Test drive: Alfa Romeo TZ

Slow in, fast out

Alfa's beautiful TZ arrived late on the scene - but it lit the fuse for the firm's return to the greatness on the track

There had been a time when winning was a given for Alfa Romeo. Pre-war, cars such as the P2, Tipo B and 8C had been the dominant forces of their era, while the 158 had ruled almost unchallenged over voiturette racing until hostilities interrupted the party. When peace came the 158 simply picked up where it left off and even in 1950 was good enough to win every single Grand Prix in the inaugural season of what we now call the F1 world championship – a feat that has yet to be repeated. 

It seemed its mildly modified successor, the 159, would do the same in 1951, until the British Grand Prix at Silverstone when a burly Argentine called Froilán González used the fuel efficiency of his normally aspirated Ferrari 375 to vanquish the fast but thirsty Alfas. Alfa won once more that season and never again in F1; Ferrari would go on to become the most successful F1 constructor of all. Alfa’s fortunes in competition fell off a cliff. In 1953 Fangio would enjoy some very limited success in the 6CM sports car but save a few prototypes that never got off the ground, Alfa Romeo simply stopped building racing cars. 

March 3, 1960. On the Zagato stand at the Geneva Motor Show sat a fabulously pretty little coupé called the SZ. It was there because Elio Zagato had rebodied in aluminium a few Giulietta Sprint Veloces in the 1950s and the resulting Giulietta SVZs enjoyed some success in racing and rallying, most notably winning the 1.3-litre touring car class in the 1956 Mille Miglia. With the SZ the arrangement would become formal: Alfa Romeo would supply mechanical components from its Giulietta Sprint Speciale – with a shorter wheelbase than the standard Giulietta – and Zagato would clothe it in a lightweight aerodynamic body styled by Franco Scaglione in the Bertone design studio. The result was gorgeous and at 840kg very light, especially compared with the 1110kg Sprint Speciale upon which it was based.

The SZ did well in competition, better than any Alfa-sanctioned product in years, proving a match for anything else around save that perennial thorn in its side, a well-driven Lotus Elite. But even as the SZ won its class in major sports car races around the world, Alfa Romeo was already thinking thoughts it had not dared entertain for years. If the SZ could go so well on standard, street-specification underpinnings, what might be possible if Alfa commissioned a proper racing car? You see the answer before you.

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If there is a sad fact about the TZ, it is that however great its successes were – and they were considerable – they’d have been greater still had the car turned up remotely on time. As it turned out, it took so long its front-engined design was out of date before it ever turned a wheel in anger. But Alfa Romeo was a frantically busy place at the end of the 1950s: the company’s crucial all-new Giulia saloon was sucking up the vast majority of
the money, talent and, above all, time at Alfa’s disposal.

Even so, at the end of 1959 the task of creating what would become the TZ was entrusted to Giuseppe Busso, one of Alfa’s most highly regarded engineers. Job one, the chassis, would be created from a latticework of small-diameter steel tubes in line with prevailing race car thinking. Importantly, and unlike the SZ, this structure bore no relation to any previous Alfa chassis. Power would come from the new 1.6-litre twin-cam motor and five-speed gearbox being developed for the Giulia. The double-wishbone front suspension was conventional enough, but at the rear was something entirely new for an Alfa: in place of the SZ’s live rear axle came fully independent suspension unique to the TZ and its TZ2 successor. Featuring a lower wishbone with the driveshaft providing the upper link and radius arms, it was highly sophisticated when you consider even the likes of Ferrari’s 250GTO used a live rear axle and leaf springs. Disc brakes all round replaced the SZ’s drums, with those at the rear inboard to reduce unsprung mass.

But simply getting the rolling TZ chassis to Zagato took a year and Zagato already had his hands full building SZs. He received his first chassis in January 1961 but it would be October – an entire season – before two prototypes with convertible roadster bodies fitted with hardtops were ready to go testing at Monza. But with long-time Alfa test driver Consalvo Sanesi driving, the car was unable to get below even the 2min 3sec lap times achieved by the same driver in the SZ. It must have been a fairly shattering moment: a far lighter sophisticated spaceframe car with a larger engine all seemingly contriving to make it go backwards.

The car had two essential problems: the body appeared to have the aerodynamics of a house brick, while the trick rear suspension was making the car more, not less difficult to drive. So body designer Ercole Spada dispensed with the open cockpit format, flowing the new roof into a longer tail, while Busso’s chassis engineers toiled with the suspension. Results were not long in coming: by mid-November Sanesi was lapping in 1min 55sec, and the following month a handy young chap just starting to make his name in Formula 1 – Lorenzo Bandini – got into the 1min 53sec bracket. Ultimately Sanesi would do a 1min 51sec lap, fully 12sec faster than any SZ had ever gone.

But with the Giulia taking priority at Alfa, at least until its public unveiling at Monza on June 27 1962, the TZ project continued at a snail’s pace. It needed to be homologated as a production GT car, mandating a minimum production run of 100 units, but it would be October before even the first finished prototype appeared at the Turin Motor Show. The cars still needed to be built and Alfa had neither the facilities, time, staff nor inclination to do it.

Instead of farming out the job to a single source, the TZ was sent in three different directions: the spaceframe was entrusted to aircraft manufacturer SAI Ambrosini, Zagato produced the body, while a company called Delta recently founded by ex-Ferrari engineer Carlo Chiti built the suspension and powertrains. By the time the TZ was ready to race, the renamed Autodelta would have become Alfa Romeo’s competition department, as clear a signal as there could be that Alfa’s return to racing was no toe-dip, but a serious commitment chasing serious results. 

But it would be March 1963 before the final production version was ready and, save a six-lap sprint at Monza in November in which Bandini won his class, another whole year before the TZ’s proper competition career would commence. It had taken more than four years to bring the TZ project to fruition, four years in which the racing world took probably its most fundamental change of direction, when it finally twigged that placing the engine behind the driver made for cars that were lighter, quicker and more aerodynamically efficient. For all its beauty and apparent speed, the TZ’s design was obsolete from the off.

And yet it triumphed. If you list only its class wins in ranking rounds of the 1964 World Sports Car Championship, TZs claimed the Sebring 12 Hours, the Targa Florio (in which it was third outright, beaten only by two mid-engined Porsche 904s), the Nürburgring 1000Kms,
Le Mans, the Coppa Inter-Europa, the Tour de France and the Montlhéry 1000Kms. In other words, the biggest sports car races on earth.

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This TZ, chassis 77 out of 112 built, did none of those things, though its history remains interesting. It was bought new by a Swiss customer who used it as road car before selling it in 1969 to local hillclimber Walter Pauli. He then raced it for three years before parking it for the next 15. Famed collector Albert Obrist bought it in 1987, had it restored by ex-Autodelta staff, fitted it with the twin-plug engine it retains to this day (the original has been kept with the car) before it was sold in 1995 to one Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Bernie had it for four years before it was bought by none other than the late John Coombs who eventually sold it to its current custodian. Adrian Hamilton, who has been charged with finding its next owner, describes it as “One of the finest, most original TZs to be offered for sale.”

It looks so light and delicate that it might blow away on a passing breeze, but its record says otherwise. Although weighing just 660kg (the glassfibre-bodied TZ2 that followed got down to 620kg), it proved itself able to last not only 24 hours at Le Mans but, perhaps more impressively, a dozen hours around the notoriously bumpy Sebring. Its aluminium body might seem flimsy, but the engineering of the car beneath was sound.

My first fear is that I simply won’t fit, for the car looks tiny. But once I’ve squeezed over the high sill and past that beautiful wood-rimmed, alloy-spoked Hellebore wheel, the driving position proves very comfortable. Ahead lies a huge and gorgeous Jaeger rev counter with no red line because TZs came with outputs from 112bhp to 170bhp and very different power delivery characteristics. Oil pressure and water temperature are displayed either side. As this is a road legal car it has a speedometer, but it’s located directly above the gearlever and completely away from your natural sight line.

Our photographic venue today is Prescott’s wonderful hillclimb, but noise restrictions mean our playground must be on public roads which for once are dry, open and remarkably quiet. Actually this TZ – it was only ever retrospectively referred to as the TZ1 – is quite quiet on the outside, but within the cabin the engine and transmission provide a rude and rambunctious atmosphere. Visibility forwards and to the sides is good, but limited to the rear and over the shoulder despite all those elegant fillets of Perspex at the back. The rear doesn’t open at all so if you need to change a tyre you have to pull the spare out through the doors and past the slim bucket seats.

I’ve driven a lot of 1960s Alfas, including an SZ, but none with a gearbox that found its way around the gate as precisely as this. Many different final drives were available for the TZ and this one feels suitably low and urgent. But the engine is clearly not doing its best work dawdling along the lanes: these twin-spark motors need revs and it’s only once the needle on the dial pushes past 4500rpm that the classic twin-cam four puts down its knitting and starts to pay attention. It should rev to nearly 8000rpm all day long but even staying shy of 7000rpm is to glimpse a level of performance seemingly entirely at odds with a car over half a century old with just 1600cc under its bonnet. It flings you forward, demanding gear after gear with a voice that’s musical but diamond-hard and brimming with purpose.

The TZ feels set up for track work and had I the spare near million pounds required to buy it, I’d spend a few more softening it up for the road and making the ride less challenging. But it handles superbly. Even on Avon street rubber grip levels are far beyond what you require for the public road, allowing the car to corner flat and astonishingly fast. The steering is sensibly geared and lets you place the car with delicious accuracy, all the feedback you could wish flooding through that Hellebore rim. I did find somewhere to push it just a little, which it rewarded with a touch of reassuring understeer, but with a precision instrument like this I’m sure you could set it up to behave almost any way you chose.

My time in the TZ was over too soon – as was the TZ’s competitive career. Having spent so long getting it ready, Alfa wasted no time at all preparing it successor, the even lower, lighter, plastic-bodied TZ2. Less attractive, more extreme and, with only 12 examples constructed, more a prototype than a genuine GT, it made its debut in 1965 and the following year claimed class wins at Monza, Sebring, the Nürburgring and at the Targa Florio.

But by then its job had been done: Alfa had once more been bitten by the competition bug and recognised it needed to go mid-engined. That car was the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 which duly made its debut in 1967 and would evolve over very many years into the mighty flat-12 33TT 12, the car that would win all but one round of the 1975 World Sports Car Championship, finally putting Alfa Romeo back on top of its chosen sporting discipline.

And as Henri Pescarolo and Derek Bell tasted the champagne after their final win that season, I don’t imagine anyone thought too hard about where the journey that brought them there had begun. But it was with this car, the underrated, remarkably pretty and pretty remarkable TZ. Twenty-three years since Alfa Romeo last won a major championship – the 1993 DTM – perhaps it’s time for Alfa to do another.

Our thanks to Duncan Hamilton & Co Ltd (www.duncanhamilton.com) for providing the TZ for this feature and Prescott Speed Hillclimb (www.prescott-hillclimb.com) for the use of its facilities