The Junior Zagato 1600 Is a Small Alfa With a Big Heart

Photography by John Webber

Junior” means different things to different people. Mention the word down around Atlanta and you’re likely to learn exactly where NASCAR’s favorite son ranks in the Sprint Cup points race. But bring up “junior” to a true Alfisti, and you’re in for an entertaining tale about a tiny, streamlined fastback that few have seen but many would love to own: the Junior Zagato 1600.

In the case of the Zagato-bodied Alfa, calling it Junior might have been descriptive—the term denoted a smaller engine displacement for tax-conscious buyers—but it probably didn’t do much for its image. Despite the second-rate model designation, the car presented an entirely new design that combined innovative features in a lightweight, nimble and slippery package. 

When Zagato started designing the Junior Z in 1968, the Milan-based coachbuilder had already been building distinctive, high-quality bodies for Alfa Romeo for decades. Zagato had firmly established itself as one of the world’s top coachbuilders. 

Ercole Spada, the car’s designer, had already styled Alfa’s SZ and TZ models, along with the Aston Martin DB4GT Z, Lancia Flaminia, Rover TCZ and others. Zagato is still in business today and continues to produce exclusive, rakish designs and one-off prototypes for top automakers. 

Small Junior

Alfa Romeo introduced the 1300 Junior Zagato at the Turin Motor Show in 1969. The company aimed the car at a youthful, relatively affluent market segment interested in  stylish, sporty performers. 

Taking advantage of Alfa Romeo’s 105-Series production parts, the Junior Zagato shared a floor pan, drivetrain and running gear with the Giulia Spider Junior. Spada’s design wrapped these proven underpinnings in a lightweight space frame that featured an advanced, elegant shape. 

The car measured a little more than 151 inches in length, with a wheelbase of only 88.5 inches. The body had little overhang, especially on the clipped, Kamm-style tail. The low nose and raked windshield limited height to 50 inches, and the aluminum hood and doors helped hold weight under 2100 pounds. 

To keep the frontal cross section narrow, Spada covered the tires with flared fenders. And despite the low roofline, the coupe offered plenty of glass with good overall visibility.

The interior was also relatively spacious, with a flat storage area behind the driver and passenger that provided more than adequate luggage space. Uncluttered by chrome and badging, the exterior design was so fetching that fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent placed a Junior in one of his print advertisements.

The Junior Z was Alfa’s first hatchback. The useful hatch opened fully by hand, but a switch on the dash enabled the driver to raise the lid just a couple of inches to improve interior ventilation. 

Every corner and crevice of W.L. Wagnon’s Alfa Romeo contains clever styling cues from Italian coachbuilding firm Carrozzeria Zagato. Sleek bodywork and sporty handling have made the Junior Zagato an object of automotive desire despite its rather economical 1600 engine. 

Other clever air management details abounded. To reduce frontal drag, the aggressive front end was covered with clear plastic. The only openings were a radiator cutout—cleverly shaped like the Alfa shield—and a vertical stack of slits for carburetor air intake. 

The center section of the hood raised toward the windshield, and an exquisitely formed kick-up on the driver’s side directed airflow and allowed the wiper arm full range of motion. A partial belly pan under the front helped smooth airflow under the body. 

Nose to tail, smooth contours and design lines followed the car’s waistline, reducing wind resistance and noise. All of these wind-cheating features complemented the smooth design and resulted in a drag coefficient of .29, very impressive for a street car designed more than 40 years ago. 

The 1300 Junior sported Alfa Romeo’s 1290cc DOHC alloy engine plus dual 40DCOE Webers and a smooth-shifting five-speed transmission. Coil springs supported the car on all four corners, while front and rear anti-roll bars limited body roll. 

While the drivetrain, suspension and brakes were strictly Alfa, these components performed better under the Zagato due to the car’s light weight, structural stiffness and slick shape. The car could reach 60 mph in the 12-second range and topped out at about 107 mph. Upon its release, road testers raved about the Junior’s performance, especially its balance and handling. The Zagato performed so well it earned the reputation of being one of the fastest and best handling small-displacement Alfa Romeos sold during the 1960s.

But performance didn’t translate to growing ownership. Despite its appeal to enthusiasts, its small size, relatively high price and stiff competition dampened sales, which were mostly limited to the Italian home market. 

Big Junior

In 1972, Alfa introduced an updated Zagato Junior. Along with increased displacement—power now came from a 1570cc enigne—changes included a revised tail, wraparound bumpers, dual-circuit braking, new taillights and revised trim. 

The new car was also a few inches longer, providing more space for luggage. To some observers, this version of the Zagato Junior presented a more balanced appearance. 

Although the hood remained aluminum, the doors on the newer car were steel, adding Junior Officiala few pounds to the final tally. The 109-horsepower engine provided more punch, and this Zagato could reach 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Top speed increased to 118 mph. 

The cost of entry increased, too: The Junior’s $4500 ticket price could almost buy a GTV 2000. Sales slowed further, and Zagato built the last Junior in 1975. In total, the company built 1108 1300 Juniors and 402 1600 Juniors. Alas, the Junior Zagato was never officially sold in the U.S.

Junior Official

W.L. Wagnon, who hails from the Atlanta area, is a bona fide Alfa enthusiast. He has owned more than 20 cars from the marque, including the four currently in his fleet.

“I wanted something different,” he says, adding that the Junior offered a good value. “Compared to other very costly Zagato-bodied cars, I say it’s Junior in status and in price.” 

As for his car’s origins, W.L. was told that a French government official specially ordered it, which might explain the metallic blue paint, custom interior, different steering wheel and power windows—all of which appear to be original to the car. After its stay in France, the car was brought into Holland in 1976.

In 1984, the Dutch magazine Autovisie featured this very Junior, and the article supported the backstory surrounding the custom features. In the late 1990s, the car underwent a restoration in Holland and was imported into the U.S. in 1999. 

Sleek Italian coachwork doesn’t have to be paired with an uncomfortable interior and unreliable drivetrain. The Junior Zagato features a proven Alfa Romeo engine and roomy cockpit.

W.L. is the fourth owner, and he says the Junior was in good shape when he bought it. However, the car needed a bit of elbow grease: W.L. detailed it inside and out, repaired minor front bumper damage and replaced the current wheels with an original set. Despite its rarity—only 48 American cars are listed in the registry—it’s a practical one, too, since all the components, less the body and some interior bits, are common Alfa parts. In W.L.’s opinion, the Junior offers the best of both worlds: rare Zagato styling and easy-to-fix internals. Of course, its performance is an added benefit. 

“I like this car because it’s light and agile,” he says. “It’s quiet and aerodynamic, and it’s the best-handling Alfa I’ve ever owned. The build quality is very high, too.” 

W.L. says that he enjoys the attention this rare model draws, and his Zagato has been invited to such prestigious concours as Hilton Head and Amelia Island. The car generally scores well in other shows, too, even against Ferraris and Maseratis, not to mention other Alfas. 

While it always draws a crowd, young people seem to be especially interested in this car. At a recent outing, a young observer inspected the car closely before calling it “funky.” “I’m taking that as a complement,” W.L. says. 

The riser on the driver’s side of the hood is a detail that seems to always attract ample attention. “A lot of people tell me that it’s their favorite part on the car,” he says, “probably because it shows the level of detail Zagato devoted to the aero features of this car.”

W.L. drives the Junior to several events each year and has contributed a few thousand kilometers to the 110,000 shown on the odometer. Other than routine maintenance, he says the car remains trouble-free and delivers about 25 mpg on the open road. He regularly uses the switch-operated hatch feature to vent the interior and says the partially open hatch does not draw exhaust fumes into the car. 

Major Smiles

No doubt about it, this car is tiny, but its proportions belie its size. The doors open wide, and the front is surprisingly roomy, even for a six-foot passenger. 

The no-frills exterior styling extends to the cockpit with its simple dashboard and minimalist trim. The big speedo and tach sit directly behind the wheel, while the smaller oil, water and fuel gauges angle toward the driver from the aluminum-trimmed console. The power windows found in this particular car are operated by a pair of rocker switches mounted on the console, right next to the switch that opens the hatch.

The little Zagato starts with a twist of the key. The 1600 sounds good, and the clutch action feels light and linear. The shift lever, which juts oddly from the nearly vertical console, moves easily but requires a long throw. This placement seems odd at first, but shifting soon becomes routine. 

The 1600 burbles a bit at low speeds, and W.L. admits that the Webers might be jetted a mite too rich. “[I’m] trying to get everything I can out of 1600cc,” he says. Once it’s revved past 2500 rpm or so, the little engine pulls strongly in every gear. 

The steering is light and precise; the car simply goes where it’s pointed. When pressed a bit on a curvy road, this Junior rewards the driver without making the passenger nervous. It’s predictable and great fun. If you do get a bit exuberant, however, the four-wheel discs can slow down this lightweight with little drama. Even over bumps, the ride is firm without being uncomfortable. Overall, this car is a joy to drive and would make a fun and economical daily driver—that is, if you can shake the persistent worry of having to replace an unobtainium body panel.

Cars like the Zagato underscore what enthusiasts have long known: You don’t need a big block under the hood to have a good time. If the chassis is light and balanced, 1.6 liters makes plenty of power. What a concept—and too bad the manufacturers can’t seem to implement it today.

What’s in this Junior Zagato’s future? “I want to keep it as long as I can drive it,” W.L. says. “I’ll never sell it. It’s nice to have a toy your wife approves of, and my wife likes this car more than any of our other Alfas. It’s quiet and comfortable and she loves to ride in it.” 

He continues, “Some say ‘Alfa’ stands for ‘always looking for another,’ but that’s not the case with this one.”

W.L. has found his Junior, but what about the rest of us? With gas prices at record highs, small and light could become standard for many cars sold in the future. As the folks at Zagato knew back in the ’60s, light makes right. With a couple of tweaks, this 1972 Junior Zagato could be a prototype of things to come. 

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