SZ/RZ story

The SZ & RZ ( ES-30 ) Story.

In its 90 year history, Alfa Romeo produced a lot of cars which have remained memorable whether commercially successful or otherwise. I think the SZ, as a high performance supercoupe is one of those cars.

There are few cars which are so unique that they're considered a design classic as soon as they appear, but the Alfa Romeo SZ certainly is one of them. It was a product, a remarkable synthesis of two well known Italian companies looking for a new lease of life. There was Alfa Romeo, submerged in the Fiat-concern in the 1980s, with a tarnished image of building rusting cars which lacked quality searching for a renewed link with their exiting sportscar past. And there was Zagato, the Milan-based design studio and coach builder, which was making a gradual transition from developing and manufacturing (exotic) production car bodywork to industrial design and prototyping. Both companies found each other in a common need to reestablish their images in the late 1980s which lead to the remarkable Alfa Romeo SZ coupe and ultimately the RZ roadster.

It wasn't fashionable nor conservative, it took no cues from any other model and it wasn't easy on the eyes. You either loved it or hated it and at best it was avant-garde. It set a standard which was never followed, it was named and revered as "The Monster"; it brought life to the scene of wind tunnel and consumer groups dictated anonymous car design. In other words: it stirred emotions. And that's what makes a car more than an object.

Sketch produced by Mr. Robert Opron.

Sketch from Opron

This "Experimental Sportscar-3.0 litre" was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show as a prototype by Zagato, but in fact its design history was far more complicated. No less than 3 teams were asked to design a proposal:

1.) Alfa Romeo's own Centro Stile ( Walter da Silva and Alberto Bertelli ).
2.) Fiat's design center headed by Mario Maioli and Robert Opron, the distinguished French designer of the CitroŽn SM and the Renault Fuego for example.
3.) The studio Zagato.

Team 1.) Development of the model by team Alfa Romeo.

Sketch from Team Alfa Romeo

Team 2.) Development of the model by team Opron / Castellana.

Pictures below: Young Antonio Castellana -who discribes himself as an industrial designer, an architect and a graphic designer- was largely responsible for both the styling of the body and the interior of the car.

Sketches produced by Mr. Antonio Castellana

Mister A. Castellana

Drawings made in April / May 1987.

A. Castellana

Drawings made end of June 1987

A. Castellana

Castellana's Dash proposal.

A. Castellana

A. Castellana

A. Castellana

A. Castellana

A. Castellana

Team 3.) Unfortunately for Zagato its original design was discarded early.

Apparently Zagato made some contributions to the design of the front and the rear of the ES-30 and interior items like the seats. But most important: they where largely responsible for the production of the car so the illustrious "Z" crest of Zagato would grace the sides of the car.


The two designs compared

Team Fiat and Alfa Romeo

Ultimately the design which originated from the Fiat design center lead to the ES-30, with Robert Opron making the initial drafts.

General opinions on the almost extra terrestrial looking ES-30 were encouraging enough for Alfa Romeo to start up a production line for a limited series of this car, now renamed into SZ (Sprint Zagato) as a reminder to Alfa's inspiring past.

The SZ was planned and designed in a very brief lapse of time - 19 months to be exact - thanks to the use of integrated computer systems and CAD/CAM design, right from the first rough sketches.

The first 11 SZ cars were made that same year and a maximum production number of only 1,000 was announced. In 1990 the distribution of the SZ got under way with 289 cars produced. 1991 was to be last production year for the SZ. The final 736 cars left the factory, making the grand total for the SZ 1,036 produced cars (of which 38 were prototype and pre-production cars destined to be scrapped, but some of them are still extant). There was only one color scheme available for the SZ: a red body ("Rosso Alfa") combined with a dark grey roof section. The only exception to that was Andrea Zagato's personal car (a rebuilt Trophy racing car) which was completely black, also the complete interior seats, mats etc. has been changed into black. The mechanical components of the SZ were produced by Alfa Romeo and enhanced by Alfa Corse.

Mister Opron himself

Picture above shows Mr. Opron himself in between SZ 292 and 042 at his aniversary meeting in Paris 2002, where we met eachother.

The coachwork was a thermoplastic resin, reinforced with glassfibre composite material, bonded to a steel chassis with special adhesives to produce a body with extraordinary torsional rigidity. The result was dramatic and the Italian press described the car as " Il Mostro "..... "The Monster". It was instantly loved or hated. The glassfibre composite plastic bodyparts were manufactured by Carplast (Italy) and Stratime (France). Zagato's role was mainly assembling the cars

The mechanical concept of the SZ prototype was the fruit of intense work by Alfa Romeo who with the important contribution of Alfa Racing, were determined to achieve characteristics of road holding and handling unusual for a car which was not specifically intended for competition. For this purpose, three prototypes based on the "75" chassis, and the experience gained by the 75 in the World Touring Championship were necessary. After many experiments and test runs, the definitive mechanical lay-out was a fact.


In January 1988 the SZ prototype had a similar looking engine as used in the 3.0 litre V6 America 75. The 2959 cc., double overhead camshaft V6 light alloy engine with the banks set at 60 degrees and conventional 2 valves per cylinder was kept on as the sole candidate for the SZ. Maximum care was taken with the timing, the camshafts, the compression ratios and the geometry of the manifolds. The intake manifolds, wider diameter exhaust manifolds and the tubing for the coolant radiator are all of a new design, while a heat exchanger for cooling the gearbox oil plus a wider diameter air filter were also added. Fuel injection and ignition are controlled by an integrated electronic system ( Bosch Motronic ML 4.1 ) fitted with a detonation sensor.


The horsepower this engine did produce is 210 Hp. ( in reality mostly higher ) supplied at 6200 rpm. with the maximum torque of 25 kgm. ( also higher in reality ) coming in on a very flat curve at 4500 rpm. The top speed of the SZ is according to Alfa Romeo 245 km/h. ( I have seen the needle of the counter hit 275 km/h. ! ). The acceleration from 0 to 100 ( two persons and 50 kg. luggage in the car ) is within 7 seconds, while it covers the standing kilometre in 24,7 seconds.

The underpinnings of the car were also based on that of the Alfa 75. Front and rear suspension were adapted from the Alfa 75 group A/IMSA competition cars, complete with uniball joints.

The transaxle scheme, with front engine, rear gear-box-differential gearing group and De Dion axle, guarantees exceptional gear stability, thanks to optimal distribution of the load on the two axles. These characteristics and the particular asset assure the car's practically neutral behaviour and safe reliable driving under any condition. The transmission constitutes the rear change group in block with the differential gearing. The gear-box with 5 gears plus reverse, is provided with a single plate clutch with hydraulic command. The differential gearing is self blocking with 25% slip. The group is provided with an oil cooling circuit with radiator and circulation pump.


The coachwork had been lightened by 150 kg, with a dry weight of 539 kg. bearing the front axle and 501 kg. on the rear, but in contrast to its lightweight construction style it is actually heavier (by 10 kg) than the full steel Alfa 75 saloon car: the SZ puts a stately 1,260 on the scales. Other measurements are a width of 1.730 m, a length of 4.060 m and a height of 1.300 m. The frame was stiffened in accordance with the data provided by the torsion and flexibility testing on the racing vehicles.

The SZ prototype's very restricted ground clearance prompted the adoption of a hydraulic lifting . By means of a button on the konsole, the driver can raise the car by 50 mm. in order to get over bumps in the road etc.

The SZ featured an extreme torsional rigidity as a result of the steel shell construction with bonded plastic body panels. Combined with the sophisticated racinf suspension and the asymmetric Pirelli P-Zero tyres, the roadhandling is superb. With the suspension in the low setting ( 80 mm. ground clearance ) the SZ is able to pull more than 1.1. G in corners ( some drivers did succeed in pulling upto 1.4 G. ) In other words: it stays on track resisting a pulling force of more than its own weight. Imagine to go round a corner while a person of more than your own weight is hanging on to you, trying to force you the other way: that's what cornering in this car can be like...

For the first time there was a - not for active racing - sportscar built with a very low Cx of 3.0 together with a ground effect to balance the natural lift of the car

The SZ is the synthesis of traditional technology pushed to its highest level. So the SZ is not, and does not pretend to be a high tech car - in other words, it is not an expression of the desire to condense in a single automobile all the most modern technological advances. It is not a projection of the future with ingredients such as four-wheel drive, all-wheel steering, anti skid systems or anti locking systems, stuffed with electro-technology etc. So you can not see the SZ as a kind of concept car, but Alfa Romeo built a car deliberately lacking in this respect, seeking rather to push to the utmost a synthesis of traditional technology and sportiness, reaching goals which were extremely close to the characteristics of competition cars.

Trophy racing

"The Monster", like it was nicknamed by the press because of its extreme looks and amazing driving potential, is an unique car. It did just the trick: surprising people, getting attention and boosting Alfa Romeo's image. Many of the produced cars are still around and it's not hard to find one in Western Europe. Outside Europe on the other hand the SZ is extremely rare. Only in Japan there are more than a handful. The SZ had done the job it was meant to, but ultimately was quite hard to sell because of its extreme looks and because of the fact that the market for luxurious cars collapsed. A special racing class (the SZ Trophy) was introduced so the SZ (and RZ) could be used in competition on tracks all over Europe. Participants received a 25% discount on the not even exorbitant price of the cars in order to boost sales and to promote the series.

Regardless of the lacking commercial success of the SZ a new version appeared in 1992: the Roadster Zagato (RZ). Like the name indicates it was a convertible version of the SZ coupe. A year before Zagato had presented a SZ spider styling study, a remarkably elegant looking prototype SZ convertible with some curvy, almost feminine forms. But the actual RZ looked more like its SZ brother with angular shapes and the high waist line; more as if the SZ had been decapitated. However this car, unlike the SZ, was an original Zagato design. A limited production of only 350 cars was announced, but the RZ proved to be even harder to sell than the SZ. Only 278 roadsters left the factory; 50 in 1992 and 228 in 1993. Like the SZ the RZ was sold and distributed outside Italy mostly by enthusiasts and specialists, and not by the official Alfa Romeo channels.


A remarkable feature in the interior are the "Kevlar" panels in the dashboard of the SZ, which give a racy light-weight impression. But it isn't really (expensive) carbon fibre material, only Fablon with a plastic coating. In the RZ these panels have been replaced by black coated aluminum panels. The seats have no height adjustment and this means that taller people have reduced visibility in the RZ because of the low windscreen with the large top edge. The windscreen rim also acts as a roll-over bar in the RZ, hence its size. Underneath the body not much was changed. Like the SZ the new RZ featured the 3.0 litre V6 with 210 hp and 245 Nm. A nice aspect of this engine is the even availability of torque: between 2500 and 6000 rpm there's always at least 230 Nm available. This makes the SZ and RZ flexible cars to drive, equally competent at touring as at performance driving. A downside to the RZ is its weight: 1380 kg, an increase by 120 kg causing it to be less nimble than the SZ. Maximum speed of the RZ is 230 kph and the car is capable of a 0-100 kph acceleration in 7.5 seconds.


The body of the RZ shows some revisions from that of the SZ. Most notably of course the (unlined) fold away top which disappears in a space behind the seats, under a lid with two typical Zagato bulges. Other changes include different side windows to fit the top, a new engine cover, now without the ribbed segment in the middle part in front of the windscreen, more concealed window wipers, a higher front spoiler to offer more ground clearance, revised side-skirts and a darker rear light strip. Less noticeable but also a remarkable difference from the SZ is the utilization of thinner plastic panels in order to reduce weight. In all, creating the RZ required more than 500 new parts and all moulds for the plastic components had to be renewed. Quite expensive for such a limited production run. With the top down the roadster looks less harmonious than the coupe, it gives an impression of a chunky wedge. It takes a lot of getting used to, but on the other hand it conveys a butch brutality, like a pumped up body-builder. The RZ is definitely a car for those who like to be noticed as non-conformists.

A typical Alfa Romeo characteristic can be found in the drive train of the SZ and RZ: the transaxle transmission construction. This means that the gearbox isn't directly attached to the engine, but to the rear axle, combined with the (limited slip) differential. The construction offers a better weight distribution with enhanced road holding as a result, but always had the downside of an indirect, uncomfortable gear change. Remarkably Alfa had finally solved this problem in the SZ and RZ, the last models the factory fitted with this construction. The original 5-speed gearbox of the SZ was fitted with a single plated clutch, which often proved to be too weak. But nowadays better replacements are for sale ( see the techtips section ).

four colours

Unlike the SZ the RZ was available in three different color schemes: red, yellow and black. Next to that, three RZ cars were delivered in silver and one in metallic white. In all the RZ is a rare, exotic car and definitely a future collectors item.

2 Silver coloured RZ's ( number 254 and 266 ) had some extra's from the company Zender, such as the 5 spoked wheels, some steel accessories as the gearleaver knob, the handbrake handle, the "door lock pins" on top of the doors interior. Also the silver RZ's came with another steering wheel than the normal Momo one. As far as I know there was one silver car in Germany. Sold in 2008 to Italy and one has been exported to Japan. In September 2013 we found the third Siver RZ, number 262 - a never registrated car - with only 300 km. on the counter in Italy. This car had no Zender extra's. Over the years the first 2 lost some of their Zender accessories.

In october 2008 I also found out - via Mr. Yuichiro Shima - that the Pearl white RZ was owned by AUTECH ZAGATO which is a JV between ZAGATO and a subsider of Nissan motor. They owned the car for some time and than sold it to a private Japanese owner. I do not have further info about that car, but I hope the owner will register the car soon !

Since the SZ/RZ Alfa Romeo more or less abandoned the sports car niche market and went for volume production. Also the ties with Zagato weren't renewed; the successors to the SZ and RZ models, the elegant and stylish GTV and Spider introduced in 1995, were built by Pininfarina, Zagato's long term rival. Zagato moved on to industrial design, developing all kinds of vehicles like fork lifts and trains, but also shows and builds prototype and concept cars once in a while.

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