Automotive History: Italian Deadly Sins (Part 2) – Iso Rivolta, The Impossible Dream

As we gather our thoughts from yesterday’s Autobianchi post and anticipate the sadness of tomorrow’s Lancia story (spoiler alert: Lancia dies at the beginning and goes downhill from there), let’s turn to an Italian marque that never really had a link with Fiat and made some of the most beautiful and powerful GTs of the post-war era. Thanks to the Chevrolet and Ford V8s they used, Iso Rivolta automobiles were extremely fast, but also completely reliable (engine-wise, at least). Sounds like a nice cocktail, but why did it turn sour?

Isothermos was founded in 1939 by Renzo Rivolta, initially to build refrigerators and heaters in Milan. The business grew after the war, and soon Iso started making scooters – the new craze was hard to resist – as part of a newly-created Iso automotive branch. Coming to the world of four-wheeled transport was naturally via the scooter, albeit in a completely novel fashion. Some say that Iso’s experience with fridge doors is said to have inspired the car’s iconic front door, though the Isetta was designed by aeronautics engineer Ermenegildo Preti.

Preti and Rivolta in an Isetta, circa 1953.

 

Be that as it may, the Isetta was launched in 1953, but failed in the Italian market: less than 5000 were put together before Iso called it quits in 1955. Rivolta managed to turn this domestic lemon into international lemonade, with licenses issued to produce the concept for the German, British, Spanish, French and Brazilian markets.

This pick-up variant was exclusive to the Italian Isetta range.

 

Iso continued making two-wheelers and trikes, but no real Iso car was on the horizon. For Renzo Rivolta, the notion of a larger car – perhaps following in Ferrari and Maserati’s footsteps – might be an interesting side-project. Rivolta was passionate about cars, but he was also a realist. He knew that developing the car would require good technicians for the chassis, a great designer for the body and a brilliant engine.

Giugiaro’s Iso, half-way between his Gordon GT (above) and BMW 3200CS (bottom).

The new car’s design was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, then working at Bertone, who would build the prototypes. The engine, it turns out, was the easy bit: having had a chance to take the Giugiaro-styled Gordon GT for a spin, Renzo Rivolta and other folks at Bertone were mightily impressed by the car’s Corvette V8. The Gordon’s De Dion rear axle set-up was also studied carefully. The new Iso would share only these features (and certain aesthetic traits) with the upcoming Gordon-Keeble.

When Rivolta heard of the mass layoffs over at Ferrari, he managed to snap up Giotto Bizzarrini in 1962. By that point though, the Iso Rivolta GT was already finalized. The car’s chassis was more modern than contemporary Ferraris and Aston Martins, with its in-board rear disc brakes and sophisticated suspension.

Above: Monza, automn 1962, R. Rivolta unveils the car to the press; below: deliveries start in 1963.

The first prototypes of the Iso Rivolta coupé were made in 1962 at Bertone’s factory. The new car was aimed at the very top of the market, quite the opposite of the Isetta. This was less of a problem than it might have been. The Iso name, such as it stood then, was not necessarily associated with the Isetta in the mind of the car-buying public, except in Italy. The new V8-powered GT was competent and its body was stunningly beautiful, which could help put Iso on the map of this uncharted territory.

The European sports car with a big American engine was not a new concept in the early ‘60s. Jensen (top left) had been at it since the mid-‘30s, using Ford V8s and, in this instance, a 4-litre Nash straight-8. Other plucky Brits included Brough Superior (top right, using Hudson engines), Railton (with a Hudson 8-cyl., middle left; this one being one of the few made just after the war) as well as Atalanta (not pictured), which used several different engines, including the Zephyr V12. After the war, the torch was passed to Allard (middle left), who sourced their engines from various suppliers, including Cadillac, Chrysler and Ford. The Nash-Healeys (not pictured) were also an interesting transatlantic collaboration in the early ’50s. On the other side of the Channel, Voisin picked the cheapest supercharged engine they could find for the 1938 C30 (bottom left) – the last big Voisin had a Graham 6-cyl. under its hood. But the French-made Facel-Vega was the one to emulate: created more or less ex nihilo in the mid-‘50s with Chrysler hemi power, the marque had been quite the success story – until they tried making their own engine.

American engines were everything European ones were not: large, very powerful, understressed and extremely reliable. Not to mention affordable. General Motors were more than happy to provide the Corvette engines to Iso (and soon to Gordon-Keeble as well), as these low-production exotics were not really competing with the Corvette. Chrysler had been the number one purveyor of engines for these Euro-American hybrids up to that point and Ford were getting their act together with the AC / Shelby tie-up, so GM may have also figured they needed a presence in this field, if only for prestige and image reasons.

The Iso Rivolta GT was fêted as a welcome addition to the European luxury car scene, which was undergoing something of a boom after the cull that had taken place in the ‘50s. But Renzo Rivolta figured that to compete with the likes of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Maserati or Mercedes, Iso would need two things: a two-seater sports car and some racing cred.

Above & bottom pics: Iso Grifo Lusso production version; below: Bertone’s 1963 prototype.

The former was going to be the Iso Grifo A3/L (for Lusso). Using a slightly shortened chassis and a revised engine (Iso made new cams, among a few other modifications), the Grifo prototype was designed and built at Bertone in 1963 and shown on the coachbuilder’s stand at the Turin Motor Show. The car’s performance was now equal to anything the competition could throw at it: the ultimate GT, it could cruise at speeds exceeding 140 mph in serene luxury. The car’s shape and detailing were universally admired and were seen even then as one of the car’s most enduring assets.

Three of Grifo A3/C prototypes taking shape at the factory in 1964. Altogether, 22 cars were made.

 

Setting up a scuderia proved to be a far more difficult (and expensive) proposition. Bizzarrini’s obsession with weight distribution meant the Corvette engine was pushed behind the front wheels, turning the car into a front mid-engined design. The Grifo A3/C (for Corsa) race car was, by all accounts, fairly competent for a first effort, but the issue lay less with the car than it did with the people who designed, commandeered or raced them. Rushing to get the Iso team to enter events in 1964, Bizzarrini’s demands on Rivolta started creating tension between the two men. The A3/C raced at Le Mans and finished 14th – not bad for a first stab.

Initially, Bizzarrini road cars kept the Grifo name, which soon changed to 5300 Strada.

 

Bizzarrini’s penchant for race cars was not wholly shared by Rivolta, who saw that Iso needed to sell more road cars to attain financial equilibrium. The engineer and the CEO’s relationship became so stormy that, by 1965, Giotto Bizzarrini and Renzo Rivolta parted ways. Bizzarrini attempted to salvage the A3/C programme by taking over the scuderia and launching a limited production strada (street) model under his own name.

The Bizzarrini marque was officially launched in 1966 and about 100 cars made. A new open-top racer was tried out in 1965 with a Lamborghini V12 alongside the Corvette V8, but had less success than the A3/C, which won its class at Le Mans that year. Bizzarrini later tried to diversify their range by proposing the Opel-based Bizzarrini 1900 GT Europa (above) in 1967, but the firm collapsed by 1969.

Above: Renzo Rivolta (1908-1966); below: the car he wanted to complete the Iso range for 1967.

Plans were already being drawn for a four-door Iso, based on a stretched version of the Rivolta chassis. The new Iso’s body was already designed – this time by Ghia. Unfortunately, Renzo Rivolta was not to see his latest creation’s launch. On 19 August 1966, a few days before his 58th birthday, Rivolta suffered a fatal heart attack.

The baton was suddenly passed to Piero Rivolta, Renzo’s 25-year-old son who had recently completed his PhD in mechanical engineering. Though he had the knowledge, Piero Rivolta was by any standards very young to become a CEO – there was the precedent of Gianni Lancia, which was rather tumultuous. Iso pressed on with the launch of the S4 four-door saloon, later and perhaps better known as the Fidia, which hit the motor show circuit in late 1967.

The S4/Fidia, basically a GT coupé with an extra 15cm of wheelbase, was huge and certainly peculiar-looking. The car’s performance was, as always, a strong point, with the Chevy V8 being more than capable of propelling the 2.5-tonne car at its 120 mph-plus cruising speed. Along with the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, the Maserati Quattroporte or the Mercedes 300SEL 6.3, the Iso Fidia was part of a select few late ’60s super-luxurious V8-powered European saloons that appealed to folks who could afford the best.

The eggman grinneth…

 

Famously, one early client was John Lennon, who bought the second production (and first RHD) Fidia after having seen one at the 1967 London Motor Show. The roomy and low-slung Iso was more discreet than the Beatle’s artfully painted Rolls Phantom limo – and yet even more expensive. Lennon had just become aware of the Italian marque while on the set of the infamous Magical Mystery Tour film, which featured a Grifo. He must have been a happy customer, as he purchased two additional Iso saloons in later years.

Modifications on the Grifo’s looks and powertrain notwithstanding, Iso were not setting new sales records. The GT Coupé was, by the late ‘60s, starting to look a bit stale. Sales were beginning to dwindle and the S4 saloon was also off to a very slow start (only 17 cars made in 1967-69). Piero Rivolta started taking out loans – Iso cars did not have sufficient cash-flow on their own to launch the direly-needed new four-seater coupé.

The Lele was named after Piero Rivolta’s wife. One wonders if she and Monica ever met.

 

In late 1969, the new Iso was finally unveiled, but many thought it lacked its predecessor’s universal appeal – at a time when the market was getting very crowded indeed. The Lele was bang up to date style-wise, sharing its turf with the Lamborghini Espada, the Maserati Ghibli, the Monteverdi 375L, the Aston Martin V8, the Jensen Interceptor, the AC 428, the Bristols and precious few others in the European luxury GT class. Compared to them though, the Lele’s Bertone body, styled by Marcello Gandini, was lacking in a certain grace. All but the Bristol wore sharply-tailored Italian suits, but the Lele looks like it would have benefitted from a few more fittings. Plus, the half-closed quad lamps give the car a sort of half-awake look that one doesn’t find on the Alfa Romeo Montreal, an earlier (and much better, in the opinion of many) Gandini design with partially-covered headlamps. Someone at Iso thought they looked good though, and they soon contaminated the 7-litre Grifos.

Iso entered the ‘70s as a rather frail operation. All models combined, production was in the 100-200 range per year on average. This was a tightrope Iso could survive on, but certainly not thrive on. In 1972, GM changed their policy as regards the Corvette V8 and asked for money up front, which Iso did not have. Engine supply switched to Ford, who were already present in the Italian peninsula through De Tomaso. The switch to Ford did not adversely affect the Iso cars: the Fidia, the Lele and the Grifo remained capable of extremely high top speeds.

Ford-powered Fidia at the 1973 Barcelona Motor Show; one of four Fidias bought new in Spain.

 

The Rivolta family started looking to divest from Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. by this point. The GM/Ford engine switch had been a close call, but what obstacle might come in the future could prove insurmountable. A deal was made in early 1973 with New York-based Ivo Pera, who thought he could inject the marque with a new direction and American business know-how. The first order of business was to relaunch the scuderia to improve Iso’s image – this time with Formula One racing. Piero Rivolta did not agree with this view; outgunned by the new shareholders under Ivo Pera’s control, he left the company.

Iso-Marlboro F1 driven by Gijs van Lennep at the 1974 Dutch Grand Prix. The car did not qualify.

 

Iso’s 1973-74 F1 campaign was on shaky ground from the start. The idea was to buy out a stake in newbie constructor Frank Williams’ outfit and, through a sponsorship deal, get the cars repainted to a familiar red and white colour scheme and revised under the supervision of Bizzarrini, who worked freelance in those days. Even with the Philip Morris’ backing, the Iso-Marlboro floundered at the back of the grid – when it got qualified at all. The cost of running the scuderia made Iso’s precarious finances take an immediate nosedive and the Italian firm pulled out of the Frank Williams team before the start of the 1974 season, though the team was still registered as Iso-Marlboro. The road cars were not exactly flying out of showrooms, either.

What the future could have been: 1972 Iso Varedo mid-engined concept car.

 

The effects of the first oil shock were disastrous for Iso. Industrialized countries were imposing highway max speed limits almost everywhere and Iso’s 7-litre monsters were suddenly looking like expensive money pits. Not just Iso, but the whole luxury GT class were now in jeopardy. AC, Aston Martin, Jensen, Lamborghini, Ligier, Maserati, Monica and Monteverdi all fell on very hard times in the mid-‘70s. Some, like Iso, never recovered. Production came to a halt in late 1974, even before the new management had time to turn things around. If anything, Pera increased the nosedive’s angle of attack. Piero Rivolta bought back the Iso name from the bankruptcy proceedings, but was not looking to try and continue making cars.

Iso sold 797 GTs (1962-69, above) and 504 Grifos, including a few one-offs, such as this ’64 spider.

Two former Iso employees, Zanisi and Negri, put together some financing and bought the dies and leftover parts for the Lele and the Grifo, building at least one of each in 1976 and presenting a “nuova Lele” at the 1976 Turin Motor Show under the Ennezeta brand. The plan soon fizzled out, but Iso had left an impression in Italy.

Like other famous automotive names (e.g. Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Maybach or Isotta-Fraschini), rumours of a resurrection were always in the air and occasionally produced some artwork, blueprints and/or an actual car or two, as was the case with the (rather anonymous) 1990 Iso Grifo 90 above. But, like most projects of this nature, nothing really came of it. The name Rivolta strangely re-emerged in 2017 on a Zagato-made sports car, though the coachbuilder never had any history with Iso back in the day: Piero Rivolta’s daughter married into the Zagato family.

Iso made only 192 S4/Fidia saloons (1967-74) and 285 Lele coupés (1969-74).

Without their founder at the helm, it was perhaps likely that Iso was destined to become extinct in relatively short order. The V8 Isos, all closely derived from the original 1962 coupé, demonstrate how dangerous it can be to stick to one sole recipe for a decade. Once circumstances changed, Iso and a number of similar automakers were caught unawares and were wiped out within months.

The Amercian-V8 / European styling mix, potent though it was, had had its moment in the sun, but the market was much smaller than what Renzo Rivolta thought back in the early ‘60s. A few exceptions proved this rule: De Tomaso (top left) survived with their Iso-style saloon/coupe/supercar line-up well into the ‘80s. In West Germany, where half of the Grifos made were sold, Erich Bitter started making Opel-based four-seater coupés in 1973 (top right) and continued for 15 years. In the UK, Bristol had an even longer life, thanks in part to their activities on the second-hand car market and restoration. There are fewer examples originating from the other side of the pond, aside from the Cunningham C3 of the early ‘50s (middle right). Sure, Pininfarina built the Eldorado Broughams and Ghia made limos for Imperial and a few specials for Mopar, but these were usually designed in Detroit. The only recent Euro-American hybrid made for US consumption would be the infamous Cadillac Allanté (bottom left). And that didn’t go too well either. The Chrysler-Maserati TC might also qualify – certainly by production numbers alone, but it was more of an American design built by an Italian firm.

Iso’s Deadly Sin was perhaps not down to a specific car model. The Lele and the Fidia were definite duds, but all were based on the 1962 GT. The whole Iso concept was a viable one in 1962, but too many competitors were vying for a market that would always be very small. Rising costs meant fewer profits and shaky finances, which were wiped out by the F1 programme – just when the Oil Crisis struck. Though not fatal in itself, this last fact was more than most, including Iso, could bear.

See you tomorrow for a look at the third and final part of this installment of European Deadly Sins, as we look at the many deaths of Lancia.

 

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European Deadly Sins series

French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)

British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)

German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)

Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia)