Rivolta: The Best Failed Automotive Project Ever

A. J. Mueller

It's an old idea and, on the face of it, a good one: put a reliable, powerful American engine with its slightly retrograde specification (but astonishingly low price) in a European chassis, add a stylish body, and create a bargain exotic. In the early 1930s, the formula was tried by Noel Macklin, one of the British founders of the expensive Invicta marque. In the post-1929 financial turmoil, he needed less expensive mechanicals for the cars produced on his estate. He used complete Hudson chassis and drivetrains for those cheaper cars, enlisting the name and reputation of respected engineer Reid Railton, designer of some of Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebirds and John Cobb's land-speed-record cars, for his sub-Invicta project.

So a pattern was set, with others soon following. During the mid-'30s, Hudson and Lincoln engines were used in Brough Superior cars, and a few Atalanta cars were made with Lincoln's cheap side-valve V-12 as well. Sydney Allard used Ford V-8s and Lincoln-Zephyr V-12s in the 1930s, and his postwar cars with Cadillac and Chrysler V-8s were dominant in American road racing in the early 1950s. Also in the '50s, Donald Healey put the Nash in-line six in various Nash-Healey models, including the third-place finisher at Le Mans in 1952. And everyone knows about the legendary Shelby Cobras. There have been many other attempts, too, but no sustained commercial successes. The highest-volume effort was the 7260-unit De Tomaso Pantera, some 5500 of which were sold in the United States through Lincoln-Mercury dealers.

If ever there were a solid "shoulda, coulda, woulda" effort to make it to the big time, the single most worthy project that nearly achieved liftoff was the Iso Rivolta in the 1960s. All the right elements were present. Renzo Rivolta was highly successful in manufacturing -- heaters, refrigerators, scooters, Isetta microcars -- in the immediate postwar period. When he turned to serious automobiles, his cars were properly engineered for volume production, and the designs were terrific. At the time, you couldn't do better than Carrozzeria Bertone and its designer Giorgetto Giugiaro for style, or than Ferrari GTO creator Giotto Bizzarrini for chassis development, and they were both on Rivolta's team. Despite that, the project didn't succeed. Why?

We've always appreciated Rivolta cars at Automobile Magazine. We featured an Iso Grifo coupe in our August issue twenty-three years ago, baldly stating that apart from mystique, the Grifo was as good as a Ferrari. The car we drove belonged to a young stockbroker, Winston Goodfellow, founder of the Iso-Bizzarrini Owners Club, who enlisted us to drive his car from a restoration shop in the L.A. area to his home near San Francisco. That one drive accomplished many things, apart from getting the car to where it needed to be. It completely changed the life of the stockbroker, who's now an accomplished automotive journalist and prize-winning photographer, it led to the marriage of Renzo Rivolta's granddaughter to Ugo Zagato's grandson, and it led us to Florida last March to reminisce with Renzo Rivolta's son Piero and drive the Rivolta GT that was a Le Mans entrant in 1968.

Piero Rivolta isn't in the car business anymore, apart from having a stake in Carrozzeria Zagato through his only daughter. He inherited stewardship of Iso Rivolta upon his father's death in 1966, and at age twenty-five was the world's youngest head of a recognized automobile manufacturer. He wasn't totally unprepared -- he had an engineering degree and had worked closely with his father -- but was nonetheless in a bit over his head. He did a creditable job, but global circumstances and the oil crisis of 1973 really finished off any hope that Rivolta would or even could survive. We described Piero in 1989: "If you call Central Casting and have them send over someone to play an Italian carmaker, you'll get a guy who looks exactly like Piero Rivolta." He was forty-eight then, and if he had looked like that at twenty-five, who knows? He might have pulled it off.

Rivolta is seventy-one now and is active in land development, boat manufacturing, serious sailing, a world-respected chamber-music festival (La Musica), and a dozen other activities, including writing and publishing novels and books of poetry. Like all men who have ever been bitten by the automotive bug, he has regrets that he's not in the thick of it any more, but he has also acquired enough wisdom and experience to thoroughly temper that regret. It's not an easy business -- and certainly not one that can be financed solely out of family funds, even if your name is Toyoda or Ford. He has been tempted at times. In the early 1990s there was a move to resurrect the marque with a new Grifo 90, but the promised government money was not forthcoming, and Rivolta wasn't about to risk all that he had built since coming to America on shaky promises.

Today, Piero Rivolta drives a Subaru that lets him explore unpaved terrain without getting stuck, but he has a little collection of scooters, motorbikes, and cars from the glory days of Iso Rivolta, including the four-seat GT that was the mainstay of the marque. It's not just a run-of-production car, it's the actual GT entered for the 1968 Le Mans endurance race. We drove the GT on the roads around Sarasota, and it was revelatory. Here was a forty-four-year-old car pulled out of the funky, low-rent Sarasota Classic Car Museum while we watched. It obviously hadn't been driven in a while, but we were assured that the tires were pumped up, the battery charged, and there was some fuel in the tank. A turn of the key and the 365-hp Corvette engine rumbled to life with that good old American V-8 sound, immediately settling to a smooth, even idle. Apart from the Rivolta camshaft and connecting rods and a few other minor modifications, the engine is as produced by General Motors.

Introduced to the Corvette V-8 at the very beginning of the Rivolta project, Giotto Bizzarrini, who had by then created the GTO for Enzo Ferrari, said, "I was shocked. It was superior to Ferrari's engines." The Chevy small-block was, and is, a magnificent device -- lighter, cheaper, more reliable, and just as powerful as the Ferrari V-12, it was the perfect solution for Renzo Rivolta's ideal GT. With Piero Rivolta as passenger and tour guide, we explored some of the housing developments he created in the Sarasota area. None of those nasty right-angle grids for Rivolta at Longwood Run. His layout includes wonderful sweeping curves and respect for the natural contours of the almost-flat parcel on which he created a nature preserve and multiple homes. The Oaks, another of his developments, is considered to be one of Florida's finest golf resorts.

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