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.”
Schorr knows the car well, not surprising given that he’s owned it for forty-one years. “I had allotted $10,000 to buy myself a toy,” he recalls. “A Ferrari 275GTB/4 and a Mercedes Gullwing were two cars that I wanted. For $10,000 in 1969, you could buy either of those in decent condition. But [after looking at a few] I realized I didn’t know anyone to take care of them for me.”
Then Schorr, who at the time was the editor of Hi-Performance Cars magazine, was offered an Iso Grifo to drive for a story. “It had a 427 in place of the standard engine. I could not believe how fast this thing was-and how well mannered.”
Schorr’s car came equipped with a 340-hp, 327-cubic-inch Chevy V-8. Tall 3.07:1 gearing gave the Grifo a 150-plus-mph top speed on the autostrada, but he was driving the car from Long Island to his office in Manhattan. Over drinks in New York, he told Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov about the Grifo. “Not to worry,” said Duntov, and shortly thereafter a 1970 370-hp, 350-cubic-inch LT1 engine arrived from Chevrolet. It was fitted with a different camshaft, a Holley carburetor, and Edelbrock headers and was installed at Long Island’s Motion Performance.
That same engine starts easily and idles happily under the Grifo’s aluminum hood today. Easing the car onto the street, I am amazed at how easy the clutch is to modulate, with short travel and moderate effort. The LT1 pulls so smoothly from low revs that you hardly need to shift, but it’s worth doing anyway just to enjoy the positive action of the close-ratio T10 four-speed as it snick-snicks through the gears. The unassisted steering is slow, but there’s no slop and it’s very communicative; the wheel, though, is a long reach away. An unfussy American powertrain and well-engineered chassis make the Iso Grifo an Italian sophisticate that’s easy to drive.
It may be easy to drive and easy on the eyes, but it’s not so easy to find one nowadays. Schorr found his Grifo in 1969 at a New Jersey Chevrolet dealer who also sold Iso vehicles. It was listed as a ’67 model (although the low serial number correctly marks it as a ’66); it was under a cover and had never been registered. The dealer had ordered it for his wife, but when she discovered that it had a stick shift and no air-conditioning, she said no thanks. The window sticker was more than $14,000.
“I offered them $5000,” he says. “They threw me off the lot.”
When he came back and offered $7500, a deal was made. Needless to say, it’s worth considerably more now. Grifo prices start at more than $100,000, but as an early-build car with less than 13,000 miles and one-owner provenance, not to mention the period-upgraded powertrain, this example would likely bring considerably more.
Not that it’s for sale.
“My kids grew up with it being at the house,” says Schorr. “It’s become part of the family.”
4- or 5-speed manual
Control arms, coil springs
De Dion, coil springs
5.4L OHV V-8, 300-365 hp, 344-360 lb-ft; 5.7L OHV V-8, 300-350 hp, 380 lb-ft; 5.8L OHV V-8, 325 hp, 349 lb-ft; 7.0L OHV V-8, 400 hp, 460 lb-ft; 7.4L OHV V-8, 390 hp, 500 lb-ft
Series 2 cars (1970-74) are worth about ten percent more; big-block 427-engined cars and ultrarare Targas can reach $200,000.
Because its Giugiaro styling brings people to their knees, plus it has a sophisticated chassis and potent American V-8 performance. The last item ensures ease of maintenance, but be aware that any missing or damaged Grifo-specific parts may be impossible to find.