Rivolta: The Best Failed Automotive Project Ever

June 8, 2012
1968 Chevrolet Corvette Front Left Side View
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.
The Rivolta GT was essentially a disconnected development of the Gordon-Keeble, an English effort meant to be an alternative to Aston Martin. It, in turn, derived from the Peerless GT that was based on Triumph TR3 components. What made the Gordon-Keeble interesting was the fact that John Gordon had commissioned its body from Bertone. It had a complex frame of welded square tubing, a construct that probably had more linear inches of welding than the even-more-complex "Birdcage" Maserati Tipo 61. The body was, in fact, the first design done by young Giugiaro after he joined Bertone. It was simple, light-looking, and, with its pairs of canted headlamps, modern for the time.
Nuccio Bertone himself introduced Gordon to Renzo Rivolta in 1961. There was the possibility that a simple licensing deal might be concluded for Rivolta to manufacture the Gordon-Keeble as it was. It had a de Dion rear axle that contributed to good handling, but in the end its British kit-car chassis put off Rivolta. His idea to become a volume manufacturer to rival Jaguar demanded a different kind of construction. Gordon was thanked and the car sent back to the U.K. Only the concept of a Corvette engine and a de Dion axle were retained. Rivolta's engineering team set about to design a mass-produceable unitized body and punt-boat-type platform chassis. Far more capital was invested in the tooling than subsequent production ever justified. The body was, of course, by Bertone, but to my eye, then and now, it was less graceful and less interesting than the Gordon-Keeble. As a friend characterized the Rivolta GT, it was "a quiet car for noisy people."
Driving around Sarasota in the fastest of all the 792 GTs built over a nine-year production run, I find the suppleness and ride comfort to be the most notable characteristics. The Girling disc brakes were typical of a good 1960s car but are not remotely comparable to what we enjoy today. The GT's raw power is impressive even now, but the worm-gear-type steering clearly needs adjusting. It is sloppy around center and heavy compared with modern power steering. The car's structure is as solid as anything one might find in a showroom today, although torsional rigidity might not measure up to a premium German sedan's. But the Rivolta is sound, and it's safe to say it was truly superior in the 1960s. The five-speed ZF gearbox fitted for racing is not particularly smooth-shifting but is still better than some series-built cars today.
The idea of racing the GT at Le Mans was brilliant. The FIA, burned by various manufacturers' homologation tricks -- above all the never-were-fifty-units Ferrari GTO -- decided that, for 1966, grand touring cars would have to have been made in lots of 500 or more. That let in the Porsche 911 and the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA but kept out cars meant only for racing, like the Ford GT40. The tall, bland, but elegant Rivolta had been made in the requisite numbers, and as Piero Rivolta said long ago, it would be impressive to demonstrate that a car you could drive to the opera could also do a twenty-four-hour endurance race, in effect reverting to the kind of demonstration for which the Le Mans event was conceived in the 1920s. To underline the intent, the Le Mans entry was painted a conservative dark blue, not Italian racing red, and the interior was upholstered in fine leather. With various lightening modifications, such as eliminating the heater and ventilation system and artful drilling to remove metal here and there, performance was well above that of the standard car. Top speed was about 160 mph, whereas the normal car would do perhaps 150 mph. But it all came to naught. After qualifying, number-one driver Giorgio Pianta, miffed that co-driver Giancarlo Pinto had turned a faster lap, went out -- against Piero Rivolta's orders -- to do better but instead crashed. Disgusted, Piero withdrew the entry.
After the Rivolta GT there were other models. The brilliant Grifo we wrote about long ago is one of the most beautiful shapes Giugiaro ever created, its structure a shortened GT platform. In fact, the Grifo was created simply so Nuccio Bertone could have one himself; it was not the kind of car that Renzo Rivolta cared for. There were some excellent Fidia four-door sedans; a bizarre Marcello Gandini-designed two-plus-two, the Lele (named for Piero's wife, Rachele); and even an intriguing but unlovely one-off mid-engine model, the Varedo, shaped in part by former Zagato stylist Ercole Spada. It currently resides at the same Florida museum as the Le Mans GT. For an exhaustive look at everything Rivolta, a 536-page book, Isorivolta: the Men, the Machines, by Winston Goodfellow, was published by Giorgio Nada Editore in Italy and is available in English for $90. It also discusses the Bizzarrini derivatives of the Grifo and the Iso Formula 1 effort, and it is remarkably clear-eyed and complete -- down to every car's serial number -- with many interviews with participants, major and minor, in the whole ill-fated but glorious Rivolta adventure.
An exotic perfume that smells absolutely wonderful but comes from Target will never be appreciated by the monied set as much as a couturier brand that costs forty times more. Doesn't smell as good? Doesn't matter -- the designer label costs more so it must be better. It is easy to find explanations and excuses for the failure of Rivolta after the fact. The premature death of Iso founder Renzo Rivolta, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ensuing OPEC oil embargo, bank intransigence, the youth of successor CEO Piero Rivolta...but maybe, finally, the idea of American iron in delicately conceived European containers is simply not a workable premise.


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