SZ and RZ were produced from the start of the production run in 1989 to its end in late 1994.
The limited numbers of SZ and especially the RZ make them highly sought after collector cars. There were not officially exported outside of Italy, but many small exporters sent cars to America, with Japan being the largest market outside Europe. Alfa used design cues from the SZ in future products through the 90’s, with its GTV being the main benefactor. Even today, most modern Alfas share a front end design inspired directly from the SZ.