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To Meet an Icon: Alfa Romeo Carabo

The Carabo is one of Alfa Romeo’s most famous prototypes, and since its debut in 1968, it has been celebrated as a stylistic and conceptual model for sports cars for decades to come. Does it live up to its icon status in real life?

A few days ago I wrote a piece about the pleasant surprise for the seasoned car enthusiast, when one meets a hitherto unknown car which even turned out to be rather better than a one-off usually has any right to – the Meccanica Maniero.

This got me thinking about the almost exact opposite situation, when one meets a car previously only known from books, magazines and the all-knowing internet. When one such car is undeniably one of the all-time automotive greats, this can pose a threat to its status, and indeed some say you should never meet your heroes. Well, I didn’t plan to, but suddenly at an exhibition in Padua, Italy, there is was: The Alfa Romeo Carabo.

A rare moment when the Carabo was not entirely engulfed by spectators.

And in all honesty; when I saw it in Padua my first reaction was to fall on my knees. But first some background.

At the end of the Sixties, Bertone and his henchmen were at the very top of their creative game. In 1966 they had created the evocative lines of the Lamborghini Miura, one of the world’s most beautiful sports cars ever – and then just two years later Bertone practically rewrote the rule book: Since the Carabo was displayed in Paris in 1968, it has been the inspiration for hundreds of of super sports cars. Of course also for Bertone’s own style, but most significantly also for many, many others. Today you merely have to whisper the name “Carabo” (for a car enthusiast at least, while mother-in-laws and others of that ilk are unlikely to react) and you will immediately be meet by enthusiastic smiles, grand arm gestures, a flow of emotions and passionate expressions.

A flat front – literally. Optically the impression of flatness has been softened with opening panels, colours and air outlets – but it is still very flat.

That’s how I felt personally too: It truly was a surprise meeting and I was almost equally overwhelmed, as the Carabo was – and still is – one on my great icons. So great in fact, that I had not even considered that I might actually meet it in real life – face to face. It seemed unattainable. However as already mentioned, it can be challenging to meet such an icon in reality, and I’ve since been considering my feelings for the Carabo for a long time – that is, the real and physical Carabo; not just the idea of the Carabo as an icon.

In stark contrast, the rear was more ‘alive’ than I had expected: Again it is in essence a flat panel, but colours (note that the green is ANOTHER green hue than the main colour) and graphics make it work.

The thing is –  as the initial emotional storm had settled somewhat, the Carabo did not really strike me quite as hard and deep as I had expected. And I don’t really understand why either: Its overall shape is also in real life very striking and its details downright naughty. The use of contrasting explicit colours in conjunction with large surfaces and sharp angles lend it an expression which literally screams the Sixties when they were at their most futuristic. Or rather the Seventies even, as its design was really that far ahead of its time and looked well into the next decade. Furthermore, the prototype was even fully functional and drivable – probably rather fast even, as the base for the Carabo was the epic sports car: the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale.

But now, I found myself stood before the great Carabo – my impossible dream meeting, I starred, gawked even, and really took it in – every little detail – with all my senses. Then I slowly came to the conclusion that there were still a few things which did not quite work for me: The merciless flat front, for example. The slightly messy rear end, both the upper half and aft of the rear wheels. The utterly uninspiring and sexless interior too. I’m almost sorry to say that, but that’s how I felt: Once the most powerful and overwhelming feelings had evaporated, I managed to put feelings aside and instead looked soberly on the matter.

Well, it’s a prototype after all, and apparently Bertone used up most of his creativity on the outside. The steering wheel is highly modern for 1968, though.

As a whole, the Carabo is quite spectacular, no doubt about it – and its influence on how the super sports car has evolved since 1968 to modern day has been mighty. As such, its icon status is fully deserved and needless to say, both Alfa Romeo and Bertone guard that status: The Carabo was exhibited at Alfa Romeo’s stand and represented their Museo Storico. It was also almost impossible to photograph it as it was constantly surrounded by admirers. Including yours truly.

Super funky graphics.

Yet I did not return to the Carabo over the weekend, which I often do with my favourites at these shows. I simply can not explain what was missing, but hereafter, my strongest impressions of the iconic Bertone design concerns its detail solutions, rather than the whole design or even concept as such. Perhaps it’s because its fundamental expression has been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times since? That what was then so groundbreaking, has today simply become the norm (most clearly seen over at Lamborghini, which with the Countach from 1971 displayed the closest carbon copy of the Carabo) when designing the next “spectacular super sports car”?

Bertone and one of his best known prototypes ever.

As I said, I can not fully explain it. However, I’m not disappointed with my meeting either, but rather glad that the Carabo actually gave me something to ponder over. As I still consider myself on an educational journey through automotive history, this is actually much more meaningful than a short high which is quickly forgotten again once the pulse has settled.

ViaRETRO bonus information: The 2018 edition of the Padua exhibition “Auto e Moto d’Época” is taking place again during these days and I can highly recommend it. Rest assured that both food and coffee is better than what you’ll usually find at a car show, and the classic cars on display are rarely lacking either.


One Response

  1. Anders Bilidt

    Hmmm… it’s funny… I love wedge designs. I also fully acknowledge that the Carabo is a true icon. Yet, we shouldn’t forget which car it’s based upon. And that’s the Carabo’s downfall, as it will never come close to matching the original Tipo 33 Stradale for beauty or sheer drama!


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