The Beauty Of The Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale Is More Than Skin-Deep
Photography by Kevin Van Campenhout // Tipo 33 Stradale generously provided by Museo Storico Alfa Romeo
Over the course of the last half-century, The Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale has been deservedly canonized as one of the most beautiful cars ever built—calling it “good-looking” is like describing the universe as “pretty big.” The Stradale’s presence immediately renders its surroundings mundane by comparison, whether it’s parked among the hip architecture in the courtyard of Museo Storico Alfa Romeo, or among tens of millions of dollars’ worth of trophy-hopefuls at Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza—and even among the concepts it spawned. In other words, if Italy ever redesigns its flag we’d petition for a Stradale to go right smack in the middle.
Stradale stylist Franco Scaglione’s aeronautically inspired shell of Peraluman alloy is a sensual collection of curves and proportions that have been weakening knees since the prototypes were first shown in the fall of 1967 in Monza and Turin, but the motorsport-derived engineering inside the shiny red wrapper has contributed equally to the Stradale’s saintly status for good reason.
Putting aside the eventual dominance of the Tipo 33 competition cars (which by the end of their lineage shared a name but hardly anything else with the first Tipo 33s), the significance of the road-going Tipo 33 becomes clear when we consider the timeline of Alfa Romeo’s racing efforts and the sweeping changes that coincided with the creation of this gorgeous object.
The Milanese manufacturer had backed out of Grand Prix racing following its championship-winning 1951 season with the “Alfetta” 159, and besides a handful of prototype efforts that followed shortly thereafter—most notable being the original Disco Volante—the factory’s motorsport program was significantly pared down when it officially withdrew its factory teams from all competition in 1953. For the remainder of the decade and the into the early 1960s, this equated to the work of the de facto motorsport arm of Alfa Romeo—Servizio Esperienze Speciali, defined by the talents of Orazio Satta Puliga and Giuseppe Busso—being reduced to a few unrealized prototypes while providing some support to third parties that were racing in smaller series with modified versions of Alfa Romeo’s production offerings—namely the Giulietta Sprints and Spiders.
This is where Giuseppe Luraghi comes into the story. Appointed to the top of Alfa Romeo in 1960 after a successful string of other positions within the parent company at the time—IRI, or Institute for Industrial Reconstruction—the company president would lead the marque back into world-class motorsport in what would later be recognized as the beginning of Alfa Romeo’s most successful period of international sports car racing. It’s no stretch to call the poet and novelist Luraghi a modern renaissance figure of sorts, and like all good romantics working in the world of cars, he was keen to go racing. He was a proponent of the “Win on Sunday” approach to selling cars, and what this meant for Alfa Romeo was a period of rapid technological evolution spearheaded by the work of Autodelta and Carlo Chiti.
By the mid 1960s, Chiti had already led a notable career with Ferrari as a technical director, followed by a short stint at ATS (which was staffed by Chiti and many of his former Ferrari colleagues that left Modena during the Palace Revolt). But the ATS projects led by Chiti and co. weren’t realized to the extent they perhaps could have been with better backing, and Chiti soon shifted his attention to preparing Alfa Romeos for racing clientele. Luraghi was well aware of Chiti and what he could accomplish given the right projects and resources, and when it came time to restart Alfa Romeo’s factory racing program in the mid 1960s, Chiti and his Autodelta employees were given the chief responsibility.
The members of Servizio Esperienze Speciali were not overly psyched to have their work essentially handed off to Chiti and Autodelta, but Luraghi managed to keep the tensions under enough control for everyone to stay productive—surely aided in no small part by the relative isolation of Autodelta’s walled-in compound outside of the city. The Zagato-bodied, tube-framed Alfa Romeo TZ was the first project given to Autodelta to form the basis for a racing program, and while the outcomes of the TZ and TZ-2 sufficiently demonstrated Autodelta’s abilities, the definitive Tipo 33s were still to come.
The chassis that would underpin the very first Tipo 33 racing prototype had already been in development within Servizio Esperienze Speciali for some time before Luraghi brought Chiti and Autodelta onboard to take over and speed up the process, which makes the start of the Tipo 33 lineage attributable to both departments in a sense. The chassis, an H-shaped amalgamation of riveted-together magnesium alloys, can arguably be counted as the physical starting point for the Tipo 33 line, but Autodelta would do the majority of the work that followed, including nearly carte blanche evolutions of the 33 that brought home the biggest trophies.
To try to keep this scope relevant to the 33 Stradale though, the original chassis design of the 33 race car was first put to use in a series of prototype sports cars bodied by the coach builder Ghia’s OSI outfit. The results were two cab-rearward closed cockpit sports car concepts and a partially completed spider variant, which can be seen as something of a rough outline for the race car that would come to be known as the 1967 Tipo 33 Fléron, which was used as the basis for the Stradale completed later that year.
The motor was a different matter though, as the OSI cars—collectively referred to as Project Scarabeo—were fitted with existing Alfa options while Autodelta worked on the car’s new racing heart back at Autodelta. It’s unclear whether the motor that would go on to power the Fléron was originally developed totally in-house by Busso and co., or if it was based on an older Chiti design that he’d come up with at ATS, but whatever the true provenance, the result was a compact two-liter dry-sumped V8 that rapidly evolved to feature SPICA fuel injection in place of the originally fitted carbs, twin-plug ignition, a flat crank, four camshafts, a compression ratio of 11:1, and an ability to rev comfortably beyond 10,000rpm. Extensive use of alloys amplified the lightweight factor of the little V8 screamer, and when paired with the largely magnesium chassis, the resultant Tipo 33 race car won its first outing, at a hill climb in event in Fléron, Belgium (which is where the car’s adopted name, Tipo 33 Fléron, comes from).
The Fléron started off much stronger than it finished the 1967 season, but it had lit the fire that Luraghi had hoped for. Autodelta would update and then discard the Fléron chassis design in favor of stronger and safer ones in the years and variants of the Tipo 33 that followed, but all of the championship and race wins that came thanks to those cars still owe something to the original Tipo 33 that begat their existence. This is why the 33 Stradale is so special beyond its pulchritude; it was born from this same period, and is directly linked to the genesis of the legendary Tipo 33 motorsport success story. It’s a breathtaking car to look at from the outside, but the engineering underneath is saturated with provenance and ingenuity.
Luraghi’s decision to bring Alfa Romeo back into racing was ultimately seated in the hope that a presence on track would lead to more customers in showrooms, but he wasn’t going to limit their options to just typical sports models, so he asked Chiti and co. to turn the Tipo 33 Fléron into a road car that would put Alfa on the map with the likes of Ferrari. The result was far more exotic though. Autodelta lengthened and strengthened the racing chassis for road use (which meant less magnesium and more steel, but the design was still directly based on the racing version, with fuel bladders inside the chassis tubing and everything), lowered the compression and otherwise slightly detuned the V8 to produce around 230hp (down about 40-50hp from the racing specification), and turned to Franco Scaglione to produce the bodywork.
By all accounts, Scaglione and Chiti’s relationship was not the smoothest—this was Scaglione’s last project with Alfa Romeo in fact—but despite any clashing of ideals, it only took a matter of months to complete the first Tipo 33 Stradale. The fruit one was an all-aluminum-bodied prototype (rather than the Paralumum alloy used for the rest of the production Stradale bodies) first shown to the public in the fall of 1967. That car is now in a collection outside Italy, but Alfa Romeo owns the second Stradale produced—and the museum was kind enough to bring it into the sunlight for these photos—which has its own share of unique features.
Noticeable differences between this Stradale and the others is the four-headlamp design, which was only seen on the first and second examples, as safety regulations mandated the two-lamp design featured in the Stradale’s production series. Wholly unique to this car however is the ventilation in the bodywork, where the opening behind the rear wheel is split into two sections, as opposed to the Stradale’s that followed with a single-opening design.
As you might expect from extremely low-volume Italian cars born from racing, there are minor differences to spot between the 18 examples of the Stradale—mostly to the interiors, but also small things like nose trim pieces—but you’re unlikely to get the chance to compare any two side by side. And whenever a lone example does make an appearance, the crowd that inevitably congregates will make it hard enough to see more than square foot of bodywork at a time, which makes the opportunity to spend some one-on-one with Alfa’s own 33 all the more special.
Its extreme degrees of rarity and beauty would be enough to make the Stradale beloved even if it was packing a rudimentary ladder frame and a tractor’s power train. But the fact that it nearly literally embodies the paradigm-shifting people and ideas behind what is arguably Alfa Romeo’s most significant competitive era made it truly mythic.