Welcome to Damn Good Design. In this regular series I’ll be cocking a raised eyebrow and flapping my big fat smart mouth at those cars that get fawning prose in glossy coffee table books and those that don’t. We’ll be looking at the bona-fide classics, as well as the overlooked, the underestimated, the misunderstood, the pedestrian and the downright weird. We’ll skewer a few sacred cows and celebrate some utter dross. Nothing is sacred and no car is safe. If has something interesting to offer the history of car design, we’ll discuss it here.
There are three words that were I to have a soul, would be guaranteed to strike fear into the very core of it: A Bold Reimagining. My creative brain immediately translates this as ‘standby for something beloved to be fucked up for the sake of it, in the misguided name of progression because we’re all out of better ideas’. When Matt and I went to see As You Like It by one William “Bill” Shakespeare, it was described as a “bold reimagining.” It didn’t totally work for Matt (theatre is in his blood, darling. I was just trying to keep up) but as works of art plays are perfect for this sort of treatment because they’re often an allegory for the human condition, so are ripe for reinterpretation to reflect contemporary concerns and issues. Operas and classical music subtly change depending on who the performers are. Modern art changes meaning according to the person viewing it. Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt was so different to the original and so successful Trent Reznor was moved to say “it’s Johnny’s song now.”
With design it’s a bit different. Design is a rational, structured process meant to serve a specific brief or purpose – it’s not meant to be interpreted or have meaning placed upon it. Does it have an artistic element? Of course. Good design should aim to be aesthetically pleasing if it’s relevant, especially if outcome that is selling cars. I’ve long said that if design is a scale with pure, function based industrial design at one end and fashion at the other, car design skews towards the latter, but it doesn’t neglect the requirements of building an actual working, sellable vehicle.
Like great art, great design should be timeless. Whether it’s through ideas, appearance, technology or a combination of these, it should transcend the constraints, context and times that created it to become something lasting. Attempting to remix the past for present consumption without understanding any of this is why so many retro car designs end up being superficial, corny or misguided. Which brings us neatly to the recently released Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale. But before I hands on hips power-piss in the direction of that car, let’s take a look at the original: the 1967 Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale, designed by Franco Scaglione, and widely considered one of the most beautiful cars of all time.
Scaglione’s academic background was aeronautical engineering, but he was much more an artist than engineer. After the war ended he initially found lucrative work sketching for Italian fashion houses, but his real passion was for cars. He cast around looking for work in the carrozzeria surrounding Turin, eventually ending up at Bertone, where he combined his understanding of aerodynamics and eye for a sculpted form in the Alfa Romeo BAT (Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica) concept cars of 1953 – 55. These were commissioned by Alfa themselves wanting to gain a greater understanding of the effects of drag on road cars.
By the early 1960s, Alfa Romeo was relatively flush with money after the successful introduction of the Tipo 101 Giulietta in 1954, the company’s first real mass-produced car. The Giuletta was successful in European Touring Car racing, but Alfa president Giuseppe Luraghi was thinking bigger. He wanted to get Alfa Romeo noticed globally and decided to take on Porsche and Ferrari in world sports car racing and turned the job over to the in-house racing division, Autodelta.
The first Tipo 33 was not a competition success, but by 1967 Autodelta had evolved it to 33/2 specification, and this racing chassis was to form the basis for the road going version, the Stradale. More recent exotica like the Ferrari F50 or Mercedes AMG One make slightly specious claims about their F1 links. The Tipo 33 Stradale simply was the race car with an extra 100 mm (4”) wheelbase for comfort, and a steel rather than aluminum chassis. Clothed in the slinkiest sheet metal the world had ever seen, the Stradale made the Miura look like the product of a tractor company that it was. The Alfa was half the weight, had half the engine capacity, but was twice as exotic and just as fast – sub six seconds to sixty and over 160 on the Autostrada. Consider the engine: a howling 2.0-liter 32 valve flat plane V8 in the middle of the car with fuel injection, twin spark plugs and four coils, it made between 230 – 240 bhp at nearly 9000 rpm. Why the variation in output? Every Stradale was hand built alongside the race cars over an extended period of time – these were exclusive cars for exclusive customers – and so no two are exactly alike.
Why is the original so good? First of all, it’s relatively tiny. Those dihedral doors weren’t just for show, they were so you could actually get in it. A Stradale stands just 991mm (39”) tall and is only 1710mm (67”) wide. Those delicious Campagnolo wheels are 13” to give you an idea of scale. Viewed in side profile, it’s a masterclass in managing the high point of the bodywork over the wheel arches and maintaining the correct amount of tension in the curvature of the surfaces forming the fenders. The glass to bodyside ratio at the door is 50/50, which means it doesn’t look heavy. There’s the merest hint of forward rake in the stance, allowing the exhaust tips to protrude at the rear, and this helps the body sit lightly on the wheels.
Turning around to the front three quarter view, look how the area over the engine maintains its fullness: this helps balance out the shallowness of the nose, giving the car a touch of front engine proportion even though the motor is in the middle. As I mentioned there’s plenty of glass, but the upward curve of the side windows helps create a taut combined B/C pillar over the rear haunches, which is critical for making a car look properly planted on its wheels.
None of this is a coincidence. Remember Scaglione used to draw fashion which is all about silhouette and volume – making clothes look flattering – so he will have immediately understood how best to cover the fixed points of the racing chassis. The Stradale is so good because it perfectly balances several contradictory characteristics: It’s subtle but aggressive. It’s muscular but also athletic. It’s bleeding edge state of the sixties racing car art and endearingly hand built. It’s lightweight at 700kg (1550lbs – if that doesn’t shut Toecutter up I don’t know what will) but not delicate. These tensions hold it in a perfect center where no one element overpowers another.
18 Stradales were built between 1967 and 1969. A very different looking racing version eventually won the world sportscar championship in 1975, and it remains the iconic car for the brand, as they’ve not really done comparable since. Until now, with the recently unveiled nuova (I guess?) Tipo 33 Stradale. Cue the usual round of internet masturbation and genuflection, to which I have to say, do these people have an actual functioning visual cortex connected to their brains? It’s bloody hideous. It’s fat, it’s overwrought, the detailing is thoughtless and the proportions are terrible.
Let’s start at the side. Remember my earlier remarks about the original when I talked about the high point of the bodywork over the wheel arches? You can see here they’ve been pulled forward on both the front and the rear. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but you have to be very careful. Because the new car has more inflated surfaces this is what starts to make the car look overweight. Not helping is the position of the passenger cabin, which has been pulled forwards and the rear wheels which have been pushed back, increasing the amount of bodywork in the B/C pillar area, increasing the bulk in the middle of the car. Ok, there’s a lot more motor and transmission to package this time around, but moving the A pillar and side glass rear towards the rear would have helped balance it out. The side vent mitigates some of this, but way oh why did they want to make it look like it one continuous part piercing through the rear fender to the back of the car? It’s a cheap visual stunt, the sort of thing stupid people think is clever because they understand it instantly. It doesn’t make any sense because there’s a bloody great rear wheel there, which has got suspension and drivetrain components behind it. It’s dishonest because no way could it work physically.
Looking at the front, I wouldn’t expect the new version to have such a shallow treatment as the original, but this is just a formless meh. There’s no tension in it at all especially over the front wheels. The feature lines heading towards the center of the nose contribute to this flabbiness, because they stretch those upper surfaces across to the middle of the car like a too tight shirt struggling to contain a beer belly. The classic Alfa Romeo shield graphic is given an interesting twist – made up of individual layered elements to create a grille this an excellent detail.
The headlights are much less successful. Lighting graphics are important, and you want to make them distinctive, but the lighting designer didn’t know when to stop. This whole front corner is just lacking in subtlety and the overall graphic reads too big and bottom heavy because it incorporates an intake underneath. Isolatingp the two things would help tighten this area up a lot and stop the front of the car look like it’s flopping towards the ground, something those vertical aero surfaces ahead and behind the front wheels are contributing to. If an area is already looking heavy, don’t add more, take away. Imagine how much better it would look if the black lower bodyside just continued forwards with the profile it has further back.
From the back it looks like it’s been carelessly backed up onto a length of black drainpipe at high speed. I do like the rear light graphics to a point but why the hell is it frowning? You want aggression at the front because that is the cars’ face, not on its butt. The diffuser area and exhausts it so quarter assed it just looks like they ran out of time.
Making all this worse is the interior which is in my opinion, fucking fantastic. The only problem is it’s got somewhat of a seventies vibe to it, with lots of parallel strake patterns giving off a Radiomarelli feel, which by the late sixties was part of the FIAT empire, so maybe that’s where the interior designers got some mood images from? Whatever, it’s warm and inviting, clean and modern. I genuinely love it, even if there’s a slight disconnect thematically with the exterior.
The beauty of the original is its clarity of purpose. It’s unrealistic to expect the new version to be so petit, because of what it has to package, but the point is you work around these limitations to get the shape you want, not let them force you into a shape you don’t want. This new car is available (well not to you or me, they’ve all been sold in advance) as either an ICE or a pure BEV version, in which case what the pissing hams? Talk about hedging your bets. I can’t help but wonder what the split is between the two and how many pure BEV versions they’ve actually sold. Whatever, it will have forced a horrible compromise on the platform. Pick one or the other, or combine both into a hybrid, and get it right. Perfection comes from simplicity.
When I was away in Italy I had one of the best pasta dishes of my life. A simple ragu with spaghetti made fresh in the hotel restaurant from local ingredients. It was amazing. The new 33 Stradale is like getting hit in the face with several overcooked varieties of pasta all at once.
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