It's the same story at nearly every turnout on the road that twists up Southern California's Palomar Mountain. Motorists pass by slowly, then gawk out their windows. Sometimes they stop for a closer look. Sometimes they've already stopped and saunter over to ask questions, nearly always prefaced by, "That's a beautiful car."
It's tough to blame them. Sitting by the roadside are a '14 Alfa Romeo 4C and a '72 Ferrari Dino 246 GT, two cars that kids from 8 to 80 would agree epitomize excitement on wheels. Although more than 40 years separate our subjects, they're remarkably similar in concept.
The aesthetics strike most people first. Both are voluptuous, with short, low hoodlines and side-mounted scoops aft of the doors—dead giveaways to their mid-engined configurations. With spartan cabins and fixed-back race-inspired seats, each was designed to give the basic elements of a race car experience for the road.
By the time development began on the Dino in the mid-1960s, Enzo Ferrari was certainly no stranger to mid-engined race machines. Ferrari Formula One cars had been mid-engined since 1960 and the marque had a succession of mid-engined sports racers under its belt. Still,
The engine was deliberately small: The little four-cam V-6 that Enzo's son, Alfredo (nicknamed "Dino"), is said to have helped develop before his early death in 1956 of leukemia. This motor was already successful in F1—a 1.5L version propelled Mike Hawthorne to the 1958 world championship. A few years later, 2.0L and 2.4L versions made their way into the 206SP and 246SP racers, respectively. Putting it in the Dino had another advantage: It would help with homologation for Formula Two.
To build the engine in suitable numbers, Ferrari relied on its fairly recent partnership with Fiat. If Fiat produced them at its Turin plant, it was free to use them in a car of its own. So was born the front-engined Fiat Dino, but that's a story for another time.
The first Dino 206 GT hit the streets in 1968, producing roughly 180 hp from its all-alloy, transversely mounted 2.0L V-6. The cars themselves were entirely alloy-bodied as well, but construction changed to a mix of steel and alloy panels by late 1969 when the 246 GT debuted. This latter model's 2.4L engine produced a claimed 195 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque, but the power increase only just offset the extra weight.
A five-speed manual gearbox was used in both cars, with disc brakes at all four corners and even a limited-slip differential. As either a tribute to his son or a clever marketing move (perhaps a little of both), no Ferrari badges adorned the exterior of any Dino. Instead, the now-iconic blue "Dino" signature on a yellow background was located on the nose, steering wheel, and wheel caps, the Dino line essentially being a sub-brand. The only place the Ferrari name appeared was on the build tag in the driver-side doorjamb, leading to decades of "is it or isn't it a Ferrari?" debate. Regardless, there's no denying that good examples like our featured car are $400,000 works of art these days.
The Alfa was designed in a more corporate environment, but the goal was the same: a small, lithe, somewhat affordable baby supercar. To that end, the Alfa is built around a hand-laid carbon-fiber tub, in what is essentially the same expensive process used by F1 manufacturers. It's partly the reason that capacity is just 1,000 units a year, and it's unlikely the company will see much profit from this model.
Behind the cabin sits a 1,742cc turbocharged inline-four (Alfa rounds up to 1,750 for legacy's sake) that produces 237 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. In a car this pure, there will be cries for a good old-fashioned manual gearbox, but those cries will likely go unassuaged, if not unnoticed. Instead, the only gearbox currently on offer is the six-speed dual-clutch unit that also serves duty in the (cough) Dodge Dart. Feel free to substitute Alfa Giulietta for Dodge Dart if that makes you feel any better.
Nevertheless, the Alfa is a proper modern sports car, with a tubular control-arm suspension up front, a fairly technical strut setup in the rear, and Brembo brakes with drilled rotors all around. Our tester also has the optional so-called racing exhaust, which is simply to say there isn't a muffler, just a straight pipe to the catalytic converter. The track package adds a stiffer suspension and quintessentially Alfa 18- and 19-inch wheels wrapped in exclusive Pirelli P Zero tires. With a few other extras, our 4C Launch Edition comes to nearly $70,000. Which means you could buy five of them and still have money left over from selling a primo Dino.
But enough quibbling over price—these cars were meant to drive. Jon Gunderson, the man who has not only graciously brought along the Dino but finished its rotisserie restoration just the evening before, throws over his keys and tells me to have fun. The Dino's door opens by pulling a delicate-looking chrome lever just below the window on the trailing edge. A click later and I'm dropping down into the gorgeous burgundy bucket seat and buckling up.
There's not much to the surprisingly roomy and comfortable cabin. The long, chrome shift lever sprouts from traditional Ferrari gates. The half-moon-shaped dashboard is correctly covered in the period "mouse fur" material, with a few switches that look vaguely like ventilation controls and an aluminum-trimmed instrument panel with jewel-like Veglia Borletti gauges wearing the Dino logo. Turn the Dino's unassuming key to the first position and the electric fuel pump starts whirring out back. Twist the key all the way and the high-pitched starter spins, followed a moment later by a metallic bark as it fires up. Slot the lever down and left into the dog-leg first gear, release the semi-heavy clutch, and we're off.
The Dino is easy to get moving smoothly, despite heavy steering at parking speeds and a typically Italian driving position, with a fairly flat dish to the steering wheel that is a bit too far away (or conversely, the pedals are too close). Never mind, I'm quickly getting used to the car and our mountain road is starting to feel like a hillclimb stage. The Dino engine is an utter joy, with a torquey, silky character that makes it vital to keep an eye on the redline when starting out.
Power delivery is linear and by the time I've passed 4,500 rpm, the engine absolutely yowls on its way toward the 7,800-rpm redline, the triple Webers lending a throaty induction overtone. Truth is, a well-driven Golf TSI will outrun a Dino any day of the week. Still, there's such a sensation of speed with the low seating position, the view out the wraparound windshield, and the sound of that glorious popping and spitting between rev-matched downshifts into the next hairpin. The car corners nearly flat and the ride quality is shockingly good. It's a highly visceral experience that cements the Dino's place as an extremely special car. I could keep driving this same stretch of road all day, frankly, but there's an Alfa Romeo to get back to.
Like the Dino, there's little to single out as special in the 4C's cabin. There's little in the cabin, period. No armrests, no glovebox, no nifty trim details. Just a pouch under the dashboard for registration and insurance papers, two plastic cupholders mounted as non-ergonomically as possible in the center console, a drive mode toggle switch, and a host of buttons to put the car in gear. With the Alfa's wide carbon sills, it's more of a challenge to get inside. But it's not too bad once you're there, unless you're the passenger. In which case the center stack intrudes on the legs a bit.
Close the door and thumb the start button. Wait a moment, the starter motor engages and sets the engine into a loud thrumming sound. Foot on the brake, push the "1" button for First gear, the "A/M" button to select manual mode, gas it, and go. The steering feels even heavier than the Dino's moving away; no power assist here. And the cacophony of noises on the other side of the glass behind my head is in full swing. Any brief stab on the throttle has the turbocharger whistling and whooshing, while the engine starts revving with a gravelly bellow. The steering starts to lighten a little and the thick rim of the wheel starts to come alive, following little seams in the road as if laser guided.
It's clear right away that the 4C is little fun at low speed. It's noisy, rough-riding, and every little sound seems to get amplified and thrown around the hard-trimmed cabin. A daily driver the Alfa is not. But as speed increases, so does my interest. Acceleration is a rush, especially after the Dino, and the car is so pure, so precise. The brake pedal is firm and there's not much travel. Like a race car, you push the pedal harder, not farther to stop faster. There's a hint of initial understeer at most corner entries, easily rectified with a little trail braking or, more entertainingly, a stab of the throttle mid-turn, which brings the rear around just so with the engine rasping at full chat. There are few more focused cars today than the 4C.
Those who want the Alfa Romeo 4C to combine elegance, passion, and performance—basically, a baby Ferrari 458—will be disappointed. There's no such grace in the 4C's driving experience. It's just full-bore madness all the time. It's an Italian-made Radical racer for the street. And yes, your wife will absolutely hate it. The Dino—in contrast, and despite being 42 years old—almost feels like it could be driven every day. It has that magical Ferrari ride quality that somehow manages to make the car feel light, stiff, substantial, and compliant all at the same time. And it's a true rolling sculpture on the road, making great noises to boot. Given a sunny morning and no particular place to be, I'd gladly take either.
The Dino King
Jon Gunderson restored the silver '72 Dino 246 GT shown in this story at his shop in Escondido, California. Gunderson caught the Dino bug as a young American traveling abroad, going on to own several examples. After retiring, he began tearing down a Dino to satiate his workaholic tendencies. With no previous experience, he went on to restore that car before setting up shop in a local warehouse to restore them for customers. He currently has nearly a decade of experience and multiple restorations completed, with several more in progress. For more information, or to see his current projects, visit dinorestoration.com.