Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Quick: Think of a car that’s categorically ugly but strangely endearing. Got an answer? Great. Considering the photo up top and the headline of this story, it’d be unfair to say that every single one of you reading this arrived at the Alfa Romeo SZ independently, without influencing factors. But I’d venture a guess and say that even if I hadn’t tainted the jury, some of you would have responded SZ anyway. In fact, a couple of months ago we asked y’all what your favorite ugly cars are, and sure enough, Sprint Zagato came up.
The SZ and its droptop counterpart, the RZ, are especially hideous because they bear the name of a celebrated design house and coachbuilder. That’s why it’s all the more ironic that Zagato didn’t pen their exteriors. No — Alfa’s Centro Stile department fumbled that job, while manufacturing duties fell on Zagato. It’s totally the reverse of the optimal distribution of responsibilities, but this is a late-’80s Italian sports car we’re talking about. Rational decision making simply wasn’t in style.
Two years after the SZ entered production, Alfa introduced a two-seat concept with a folding hardtop roof at the 1991 Geneva Motor Show called the 164 Protèo. As its name suggested, the Protèo was built on the framework of the 164 sedan, merely shortened. It served as a reminder that Alfa still had ability to make pretty sports cars, at least when it felt like doing so.
Before we get into the details of the 164 Protèo, let’s quickly re-familiarize ourselves with the SZ. The particular SZ above is actually a pre-production prototype, back from the car’s debut when it was known as the ES-30. (That stood for “Experimental Sports Car 3.0-Liter, by the way.) Now, let’s look at the Protèo again:
The Protèo was basically an SZ that had been eroded like stone under passing water, and came out the other side of the millennia looking way better for it. You can spot a number of philosophical similarities between them, but each cue was expressed a little differently.
Take the wedge profile and stubby Kammback, for example, or the black-painted canopy. The triplet of headlights on each side; the heckblende (a.k.a, lightbar) around back. The traditional Alfa triangle-nose grille, raising the center of the hood from its corners. The Protèo lacked the SZ’s hatch-esque rear, but then the concept incorporated a removable glass roof and needed a place to keep it when it wasn’t in use.
But the SZ and Protèo were more different than alike under the skin. The SZ was based on the Alfa 75/Milano platform, unlike the Protèo, which borrowed the underpinnings of the brand’s larger sedan. The SZ was rear-wheel drive, as opposed to the all-wheel-drive, all-wheel-steering Protèo. And while both cars had 3-liter V6s tethered to five-speed manuals, the Protèo’s was punchier. The single overhead-cam, 12-valve V6 in the SZ produced 207 horsepower — some 50 HP less than the dual overhead-cam, 24-valve motor in the Protèo.
So the Protèo had a lot going for it, and Alfa Romeo was proud of the overall package. Then-CEO Giovanni Battista Razelli portrayed the folding-top concept as a display of his company’s technological prowess, according to Italian outlet Formula Passion. He also claimed to the press that the Protèo was production-ready. I’m inclined to take his word on that, based on how many components the concept appeared to crib from other Alfas in the stable, and the general dreariness of the interior. (Speaking of, let’s take a moment to appreciate that grid of identically-sized circular buttons in the center stack, and the designers’ blatant lack of concern for eyes-free operation.)
If you know your ’90s Alfas and are already familiar with the SZ and Protèo, I assume you’ve also noticed that the Protèo bears resemblance to yet another Alfa two-seater: the Type 916 GTV/Spider. Type 916 entered production in 1994. Naturally, one would assume a linear progression from the SZ, to the Protèo, to the GTV/Spider duo. That would make the Protèo the missing link between hard-nosed ’80s Alfa and elegant, curvy ’90s Alfa. It would make evolutionary sense.
But remember, we’re discussing Alfa Romeo, so making sense isn’t in the cards today. Pininfarina designer Enrico Fumia’s initial work on Type 916 actually predated the Protèo’s reveal by three years, according to GTV916.com. The Protèo — which again, debuted in ’91 — was hatched merely 18 months earlier by Walter de Silva, who’d only recently joined Centro Stile, The Thinker’s Garage writes.
In other words, it’s likelier that the 916 inspired the Protèo, rather than the inverse.
By the time the Protèo was shown to the public, three years had passed since Alfa internally approved the GTV/Spider’s basic design, and the company still wouldn’t release them for another three years. That’s weird to think about, especially for someone who’s always considered the 916 pair among the prettiest cars of the decade. The idea that the seeds for those models were planted back in ’87, that they looked fresh enough to launch in the mid-’90s and continue to age gracefully today is a testament to the foresight of the original vision.
The GTV and Spider went on to enjoy long and mostly celebrated lives, despite their drive wheels residing in the wrong place. They also kept a clever secret with their headlights I never knew about until I happened across a Spider at the Amelia Island Concours back in May.
The SZ has been featured in a number of games over the years, from Choro Q to Sega GT Online, Enthusia, Project Gotham Racing 4 and a few Forza titles. The GTV and Spider made it to even more, including some Gran Turismos, Enthusia again, Driving Emotion Type-S, the first Sega GT and too many others to name.
The 164 Protèo, unfortunately, was the passed-over middle child that was in the public eye all too briefly to be remembered, and arrived too early for the boom of licensed cars in games. It’s never been immortalized in interactive fashion and at this rate, probably never will be! Let this retrospective continue its mostly forgotten legacy.