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Design Review: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione (2003)

A gorgeous two-seater grand tourer with nostalgic looks and a marvellous V8 sound.

Alfa Romeo presented an exotic concept car at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show, a concept that translated the lines of some of the brand's most beautiful classics into the 21st century - the 8C Competizione.

At the time, Alfa Romeo’s range consisted of the 147 (hatchback), the GT (coupe) the 156 (sedan and sportwagon), the GTV (sportscar) and the Spider (roadster).

The Milanese company was always destined to be on the sporty side of Gruppo FIAT, but needed an exotic halo model to reposition itself further away from the mainstream Fiat and closer to the more premium Maserati, recapturing the hearts of petrolheads around the world.

Unlike other Alfa Romeo concept cars of the era, like Pininfarina’s Dardo (1998), Bertone’s Bella (1999) and Italdesign’s Brera (2002), the 8C Competizione (2003) was designed in-house by the Centro Stile Alfa Romeo, under the leadership of Wolfgang Egger.

The full-size prototype was built on a custom tubular frame with a 4.2-litre V8 producing 298kW, mated to a six-speed manual gearbox.

The concept car was named after the pre-war 8C (1931) - also featuring an eight-cylinder engine - and the post-war 6C 2500 Competizione (1948) which was driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Alfa's chief test driver, Augusto Zanardi, at the 1950 Mille Miglia. As for the design, the lines were mainly inspired by the 33 Stradale (1967), and its front-engined RWD proportions had a strong essence of the Giulia TZ (1963).

The 8C Competizione was a compact car with balanced proportions, measuring 4278mm in length, 1900mm wide, and just 1250mm tall, with a 2595mm wheelbase. In profile, the strong character line started from the wheel arch and faded away on the door, while the waistline was purposely raised above the rear fenders and towards the short-tail advertising the RWD nature of the car.

The cabin was moved towards the rear and front and rear overhangs were kept minimal, emphasising the 20-inch wheels with multi-spoke rims and wide custom-tread tires. The rounded shape of the tinted and pillar-less windows complemented the curvaceous body, tiny mirrors were mounted on the shoulders, and body-coloured triangular side vents filled the space between the wheel and the door line.

The large headlights with dual circular units, changed shape depending from the viewing angle, from oval to a triangle with rounded edges. Like the 33 Stradale, they were positioned on the front fenders which sat higher than the front bonnet, blending harmoniously with the rest of the bodywork.

The central feature of the nose was a compact-sized scudetto grille positioned low on the front bumper, defining the V-shaped dynamic lines of the protruding bonnet. The angular 'whiskers' intakes featured circular fog-lights highlighted in chrome trim. At the lower part of the sculpted bumper, there was another intake and a black splitter, with aerodynamic edges on each side.

At the back, the muscular rear fenders allowed for pronounced shoulders, with only a thin ribbon of bodywork between the curved rear windscreen and the integrated spoiler on the tip of the tail. The slightly recessed rear-end housed two unmistakable circular LED tail-lights surrounded by thin chrome rings, the Alfa Romeo emblem and a dedicated area for the licence plate. Below, the bumper which was integrated with the rest of the bodywork, featured a wide central opening with four large exhaust pipes above the diffuser.

If you pay closer attention to the bodywork, you will notice that it consists of only four panels - front, rear and one door on each side - with panel gaps reduced to minimum.

So, what happened next?

The enthusiastic response following the unveiling in Frankfurt, persuaded Alfa Romeo to seriously consider a production version that would be positioned at the top of its range, both in terms of performance and pricing.

Two years later, the company unveiled the 8C Spider Concept (2005) at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, winning the 'Best of the Show' award and revealing plans for a possible soft-top derivative of the model.

The 8C Spider carried over most of the design elements of the Coupe, with discreet changes bringing it closer to production. More specifically, it featured a dark background for the headlights, matte aluminium trim on the intakes and scudetto grille, black mesh side vents, five-spoke phone-dial wheels, carbon-fibre windshield frame and mirror caps, conventional door handles and a redesigned tail with a more prominent rear bumper and diffuser.

The final production version of the 8C Competizione (2007) was unveiled a year later at the 2006 Paris Motor Show, and the production 8C Spider (2009) premiered at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show. Surprisingly, the design team managed to make minimal changes to the sexy looks of the concept cars in order to comply with regulations worldwide - a process which took eight months.

The easiest way to tell apart a production-spec 8C Competizione from the concept is the small panel gaps on the front and rear bumpers (instead of integral units), the chrome finish on the side windows and the combination of dark bi-xenon headlight background and fog-lights in the air intakes.

The overall dimensions were also altered, with the production version measuring 4381mm (+103mm) long, 1894mm (-6mm) wide, 1341mm tall (+91mm) boasting a 2646mm (+51mm) wheelbase. Due to necessary additions to the equipment, the Coupé weighed 1585 kg and the heavier Spider (thanks to the roof mechanism) tipped the scales at 1675kg.

Both cars were produced by Maserati at its Modena plant. Unlike the tubular frame of the one-off concept car, they were based on a steel chassis dressed with a lightweight carbon-fibre body.

Under the bonnet, a Maserati-sourced 4.7-litre V8 engine produced 331kW and 480Nm, while providing the car with a marvellous roaring soundtrack from its quadruple exhaust pipes. A sequential six-speed gearbox with paddle-shifters sourced from the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano sent power to the rear wheels, with the help of a limited-slip differential.

According to Alfa Romeo, the 8C Competizione accelerated from 0-100km/h in 4.2 seconds and could reach a top speed of 292km/h. Brakes included 360mm ventilated discs with six-piston calipers at the front and 330mm ventilated discs with four-piston callipers at rear (Brembo carbon-ceramic discs on the Spider). As a true sports car, suspension consisted of double wishbones front and rear for better handling and forged aluminium components.

Inside the cabin, there was a combination of aluminium-style surfaces with dark composite materials, carbon-fibre details and red leather upholstery. On the dashboard, the circular climate vents and the physical knobs and switches on the slightly tilted central console, were fitting for the performance nature of the car.

Behind the three-spoke steering wheel with a flat face and gearshift paddles, the large analogue gauges with a double-bubble cover featured white and red backlight. The carbon-fibre sports bucket seats were upholstered in leather, as were the door pockets that followed the shape of the front fenders.

The car was produced between 2007 and 2010 so the lack of a screen - besides the trip-computer in the instrument cluster and the small screen on the Bose sound system unit - must have been intentional in order to maintain a timeless look.

At the back, only the rear windshield of the Coupé opened, providing access to the luggage compartment. Alfa Romeo also offered a custom set of branded luggage, designed to fit in the dedicated space behind the seats and inside the small boot. The Spider had a retractable fabric roof with a folding mechanism located behind the cabin.

Production was strictly limited to 500 units for the 8C Competizione (2007-2009) and another 500 for the 8C Spider (2008-2010), causing prices to keep rising after they were sold out.

In 2008, Alfa Romeo launched its first B-segment car, the MiTo (2008-2018), designed in Milano and produced in Torino. The Italian premium supermini shared its platform with the Fiat Grande Punto (2005), and even though its proportions were far off the 8C Competizione, its core design elements (headlights, front bumper, phone-dial wheels, tail-lights, rear bumper, and dashboard) were heavily influenced by the flagship sports car.

A similar design treatment was chosen for the C-segment model - the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (2010-2020) - which retained many styling cues (headlights, intakes, rear bumper, side window line, fenders, surface treatment) creating a strong connection with the smaller MiTo.

The last cars to incorporate this design language would be the mid-engined 4C Coupe (2013) and 4C Spider (2015), before the Giulia (2015) sedan and Stelvio (2016) SUV introduced a significant evolution of that theme.

Based on the now-cancelled Alfa Romeo production plan, the 8C was scheduled to have a successor, aiming closer to supercar territory. However, this scenario is no longer the case, as the latest strategic plan of the Milanese company includes three premium SUVs and one premium sedan.

Verdict

It is hard not to be subjective with the 8C Competizione. This car encapsulated the design heritage of the Alfa Romeo brand in such a delicate way, it immediately became a future classic.

It managed to be instantly recognisable and borrow design elements from what is arguably one of the most beautiful cars of all time - the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale - while retaining a distinctive character of its own.

What is more impressive is that the designers at Centro Stile translated the unrestricted concept car into an even more appealing production version, which was so beautiful, balanced, rare, exotic and untamed, it couldn’t be compared with anything else.

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