Driven by Design: Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint Speciale
(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)
Photography by Afshin Behina for Petrolicious
It is impossible to consider the Alfa Romeo Giulia (and Giulietta, whose appearance is the same) Sprint Speciale without mentioning Bertone’s BAT cars of the 1950s. Designed by Mr. Franco Scaglione as aerodynamic test vehicles, the Berlinetta Aerodinamica Technica 5, 7, and 9, were masterpieces of aerodynamic design—the BAT 7 somehow achieved a coefficient of drag of 0.19! But besides improving on the science of aerodynamics, the BAT cars also helped yield the Sprint Speciale.
The BATs were debuted every year from 1953 through ’55 at the Torino Auto Show to an amazed crowd. So it was fitting that the first prototype for the Sprint Speciale debuted there in 1957. While the production version took another two years it was clearly influenced by the more production-aimed BAT 9. And while the BAT series was fantastic, almost like fantasy-sketches in appearance, they were successful in one place where the Sprint Speciale failed. One of a few failures, in fact.
Proportionally, the Sprint Speciale has a traditional front-engine rear-wheel drive layout, as it should. Although, much like the Jaguar E-type it suffers a bit from very long overhangs (on the Jaguar they’re more successful however, as they’re rounded which gives them less visual mass). But the Alfa’s overhangs are squared off with a fairly blunt nose (much like Alfa’s earlier C52 ‘Disco Volante’) and Kamm-tail that helps to accentuate the overhangs, visually shrinking the car’s wheelbase.
Now, Scaglione’s BATs had fairly tight greenhouses in terms of tumble-home and height. But to say that they were tight would be a dramatic understatement. They more closely resemble modern cars in terms of the canopies’ packages than cars from the early 1950s. And while it might have been a bit claustrophobic, in appearance they were very successful. This is where the Sprint Speciale fails. Or succeeds depending on your perspective.
It has a light, tall, airy greenhouse that has great outward visibility. It also looks a bit tall and, coupled with the Alfa’s visually short wheelbase, a bit ungainly.
The stance is also a bit awkward because of those long overhangs combined with its skinny tires tucked into the body due to the body’s sectional curvature. The surfacing is obviously very organic and like most Italian cars of the era, masterful. But some of the surfaces at the rear are also a bit odd. If you consider it in profile, the Sprint Speciale suffers from a heavy-appearing rear. The first reason for this is that the bottom of the car, as you follow the line towards the back, accelerates up much more slowly than the top of the fender accelerates down giving the appearance of an Art Deco-era streamliner with a thoroughly modern front end. For a counterpoint consider the Jaguar XK-E once more. On the Jag, the bottom of the car rises to meet the shoulder at the back of the car rather than vice versa, lending it a fast, light feeling. Secondly, the center-line of the headlights is higher than the tail lights. It’s actually higher than any part of the back.
You can tell that Bertone tried to alleviate this by mounting the rear bumper in line with the scallop surrounding the front wheel-well and higher than the front bumper. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the job done.
Regardless, the most impressive surfaces on the Sprint Speciale are the windshield and backlight. They’re so well integrated into the form of the roof and trunk (and almost the hood too) that it’s easy to understand how the car achieves such a low coefficient of drag (0.28). And styling aside, that is what this Alfa is all about.
Detailing is perfectly balanced, with badges breaking up the large front fenders along with the turn indicators. Accordingly, most brightwork is appropriately limited to the grille and tail. But the two most interesting details relate to the Sprint Speciale’s design brief. First, the clear, plastic wind deflector protruding from the back of the hood was necessary to channel air over the wipers (to keep them front lifting at higher speeds). And second is the door pull that was molded into the rear quarter panel to avoid adding an external pull (which would no doubt hurt the aerodynamics a bit and might increase weight).
There is no question that the Alfa Giulia Sprint Speciale is indeed special. It is indubitably an event wherever it goes. It has presence and looks like the flying saucer (Disco Volante) that may have inspired it. But it sacrificed too much for aerodynamics, namely its rear-end. I’d love to know how much raising the rear would have affected lift and drag.