Alfa Romeo Junior Gem

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Alastair Brook


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Alfa Romeo's Junior Zagato has been far more influential than its tiny sales numbers might suggest.

When you look at the cars that excite the passion of classic-car nuts, you can’t help but wonder at how often it’s the groundbreaking and arguably obscure models that find a whole new band of followers, decades after the factory gave up.

Alfa-Romeo’s Junior Zagato is a great example. On the face of it, this was a relatively obscure model, with just 1108 of the first generation and a mere 402 of the second wheeled out the factory door.

1300 engine fills the gap.

This was never a volume seller or necessarily a huge money-maker, even though the 1300 version was priced at a premium – a little higher than a 2000 GT Veloce and far higher than a 1600 BMW 2002 of the period. 

There is a belief the role of this car was to be something other than as a showroom star. Rather, it showed Alfa could be creative when it chose, while enabling Zagato to demonstrate it would work as a coach builder with a major maker.

This is what the Zagato does best.

Part of the current appeal is the Junior had impeccable roots. The story goes the then Alfa MD, Giovanni Luraghi hatched a plan with the Zagato family back in 1967 to come up with a light and sporty model, appealing to the youth market.

Legendary stylist Ercole Spada, who had penned iconic models for Aston Martin Ferrari, Lancia and others, was given the design brief.

The result was then described by Modern Motor magazine as "a steel skin stretched over an engine". Without doubt, it was one of the most harmonious efforts to spring from Spada’s pen.

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Perhaps one of the mysteries is why Alfa went initially for the 1300 twin-cam engine and not something bigger from its armory. For the time the 1300 provided respectable performance, but didn’t impress the dedicated revheads.

Well, at least not until some creative tuners got hold of it. Alfa did eventually show a second-generation 1600 in 1972, but by then the model had arguably lost momentum. Production ended in 1975.

As for the shape, its influence extended far beyond a single low-volume model. For example, one of Honda’s designers on the first-gen CRX project is said to have owned a Junior and saw it as an influence. Put the two cars side-by-side and you’ll soon see the connection.

The Zagato really is tiny.

The little car bristled with aerodynamic styling cues, such as the low-profile nose, much of which is faired in with Perspex for a smoother airflow, running back to the fastback that suddenly cuts off with a Kammback.

It’s a combination that was mimicked in a lot of later designs by other makers, perhaps not with the same success.

Perspex front for better airflow.

As for the driveline, the basic specs were a twin-cam 1300 inline four claiming 90hp (66kW). That was tied to a five-speed manual driving the rear wheels. Rolling weight was just 950kg, which no doubt helped performance.

Overall, it’s a tiny car. There are two seats and it’s just 1.28 metres in height. We’re talking about something best suited to someone of average size, or less!

However there is no denying its charms. Clive Massell, owner of the Makulu car storage service in Melbourne, is a frequent flyer on these pages thanks to his eclectic tastes and his willingness to share his toys.

The Giulia remains a favourite.

You get the distinct impression that getting his scone-grabbers on a Zagato, is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition.

Like a lot of owners, he’s gone for an engine upgrade, keeping aside a 1300 motor for a future owner if they must have it. In its place is a 2.0lt engine. 

"That car with the body styling, was totally underpowered. If you look at it, it’s a magnificent motor car and you expect it to go," he declares.

"Those looks and a 1300 motor is like putting a four-cylinder motor into a Holden Monaro – it doesn’t make sense. So then they brought out a 1600. But a lot of people upgraded them. 

"One was the then Alfa concessionaire in South Africa, who was given one by the factory. They also gave him a 1750 motor. Then they took that motor out and tried a 2.0lt. The majority of them have been upgraded to 1750 or 2.0lt and it makes a substantial difference."

It almost looks like a toy, given its stature.

Why pick a Junior Zagato? "I think it’s the most sexy-looking car of that era. It was years ahead in terms of its looks. It’s a very seductive car.

"I really enjoy the thrill of owning it, knowing there is only a handful in the country, and knowing its spec is exactly what I would have done.

"I was going to bring in a 1300 from overseas. But then my friend in Holland checked it out and said no it’s not good enough. Then he went to see this one at Gallery Aaldering. It was spec’ed exactly as how I would have done it. That is with the 2.0lt motor and limited-slip diff.

"The engine runs twin Webers and in this case, trumpets. There is no sound like an Alfa barking between four and six thousand revs!

"It’s a seventies European car to drive. For their time, they stop, they handle, they’ve got the sound and the looks. They have a twin-cam motor (even the 1300), five-speed gearbox, independent suspension, disc brakes all-round – they were light-years ahead.

"While I enjoy owning the Zagato, I enjoy driving my Alfa Giulia more, as the Zagato has become so scarce that you get anxious about damaging it."

Clive is always smiling, when in his Zagato.

Clive is very much from the school that believes in driving their cars as they were intended to be used, and so feels a little frustrated with the having to balance those urges with a need to care for a rare machine.

But when you see his face light up as he drops into the driver seat, you get the sense that just being able to do that makes the hunt for the right car worthwhile...

VITAL STATS

1972 ALFA ROMEO JUNIOR ZAGATO

Body: Steel two-door coupe

Engine: 1290cc inline four-cylinder, twin-cam, 8-valve, 2 twin-barrel carburettors

Power: 66kW at 6000rpm

Torque: 115m at 3200rpm

Performance: 0-100km/h: 12.6 seconds, 0-400m: 18.6 seconds

Gearbox: 5-speed manual

Suspension: Coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); Coil springs, radius arms, De Dion axle, anti-roll bar (r)

Brakes: Solid discs (f); solid discs (r)

Wheels: 14-inch

From Unique Cars #485, Nov 2023

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