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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…

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tomorrow's Vintage Race Cars

At the recent historic race weekend at Laguna Seca, I got into a discussion about what age limits still applied to vintage racers.  Vintage race cars, that is…many of the drivers already looked kind of vintage, and most of the cars seemed culled from the late 1920s (fast enough to be scary on those narrow tires and mechanical brakes) up through the early 1970s.  Last year an article appeared in Road & Track noting the arrival of the Mazda Miata (the first version, 1.6 liters, 1990-93) in a category recognized by the Sportcar Vintage Racing Association.  R & T noted that the original Miata was about as old at that point (27 years) as the MGB, introduced in 1963, was when the Miata first appeared…

Acceptance of those early Miatas would seem to bring back the idea (more of a recurring dream, really) of racing on a budget. Curiousity piqued, I took a look at the SVRA categories updated in January of this year.  Cars produced through 1972 are generally approved, while production cars made after that time need specific approval.  Those specific approvals have already been granted for lots of cars made after '72, including the Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 and GTB, all Fiat 2000 spiders (1978-85), the early Toyota MR2, all Alfa Romeo 2000 spiders (made until 1993) and the Triumph TR7 and TR8.  Lotus 7s have long been approved, but the Caterham version started production in 1973, and I didn't see a separate listing for those.  They'd seem a natural fit, though

As would another car which grew out of the Lotus 7 design, the Caterham 21.  Made from 1994-99 with the same 1.8 liter Rover inline 4 that appeared a couple of years later in the first Lotus Elise, the lightweight 21 offers a bit more space than the 7, but the removable side windows hark back to early dual-purpose road car / weekend racers like the Lotus Elite.The first year will be eligible for US import under the 25 year limit next year, but all cars are right hand drive, and there were only just over 4 dozen built.

As we've already mentioned Lotus a couple times (hard to avoid when you're on this subject), it seems inevitable that the SVRA will eventually recognize that Rover-engined Series 1 Elise (1996-2001) pictured below, and the Toyota-engined Series 2 which was the first Elise sold by Lotus for road use in the USA.

Though the last Elise Series 2 shown below disappeared from the US market after 2011, the similar Series 3 is still in production, so that means a reasonable supply of parts.  That would also apply to the hardtop Exige version.

Another car with virtually the same potential as the Elise is the Opel Speedster and its right hand drive sister car, the Vauxhall VX220, offered by GM from 2001 through 2005. There's a good reason I suspect these cars might behave much like the Elise on a track: they have the same basic extruded-aluminum chassis as the Elise, and were all built at the Lotus plant in Hethel, UK. Two versions of the Opel Astra inline 4 were mounted amidships, both with aluminum blocks and 16 valves: a 2.2 liter version with 145 hp and a turbo 2 liter with 200 hp.  Even the base version had more power and torque than the Series 1 Elise, and GM sold over 7,000 of these cars, so there are parts.  

The Vauxhall version offered the same features with right hand drive.  Body panels are not interchangeable with the Elise, and GM claimed that there were many differences in chassis details as well, though the construction system and materials were the same.  An intrigiung little roadster that most Americans have never seen, let alone considered as a racer,  the Speedster / VX220 was replaced two years after stopping production with an Opel version of the Pontiac Solstice  / Saturn Sky twins, which was in turn followed by the GM collapse.

But not all born-talented weekend dual purpose road / race cars came from Lotus, and one of my favorites is the Renault Sport Spider, built at the Alpine plant like the storied A110 rally cars and the mid-engined Le Mans V8s of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It was conceived to generate the same kind of interest that the Renault 5-based, mid-engined Turbo did in the early 1980s, and designed for a one-make racing series.  The engine was a 2 liter, 16 valve inline 4 with 148 hp, and the aluminum chassis with composite panels weighed about the same as the later Opel Speedster.  Though it was supposed to be a dual purpose car, when it appeared in 1996, the car was only offered with the "wind deflector" shown below. And of course, no top.  A helmet came with the car; somehow, this was very philosophical and French

In 1997 the Renault people shrugged and decided to offer a windshield with wipers, but still no top, never a top.  You were expected to go faster to keep the rain off your head. Perhaps this was to maintain conceptual purity…or possibly to avoid having to figure out where to put the top.  About 1,800 Sport Spiders had been built when production ended after 1999. I've seen a few in Europe, and they're even more intriguing up close than in pictures, having as much detail purity, perhaps, as philosophical purity.

Photo credits

Top photo:  windingroad.com
All others:  wikimedia

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sand Castle Magic: Carmel's 58th Annual Competition

At the dawn on the 1960s, the Monterey Bay Chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a competition for designing and building sand castles on the beach in Carmel.  It was free and open to people of all ages.  It still is, and this year's event was the 58th annual session on the beach.   There's always a theme, and this year it was "Rooms in the Dunes."

To get started, contestants trudge down the one of several stairways leading from Scenic Avenue to the white sandy expanse between the iceplant-covered dunes and the endless lapping of the surf.  Contestants usually arrive early in the morning, and it was foggy and cool at 7:30, when many of them started their work. This year's contest was held on Saturday, September 8.  While the contest is always held at this general time of year and proceeds rain or shine, some allowances are made for predicted tides, and this year's date was selected to avoid washouts. Rules stipulate that only items found at the beach can be incorporated into the construction. Tools such as shovels and buckets can be brought from the outside world.  Items which can be easily found include twigs, shells, kelp, and rocks...

Kelp was employed by this team of adults and kids to form numbers on their race cars, and the theme was gently warped into "Vrooms at the Dunes."  As Monterey Car Week had ended only a couple weeks before, there were still echoes of Car Week events here... 

Including this sculpture of a split-window Volkswagen Beetle which has been uprated with alloy wheels from a Porsche...

Not sure how the Beetle fit into this year's theme, except that it had finally found a parking space, never easy in Carmel, a sort of room at the dunes.  In any case, among the many awards given was one for "Best Bribe."  I was shocked, absolutely shocked, that the VW team was able to secure that prize with offers of beer, fried chicken and waffles, potato salad, parfait desserts and chocolate chasers.

A generously-scaled effort which drew a crowd, "Runes in the Dunes" featured a runic inscription and a dragon. The source of this work was a misunderstanding.  The artist thought he'd heard "runes" instead of "rooms"  on a recorded message.  No matter; the work added to the variety and flavor of forms on the beach.

This effort emphasized the dunes rather than the oceanic aspect, with a camel nosing up to the nomad's tent.  By the time the judging began at noon (it ran until two), the sun had burst forth and warmed the participants, some of whom were still at work as the judges pursued their deliberations...

Criteria for judging the castles included the first impression or "wow factor", originality of concept, artistic approaches to form, flow and visual balance, technical difficulty, and the quality of carving.

The popular "Otter's Den" shown above and below formed a people-scaled room at the edge of the surf, and had to be repaired after judges sat on the furniture, which after all, was just made of sand.  It featured carved "stone" battlements, a bas relief facing the ocean, and a top-hatted otter seated on a lounge.  It won this year's Golden Shovel award, First Prize.

The artist who created the richly imagined and tidily executed townscape sculpture below did so with the aid of his two daughters.  It was thus eligible for works created with the help of children, and won in its class.

In the first century BC, the Roman architect Vitruvius identified the characteristics of good architecture as "firmness, commodity and delight."   This modestly-sized, adventuresome, exuberant work certainly has those features.

The work below was entitled "It Takes a Village".  It too, evoked a townscape of turrets, rambling stairways and spires.  As with the work shown above, it substituted complexity for size.

And the name was a reminder that with twenty teams working on Carmel Beach, there was a village full of artists, visionaries and comedians at work.  It took a lot of individuals working together to make the day a success.  And a whole lot of sand...

Photo Credit + Acknowledgements:   All photos are by the author, who wants to thank Alfred Seccombe of Northstar Construction and the Monterey Bay Chapter of the AIA for inviting him to be on the panel of judges for the event.