Rivolta: The Best Failed Automotive Project Ever

A. J. Mueller

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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