The Alfa Romeo Iguana: An Intriguing, Influential Concept From A Definitive Italian Designer
Photography by Kevin Van Campenhout // Iguana generously provided by Museo Storico Alfa Romeo
How should we judge concept cars? Which merits matter? If we’re trying to be objective, we might look at the whether or not a production version followed, and we can then add up the sold volume to make a rough financial assessment, but that’s the kind of cold and mundane thinking that gives bean counters a bad rep. People who truly love cars don’t love them for their ability to exceed sales projections, but to take the opposite side of the argument, we should also ask what’s so great about a radically good-looking but ultimately engineless and futureless machine that only moves when it’s spinning on a turntable at an auto show?
Concepts of that nature might inspire little Johnny Car Enthusiast to smudge out a crude crayon rendition of what he saw—and to be clear, we’re all for this, whether that drawing marks the first step toward a storied career as the next great designer or simply the beginning of a greater appreciation for cars—but the really special concepts are impactful in both the practical and idealized world. To put that differently, a good concept car shows us more than just a vision of tomorrow, it helps us get there through actual production. When inspiration is followed by manifestation, an otherwise ephemeral story becomes a real legacy.
This metal flaked masterwork of Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Iguana, is an interesting example of this. It may not have been directly translated into a production version by Alfa Romeo, but Giugiaro would reference this design in much of his work that followed in the 1970s. Cars like the Maserati Bora and Merak were clearly born from the Iguana’s styling, and techniques like using brushed stainless steel components would also be coopted into future Giugiaro designs, like the infamous DMC DeLorean.
Although the time-traveling car is more or less a novelty to most people now, the Maseratis were part of a more significant cadre of sports cars with real staying power. They weren’t the very first mid-engined Italian offerings, but together with cars like the Lamborghini Urraco, DeTomaso Pantera, and later the Ferrari 308, these cars make up a zeitgeist. Defined by their pointy noses, mid-mounted V8s, and sublime mixtures of supercar and grand tourer, this group of cars represented their manufacturers stepping into a new era, which ultimately led to the “baby supercar” market we have today. It’s not a stretch to say that the current segment characterized by 488 Italias, Huracáns, and even Audi R8s owes its existence to this group of mid-engined Italian sports cars from the 1970s.
The Iguana’s role in that group’s design language is enough to consider it a fruitful and important concept, but the Iguana’s ramifications are only part of what makes it so cool. It pushed the design of sports cars forward in a significant way, but the circumstances behind its creation have their own historical relevance (for one, it was one of the first noteworthy concepts that Giugiaro created under his then-new studio, ItalDesign). The provenance of the actual metal beneath the Iguana’s metallic shell and greenhouse cockpit is even more special—though they hardly bear any resemblance, the Iguana is in fact built on the same chassis as the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale.
In the mid 1960s, Alfa Romeo management decided to return to the forefront of motorsport with a true works team after spending nearly a decade without one. The engineers at Alfa Romeo’s Autodelta were tasked with the brunt of the work, and by 1967 the first Tipo 33 race car was entered in competition.
The car won its first race—a hillclimb in Fléron, Belgium—and over the ensuing decade, the evolutions of the Tipo 33 sports racing prototypes evolved into true world champions that beat the likes of Ferrari and Porsche on the international stage. From Le Mans to the Targa Florio, Alfa Romeo had achieved what its proponents hoped and knew it could thanks to the Tipo 33s, but the legacy of that period has come to be equally defined by a certain street car.
The Tipo 33 Stradale—which you can read more about here—was conceived as a way to parlay Alfa Romeo’s reignited racing spirit into a halo production vehicle. Using a strengthened and lengthened version of the first Tipo 33 race car’s chassis and a detuned version of the two-liter twin-plug V8 that powered it, the Stradale could genuinely be considered a road-going competition car. Its mechanical DNA was derived from motorsport, its impeccably pretty aesthetics were the work of the supremely talented Franco Scaglione, and it had to be put together by well-trained hand. In essence, it wasn’t a cheap car, and it didn’t sell like one.
Alfa Romeo reportedly planned to produce and sell a series of 50 Stradales, but less than half of that were realized. Just 18 examples were built, so there were some chassis left over. Rather than scrapping or dumping them unceremoniously in the back alley, though, Alfa decided five of the spare chassis could be put to much better use by the artisans at Italy’s major design houses: Bertone, Pininfarina, and ItalDesign.
ItalDesign, led by Giugiaro, showed the Iguana at the 1969 Turin Motor Show. After a few more showings and some photoshoots, the car was superseded by the ItalDesign projects that evolved it into the production Maseratis mentioned earlier.
If the topic of conversation is 50-year-old Italian concept cars, the Iguana is hardly an unknown. Considering the design’s influence on the then-forthcoming generation of paradigm-shifting mid-engined super and sports cars, however, the Iguana unfairly lives in the shadow of what it begat. But whether or not you agree with that assessment, there’s no denying that it deserves to be in the sun. And thanks to its caretakers at the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo, it still has the chance to.