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In many ways they’re outcasts, and out-there ones at that.
These cars are evolutionary blips in Alfa Romeo lore.
One is redolent of 1970s shagpile glamour, the other wandered off the beaten track stylistically and never came back.
The Montreal and SZ are polar opposites of what a flagship model should be, yet alike in that they were born out of expediency and died in relative obscurity.
Neither truly realised its potential nor established its lineage.
History tells us that the Montreal never was much cop.
For all its flaws, however, it’s hard not to love this ornately gilded supercoupé.
Prior to the 8C Competizione, it was the only mass-production Alfa to feature a V8; a 90º quad-cam unit rooted in the Tipo 33 sports-racing programme.
Massively oversquare, this all-alloy unit overwhelmed its standard-wheelbase 1750 GTV platform.
The real issue, though, was that potential customers were underwhelmed.
A concept car in origin – strictly speaking, Bertone reworked a pair of GT Juniors for the Expo 67 ‘World’s Fair’ in Montreal – Alfa’s brief to stylist Marcello Gandini had been to build ‘man’s ultimate aspirations in the automobile field’.
He conceived an outline with Miura-esque B-pillar slats to suggest a mid-engined layout, the overall outline being muscular and bold if not classically beautiful.
Production wasn’t on the agenda, but Alfa was inundated with requests for replicas.
The notion of embarking on a short run of a few hundred cars soon morphed into a scheme to make something else, something altogether more exotic: the resultant roadgoing version was undraped in March 1970 at the Geneva motor show.
Predictably, the Montreal was beset with problems from the get-go.
Crippling strikes delayed full-scale manufacture until 1971, with initial UK imports arriving a year later.
Although not the dearest car in its category (at £5077, it undercut the BMW 3.0 CSi), it was thirsty (14mpg), the rear seats were next to useless and the motoring press, despite being impressed by its straight-line performance and compliant ride, didn’t always sugar-coat their criticisms of its rowdy on-the-limit manners.
A half-hearted competition programme didn’t cover the model in glory either.
Autodelta entered a Group 4-spec version in the 1973 Nürburgring 1000km, but this fat-arched, bespoilered device failed to make the finish.
Further afield, Trans-Am veteran Bob Cozza tried manfully to make the Montreal a winner Stateside; it had the pace, but not the reliability.
The small matter of a fuel crisis didn’t exactly aid the Montreal’s cause.
By the time its plug was pulled in 1977, just 3925 had been made, the lion’s share (2377) having been built in the model’s second year.
Just 180 or so were sold in right-hand-drive form.
Yet the Montreal was positively mainstream compared to Alfa’s next stab at a junior exotic.
Even now, the SZ parts traffic like a snowplough. Its nickname Il Mostro (‘The Monster’) remains justified.
As wonderful as it is, you can’t help but feel that it was never entirely finished.
Which is understandable when you consider the timeframe of its creation.
Shortly after Alfa Romeo was swallowed whole by Fiat in 1987, there was a genuine sense that the once-proud marque’s sporting credentials were in danger of being lost for good.
The Formula One comeback had amounted to little and it was left to sporadic Touring Car success to keep the name within shouting distance of the premium brands.
Not that there was anything especially premium about Arese road cars in the ’80s: this was the decade that bought us the Nissan Cherry-derived Arna, let’s not forget.
A ‘halo’ car was needed fast to bolster a flagging reputation.
A new-car programme, from concept to market, usually takes about four years.
Project ES30 (Experimental Sportscar/3.0-litre) went from artwork to showtime in just 19 months, with styling, research and development departments, plus Alfa Corse, all working with outside coachbuilder Zagato during the prototype stages and co-ordination of manufacture.
When it broke cover at the 1989 Geneva motor show, the SZ caused a furore.
Alfa Romeo unquestionably succeeded in putting its name back in the limelight.
Here was a pure styling statement, the ‘bovver boot’ outline polarising opinion like no other.
Many viewers hated the Robert Opron/Antonio Castellana co-production, proffering the sort of invective more recently meted out to BMW’s erstwhile art boy, Chris Bangle.
But the rest of us loved it because, at a stroke, The Monster heralded a new era of genuinely interesting design following a decade of charisma-free, amorphous McAutomobiles from the major players.
Of course, the SZ never made much of a mark on the Alfa sales chart, with just 1036 built, 38 of which were prototypes.
Of those allocated to the UK, most went to speculators who subsequently got burned when the investor boom imploded.
A sense of nearly but not quite still trails the SZ yet, even if you’re not smitten by its freakish exterior, you cannot help but be impressed by the way it drives.
The first thing that strikes you once inside is how comfortable the seats are, despite all that designer-led minimalism.
And even if you do sit with the lofty beltline at shoulder level, it’s far from claustrophobic, the sizeable glasshouse allowing reasonable over-the-shoulder vision, although you can’t really tell where the front ends.
Powered by the proven all-alloy V6 shared with the GTV6, 75 and 164 among others, it offers a deliciously fruity backbeat on the move, but the noise is never intrusive.
This isn’t a particularly quick car, even by the standards of the day, but the real joy of an SZ is its handling.
A traditional Alfa transaxle is the crux of this.
Borrowed from the 75, but with shorter ratios, the advantage of this set-up is that it allows for optimal distribution of the car’s 2769lb (1256kg) kerb weight.
Also in keeping is the rear suspension, a de Dion tube connecting hubs that are located longitudinally by twin converging trailing arms and laterally by a Watt linkage.
With lessons learned from contesting the (1987-only) World Touring Car Championship with the 75, there are uniball joints in place of rubber bushes, coil springs and an anti-roll bar for added stiffness, and a little negative camber for better grip.
Up front, there are double wishbones with coils in place of the regular 75 torsion bars.
The ride is firm, but there’s endless fun to be had playing with the cockpit-adjustable dampers: at their lowest setting, there’s negligible lift front and rear for a car with a drag coefficient of just 0.30Cd.
The rack-and-pinion steering is equally accomplished: not too much assistance, plenty of feedback.
For what is essentially a reworked 75 saloon, there is something alchemical about this car.
The SZ was – and remains – much more than the sum of its parts.
The same isn’t often said of the Montreal, but it is better than legend suggests.
First of all, it has an engine note to die for.
Even short-shifting south of the 6500rpm redline it proffers an engrossing, multi-tonal bellow of goosebumpy intensity.
From the comfort of the Bertone-designed driver’s recliner, the view ahead is equally fab, the busty black instrument pods echoing the exterior flamboyance.
Exotica of this era often ran out of ambition when it came to cabins, but this is so, well, groovy.
Like the SZ, it doesn’t feel fast, but 136mph and 0-60mph in an alleged 7.5 secs was worth bragging about in period.
And, again like the SZ, it has lots of usable torque and real-world flexibility.
The five-speed ZF ’box can snatch a little, but it’s hard to grandma a gearshift.
Beneath the tinsel, the Montreal is 1750 GTV right down to its wishbones-and-coils front end and live-axle arrangement out back, although it does feature big vented discs.
It rides well enough, but is not a polished handler in standard spec.
It’s nowhere near as bad as some have portrayed it, but body roll is pronounced and it swaps from understeer to oversteer when flogged on testing B-roads.
The unassisted recirculating-ball steering loads up swiftly, but you will need quick reflexes once the tail starts to flail.
Suspension tweaks by aftermarket firms have proved that taming these unruly tendencies isn’t too taxing.
There is much to like here. Anyone partial to Alfas knows that it is often a tough love, expressed via the medium of blind faith.
For a marque steeped in a century’s worth of achievement on road and track, it’s still capable of making colossal pratfalls.
These cars aren’t among them, yet somehow they remain marginalised even among the faithful.
Dizzyingly brazen, they deserve veneration because in many ways even the flaws are wonderful.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to: James Wheeler of Black & White Garage
This was originally in our January 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of first publication
An odder couple
Few marques can match Alfa when it comes to veering down culs-de-sac. It can’t help itself.
In the 1960s in particular, it lent its name to several off-beam products – witness the Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Quattroruote (above).
This pastiche, also known variously as the 4R Zagato or Replicar, was blessed by the factory and produced in something approaching volume numbers.
Gianni Mazzocchi, the founding publisher of Quattroruote magazine, conceived a car styled along the lines of the pre-war 6C-1750 but with modern running gear.
He tapped up Elio and Gianni Zagato – whose father Ugo had created landmark outlines for the 6C – for their input, and a prototype was built using Giulia Ti parts.
Mazzocchi loaned his 1930 6C – not a Zagato variant, ironically – to act as a template.
There was, however, a huge stumbling block. Such artistry doesn’t come cheap: at £2300 in 1966, the car was always going to suffer.
Outright performance wasn’t its métier, either: Motor managed a 0-60mph time of 12 secs and a top speed of 92mph.
Not even product placement in spy spoof Deadlier than the Male could save it and production ended in 1968, by which time 92 cars had reputedly been made.
Yet it did better than the radical 1600 Scarabeo (above).
The romantically named Officine Stampaggi Industriali (Industrial Pressworks) was briefly a prolific offshoot of Ghia and made a number of niche vehicles, including the Alfa Romeo 2600 Berlina Osi De Luxe, which was altogether more modern in appearance than Alfa’s own-brand premium saloon.
Making its debut at the 1966 Paris Salon, the mid-engined Scarabeo was effectively a Tipo 33 prototype and it promised much.
Sadly, just three were made before Osi was assimilated by Fiat’s design department.
Alfa Romeo Montreal
- Sold/number built 1970-’77/3925
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 2593cc 90º V8, Spica fuel injection
- Max power 200bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 173lb ft @ 4750rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, twin trailing arms, A-bracket; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 13ft 10in (4216mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
- Height 3ft 11½in (1204mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 9in (2362mm)
- Weight 2800lb (1270kg)
- Mpg 21
- 0-60mph 7.5 secs
- Top speed 136mph
- Price new £5077
Alfa Romeo SZ
- Sold/number built 1989-’93/1036
- Construction steel chassis/bodyshell with bonded Modar composite panels
- Engine all-alloy, ohc-per-bank 2959cc 60º V6, Bosch Motronic injection
- Max power 210bhp @ 6200rpm
- Max torque 181lb ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, RWD
- Suspension: front double wishbones rear de Dion axle, transverse trailing arms, Watt linkage; coils, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 13ft 2¾in (4059mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1730mm)
- Height 4ft 3½in (1311mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2¾in (2510mm)
- Weight 2769lb (1256kg)
- Mpg 21
- 0-60mph 6.8 secs
- Top speed 145mph
- Price new £42,000
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