Originally published in AutoWeek, August 30, 1982
1971 Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato; photos by John Matras
Lippity clip. Lip. Clip. The Alfa skips down Penny Grove Road, an ancient wooded path paved only as an afterthought. It’s so narrow that it must have cause problems when farm wagons met on it. The surface is an anomaly to Maryland: it’s not potholed or broken up, but it’s far from smooth. It was made wavy and, well, almost bumpy.
But the Alfa trips lightly over the irregularities. And flits through the twists where a deer stepped around an oak several hundred years ago. Hair breath track is no bother. The Alfa is slimmer still, and the wheelbase short.
It fits the driver like an August tan. The 6500 RPM redline is straight up on the otherwise hard-to-read tach. The two seats are snug and the position so right it seems un-Italian. The shifter, after some familiarization to Alfa’s semi-vertical pattern and strong center-loading, easily finds the right notches. The pedals were born to heel and toe. Only the minor switches, such as for the instrumentation lighting, are weird, scattered randomly over and under the dash.
That matters little as the semi-muffled exhaust echoes off trees and hillsides, offering an excuse to push a little harder on the throttle pedal. There are mockingbirds in those woods who will go hoarse trying to match the Alfa’s melody. Inside, the buzz of the electric fuel pump, a mechanical tinnitus somewhere behind my right shoulder blade, hardly seen the annoyance it had been when I first started the car. Instead it blends in chorus with the exhaust and the tires pattering on the pavement.
The car is a 1971 Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato belonging to Paul Heill, and it is ideally suited to roads like Piney Grove. It’s vest pocket small and the perfect marble for downspout road.
Such were the intentions for the Junior Z when Alfa contracted Zatago to produce the car. It was to be the sportiest model in Alfa’s 1300 lineup, designed to capture a wedge of the “youth market” while amortizing production cost on the mechanicals. So Zagato got the nod based on Alfas long experience with the firm and on the manufacturing flexibility of Zagato’s Milan plant, capable of producing as few or as many cars as dictated by demand.
The design parameters from Alfa, given to Zagato in early 1968, were concise: The car would be small and lightweight for handling, streamlined for maximum performance, and distinctively styled for differentiation from other Alfa models. Zatago chose the Spider underbody as a starting point. It had the shortest wheelbase, was rigid and presented little problem to the design of short rear overhang.
This latter was important. Less overhang – at both ends – would reduce polar moment for quicker handling. Combined with the quest for aerodynamics, it led Zatago to the tightly drawn final shape of the bodywork. Stepping away from earlier voluptuously rounded shapes, Zatago spared nary a centimeter from the pinched and fared nose of the bobbed and bespoilered tail. The underworkings fairly bulge from the coach work, yet the package is as trim as Sugar Ray Leonard.
Those underpinnings are typical of that generation Alfa: Front suspension is by unequal-length A-arms on coil springs, while at rear is a live axle, albeit with enough links to keep it well-controlled on its coils. There are anti–roll bars and disc brakes front and rear, and a very precise recirculating ball steering unit. Mundane specs aren’t supposed to work this well, but the Alfa approves the adage that success is doing a common thing uncommonly well.
Unlike the smooth surface hugging solid deDion rear axle with Watts linkage used on today’s Alfa’s flagship, the GTV-6 2.5, the little Junior Z’s rear suspension shows remarkable compatibility with rough roads.
Bigger rubber doesn’t hurt either. Heill replaced the stock combination of 165×14 tires on steel rims with BWA alloys and 185/70×14 Metzlers. Not the latest technotread maybe, but effective.
Zatago sought an aerodynamic shape, though not necessarily the ultimate such form. For this reason test were run on the Balocco test track instead of in a wind tunnel, proving the basic configuration and measuring the effects of minor modifications to the body. Resulting details include the plexiglass covered headlights and the fairing of as much as possible of the underbody componentry. All air to the carburetor and radiator is through ducted openings in the plexiglass snout.
The body is all steel, save the doors and hood, which are skinned in aluminum, and the Junior Z comes in with a light—but not flyweight—dry weight of just over 2000 pounds. That’s a fair amount for a 1290cc engine to pull about, even if it uses dual Webers with overhead cam, both as familiar to the Alfista as the city crest of Milan. The Junior-sized motor makes a respectable 103 SAE bhp at 6000 rpm, and through the overdrive fifth and 4.56:1 final drive, the Z will top out at 105 miles per hour.
But this comes at the expense of torque on the bottom end as becomes very apparent when we come to some serious curves, blind curves, curves hiding which way the road goes and concealing whatever might be on the road just out of sight. These curves require a special rhythm, a special style, and oh-so-careful selection of gears to make the most of whatever the road presents.
But I feel fumble fingered. I keep coming up with the wrong gear—most often too high—leaving the car bog low in the rev range. Or else I far under-estimate the Alfa’s handling. It’s almost as if the car is taunting me, tantalizing me with secrets just out of reach. It’s the test I eagerly undertake but in which I find myself repeatedly underachieving. I remain frustrated as, with headlights on and deepening dusk, we turn the little beige bullet back to where we began. Like a schoolboy, though, I can’t resist just one more try. Passing up the last turn to our destination, a make a final run at a series of corners. And there it is. One… Two… Three. There it is. I’ve made the Alfa work!
Or did the Alfa merely allow me the experience? It really doesn’t matter, for I know that the total 1969-‘72 production run numbered only 1,108 Junior Zatagos. Only a handful made it to the States. And I’ll probably never drive one again.