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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Born from Refrigerators: Iso Rivolta

The car pictured below may seem somehow lodged in memory and unfamiliar all at once, like a tune you can't quite name that brings up some pleasant associations.  A passing photographer wondered if it was some kind of Aston Martin.  No, Zagato bodied a few handfuls of those, but this car was bodied by Bertone, echoing the proportions of some other cars (Jaguar E-types, a Ferrari or two), but with forms and details that were distinct from any of those.  Familiar chords and rhythms, maybe, but a tune you just cannot place...



I pointed out the script on the deck lid: Iso Grifo.  The Griffin (Grifo in Italian) is a mythical flying beast, part eagle and part lion.  And the flowing, carefully tailored contours came from Giorgetto Giugiaro as he settled into a job as Bertone's chief designer.  He'd already delivered the series-produced ASA 1000* and two Ferrari 250 SWB show cars, each sadly a one-off. Those cars, especially the second of the Ferraris, had similar proportions and harmonious curves, but nothing else quite looked like the Grifo A3/L prototype when it appeared in 1963.  As for the Iso part of the name, we'll get to that soon enough...

When it went into production in 1965, it was the second of Renzo Rivolta's efforts to enact revenge in the marketplace for a Ferrari that had displeased him.  This seems to be a Latin pattern. If you're unhappy with a product and cannot get the maker to deliver on that warranty, well, you start a factory and make your own.  The Iso wasn't the first make of car to be issued as a rebuke to Enzo Ferrari. You may not have heard of the A.T.S., the Serenissima* or the Swiss Monteverdi, but the name Lamborghini may ring a bell…
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Lamborghini made tractors before V12-powered GT cars, and you've probably guessed from our title that Renzo Rivolta made refrigerators. So now if you've jumped to the conclusion that Iso stood for Isotherm, you'd be correct.  There was a need for fridges (and just about every other kind of consumer product) in Italy right after WWII, and Renzo Rivolta's firm endeavored to meet the demand.  Soon enough, he decided to address the demand for economical transport, and his 1953 Isetta bridged the gap betwixt scooters and the Fiat Topolino.  Against the original Topolino's 569 cc four-stroke four, the tiny Isetta featured a two-stroke 236 cc split single, an engine with paired cylinders sharing the same combustion chamber.  The engine worked like this...


The car's exterior sported an instantly recognizable shape, launching a tide of bubble-car imitators. Prototypes had just 3 wheels, but the design was changed for production to feature two closely-spaced rear wheels for added stability.  It was so successful (Iso built about 20,000) that other manufacturers built the design under license, BMW being the most famous of these.  They used their own engine, and produced around eight times as many cars, with many detail differences. They kept the signature single front-opening door, however.  Many remarked upon the similarity of that door to a refrigerator door to which a windshield and wiper had been added.  And of course, there was a handle inside as well...



After selling the Isetta license to BMW, Renzo Rivolta had his unhappy Ferrari experinence and eventually hired Giotto Bizzarrini, designer of the Ferrari GTO chassis and later the Lamborghini V12 engine (for another unhappy Ferrari owner), to design a chassis for a sporting four-seater. It featured four wheel disc brakes (inboard at the rear), a De Dion rear suspension, and a body design by Giugiaro at Bertone.  The svelte proportions and glassy roof, first seen in 1962, show that Giugiaro was warming up to the task of sketching out the upcoming Alfa GTV.  They also echo the lines of his Alfa 2000 Sprint and the British Gordon Keeble from a couple years earlier.  The canted eyebrows over the headlights are the only  design idea that has not aged well; they (along with the grille shape) recall the Rambler American from the previous year...


Under the hood, though, the Iso Rivolta IR300 had something else in common with the Gordon Keeble: a Chevrolet engine.  Bizzarrini decided that the most cost-effective way to obtain the kind of power needed for the new line of GT cars would be to adopt the small-block Chevy, in this case a 327.  In IR-300 and IR-340 forms (numbers reflecting hp), this first car produced under the Iso Rivolta name would be made in nearly 800 examples; production stopped in 1969.


Bizzarrini wanted Iso to make a race car too, and the alloy-bodied A3/C (for competition) competed at Le Mans.  It featured a similar chassis layout to the A3/L Grifo, a body shape recalling the Ferrari GTO, and a Chevy 327 set so far back it was essentially a front mid-engined scheme.

After Renzo Rivolta decided to concentrate on the road cars, Bizzarrini started his own factory to make his version of the A3/C/. Most of his production cars had fiberglass bodies, but looked much like the Iso version.


By autumn of 1967 the IR300 was looking a bit dated, so Iso displayed an Iso Rivolta S4 sedan, its first and only four-door car.  Design was again by Giugiaro, now at Ghia, and the car went into production in early 1969 as the Fidia. Body design reflected Giugiaro's increasing interest in creased forms defined by crisp edgles and angles.  The car was not a commercial success owing to production costs and the oil crisis of 1973; only 192 were produced.




The Lele, named after Renzo's wife, also appeared in 1969, just in time to take over the 4-seater GT slot in the line from the departed IR300. The wedge-themed body with dropped window sills echoing the S4 was the work of Marcello Gandini at Bertone.  The following year, the Series 2 version of the Grifo appeared with lower nose, hidden headlights and raised air intake allowing the option of a Chevy 454 power unit.  By 1972, Iso had switched to Ford V8 power units for its cars owing to supply issues.  By 1975, the last Iso had left the factory, a victim of the 1973 oil shock.  Production figures for the Grifo reflect this, with less than 70 of the Series 2 cars in the overall total of 412 Grifos built.  They still stop traffic at car shows, and on those rare occasions you find one parked on the street...



Photo credits:
Exterior shots of Iso Grifo Series 1 and Series 2:  the author.
Interior of Iso Grifo and both shots of Iso Rivolta IR300:  LT Jonathan D. Asbury, USN.
Alloy-bodied A3/C competition car photo by DK Engineering.
All other shots:  wikimedia