Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale turns 50, is still the most beautiful car ever made

A rolling work of art that’s fast even by today’s standards

During more than a century of existence, Alfa Romeo has built many extraordinary racing and production cars that made a lot of people fall in love with the brand. However, few models have fascinated so many and have contributed so much to the marque's appeal as the 33 Stradale.

Born as a street-legal variant of a racing car (hence the name), the 33 Stradale took the automotive world by storm when it launched on August 31, 1967, at the Monza circuit on the eve of the Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix — and later on at the Turin Auto Show.

It was based on a successful endurance racer, the Autodelta Alfa Romeo Tipo 33, and it was only natural that the first Stradale prototype was built at Autodelta's workshop alongside the Tipo 33 "Periscopica" race car.

As it packed technology directly derived from the Tipo 33, the 33 Stradale delivered stunning performance for those days — and the specs remain impressive even by today's standards. So let's delve into the technical side for a moment.

A miniature 2.0-liter naturally aspirated V8 delivering grown-up performance

As with the Tipo 33 racer, (and most modern supercars), the 33 Stradale featured a mid-mounted 90-degree V8 engine that was an absolute jewel: it had a displacement of only 2.0 liters and a 10,000 rpm redline. But that's not all. The four-cam, direct-injected alloy engine differed very little to the race-spec power plant, delivering 230 hp at 8,800 rpm and 206 Nm (152 lb-ft) of torque at 7,000 rpm — approximately, that is, because no two engines produced identical outputs, as they were hand-built.

The 33 Stradale also shared the transmission with the Tipo 33 racecar: a six-speed manual transaxle gearbox made by Colotti that sent power to the rear wheels. A six-speed gearbox was outstanding for an era when four- and five-speed transmissions were the norm on performance cars. The power and torque numbers may not blow you away now, but when you factor in the weight of just under 700 kg/1,543 lb (the voluptuous body was all-aluminum) you begin to understand why the 33 Stradale's performance remains relevant to this day.

Worthy of the four-leaf clover, the 33 Stradale was one of the world's first supercars

The Italian beauty could sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in about 5.5 seconds and hit a top speed of 262 km/h. However, the first owner of a 33 Stradale, American Henry Wessels II, once said he drove it in sixth gear at 10,000 rpm for about four minutes on the Milan-Venice motorway, clocking 180 mph (290 km/h) in the process. Essentially, the 33 Stradale was on par with performance cars featuring much larger engines, such as the Lamborghini Miura (3.9-liter V12) and Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona (4.4-liter V12).

As it was a race car for the road, the 33 Stradale handled beautifully too. That had a lot to do with the racing suspension featuring upper and lower control arms at the front, and double trailing arms at the rear — along with massive antiroll bars. Stopping power was ensured by Girling disc brakes on all four wheels, with the rear discs mounted inboard. All in all, technologically speaking, the 33 Stradale was a state-of-the-art vehicle for the time.

The 33 Stradale was the tangible embodiment of the bond between Alfa Romeo's racing division and its production arm, which is why it was allowed to adopt the "quadrifoglio" badge on the front fenders. The famous four-leaf clover was first used by Alfa Romeo racing driver Ugo Sivocci in 1923 and became a permanent presence on high-performance Alfa production cars since the 1960s.

The creative heyday of one of the most underrated car designers of all time

The Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale owes a great deal of its success to a man called Franco Scaglione, the Italian designer who gave the sports car its dramatic shape and perfect proportions. He put to good use the studies of aeronautical engineering from school and is unanimously regarded as a master of aerodynamic design — remember, there were no computerized simulations in the late 1960s and wind tunnels for automobiles were in their early, experimental days.

When he penned the 33 Stradale, Mr. Scaglione was working for himself, after a stint at Bertone from 1953 to 1959. Prior to the 33 Stradale, he designed cars such as the BAT (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) Alfa Romeo concepts, the Lamborghini 350 GTV study (which influenced the brand's first production model, the 350 GT), and the Porsche 356 B Abarth Carrera GTL race car — a design forerunner of another legend, the Porsche 911. Even before the 33 Stradale, it was plain to see Scaglione's designs were seminal and destined for greatness.

"Necessary beauty"

And so we return to the 33 Stradale, the car that will forever remain known as Scaglione's masterpiece. The designer himself and his team built the first prototype aluminum body, while Autodelta bolted the engine and transmission on the aluminum tubular chassis. The first prototype features dual headlights on each side, a solution that was dropped for the production cars because of regulations on minimum headlight distance from the ground. That is why you'll see two different front ends of the 33 Stradale in the gallery.

There are many design highlights about the 33 Stradale, but the dihedral doors (which we take for granted in most McLaren supercars these days) are probably the most important. The 33 Stradale is the first known car to adopt this solution, which consists of the windows curving upward into the roof of the vehicle.

Then there's the fact that none of the 18 examples built was identical with the other. Since each car was built by hand, one could always find different details on supposedly identical 33 Stradales. For example, some cars had only one windscreen wiper while others had two; some had the four-leaf clover on the fenders, others didn't. Furthermore, late models gained vents behind both the front and rear wheels to allow hot air from the brakes to exit the wheel wells. All these small inconsistencies add to the charm of the 33 Stradale: there are few cars more Italian than this one.

Not to mention that it was not a car for everyday use: it had no locks and ground clearance was minimal.

Small in size, yet the world's most expensive car of its time

People who see the 33 Stradale in the metal are surprised about its size: it's under 4 meters long (3,970 mm/156.3 in), 1,710-mm (67.3-in) wide, and just 991-mm (39-in) high, with a wheelbase of 2,350 mm (92.5 in) made possible by the small overhangs.

It's shocking how car proportions have changed when you consider that the 33 Stradale rode on tiny 13-inch Campagnolo magnesium wheels (eight-inch wide at the front, 9-inch wide at the rear) without looking awkward. Today, not even city cars have 13-inch wheels anymore.

When Alfa Romeo launched the 33 Stradale in 1967 its retail price was 9,750,000 Italian lire (about $17,000), at a time when the yearly average wage in Italy was 150,000 lire. The Lamborghini Miura, for example, cost 7,700,000 lire. Understandably, only 18 examples were built — partly due to the cost and partly because Alfa Romeo wanted to keep it exclusive. Six of the 18 units were later transformed into concept cars by Bertone, Pininfarina, and Italdesign Giugiaro, leaving only 12 examples of the 33 Stradale in factory specification.

Assessing the value of a 33 Stradale today is almost impossible, as these cars never go up for sale. However, in 2015 Alfa Romeo North America CEO Reid Bigland estimated the market value of a 33 Stradale at "well over than $10 million."

You can admire it at Alfa Romeo's museum in Arese

If you've never seen an Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale in the metal, there's a good opportunity to do that at the company's museum in Arese, Italy. On August 31, the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo has opened a permanent exhibition titled "33 La bellezza necessaria" (33: Necessary Beauty), dedicated to the brand's most famous car.

The exhibition is a 33-step itinerary that retraces the history of the 33 Stradale and the 33 project of racing cars that brought Alfa Romeo astonishing successes, as well as the main characters involved in the story.

You'll be able to see the prototype of the 33 Stradale, which is on permanent exhibition at the museum in the most prestigious position — right in front of the enormous illuminated installation that portrays the Alfa Romeo DNA.

The exhibition also includes five of the six concept cars derived from the 33 chassis (Carabo, Iguana, 33/2 Speciale, Cuneo, and Navajo) as well as racing cars including the 33/2 Daytona, 33/3, 33 TT12, and 33 SC12.

Story references: Alfa Romeo, Classic Driver