Forever Avant-Garde: Meet The Radical And Roofless Alfa Romeo RZ Roadster Zagato
Photography by Marco Annunziata
This car’s nickname, translated from Italian into “The Monster,” suits its bizarre proportions. To many, this design is antithetical to the Alfa Romeo badge, or at least it is a stark contrast to the stereotype of curvaceous Alfa Romeos. But by the time of the Alfa Romeo SZ’s unveiling in 1989 at the Geneva Motor Show (presented under its internal codename ,“ES-30”), the Milanese manufacturer had long ago shed its signature curves for straighter lines. The SZ and RZ were not the first box-bodied Alfas, but they were—and still are—the strangest.
Developed from concepts at Zagato and finished by French design maestro Robert Opron, this car still represents one of the boldest and most successful steps into the avant garde of automotive design. And not just because it looks radical; the SZ and its roadster companion featured here, the RZ, were among the first production sports cars spawned from computer-aided modeling software. A fact made very obvious when you come in contact with one of these oddities.
The example here, a 1993 Alfa Romeo RZ (Roadster Zagato), with chassis number ZAR16200003002080, is number 53 of roughly 285 total RZs produced (making the roofless variant even rarer than the already-scarce SZ it was based on, which was produced in just over 1000 copies.
“I found it and bought it in France from an Italian-French collector from Paris who kept it from new until 2015, covering only 45,000km in that period. The color is red PPG 130 Alfa Romeo, to be specific, which is the rarest of the three colors offered during production. Everything had remained the same as when it left the factory. These cars were all assembled by Zagato on the platform of the Alfa Romeo 75, with a 3.0-liter, 12-valve V6, and there is no reason to mess around with it,” says Eugenio, the current owner. A collector and true enthusiast who appreciates mechanical and design elements in equal measure, we will get to know him better as we feature more of his collection in the future.
“I found the ad in France and contacted the owner who told me that he had enjoyed his RZ enough over the years, and that given his advanced age he no longer had the energy to drive it like he used to. I was happy to pick up where he left off, and he was happy that his car was returning to Italy in the hands of an Alfa Romeo enthusiast. I also remember that he gave me an article about this car published in a French automobile magazine in which the concept of ‘monster’ was reiterated. It was a perfect handoff, from one passionate owner to another, not to a dealer to sit on a lot and exist only for profit.
“What I love about this design is the sense that it is totally new. Not taking its cues from any other model. Because of this, at first glance, it may seem really strange. And of course it is quite strange, but not in a bad way. Forget it being unique for an Alfa Romeo, there is nothing that looks like this from any time or place,” Eugenio explains with great animation.
“The SZ is of course the only other that looks like it,” he continues with a chuckle, “but I looked for the open version specifically, because in Italy, given the mild climate around my home, it is always exciting to be able to drive with your head in the wind, hearing the sound of the engine in a new way, its noise manipulated by the hills and trees along the Chianti roads not far from where I live. Also, I am a car collector, and this model is much rarer, so of course that is a nice bonus!” Eugenio laughs.
The SZ and RZ are still controversial to some, but their rarity and production heritage have placed them firmly in the collectible realm. In its own time, the SZ was far from a commercial success, but despite the rather lukewarm pace of sales, the company followed up with the roadster version, with the Alfa Romeo RZ starting its short-lived production run in 1992, and ending the following year with either 278 or 284 built in total, depending on which source you ask.
Eugenio’s RZ is almost totally original, as he’s made a simple, and reversible, modification. “I only changed the wheels with models of the same design, but measuring 17 inches instead of the 16 inches—which I have kept in the garage, of course! I find that this minor change makes the car slightly more modern looking without changing its design, overall I think it helps it look a bit more balanced in overall form. Plus, it guarantees me better road holding thanks to more tire options, which complement the excellent innate handling qualities of this car. The suspension was developed by the great rally mind of Giorgio Pianta, who took the experience gained on the Alfa Romeo 75 Group A race cars and modified them for street use,” Eugenio explains.
He says that driving the RZ is a very intuitive experience that comes with very precise steering, and more feel than most cars of its era. It’s not an extremely light car, but at just over 3000lbs the RZ is still quite nimble, and thanks to its excellent weight distribution—the gearbox is mounted in the rear in pursuit of a good balance—the RZ is also easy to manage should the rear wheels start to walk out wide. It’s a surprisingly competent sports car, and is capable of 1G of lateral grip, or as Eugenio puts it, “It seems to be on tracks.”
Even if it handled like a brick on ice, the engine is a delight. The six-cylinder “Busso” has a power band that feels elastic, and while it might not be the fastest revving motor because of its longer stroke, it has a way of progressing through the rev range that seems endless. The motor was developed from an Autodelta racing engine after all. It’s not the most powerful lump under a hood, but it’s enough to complement the excellent suspension and chassis design, and the full experience is pretty close to totally unfiltered, with only power brakes and power steering to help you out.
The RZ is not the only Alfa in Eugenio’s collection, which induces two 1983 Autodelta Sprint Trophies, a 1957 Giulietta Spider, and an interesting Huntsman prototype with a 1.5 boxer engine fitted with a volumetric supercharger. And a Giulia TZ2 is near the top of his wish list, as he tells me. “From the Zagato-bodied cars, I find the TZ2 utterly amazing to look at, with lines that have only somehow become better with time. Maybe the future will hold one for me.”
Eugenio has participated in some rallies in Italy with his cars, but he prefers to use the RZ during the weekends for no other reason than to take trips into the Tuscan countryside, looking for winding roads and good restaurants. Pun aside, we think that’s pretty much a perfect way to drive tastefully.