Collectible Classic: Iso Grifo

A. J. Mueller

Some cars are derisively said to look like refrigerators, but the shapely Italian automobiles built by Renzo Rivolta's company, Iso, are actually descended from refrigerators-or, more accurately, the refrigerator business. Iso (originally Isothermos) made refrigerators in Italy starting in 1939. In the postwar years, the company began building motorbikes, scooters, and then minicars, most notably the Isetta bubble car, which was also licensed to other manufacturers, including BMW.

The leap from the tiny Isetta to Iso's first luxurious grand-touring car was a huge one, but Rivolta tapped some of the best talent in the business in the early 1960s. Among them were test driver/development engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, renowned today for his work on the Ferrari 250TR and GTO. Bizzarrini worked under chief engineer Pierluigi Raggi, whose team created a stiff unibody with a control-arm front suspension, a de Dion rear axle, coil-over Koni dampers, front and rear antiroll bars, and four disc brakes. Campagnolo magnesium wheels or Borrani wire wheels were used. For power, Rivolta looked to America and the 327-cubic-inch V-8 from the then-current Corvette.

Giorgetto Giugiaro, then at Bertone, designed the body for that first grand tourer, the 1963 Rivolta GT, but he was just warming up. The follow-up car-built on a modified version of the Rivolta GT platform with a shorter wheelbase-was the achingly beautiful Iso Grifo, which went into production in 1965.

Iso would go on to produce two more models, the Lele coupe and the Fidia sedan, before fading from the automotive scene in the 1970s. And while others would follow the formula of American V-8 power and exotic European bodywork, none lived up to the promise quite as well as the Iso Grifo.

The car's rarity (some 400 were built over ten years) makes seeing one today all the more striking. Low, wide, and shapely, the Grifo has classic GT proportions, with its passenger compartment set well rearward; the engine is nestled far back in the chassis, allowing for a 48/52 percent front-to-rear weight distribution.

A delicate, push-button latch opens the door, which clicks closed with the lightest touch. The cabin is airy, with a wraparound windshield and a huge backlight. Padded leather is everywhere, and the seatbacks cradle you. Eight round gauges are arranged in the wood-faced dash, and the thin steering-wheel rim is wood as well. The dash is also graced with a row of toggle switches, below which are sliders for heat and ventilation. There's no A/C in this particular example, so owner Marty Schorr presses the Ducellier power-window switches and the door glass slowly recedes. If it did not, we might have had to break out the special tool that came with the car and slips into a hole in the door panel, allowing you to crank the windows down.

"Everyone hates these window switches," says Schorr. "They're French. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't."

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