An Alfa Romeo 1600 Junior Zagato And The Payoffs Of Patience
Photography by Máté Boér
I’d wanted to do a photoshoot like this for years before the pieces finally came together, and while I didn’t specifically imagine an Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato (or “Junior Z”) as the subject, I think it would be hard to replace it with something else. Classic supercars and high-powered sports cars may be curvier and more widely praised for their looks than the more controversial Junior Zagato, but this unique, almost alien design looks right at home between the fields of blooming rapeseeds.
I simply wanted to shoot a vintage blue car to contrast with the brilliant yellow backdrop. It’s good never to be too picky, so rather than figuring out an ideal make and model, I got busy just looking for any classic blue car. It seems like a pretty simple task, and I came close a few times to completing it in recent years, but the capricious springtime weather, conflicting schedules, and the fact that the seeds are scattered to bloom in new places every few years, meant that all the planning was ultimately fruitless year after year, until I met the enthusiastic owner of this 1600 Junior Zagato.
Ercole Spada’s compact wedge-profile Alfa Romeo has always piqued my curiosity. To me it is a really interesting piece of Zagato and Alfa Romeo’s library of collaborations. I’ve always loved the Junior Zagato’s plexiglass-covered front with the stylized Alfa Romeo grille piece in particular, but while I think it has a great nose and profile, the let’s say “less sophisticated” rear end has always felt like an afterthought to the rest of the body.
Under the spotlight of the 1969 Turin Motor Show, the audience was already divided on the Junior Zagato, and we’ve continued the debate of beauty or beast ever since. The reaction is understandable if you look at the Junior Zagato next to its Alfa Romeo stablemates, like the flowing lines of the Spider, which loaned most of its mechanicals and chassis to the Junior Zagato. It was like nothing else Alfa had shown up to that point (in production form anyway), but we can see the ramifications of the shape in important later models like the Alfetta GT, the Alfasud Sprint, and the GTV6 and co.
According to Spada’s biography, the inspiration for the design came from the radical Lotus 56 Turbine race car, which is arguably the closest one can get to a pure “doorstop” shape on four wheels. The design obviously went through some evolution steps before the production version, which can be traced through the Rover TCZ and the Fiat 125 GTZ, both one-offs built in 1967. The idea behind the Junior Zagato was to have a racier, more exclusive coupé in the model range than the existing 105/115-series-based coupés, and who would have been a better choice for the job than Zagato?
Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeos have a great pedigree of being quick and exclusive, as both the Sprint Zagatos and the Tubolare Zagatos gained strong reputation on racetracks and they were hand built in very limited numbers. However the Junior Zagato was never meant to go racing, and just like Lancia’s Fulvia Sport, Flavia Sport, and Spyder (also refereed to as the Zagato in the US market), it was built on the new Zagato production lines in Milan’s suburb of Terrazzano.
Zagato was most famous for its two-door, aerodynamically efficient, lightweight designs, but in case of the mass produced models they had to sacrifice some of that lightness and purity on the altar of practicality and everyday durability. In the case of the Junior Zagato, this means that only the bonnet and the doors are made of alloy, while the rest is steel. Still sleeker and lighter than most despite not being a fully alloy-bodied Zagato creation, this version managed to achieve an additional 5-10mph of top speed compared to the standard GT Junior.
But the Zagato’s real benefits can’t be expressed by numbers that don’t mean very much in reality—if you’re topping out an older Alfa Romeo on the motorway, I think you might have the wrong idea. More importantly than a bit of extra speed, the Junior Zagato also had a lower center of gravity and shorter overhangs, which made it even more of fun, compact driver’s car than the majority of the other 105/115-series Alfa Romeos. Perhaps there is no need for better validation of this than the car’s owners. One of them happens to be Gordon Murray, one of the most respected racing and road car designers of all time, who’s particularly famous for focusing on the joy and purity of driving (Murray’s had his restored and upgraded, naturally, by Alfaholics).
Alfaholics does more than a thorough job on its rebuilt Alfa Romeos, but the assembly of the Junior Zagatos in period was quite complex itself in the 1970s. It was very expensive, involved a lot of moving parts, and was not what you might call efficient. The body was made on the aforementioned Spider floorpan at the Maggiora works in Turin, then the body shells were transported to Alfa Romeo’s Arese plant for scoring and priming before they arrived at Zagato for painting and outfitting. The cycle ended back at the Arese facility, where the engine, transmission, and suspension components were mated to the chassis. Despite the fact that the Junior Zagatos used parts from almost two dozen mainstream production Alfas, they were still among the top three most expensive models of the Alfa Romeo range, right behind the Montreal and the Junior GTA.
With only 1117 examples produced in three years (though it should be noted that the number of finished cars is said to be slightly lower) the Junior Zagato wasn’t as successful as Alfa Romeo and Zagato hoped. The divisive shape, lackluster promotion, compromised rear seat space, and of course the high price couldn’t cope with the cheaper, but overall more desirable Bertone-designed 105/115-series coupés. Despite this, in 1972 the Junior Zagato traded its 1300 designation for 1600 when it received the more powerful 1570cc engine.
To the untrained eye the 1300 and 1600 may look identical, but the 1600 is not only 10cm longer, it there are many little details that separate the two. For example, it has a one-piece front bumper, a bulge in the rear bumper to make space for the spare wheel, more pronounced wheel arches, different headlights, and a less truncated Kamm-style rear end. More subtle is the exhaust pointing downwards on the 1600, and the fuel fill mounted on the left-hand side of the car. A little “fun fact” is that all Alfa Romeos from the period are fueled on the left side, except the Montreal and the Junior Zagato 1300. This created a common misbelief even between Alfisti that the Junior Zagato 1300 shared a fuel tank design with the Montreal—although their tanks are very similar, they aren’t the same part.
The designer, Spada, coincidentally left Zagato right around the debut of the 1600, and commented that he didn’t like the changes made to the 1300 design. Namely, he said that the balance of the initial shape was ruined by the longer rear overhang. Whether or not the 1600 was superior to the 1300 or if it was the other way around, the 1600 Junior Zagatos didn’t make much of an additional impact in period, as very soon after its debut the 1973 Oil Crisis took the wind out of the sports car market. In total only 402 examples of the 1600 Junior Zagato were built until production ended in 1975, and only 125 of those are accounted for on the model’s main online registry.
They are interesting and somewhat paradoxically rare cars. On one hand they are relatively easy to maintain and repair thanks to the wide usage of mainstream 105/115-series parts, but on the other hand if the wrong pieces break it can be very hard to track down the Junior Zagato-specific replacements.
The proud owner of the blue 1600 pictured here, a friend of mine appropriately named Romeo, was well aware of this fact. Before purchasing this car, he did his homework on the model, spending a lot of time reading everything he could find online in addition to talking with actual owners.
“Buy the best one you can, some specific parts are impossible to find,” was the most common advice Romeo received, and he took it to heart. When I ask about the history of his beautiful “Zagato blue” example, Romeo’s eyes lit up and he invited me into the garage to properly introduce me to “Zagi.”
Romeo’s Alfa was ordered new by the Ambassador of Italy to the Netherlands, who owned and drove it for ten years, with the scratches caused by his official ring still visible on the three-spoke Hellebore steering wheel. The second owner was a Dutch Alfa enthusiast who restored the car but used it only occasionally, covering just 15,000km (~9300mi) in 26 years.
Romeo is just the third owner of this always-loved Junior Zagato, and he does his best to take care of his treasure. He is as passionate about his car’s details as I was with arranging this photoshoot, and of all the times I’ve met with owners to share their cars and stories with other fans on Petrolicious, I can’t recall seeing anyone else cleaning the tire sidewalls in the middle of the field between shots. It’s not that Romeo worries and frets, but that he just wants to present the car he loves in the best way possible. I think we can all appreciate that, as it’s an attitude that extends much further than how we treat our cars.
Romeo and Zagi live at the base of the Alps in a small Hungarian village close to the Austrian border, and when he isn’t sharing the car with likeminded people like me, the pair can generally be found out on one of the smooth mountain roads that carve through this picturesque countryside.
The photoshoot—which had to be rescheduled around rain like usual—not only fulfilled my vision, but the short joyride, the time spent admiring the view, and Romeo’s passion for his car only made me love this divisive car even more.