Iso Grifo

Renzo Rivolta's flirtation with American engines was powerful but ultimately ill-fated, says Brian Sewell
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The Anglo-American hybrid car was well established in the 1930s by such marques as Brough Superior, Railton, Allard and Jensen, producing equivalents to Rolls, Bentley or Lagonda at less than half the price, but the employment of an American engine in a European chassis was not exploited by the Italians until 1962 with the Iso Rivolta.

The Anglo-American hybrid car was well established in the 1930s by such marques as Brough Superior, Railton, Allard and Jensen, producing equivalents to Rolls, Bentley or Lagonda at less than half the price, but the employment of an American engine in a European chassis was not exploited by the Italians until 1962 with the Iso Rivolta.

As with the French Facel-Vega that preceded it by some eight years, the objective was to produce high-powered sports saloons that matched the beauty, performance and extravagance of the great marques, without investing heavily in the development of new engines and transmissions.

It must be admitted by those who loathe the looks and suspensions of American cars, that their engines, great lumps of iron though they may have been, were enviably reliable and tolerant of abuse, producing power and to spare without stress or subtlety, no matter from which end of the market they were bought, Chevrolet or Cadillac, Dodge or Chrysler. This is still the case.

Until 1953 Iso had been a major manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles under the control and ownership of the Italian industrialist, Renzo Rivolta. His surname means revolt, rebellion or sharp turn, none of which quite applies to his production in that year of the Isetta, the revolutionary bubble-car that proved good enough to be made by BMW, first under licence and then, within two years, under their absolute ownership.

A far sharper turn came in 1962 with, not a development of the Isetta (BMW did that with their 600), but a large grand touring saloon called the Iso Rivolta GT, a full four-seater with comfortable headroom and a luggage boot to match. With the 5.4-litre V-8 engine of the Chevrolet Corvette, reliability and ease of maintenance were assured, and so too was a maximum speed of 140mph. At a stroke Rivolta had a car that in Italy could equal the performance of any Maserati or Ferrari, and in Britain, out-perform any Bentley Continental for almost exactly half the price.

This could not have been achieved without the collaboration of Giotto Bizzarrini, the former Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari engineer who designed the car's platform chassis, nor without the precedent of the Gordon Keeble GT of 1960, in which John Gordon and Jim Keeble had constructed a logical successor to the Peerless and the Warwick.

If this note on Iso risks becoming a ramble down the back lanes of English motoring history, so be it, for they lead us to the fundamental truth of the first Iso - in every respect but the chassis the Rivolta was a Gordon Keeble, identical in Chevrolet power and almost so in the Bertone body. Quite how this came about remains a mystery; the GT was sufficiently developed by 1960 for Autocar and Motor to describe it as the most electrifying car ever driven by their testers, but it did not go into production until 1964, two years after Iso's Rivolta, and the tale that Renzo bought one and, as it were, said "make that" to his engineers, cannot be quite true. Was it a case of industrial espionage or did Bertone spill the beans?

The emphasis of the body was on comfort, but the rest, as Autocar put it, was sheer performance - from rest to 60mph in 7.5 seconds, and on to 100mph 6 seconds later, with Dunlop disc brakes to match and steering that is wonderfully precise on the autostrada but not on the alpine pass. Even so, it was not exactly a success and only 797 were built between 1962 and 1970.

As early as 1964 Iso offered an alternative, the Grifo, a superior supercar on a shortened Rivolta chassis, with a two-seater closed coupé body, again designed by Bertone's chief stylist, Giorgietto Giugiaro, then only 26. With the same Chevrolet engine of 300bhp it was not notably faster, but when given four twin-choke Weber carburettors it produced 365bhp and reached 155mph, and with a seven-litre engine of 405bhp its maximum speed, in comfortable circumstances, rose to 180mph - astonishing performance now, let alone 40 years ago.

When Bizzarrini was allowed to make a competition version of the Grifo and market it under his own name, he chose the 365bhp engine, mounted it amidships and commissioned another Bertone/Giugiaro coupé body some 400lbs lighter than the Grifo; at least one of these was persuaded by its owner to reach a certified 204mph.

Iso made 504 Grifos between 1964 and 1974. It was very beautiful in the idiom of the day, its lines softly swooping and curvaceous, but very vulnerable to careless parking, its ultra-slim bumpers virtually useless; in the series II version of the 1970s it was even more beautiful and vulnerable, every line and detail that much more refined. Its name, Grifo, the Griffin, was intended to put the wind up Ferrari whose symbol, the horse, was the mythological Griffin's usual breakfast - but it failed, and so did all the other Isos, the Lele, the Fidia and the Varedo. In 1975 the firm folded, fell into the maw of an American maker of refrigerators, and fizzled out.

The Rivolta and Grifo occasionally appear at auction, sometimes after extravagantly expensive restorations on which loving owners have spent £60,000, only to sell it for £20,000. The problem is, of course, that the classic body clads an engine and transmission of extremely vulgar origin, but to rebuild the old Corvette lump is as costly as rebuilding a rare Ferrari; the installation of an entirely new engine and transmission would surely make better, cheaper sense, but then the car would no longer be an authentic classic Iso.

This, however, brings us to a question of philosophical proportions - can a hybrid ever be a classic? What, I wonder, might Bristol's answer be? Would it be churlish to suggest that the Isetta bubble-car was Renzo Rivolta's only classic?

motoring@independent.co.uk

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