Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

| 29 Oct 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Was Iso the cream of the Euro-American hybrids?

Perhaps: with a chassis by Bizzarrini and the best of everything from Italy and America, the Iso range seemed destined for long-term success in 1962.

Yet, like so many before him, the lure of building glamorous GTs made a worried man of the once wealthy, fun-loving Renzo Rivolta.

His hefty investment in tooling for his eponymous first model misjudged the size of the appetite for such cars, as well as the fickle nature of the market.

When Iso’s American importer failed to honour an agreement to take 50 Rivolta coupés per month, the project was dead almost before it had even started.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

The cute Isetta was Iso’s first car

In fact, the stress of being a specialist manufacturer probably put him in an early grave.

At 25 years old, his son Piero become the youngest CEO of any car-maker in the world after his father died in 1966.

Even his youthful optimism – and belief in the new products he initiated, such as the Lele and Fidia – was not enough, however, and he abandoned the struggle in 1973 after a falling-out with the firm’s new backer, Ivo Pera.

The last Isos were built in 1974.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This Isetta is a BMW version, powered by a motorbike single

The adventure had begun so light-heartedly 12 years earlier.

A charismatic tycoon who had made his fortune from refrigerators and heating equipment before the war, Rivolta rode the wave of the Italian economic miracle in the 1950s with scooters and small vans.

If his 1953 Isetta bubble car concept had not proved popular in his home market, BMW saw the value of it and produced it in Munich on the original tooling, Iso earning a handsome income from the licensing.

Yet Rivolta’s nose told him that the world was moving on from such utilitarian transport.

While there was no sense in taking on Fiat with a family car, Rivolta thought he saw a niche for a reliable GT with all the glamour of a Ferrari but without the need for expensive maintenance.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Iso burned bright but not for long – the last models were built in 1974

He wanted to do the job properly – building fast, luxurious cars on an industrial scale, rather than producing underdeveloped trinkets and dream machines.

As a buyer of the world’s best marques, Rivolta was in a good position to judge their shortcomings and recognised that the key lay in using an American V8 engine, the best of which were reaching new heights of reliable power and sophisticated refinement.

Another element in the success of the new GT was technical credibility, and for this Rivolta hired Giotto Bizzarrini.

Fresh from his quarrels with Enzo Ferrari, the former Alfa Romeo engineer and architect of the 250GTO added intellectual weight to the project.

Bizzarrini created a rigid and well-balanced platform that reconciled four-seater comforts with accomplished handling more successfully than any other GT of comparable ambitions at the time.

Its basic elements would remain constant through to the 1970s.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This Iso Rivolta isn’t quite as it left the factory, sitting lower than standard


In many ways, the Rivolta was the most ambitious of the cars built at Bresso.

It was not so much an attempt to take on Ferrari and Maserati at their own game, but to build an Italian Jaguar in substantial numbers (50 per week was the original projection) using modern production techniques.

In other words, it was not going to be an artisanal product, instead being built in quantities that meant it could be offered at a lower cost than its rivals.

The Chevrolet Corvette’s 327cu in V8 engine – in 300bhp and 350bhp solid-lifter forms – was an important element in this, although Buick’s light-alloy powerplant was also considered.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This Rivolta’s early dash is a touch basic – the seats here come from a later Lele

That its direct inspiration was the Gordon GT (later Gordon-Keeble) is a matter of record; John Gordon and Renzo Rivolta were in negotiations for Iso to build the Bertone-styled, Corvette-engined Gordon GT for some time during 1960/’61.

Mr Rivolta dropped the idea when the limitations of its tubular spaceframe were identified. If Iso was to become Italy’s premier builder of GTs, what it needed was an electrically welded platform chassis with a steel body as a stressed component.

Iso supplied just that to Bertone, which returned it clothed in the coupé body using pressed-steel panels. It arrived at Bresso painted and trimmed, and ready to have its engine and drivetrain fitted.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

An injected 7-litre V8 powers this Rivolta

An early project of Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Rivolta was a svelte and distinguished coupé with an aura of quality and authority in its detailing thanks to its leather seats, 15in wheels (steel disc or Borrani wires) and restrained use of chrome.

There is nothing very restrained about ‘our’ car although, with its centre-lock Miura-type alloys, it looks fairly standard other than the dark windows and the high-backed Lele-style front seats.

In this example, the dashboard is the almost austere early design; from 1965 onwards, Iso gave the interior a plusher, more hand-finished feel.

Rivolta was from a generation that still routinely wore hats, which is why this model has such good headroom inside.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Elegant script adorns the Iso Grifo

By his own admission, Fred Moss’ Rivolta is a bit of a hot-rod, but a nicely conceived one with its sequentially injected 7-litre big-block V8. Tall gearing gives 80mph in first, and Moss says that he’s seen 170mph in fourth.

You can probably guess from these figures that this Rivolta is not quite the refined GT that its makers had in mind but, once you get used to the hefty clutch and meaty effort required for the gearchange, it is not difficult to drive.

Moss has fitted later-type brakes and power steering, all very much in the spirit of how Iso would have uprated the Rivolta had it offered a ‘super sport’ version.

It is savagely quick, with an ability to level inclines and devour straights that gives you little time to assimilate its other qualities.

My memories of the low-geared steering and pleasant, refined running in a standard automatic Rivolta a few years ago are totally overwhelmed by the way this car pins you to your seat in every gear to the accompaniment of Can-Am sound effects.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This wonderfully original Iso Grifo is unusual in that it has a Powerglide two-speed auto, which suits the car surprisingly well


While the swift and gentlemanly Rivolta was a fine car, it was the Grifo that would become the scene-stealer.

Here was a vehicle that squared up to the best two-seater, performance-focused GT cars in the world from a company that just a few years earlier had been best known for its bubble cars.

Even if it hadn’t been so fast and accomplished, the Grifo would have gone a long way on its shape alone, a muscularly elegant redefinition of the classic GT profile – again by Bertone/Giugiaro – that did more for the marque’s image than any other model.

It also represented a change of direction for Iso, into the realms of pure low-volume exotica rather than GTs on a semi-mass scale.

In many ways, this sensuous and beautifully proportioned berlinetta was perhaps the car that it should have produced in the first place.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This ’67 Grifo’s dash has a full set of Iso-badged instruments, with the rev counter and speedo in the centre

Based on a 6in-shorter wheelbase (with the engine moved much further back in the chassis), the Grifo was announced in 1963 as the prototype A3/L.

With 300bhp and 350bhp options – the latter with solid tappets, higher compression and a 161mph top speed – production didn’t really start until 1965.

Transmission-wise, there was a Borg-Warner T10 four-speed, a later ZF five-speed option and – perhaps incongruously – a two-speed ‘Powerglide’ auto model.

Somehow missing out the manual small-block Grifo brought along by Jane Weitzmann (the 1967 Earls Court show car), I took a ride in Andrew Yaras’ green ’67 Powerglide Grifo.

It’s one of eight that were built with the two-piece removable steel sunroof panels, which makes it rarer than the Grifo targa (13 cars made in 1969-’70) but not, of course, the Spider, of which only one was produced in ’64.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This right-hand-drive 1967 Grifo manual was displayed on the firm’s stand at the London Motor Show

The automatic ’box suits it surprisingly well, and this car is beguilingly original in a way that few Grifos can be these days.

Such is the torque, you don’t notice the lack of ratios or ever really feel the need to invoke them; the Grifo produces an effortless flow of lusty acceleration in top that will still fling you past most other cars.

Chris Lackner’s 7-litre Grifo is another thing altogether. A stalwart of the UK Iso and Bizzarrini Club, Lackner has been restoring and improving this car since 1987.

I drove WLK 348G in 1994, when Chris first got it on the road, so it’s like an old friend. It still has the same ponderous steering box (a powered conversion is planned), but a much nicer modern Tremec gearbox has replaced the original Muncie four-speeder with its ultra-tall first.

In fact, the steering seems nothing like as bad as I remember it, and the transmission pretty much transforms the feel of the car. You can reach for the performance without jolting shoulder or thigh muscles.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This stunning 7-litre Grifo is one of just 70 made

While not quite so savage as Moss’ Rivolta, the 7-litre is still addictively accelerative, with a smooth delivery of husky power through to 6000rpm or more, and those amazing in-gear maxima figures – 100mph in second alone.

It also seems as if it would pull the 180mph that Iso claimed, while at the same time feeling flat and together in curves, initial understeer neutralised by power without loss of stability.

Inside, the surroundings are splendid, with pleasing use of components from the nicer Fiat and Lancia models of the 1960s in a leather-lined cockpit that is almost a cliché of the GT fantasy.

Iso was happy to leave the cabins pretty much unchanged in the long-nose Series II Grifos, as represented here by Barry Twitchell’s perfectly restored example, which he has owned since 1976.

I can never quite decide whether I prefer the earlier open-headlight cars or the post-’70 Series II, with the half-covered lamps that give it a more 1970s feel.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This Iso Grifo now packs a 454cu in (7.4) big-block Chevrolet V8

Seventeen of these were built with the same 300 or 350bhp V8 options up to 1972, then an additional 34 with Ford Cleveland 5.7-litre lumps through to 1974.

There were also 24 ‘Can-Am’ Chevrolet 7-litre Series II Grifos with the long nose.

The move to Ford motors was an economically rather than technically motivated decision: Ford simply offered easier terms, rather than GM’s minimum order of 100 engines with cash up front.

The Grifo could have carried the Iso name through the greater part of the 1970s yet not even its power, glamour and raw desirability could survive a fuel crisis or reckon with a constituency of potential buyers (the very rich) who were always looking for the next sensation.

Something faster and wilder-looking soon took its place as the ‘in’ car of the luxo-GT set.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This Champagne metallic SII Grifo was the subject of a major restoration

S4/Fidia & Lele

Projects such as the Fidia and Lele should have given the marque fresh impetus, but they proved to be distractions in a world that was becoming increasingly wary of thirsty supercars.

Yet the idea of a four-door Iso looked like a good one for Piero Rivolta in 1967; here was a new kind of model that his workforce could get behind, and it was entirely the young man’s conception.

With the ageing Maserati Quattroporte then Italy’s only really exotic high-speed sedan, Rivolta saw an opportunity to capture buyers’ imaginations with a fresher and more sophisticated design.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

The Fidia is based on a stretched Rivolta platform – and this one was first owned by John Lennon who it is believed had three of the them

This time, he went to Ghia for the shape, yet, because by then Giugiaro was head stylist there, Rivolta knew that he was in safe hands.

The resulting design – launched at Frankfurt in 1967 as the Iso S4 – was not conventionally beautiful but with its deep windows, short tail and simple yet effective detailing (including four square Fiat 125 headlamp units) it looked like the most modern saloon on the road in 1967.

A spacious and well-planned full four-seater, it came with the 300/350bhp engines, the latter’s 144mph making it the world’s fastest four-door.

Like the Rivolta and the Grifo, it was a favourite with the great and the good – John Lennon had three, including John Devile’s car featured here – but quality problems with the Ghia-built bodywork caused Iso to bring production of the S4 in-house after only 45 had been made.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia
Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

This rare right-hand drive Iso Fidia – about a dozen are thought to have been built for the UK – began life as an S4 but went back to the factory to be upgraded to the later spec

With its structure beefed up, its interior redesigned and better quality control, the renamed Fidia of 1969 was an admission that building saloons was tougher than GTs – there is less room for the eccentricities that might be dismissed in a grand tourer.

This S4 was sent back to the factory at some point to be given Fidia-type improvements.

It’s light and spacious inside, with slender leather seats and a simple, handsome fascia.

I also came to love the shape: glassy and futuristic, like a prop car from an episode of UFO.

I could forgive its heavy low-geared manual steering and the paucity of ratios in the Powerglide transmission, which leaves occasional holes in the performance that even 5.4 litres struggle to plug.

Overall, though, the S4/Fidia is a quick, quiet and tidy-handling supersaloon with just the right feeling of exoticism and rarity.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

The Lele – named after Renzo Rivolta’s wife – was meant to have been a successor to the IR300, but only 285 were built

I have always struggled to get excited about the Lele, though. It was devised as a replacement for the Rivolta and was supposed to be a staple four-seater GT built in Iso’s new Varedo factory.

In fact, with only 285 or so produced from 1970 to ’74, it is one of the rarer Iso models.

The lightweight 360bhp Lele Sport is the most collectible, but even the standard automatic was quick – 0-60mph in 7.3 secs, according to Motor.

Road testers also noted that it was the fourth-thirstiest car that they had ever driven!

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia
Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Elegant details, but the Lele’s quirky looks didn’t prove popular (left); this is the only car of this group powered by a Ford V8

Named after Piero Rivolta’s wife, the Lele was first offered with the usual smallblock engines and then the 351cu in Ford Cleveland.

There were four- or five-speed manual transmissions, or a three-speed GM auto. Iso returned to Bertone for the angular lines, which this time were rendered by chief stylist Marcello Gandini.

It is impressive to look at from some angles – and has pretty wheels, something Iso always did well – but is somehow neither as daring nor as unusual as the Fidia, or as beautiful as the Grifo.

And yet you will never drive a better-sorted Iso than this silver Lele, also owned and restored by the fastidious Twitchell.

Tastefully leather-clad inside, it feels expensive and ‘boutique’. Like more than half of all Leles, it is Ford-powered, with a delightfully easy five-speed ZF ’box and power steering.

Classic & Sports Car – Iso’s awesome V8 family: Grifo, Rivolta, Lele and Fidia

Is the Iso name now on the rise again?

It feels like a car that you could live with day-to-day – the Twitchells did, in fact – cruising peacefully in the high top gear with the tinted windows shut at 3000rpm, or snaking up the road with the tyres alight.

In other words, just the combination of virility and refinement that Mr Rivolta Snr had in mind in 1962.

In the decades since Iso wowed the Turin Salon with the Corvette-powered, Bertone-bodied IR300, the American-engined European exotica of the 1960s has come of age.

For every purist who wouldn’t give you his cravat for a Grifo, a Lele or a Fidia, there are now a dozen others for whom this blend of European roadholding and American power represents the ideal combination – muscle and finesse in the couture threads of Italian fashion.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to Jason Yorke-Edgell and the owners; Beechwood Park School

This was originally in our October 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


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