Part 49 Iso – What Could Have Been
The History of the Italian Automobile - Part 49
Iso.. What Could Have Been
By David Cavaliere
It wasn’t a new story, the idea of putting American muscle into a European car. One can see the value in the formula – take cheap horsepower, install it into a nimble chassis and clothe the car with a nifty body to create a relatively inexpensive high-performance car; one that could be competitive on the track and a good seller in the showroom. Sydney Allard, Donald Healy and Carroll Shelby all tried it, with varying degrees of success. Alejandro de Tomaso used the same formula for his cars, most famously in the Pantera (see Part 21 of this series, July 7, 2016). Renzo Rivolta did not have the original intention of going down this road, but when he got together with the brilliant engineer Giotto Bizzarrini (Part 11, March 31, 2016), designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (Part 47, February 9, 2017) and chassis builder Bertone (Part 10, May 24, 2016), he was bitten by the bug. It became one the classic “should have beens” in automotive history.
Some companies begin with a dream, while others develop ideas over time. Renzo Rivolta was an engineer, who at the age of 31, became an industrialist. His family founded 'Isothermos’ in 1939 and manufactured refrigeration units. The company began in Genoa and moved to Bresso, a suburb of Milan, in 1942. Shortly after the war, Renzo decided to concentrate on getting Italy back on its feet, or more specifically, on its wheels. His company began producing robust motor scooters and then motorcycles. Success was so great that by 1950, Isothermos had changed its name to Iso Automotoveicoli and was Italy’s third largest two-wheel producer, behind Vespa and Lambretta.
Then came the company’s first four wheel car - the Isetta. This microcar was just what Europe needed at the time and it was built under license in six different nations. Because of its egg shape and bubble-like windows, it became known as a bubble car, a name later given to other similar vehicles.
The Isetta caused a sensation when it was introduced to the motoring press during the Turin Auto Show in 1953 - it was unlike anything seen before. Only 7.5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, the entire front end of the car was hinged outwards to allow entry. It provided room for two and power came from a 236 cc (9.5 hp) motorcycle engine. Few cars were slower, it took the Isetta over 30 seconds to reach 31 mph and its top speed of 50 mph could only be reached going downhill, but the little car could get as much as 70 miles per gallon. Over 170,000 of these unique cars were produced in the next few years, but popular as it was, sales began to slip the moment the Fiat 500C appeared in 1957.
Renzo Rivolta decided to instead focus on a sports car. He believed he could design the car, produce components and set up licensing deals. Plants in several countries were already assembling Isettas and Autocarros (the truck version of the Isetta; yes, you read that correctly, a truck version) using Italian-made Iso components.
Together with engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and chassis builder Bertone, Renzo Rivolta began developing the Iso Rivolta IR 300, first presented at the 1962 Turin Auto Show. It was an elegant 2 + 2 coupé with well-balanced technical components and outstanding driving performance.
The 5.4 liter small-block V8 engine and the transmission came from GM, while the car’s rear de Dion suspension and four-wheel disc brakes system came from Jaguar. This formula was maintained for almost all of the Iso production cars. It was designed to be powerful, well-balanced, the level of construction as top-notch and the style sophisticated, modern and elegant. Expensive press-tool dies were produced, but Renzo was not able to license the motor to other manufacturers and the volume of production just never justified the expense. Although originally envisaged as a competitor for the elegant Fiat 2300 Coupé, the low sales volumes of the Rivolta 300 made it prudent to move the car and its price upmarket.
It was a well thought out and executed design. The coupé was designed for five people to sit in comfortably for long drives on leather seats. The arrangement of steering wheel, gear shift, switches and pedals are still considered exemplary. It was a true grand turismo. The car was manufactured from 1962-1970 and if ever there was a “should have been a contender title” – the Rivolta would be right there. Underappreciated during its production life, it is now considered one of the stars of the golden age of Italian sports car production. All the right elements were present. Although the car will never reach the astronomical prices of low production number Ferraris, an example in poor, unrestored condition, recently fetched $200,000 at auction. That’s as much as you would pay for a fully-optioned 911 and the Rivolta, in this case hasn’t run since Carter ran the White House.
As a follow-up, the Bizarrini-Giugiaro-Bertone team came up with the Iso Grifo in 1963. The Grifo A3/L utilized the same Chevrolet power components, but featured a low-slung, sporty Berlinetta body, considerably more streamlined than the Rivolta. It would later be joined by an A3/C competition version. Starting in 1968, the Grifo was also available with Chevrolet's 427 cu in big-block V-8; this version was known as the Grifo 7 Litri and was easily recognized by the broad air inlet on the hood. Later-day Grifos, the Series II, featured concealed headlights and a slightly modified front area. Production of the Grifo continued into 1974, by which time 5.8-litre units from Ford became available. In all, just 413 Iso Grifos in all configurations were built.
Renzo Rivolta died suddenly in 1966, two weeks shy of his 58th birthday. His son Piero, 25 became the director of Iso and the youngest head of an automotive firm in Europe. Under Piero's leadership, Iso built the four-door, ultra-luxurious Fidia, introduced in 1967. Its body was by Giorgetto Giugiaro, then at (Ghia Part 46, Feb 2, 2017) and was advertised as “the fastest four seats on wheels." Production was exclusive, only 192 examples were produced. These vehicles were not only sporty, with more than ample performance, but each were accorded equal measures of comfort and style. The interior featured polished wood and hand-stitched leather. High development costs drove the purchase price higher than that of a Rolls-Royce. The last example was made in 1975. There was also the somewhat bizarre 2+2 called the Lele (the nickname for Piero’s wife, Rachele). Essentially, it used the Rivolta chassis, with a new body by Marcello Gandini of Bertone. 285 were sold and there was a market for them, but the car lacked the beautiful proportions of the previous Iso’s. One could even find beauty in the Isetta Turismo – children absolutely loved the car. In the case of the Lele, the car is angular with a very heavy rear quarter. To be diplomatic, one would say the car is distinctive. To be brutally honest, its ugly…very ugly.
From 1973-75, the company sponsored a Formula 1 car for Frank Williams Racing. The car was very conventional, but unspectacular and continued to be raced until well past its prime, but it remains a footnote in the storied history of one of the sport’s most illustrious teams.
The premature death of Iso founder Renzo Rivolta, the OPEC oil embargo, finance issues and the youth of successor CEO Piero Rivolta, all conspired to bring a quiet end of days to what should have been a contender in the world of high-performance automobiles. It may have been ill-fated, but in its day, the Rivolta adventure was glorious.
Next week we would look at one of the most glamorous of all Italian marques - Isotta Fraschini. Thanks for all of the kind words from our readers. Please send your comments and questions to Dave@ItalianTribune.com.