Inspiration comes in many forms, but none so beautiful as this. Moments earlier, the door to Alfa Romeo’s Centro Stile design centre viewing room had quietly been pulled open and now, in the soft, diffused light sits the magnificent Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale.
Blessed with curves that steal the breath from your lungs, the 33 Stradale is one of the rarest and most spectacular Alfa Romeos ever built. Frequently listed amongst the world’s most beautiful cars, it is by any benchmark a fascinating and mesmerising machine.
Impossibly low and cartoonishly voluptuous, it is a masterpiece of 1960s sex appeal and exaggerated proportions, this outrageous design fused with cutting-edge racing technology and a single-minded pursuit of performance. Even in a decade richly blessed with an abundance of exquisitely sculptural car designs, the 33 Stradale stood out as mind-blowingly exotic.
It was significant in other ways too, proving not only that Alfa Romeo could compete successfully with Ferrari on the racetrack, but that its road cars could also match Maranello for outright brio. As an exercise in changing the perceptions of what Alfa Romeo was capable of, the mid-engined 33 Stradale was a powerful symbol of the company’s ability and ambition.
Fast-forward four-and-a-half decades and Alfa Romeo is again pushing the boundaries with a mid-engined design. The star of this year’s Geneva Auto Salon, the mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, carbonfiber-structure 4C hasn’t come a moment too soon. The Milanese marque has been mired in mediocrity for years, producing handsome cars that fall frustratingly short of challenging the
best in class. The new Giulietta signals a welcome renaissance, but the 4C is a spark to ignite the flames of passion in a new generation of Alfisti.
The man responsible for the 4C concept is Marco Tencone and he’s taken a break to join us in the viewing room for a conversation about the 4C and how it relates to the 33 Stradale. And I suspect he couldn’t resist another opportunity to run his eyes over the iconic 1960s supercar one more time.
‘The first time I ever saw the 33 Stradale was in the Alfa museum. Now to see it side-by-side with the 4C is very special. For sure, the Stradale was a big inspiration in designing the 4C. I think it’s a risk to duplicate, so we decided not to copy or to use the same kind of detailing. Instead we decided to develop the concept of the car in broad terms, to use the 33 Stradale as an inspiration, but to reinterpret the design theme rather than attempt to recreate it. Besides, the 33 is from a different time. Back then they were very free with their designs, very spontaneous. Now we have many things to take into account, such as pedestrian impact heights and crash requirements. These make it much harder to be so uninhibited with our ideas, but still I think it was a real treat – like a holiday – to work on creating the 4C.’
There’s no doubt the two cars share more than just a badge. The philosophy of lightweight construction, compact dimensions and the very latest technology runs through both like a strand of DNA. Where the 33 Stradale has magnesium in its chassis-frame, the 4C employs carbonfiber. Likewise, where you find a six-speed manual Colotti transmission (advanced for its day) in the 33, the 4C features a dual-clutch paddleshift. And, of course, most fundamental of all, both cars are mid-engined for ultimate weight distribution and handling agility.
Both, too, share small-capacity, high-output engines, although it’s fair to say the 33 Stradale’s 2.0-litre twin-spark V8 – detuned from full race specification yet still capable of developing 230bhp at a scintillating 8800rpm – has the edge over the 4C’s turbocharged 1750cc direct petrol injection four-cylinder for raw animalistic appeal. The skeletal Stradale also teaches the 4C a lesson in minimal mass, weighing just 700kg versus the new car’s projected weight of 850kg, although there’s no question it manages this by being little more than a racing car with an upholstered interior. All things considered, the 4C’s weight is impressive for a car designed to be as safe and clean as it is swift and seductive.
‘I think the 4C is more appropriate to Alfa Romeo than something like the 8C,’ says Tencone candidly. ‘The 8C was beautiful and fast, but it was a big jump from the rest of the range. For me the most sporting Alfa is about going faster through lightweight construction and good aerodynamics, not thanks to a big and powerful engine. Cars like the GTA and TZ1 from the 1960s. I think it is right for us to make fast, small, efficient and affordable cars that you don’t so much sit in as put on, like a piece of clothing. I think this is what the 4C is about.’
By contrast the 33 Stradale was fiercely expensive. Priced at the equivalent of ,000 in 1967, it was more than four times the price of the already exotic and lightweight racebred 1300 GTA Junior, and more than five times the price of the series production 2000 Spider. No wonder Alfa’s competition department Autodelta built just 18 cars, in a protracted production run that stretched from 1967 to 1971.
There’s no doubt that the 33 Stradale is a car of its time. Gloriously uninhibited and hilariously impractical, it’s a perfect illustration of the almost total freedom its creator Franco Scaglione had to make real the fantastic shapes that filled his dreams. Literally knee-high and with little or no concession to what we’d recognise as occupant safety (or indeed comfort), the 33 Stradale doesn’t try very hard to disguise its racing roots.
It’s an awkward blighter to get into. Once you’ve managed to lower yourself – unceremoniously, I might add – into the cockpit, you’re greeted by a proper laid-back, arms-stretched, knees-splayed driving position. The plump, caramel-coloured seats look great and are typical of Italian supercars of the era, but are pretty uncomfortable. From the outside you wonder why Scaglione extended the windows into the roof, but as you close the door above your head you are grateful he did: without them the 33 Stradale would be a claustrophobe’s nightmare. As it is you find yourself slumping down into the fixed-back seat to achieve the optimum sightline through the bulbous goldfish-bowl windscreen.
With that demented, diminutive racing V8 hollering behind your shoulders and the hot Italian sun beating down on you through the glasshouse, driving the 33 Stradale in anger would be an intense experience. Not that I’d complain if someone tossed me the key…
Those spontaneous, carefree days of car design may be long gone, but the 4C’s estimated performance figures – a top speed approaching 160mph and a sub-5.0sec 0-60mph time – are a bold demonstration of the progress made in engine and transmission technology. It’s impossible not to fall in love with a fire-spitting road racer like the 33, but there’s something very impressive about the 4C’s ability to match the performance of its racebred forebear using clean, efficient and relatively humble oily bits.
Listening back to the recording of my chat with Tencone, it’s amusing to find it is punctuated by long pauses. Not because the Alfa designer has nothing to say, but because he’s repeatedly rendered speechless by the sight of the 33 Stradale and his latest creation sharing the same space! He’s clearly proud of the 4C and excited about what it means for Alfa Romeo as the marque enters its second century of car-making.
‘For me the most important thing is the language of the surfaces, not to simply apply a “face” that defines every model in the range. For Alfa Romeo the plan is to have an individual car that has a very sporty, emotional design. I think we have to design cars for Alfa Romeo, not for the market as such. If you look at Maserati in China, sales are going well but the car is not designed for China. People buy because they identify with what a Maserati is. If we are true to Alfa Romeo, people will appreciate what makes the brand special, wherever they live.’
So the 4C will be true to the core values of the brand, but it will also be a ‘world’ car. It will also be close to the concept you see here, at least when it comes to the exterior. Not surprisingly, the paintwork – a special satin finish with a weird but tactile rubberized surface – won’t make it to production but, save for a few possible tweaks to air intake sizes and minor alterations to the glasshouse, Tencone is confident what we see now is what we’ll get when the car goes on sale.
That’s largely due to the intrinsic rightness of the design, but it’s also because the programme has real impetus and spontaneity that are too good to squander. As Tencone says: ‘It’s important we progress 4C concept to the next level quickly, as Mr Marchionne [Sergio, the boss of Alfa Romeo] likes things done with pace.’
To achieve this the 4C has steered clear of pie-in-the-sky drivetrain technology, relying instead on hardware – such as the engine and transmission – that already exists. Tencone wouldn’t be drawn on suppliers or manufacture of the carbonfiber chassis, but he did say there were at least three companies – including Dallara, maker of the KTM X-Bow’s chassis – with the capability to produce the 4C’s strong, lightweight tub. Such technical partnerships are increasingly common in the manufacture of carbonfiber components. After all, if a company like McLaren can outsource the manufacture of its MP4-12C tub without customer resistance, then Alfa has nothing to worry about.
According to Tencone the most fluid area of the 4C’s design is its interior. ‘We wanted to evoke the feeling of being in an old monoposto racing car. The 4C is a dynamic, driver-focused car, so it’s important that you feel like you’re part of it when you’re sat behind the wheel.’
He’s right. Once you’ve negotiated the sill and dropped into the supportive seat you notice the long, unbroken arc that spools from the dashboard and swoops down the centre of the car to create a fine but distinct separation between you and the passenger seat. With no need for an old-fashioned gearstick or handbrake lever (steering wheel paddles and a parking brake switch have those functions covered), the designers have clearly enjoyed the freedom to have some fun.
As with all concepts, the 4C’s cockpit is a mesmerising mix of exuberance and adventure. There’s plenty of exposed carbonfiber, flashes of brightwork and a dazzling array of lights, instruments and stylised switchgear. There are some beautiful touches too, like the long aluminium strand that curls seductively across the headlining and culminates in a support for the rear-view mirror. There are also some theatrical elements, such as the funked-up, race-inspired fire extinguisher system. Clearly some of the 4C Concept’s interior flourishes will be sacrificed and many will be toned-down for production, but if any car maker can afford to be bold it’s Alfa Romeo.
There’s no doubt the 4C has drawn tremendous attention and praise from press and public alike. While that means Alfa has to ensure the 4C’s driving experience delivers on the promise made by Tencone’s design, it also signals an intent to revive Alfa’s fortunes with a car that appeals to your heart as much as your head. With Lotus seemingly committed to vacating the lightweight sports car segment in an effort to push itself into Porsche and Ferrari territory, Alfa Romeo (not to mention Abarth, with the rumoured open-top version of the 4C) has a golden opportunity.
If it can bring the 4C to market with a sub-£40,000 price tag it will offer enthusiasts a credible, highly desirable alternative to the Porsche Cayman/Boxster and give the sports car market, not to mention Alfa Romeo, a real shot in the arm. We can’t wait to drive it.