By the early 1960s, Chevrolet’s small block V8 engine, introduced in the 1955 Corvette, had already established a reputation for power and dependability in a relatively lightweight and compact package. The attractiveness of the Corvette V8 caught the attention of Italian industrialist Renzo Rivolta, who believed it would make the ideal powerplant for his new two-seat sports car, the Iso Grifo. With a body designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone on a chassis engineered by Giotto Bizzarrini and powered by a Corvette V8 engine, the Iso Grifo became one of the most scintillating sports cars Italy had to offer.
Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A.
O.K. Corvette trivia fans, it’s time for a pop quiz: What do a space heater, a refrigerator, the Isetta microcar, and a motor scooter have in common with the Iso Grifo? Time’s up, pencils down please. The answer—all were made by the same Italian company, Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A, founded by Renzo Rivolta.
Signore Rivolta bought Isothermos, a small company that manufactured space heaters and refrigerators in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Following the war, as the European economy slowly recovered, Mr. Rivolta’s company became Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A and expanded into the design and manufacture of motor scooters, small motorcycles and eventually into small cars, such as the Isetta microcar. The Isetta proved to be a hit not only in Italy, but around the world. Iso licensed Isetta production to several other European and South American companies and the worldwide demand for the small economical car proved to be a financial boon for Mr. Rivolta and Iso.
Like many well-to-do Italian businessmen Mr. Rivolta developed a taste for fine Italian sports cars. He was quite successful in the manufacturing of high quality mechanical products and his high standards were offended by the generally disappointing build quality of the cars he drove. His many communications with the Italian companies regarding the faults he observed in their vehicles proved to be a dead end and Mr. Rivolta soon became convinced that his company could build a superior, high-quality GT car with exceptional performance.
The Iso Grifo A3L
The prototype Iso Grifo A3L (L for Lusso or Luxury in English) made its debut on the Bertone stand at the Turin Auto Show in 1963 to great enthusiasm. However, a few design changes in the body and the elimination of side-mounted exhaust pipes delayed production of the Grifo until 1965. In addition to a dynamically beautiful exterior design, the luxurious cockpit of the Lusso featured leather-covered seats, inner door panels, and central console; a full complement of gauges; and a wood-rimmed steering wheel.
The Grifo body, created by Bertone’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, was eye-catching and dramatic without being outrageous—just what Iso needed to attract upscale buyers looking for something other than a run-of-the-mill Italian GT. The front fascia with a split grille blended smoothly into subtly curvaceous front fenders with the curves continuing into the rear quarter panels. The fastback roof, with a large backlight that allowed the driver plenty of rear-viewing area, blended smoothly into a visually pleasing, but understated rear fascia. The design commanded viewers’ attention and was breathtakingly beautiful from any angle.
Before embarking on his journey to produce GT cars, Mr. Rivolta had the foresight to hire one of Italy’s renowned automotive engineers, Giotto Bizzarrini, the engineer behind what may be the best GT car of all time, Ferrari’s 250 GTO. With Signore Bizzarrini’s chassis having conventional wishbones and coil springs in the front; a de Dion suspension with a live axle located by radius arms and a Watts linkage at the rear; and four-wheel disc brakes, the Grifo A3L had superb handling to match its alluring appearance and luxurious interior.
Corvette Engines – the Pièce de Résistance
The go power and the icing on the Grifo’s cake was provided by small block Corvette V8 engines rated at either 300 or 365 horsepower. With the 365 horsepower Corvette engine, the Grifo had a top speed of 160 mph, the equal of any GT car of its day. The small block Corvette engine-powered Grifo A3L was produced between 1965 and 1972.
One would think that, with a 160 mph top speed, the 365 horsepower engine would be enough power, but in the world of sports cars, apparently, there is no such thing as too much power. In 1968, Piero Rivolta, son of founder Renzo Rivolta and now in charge of Iso, crashed his racing boat and had the boat’s 427 cu. in. Corvette engine removed and installed in Grifo #201, which then became the Grifo 7 Litri. Official 7 Litri production began in August of 1968 and continued until 1972, when Iso switched all Grifo production to Ford 351 cu. in. Cleveland engines.
Iso Grifo Series II
The Series II Grifo was introduced in 1970 with changes to the front fascia to reduce the tendency of the front end to lift at high speeds and to give the Grifo a more contemporary look. The fronts of the hood and fenders were extended and lowered to reduce high-speed lift, and a pair of small doors partially covered the headlights when not in use. With the introduction of the Series II, the 7 Litri became the Grifo Can Am. Later, Corvette 454 cu. in. big blocks replaced the 427 engines.
The low hood lines of both the Series I and Series II Grifos did not allow enough vertical space in the engine bay to accommodate the Corvette big block engines. To alleviate this problem, Iso raised a rectangular center section of the hood above the normal hood line, a modification that to this day is polarizing among Grifo enthusiasts—they either love it or hate it. Because of this modification, many Grifo enthusiasts consider the small block cars to be the purest form of Giugiaro’s design.
Iso Grifo Targas and Sunroofs
Four hundred Grifos were built, of which sixteen were Targas having removable roof sections. The Targas were converted from standard Grifo coupes by Pavesi of Milano. In addition, several cars were built having sunroofs with removable panels in the middle of the roof. Seven of the sunroof cars had small block Corvette engines, while Grifo #323 was the only big block sunroof car.
Renzo Rivolta passed away in 1966, but the Corvette-powered Grifo remained in production until 1972 at which time Iso switched to using Ford engines. All Grifo production came to a halt in 1974. Piero Rivolta soldiered on with the company until 1980 when he relocated to the United States and formed The Rivolta Group in Florida. The motto of the Rivolta Group, “Technology in the service of lasting beauty” is a fitting epitaph for the Iso Grifo. Designed in the early 1960s, updated in 1970, and last produced in 1974, the Grifo’s beauty remains undiminished.
National Corvette Museum looking for a Grifo
Part of the mission of the National Corvette Museum (NCM) is to “Enhance the knowledge of the general public regarding the design, development, construction and history of the Corvette automobile.” To further enhance knowledge of the history of the Corvette, the NCM would like to recognize other vehicles that have influenced the Corvette or have been influenced by the Corvette. Other vehicles in this latter category would be those, like the Iso Grifo, that used Corvette engines.
The NCM has created a Wish List of vehicles that it would like to have in their collection, and one of the cars high on their list is an Iso Grifo. If you have, or know of anyone who has an Iso Grifo and may wish to either donate the car to the NCM or to loan the car to the Museum for public display, please contact Derek Moore, the NCM curator.
Enjoy our Petrolicious video about the Grifo and please visit their website to view their other fine car videos.
Iso & Bizzarrini Owner’s Club http://isobizclub.com/cars.html
How Stuff Works http://www.howstuffworks.com/iso-sports-cars.htm
Iso Millennium News http://www.isomillennium.it/index_news_ING.htm
Rivolta Group http://www.rivolta.com/