How Alfa Romeo Waved Goodbye to Rear-Wheel Drive

Two years before they left the US market in 1995, Alfa Romeo jettisoned rear-wheel drive. Their vehicle of abandonment was a quirky plastic sports car built on a classic transaxle layout: the ES-30.

How Alfa Romeo Waved Goodbye to Rear-Wheel Drive

As far as random street sightings to, the odds of an Alfa Romeo Roadster Zagato—the open top version of the ES-30—are stacked against you. Certainly it’s not something you expect to bump into as you’re ambling down the old streets of Sofia on a hot summer day. The Bulgarian capital has its share of interesting cars on display amidst the sea of Eastern European muck, but the nouveau riche of this corner of the world were yet to become riche when Alfa’s weird study in angular plastic panels was first shown at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show.

Yet there it stands, parked by a trash can on Shishman Street, the V6 ticking in the heat under a psychedelic mural of a poem by the Hungarian revolutionary Sándor Petőfi. It is one of only 284 ever manufactured, which makes it three times as rare as a Lamborghini Miura. And when was the last time you bumped into one of those while nibbling on a piece of banitsa?

How Alfa Romeo Waved Goodbye to Rear-Wheel Drive

The ES-30 was Alfa Romeo’s swan song to rear-wheel drive and independence. It was based on the 75 sedan, the last Alfa conceived before Fiat ownership. As deliciously classic a layout as sports sedans come: Giuseppe Busso’s wonderful 3-liter V6 up front with the transmission in the back in a transaxle layout. Power is sent via a limited-slip differential to rear wheels suspended by a de Dion tube. It was balanced, simple and lithe, with a body mass very much on the near side of 3,000 pounds.

How Alfa Romeo Waved Goodbye to Rear-Wheel Drive

The 75 was weird enough with its angles that defy all logic and an interior more in common with Epcot than with the automobile, but the ES-30 is a whole other ballpark. Perhaps it is the inevitable eccentricity of its French-Italian shared parentage. Robert Opron designed the car, the same man who created the Citroën SM, that gorgeous hybrid of Citroën style and Maserati power. Or was it Citroën unreliability and Maserati…unreliability? In any case, Opron penned the 75’s goodbye and Antonio Castellana finished up his sketches—to be skinned in thermoplastic injection moulded composite body panels. A strange choice for a car, but then plastics and Alfa Romeos have a way of meeting up every once in a while.

You can never quite shake the feeling that the ES-30 is a kit car. It is too angular, too plastic, too downright quirky to be an official product, yet that’s exactly what it it. Alfa Romeo produced 1036 coupés—called SZ for Sprint Zagato—and 284 Roadster Zagatos. You could have any engine you desired, as long as it was Alfa’s mellifluent screaming and bellowing 3-liter V6, the one with all six intake manifold pipes lined up in a regiment of chrome almost too pretty to look at.

How Alfa Romeo Waved Goodbye to Rear-Wheel Drive

Alfa Romeo never made another car quite like it. After production of the ES-30 wrapped up in 1993, there wasn’t a rear-wheel drive Alfa until the 8C Competizione. And that V6 engine is also gone now, replaced with a GM unit using Alfa cylinder heads.

So snag one while you can. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap—but at least it won’t rust on you like other Alfas.

Why? Just one word: plastics.

Photo Credit: Zsolt Csikós (Alfa Romeo 75), ChristopherJamesGreen/Flickr (Alfa Romeo V6 engine) and the author (Alfa Romeo RZ)