1990 Alfa Romeo SZ ($105,000)
Written by Andrew Golseth
Photography by Hunter Kelley
- Location: Buchanan, New York
- Chassis: ZAR1620003000035
- Engine: 3.0-Liter 12-Valve V6
- Transmission: Five-Speed Transaxle
- Mileage: 4,900 kilometers
- Color: Rosso Alfa | Red, Black, & Tan
- Production Run: 1,036 coupes
A CROSS, A SERPENT, AND A HOWLING MONSTER
When the sheets came off at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show, the resulting gasp surely echoed through the vast halls of the Palexpo. Red, angular, downright alien, the Alfa Romeo ES-30 (Experimental Sportscar 3.0-Liter) had landed. A collaboration with the famed design house Zagato, this ruthlessly futuristic vision quickly turned into a reality, and the Alfa Romeo SZ (Sprint Zagato) was officially put into production. One thousand examples, based on the underpinnings of Alfa’s Milano, unleashed upon a world just barely coming to grips with what the Italians had concocted. It’s Il Mostro, they whispered. Alfa had released The Monster.
Although Zagato had some influence in the design, the storied coachbuilder was primarily involved in the car’s construction. Collaborating with Carplast and Stratime, they created the body with thermoplastic injection molded composites, a very avant-garde technology in the late 1980s. Underneath these panels Alfa worked their magic, basing the suspension design on the Group A/IMSA Alfa 75 race car, and providing excellent weight distribution via the use of a rear transaxle. With a sub-2,800-pound curb weight, short wheelbase, and a stiff, no-nonsense suspension, the SZ is exceptionally agile, capable of exceeding 1G on the skidpad. The low factory ride-height was cause for concern on the street though, so Alfa fitted the suspension with hydraulically adjustable Koni dampers controlled via an in-car button for an additional 50mm of ground clearance.
Up front, legendary Alfa engineer Giuseppe Busso’s V6 reigned supreme, featuring a higher 10:1 compression ratio and hotter cams. With 210 horsepower on tap, it leapt from 0 to 60 mph in just under seven seconds. But it’s not sheer flat-out speed that made the SZ so special, rather it was the character and charisma of that impossibly smooth, howling Busso—one of history’s greatest V6s, if not engines—that elevated this car to the highest echelons of driving pleasure.
The initial sketches of the car that would become the SZ were penned in-house by Robert Opron while he was at Fiat Centro Stile, while the final styling touches of the production SZ was handled by a young Antonio Castellana. While not classically beautiful, there’s no denying the SZ’s ability to captivate and awe with its futuristic strangeness and otherworldly aggression. From the six angular lamps glaring up front to the dramatically abrupt rear end, the design does not shy away from controversy and unorthodoxy.
Standing next to one in the flesh, the SZ is a surprisingly low-slung car that has managed to age far better than a lot of the late-’80s cutting edge. The rich, leather-wrapped interior is equally enthralling, with curvaceous, thin pillars offering plenty of visibility and light, while the dash is adorned with carbon fiber trim and enough Zagato Design tags to continuously remind you how special this car is—not that you’d forget. It’s striking, aggressive, unusual, and unmistakably Italian. Simply put: it’s the quintessential Alfa Romeo/Zagato collaboration.
This 1990 Alfa Romeo SZ is an extremely early example: number 18 of just 1,036 coupes produced. With only 4,897 kilometers (3,043 miles) clocked since new, it is incredibly well preserved and certainly one of the most pristine examples remaining nearly thirty years after the fact. Never sold in North America, this SZ was discovered in the Netherlands and became one of the first imported to the United States in 2015, eligible under the 25 year classic car exemption rule.
As the odometer shows, this SZ has seen very limited usage over the years and is entirely original with no accident damage. Fully sorted and recently out of an enthusiast’s collection, it provides a rare opportunity to feel exactly what these cars were like when factory fresh. A bespoke, full-stainless exhaust and accompanying tune further enhance the driving experience and subtly improve upon the car’s already impressive performance.
Body – The composite body panels are straight and original, including the damage-prone lower sections. Below, the undercarriage is especially clean and dry, evidence of fastidious maintenance throughout the years.
Paint – The Rosso Alfa paint is original and in very good condition, with some tiny areas of blistering on the hood and rear end—a common issue with these cars.
Trim & Glass – There is some minor delamination at the edges of windshield, but the greenhouse is otherwise flawless and all plastics and rubber trim are in exceptional condition.
Wheels – The two-piece modular Speedline wheels are pristine with a brilliant, mirror-like finish with no pitting or curb rash.
Steering Wheel – The simple, black leather three-spoke steering wheel appears flawless along with the correct Alfa center cap horn button.
Dashboard & Instrumentation – The black leather-wrapped dashboard shows no cracks or tears and is complete with all of its original Veglia instrumentation and switchgear. Everything presents as-new and functions properly.
Seats, Trim & Carpet – The tan leather bucket seats have perfect bolsters and minimal wear. The tan carpeting remains free of any notable staining or discoloration, while the door panels and headliner are similarly well preserved.
Engine – The renowned 3.0-liter V6 is in ruddy health and starts quickly with no smoking or leaks. The tune and exhaust add an extra edge to this masterpiece of an engine without changing its inherent sophistication and reliability.
- Original Motor: Yes.
- Engine Number: Available on request.
- The Drive: Once underway this Busso motor impresses with its silky-smooth power, while its famous exhaust tone sings through upgraded stainless pipes.
Transmission – The five-speed manual transaxle is tight, direct, and perfectly preserved. Unlike many Alfas, there are no iffy synchros or other eccentricities to manage, just the joy of endless, crisp shifts.
- Original Transmission: Yes.
- Gearbox Number: Available on request.
- The Drive: In typical fashion of Alfas in good health, the transmission shifts very directly and smoothly.
This car hasn’t been restored, instead it has been fastidiously preserved and only driven on occasion since new. The body, chassis, and interior remain completely original, while the driving experience remains as the factory intended. Tasteful upgrades to the engine ECU and exhaust are both desirable and completely reversible, further refining a car that above all else is an ode to the best sort of Italian motoring.
Included in the sale are the car’s gorgeous leather-bound manuals and signed certificate of authenticity, original jack and tool roll, and various maintenance/parts receipts. Documentation from its former life in Europe includes an exhaustive tax inspection report with photos, as well as all import documents. Now registered in New York, this SZ is offered with a clean and clear New York title.
- 1991 Alfa Romeo SZ– Silverstone Auctions: Race Retro Classic Car Sale 2015 – £84,938 (~$135,000 at the time) – Red/Tan – 808 kilometers
- 1990 Alfa Romeo SZ – RM Sothebys London 2015 – £ 67,200 (~$107,000 at the time) Red/Tan – 349 kilometers
Check this awesome (and very, very ’90s) promo film showing the lineage of the SZ, beauty shots, and more about how it’s been engineered:
Rare, Red, & Rad – With only 1,036 SZ coupes produced, these undeniably unique Alfas are extremely rare, especially stateside where they were never sold new. This early example, number 18, is an investment piece, a weekend driver, or both. Whether at a concours or a Cars & Coffee, it is an important chapter of Alfa Romeo history that will always draw a crowd.
Exotic Looks without Exotic Maintenance – Sharing a platform and engine with the Alfa 75/Milano, the SZ may look like nothing else out there, but at the same time it won’t provide much of a challenge for your mechanic. Drivetrain parts are plentiful, the engine is known to be robust and reliable, and support within the Alfa community is always unwavering.
Tame the Monster – On the fence about its looks? Trust Francis Bacon’s claim that “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The SZ is the best type of art: provocative, challenging, stunning. The more you look, the less you’ll want to look away.
MEET THE SELLER
This car is for sale by Benjamin Tarlow of Mid-Century Motoring, you can get to know him better here.