Renzo Rivolta’s grand tourer captured the elegance of Italian design with an engine revved to the max with American power
For a company that began life by building refrigerators, few could have imagined one day creating a Corvette-powered grand tourer. Renzo Rivolta had come from a long line of successful industrialists when he took over the company Iso (Isothermos), who were best known for building appliances outside of Milan before World War II. But Italy changed after the war and so did Italians: they needed cheap transportation, and they were flocking to the cities. The company diversified with mopeds and tiny scooters before Rivolta created the Isetta microcar.
The Isetta with its bubble-like windows and egg-shaped exterior caused a stir across the country, and then the world, when it was unveiled in 1953. Rivolta licensed the Isetta design across the world, and BMW famously built it to stay afloat. Iso even raced the petit car in the Mille Miglia, where they won first in their class—the economy run.
Despite the licensing deals, the car never sold well. But Rivolta was ambitious. This was the age of the American powered European grand touring car, the likes of which blossomed during the 1960s. Rivolta wanted a GT car that could be reliable, unlike the Italian and British cars he favored. And he was not above naming a car after himself. For scholars of European sports cars, Giotto Bizzarrini is a recurring character: the talented engineer had started his career with Ferrari, clashed with Enzo, and left to go build his car, but not before developing the famous Lamborghini V12 engine in between. In the early 1960s, before he was to unveil his own American-powered European grand touring car, he connected with Rivolta. It was the same year that Chevrolet introduced the second-generation Corvette Sting Ray, complete with a new small-block engine.
With a 327 cubic-inch Corvette engine, the Iso Rivolta featured exactly eight times the cylinders of the Isetta. Bizzarrini praised the engine as better than Ferrari’s famed V12. Although the Rivolta and Corvette shared an engine, they couldn’t look any more different. Whereas the Sting Ray stretched like an arrow at both ends, the Rivolta GT— as it was now called—was upright and squarish, exuding elegance but not raciness. A wide and flat trunk, various strakes and vents, and excellent visibility (something often overlooked in the GT realm) defined the Rivolta. Iso went to Bertone for the design, and the Rivolta wound up as one of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s first designs.
The template was established. The audience responded positively. And by 1963, Rivolta and Bizzarrini were ready for a follow-up. Unlike the demure Rivolta, the Grifo looked like a muscle car: with four heavy-lidded headlights, tucked into an upright façade, it resembled an Italian Dodge Challenger. That comparison ended past the cockpit—where the roof flowed into a delicate fastback shape, complete with one hugely complex piece of the curved rear glass. Subtle, blended curves along the Grifo’s flanks spoke to the skill of Giugiaro, who again was called on for his talents.
The first road-going models were known as the A3/L, for “Lusso.” With an eventual option of Chevrolet’s 427 big-block, the Grifo could reach 165mph. “It has a kind of Detroit docility that you’d never expect from Italy,” said a period Car and Driver road test. “No nameless dread …no ultra-precise driver techniques are required to assure smooth forward progress. The Iso Grifo is not a demanding car.” Agile and precise, the Grifo was sure-footed and rewarding to drive.
But all this time, Bizzarrini had been working on his version of the Grifo, the A3/C. The C stood for “Corsa,” and made its intentions clear: it was to be the race car that neither Enzo nor Ferruccio Lamborghini would let him build. “I started with the idea of Ferrari’s 250 GTO,” he once said in an interview, “and wanted to improve on it.” The A3/C won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two years in a row.
Like Enzo Ferrari, all Bizzarrini wanted to do was go racing. In an echo of Ferruccio Lamborghini, all Rivolta wanted to build were GT cars. What made things complicated were the two separate production facilities for both Grifos, with Bizzarrini building his Corsas in former colleague Piero Drogo’s shop. Things came to a head when at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1965, two Grifos crashed in heavy rain; driver Mike Gammino hydroplaned into a bridge, climbed out miraculously unscathed, and saw that half of his car was missing. Plus, nobody had ever heard of Iso. “Here come those purists again—in their monarchic righteousness. And all because we’ve got a bastard at the head table,” that same car and driver road test began with aplomb.
Before Rivolta and Bizzarrini parted ways, Iso only built 400 cars and today one of the 22 A3/Cs ever touched by Bizzarrini’s hand sells for multiples of millions. What Iso lost in its heyday has been rediscovered, worthy of celebration. Another line from the road test rings true: “The Iso Grifo, son of a refrigerator, may have a very unlikely origin, but it’s sitting where it belongs—at the head table.”
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