Alfa Romeo SS

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When it proved too hefty as a racer, the SS was transformed into a luxurious and distinctive grand tourer whose performance belies its age

By Richard Heseltine, Photography by Howard Simmons

Every footnote has a footnote. With a bulging back catalogue that numbers as many hits as misses, Alfa’s sublime Sprint Speciale was simultaneously a success and a failure. Conceived for motor sport, it was given a thorough – and routine – drubbing by a similarly-powered rival whenever they met trackside. This was the car that Auto Motor und Sport once cruelly labelled: ‘a touring sports car in which one can look the part of a race driver without being able to win anything’. Yet despite being designed for track usage, a happy by-product was dazzling – some would say startling – looks that helped ease the SS into its secondary career as a boulevardier for the beautiful people. 

And it is an extraordinary-looking car: always has been. There was nothing comparable in period, this flight of fancy being the work of a troubled genius; one whose talent was ultimately laid waste by personal demons. Franco Scaglione was 34 years old when he joined the near-dormant Bertone carrozzeria in 1951. Among his initial designs for the cash-strapped firm was a rebodied MG TD. Staring down ruination, company principal Nuccio Bertone took the finished article to the following year’s Turin Auto Salon in the hope of selling it. One show visitor, Chicago wheeler-dealer Stanley H ‘Wacky’ Arnolt, was so enamoured of this handsome device that he promptly ordered 200 replicas! Scaglione could do no wrong, his boss putting up with unexplained – and often lengthy – disappearances while taking advantage of his boundless productivity as and when the mood took him. For a while, at least.

More than just another automotive artiste, Scaglione had a mathematical bent and a firm grasp of streamlining. Unveiled at the October ’57 Turin Auto Salon, the Bertone Sprint Speciale prototype drew styling cues from the firm’s Alfa 1900-based BAT (Berlinetta Aerodynamica Technica) design studies of 1953-54. When tested at Moto Guzzi’s wind tunnel facility at Lake Como, these wildly-sculptured coupés produced a wealth of data concerning high-speed stability and the effects of turbulence, Scaglione translating and interpreting these values into the SS. 

The initial test hack was based on a shortened 750-series Giulietta Spider platform with the central floorpan section lowered to reduce the height of the seats, the frame supporting the radiator being similarly dropped by about 50mm to allow a lower bonnet line. In the months leading up to its show debut, Bertone’s backroom boys had been engaged testing the muletto on the Milan Turin Autostrada, the prototype covered with wool tufts for airflow experiments. The result was a drag coefficient of a staggeringly low 0.29Cd, a figure many cars 50 years its junior struggle to emulate. A further variation was displayed at the March ’58 Geneva Motor Show, one that was visibly softer at its extremities, two inches having been removed from the nose area while an additional 20mm had been inserted into the roofline.

Conspicuously absent from both show cars was Alfa’s corporate grille. It was in place by the time the definitive production version was announced to the media at Monza in June 1959. Bodied in steel with aluminium bonnet, boot and doors, further weight was saved by the use of Plexiglas glazing. Power came from a hotted-up 1290cc twin-cam ‘four’ mated to a five-speed ’box, Alfa’s PR talking of a top speed in excess of 125mph, making the SS the fastest 1.3-litre production car in the world. In a straight line.

Though sponsored from the outset by Alfa Romeo, it was immediately apparent that Bertone’s brave new world couldn’t keep pace with Zagato’s unsanctioned offering. There were occasional successes: Vincenzo Riolo and Allessandro Federico scored a class win and placed 13th overall on the Targa Florio in 1960, the former also triumphant in three rounds of that year’s Italian Mountain (hillclimb) championship, including the prestigious Coppa Gallenga meeting. Closer to home, Peter Bolton used the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show car for the following season’s Autosport series, but threw in the towel before the year was out after being beaten hollow by fleet Elvas and Morgans. For all its air-cleaving ability, the SS was simply too heavy ever to be truly competitive, causing Alfa to officially adopt Zagato’s previously frowned-upon Giulietta SZ as a production model, paving the way for the glorious TZ and TZ2.

Obsolete as a racer before reaching adolescence, the SS swiftly found a new reason for being. The second-generation edition arrived near the end of 1959 and coincided with the changeover from 750 to 101-series Giulietta models, meaning improvements in refinement and driveability if no significant rise in performance as the pounds piled on. No longer with any pretensions of being a racer, the SS’s protuberant nose receded, the headlights being raised by 70mm to appease US laws while also gaining a shapely front bumper. The windows were now made of glass, the doors of steel and the Kamm tail reworked to house two rear lights, vertically stacked. If anything, it looked even more ‘out there’, and was now actively promoted as a Gran Turismo rather than a homologation special. 

So it continued until mid-1962 when the last Giulietta Sprint Speciale rolled out of Bertone’s Grugliasco plant, by which time 1361 cars had reputedly been made (101 of these being of the early ‘racer’ variety; one more than required by the CSI eligibility requirements). After a short hiatus, the model reappeared in early ’63 in revised – and renamed – Giulia form. Displacement was now raised to a useful 1570cc, meaning 112bhp at 6500rpm and improved flexibility, the cabin receiving a reworked dash and fresh instrumentation. Predictably, it was heftier, too, at some 1400kg (the original car was 780…). Nonetheless, Alfa’s PR machine trumpeted the car’s exclusivity and couture construction, the sales literature gushing that the SS was for ‘the man who has everything’. That would include deep pockets. At a UK price of £2394 in 1965, the Alfa was £400 dearer than a Jaguar E-type 4.2 coupé. You really had to want an SS. 

Some 1400 Giulia Sprint Speciales were made up to 1966. A replacement was mooted, and a prototype made, but the glorious Giulia Sprint GT was already on the roster, its GTA offspring a race winner, so the idea was dropped. Scaglione was long gone. Following one disagreement too many with Nuccio Bertone he went solo in 1959, becoming a pen for hire. Commissions included the 350GTV for Ferruccio Lamborghini, the incomparably pretty, Marazzi-made Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale and a series of beauties for boutique marque Intermeccanica. 

Tragically, Scaglione’s secret was by now common knowledge within the design community. He had been a functioning drug addict for decades, becoming hooked on morphine after being treated for injuries incurred after his ship was torpedoed during WWII. Increasingly gripped by the narcotic, the quietly-spoken and painfully shy futurist became disillusioned and desensitised. Having invested in Intermeccanica, he penned his final car for the minnow – the handsome Indra – in 1971. And then lost everything as the firm turned turtle. He disappeared off the radar, his whereabouts a mystery even to ex-colleagues. Sporadic articles appeared over the ensuing decades, usually claiming he died in 1980 aged 63. In reality, Scaglione soldiered on in impecunious obscurity until 1991: unlike fellow Florentine Leonardo di Vinci, he has seldom received due acclaim.

Fortunately he left behind several reminders of his uncelebrated greatness, the Sprint Speciale being among the best. While its silhouette will always polarise opinion – there are no shades of grey, you either love it or you’re a cretin – the SS is a rational design for all the glitz. The roofline and side glazing treatment has been cribbed a million times, the tapered rear being robbed wholesale for the first-generation Jaguar XJ6. 

Inside, this ’66 Giulia edition is pared back and handsome, one of Enrico Nardi’s finest wood-rim steering wheels fronting a crackle-black dash. The car’s expansive glass area affords panoramic all-round vision, even if the low roofline encroaches on head space. The driving position is slightly skewed, as is to be expected, but this is a car that rewards delicacy of feel. Even short shifting to spare the newly rebuilt engine any red-line changes, performance is sparkling. The all-alloy twin-cam is justifiably venerated; same too for the five-speed ’box which is super-slick for its vintage. Most exotica of the period made do with four cogs, so the Alfa’s long-legged cruising ability affords a sense of genuine refinement over more exalted peers. 

It’s such a tactile package. Alfas have always had – scrub that, used to have – great steering, that required little more than fingertip guidance. Here feedback is metered out with an immediacy alien to most modern cars. Front suspension is by unequal-length wishbones, the live rear suspended by trailing arms, with coil springs on all four corners: the ride quality is firm but quite pliant. The brakes – discs up front, drums at the rear – offer reasonable retardation but you wouldn’t want to call upon them in a hurry too often. On skinny rubber, it rolls considerably when pushed but never threatens to spill and is huge fun. Ultimately the SS will oversteer: you would be disappointed if it didn’t. The real joy of any Alfa from this period, save perhaps the 2600 models, is that you can spank them cross-country: they thrive on B-roads. Once the engine’s run in, this example will be a riot. That the current owners have kept it for 29 years tells you everything. 

It’s such a compelling combination: the rarefied glamour of a coachbuilt classic with levels of performance that are more in keeping with altogether more youthful cars. It may not have much in the way of a sporting pedigree but the Sprint Speciale lacks for little else.

Thanks to Tony and Julia Coburn  www.coburnhoods.com

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