Champagne Cocktail: Iso Grifo

| 12 Aug 2014

The best Iso Grifo in the UK took more than 30 years to restore. Mick Walsh meets the devoted owner of a  super-rare rhd Series 2.

It must be a pretty sensational car if someone is prepared to wait 30 years before they can enjoy it. Like Barry Twitchell’s fabulous Iso Grifo Series 2. Back on the road after an epic restoration, the champagne metallic ’71 Earls Court show beauty has dazzled admirers everywhere this summer.

Twitchell’s passion for Iso (see p123) stems from the launch of drag racing in England at Blackbushe airfield in 1964. Sydney Allard’s ambitious bid to import this all-American sport attracted a diverse range of entries. Lining up with legends such as Dante Duce and Mickey Thompson was motoring journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker in a Bizzarrini A3C borrowed from George Abecassis. “The V8s made a big impression on me, but particularly the A3C,” says Twitchell. “It sounded fantastic and recorded a 13 secs standing quarter. That got me hooked and I started looking around for a car. Even then A3Cs were rare and I soon discovered I couldn’t afford one, but I kept looking.”

Fast forward to 1976 and Twitchell was poring over a copy of Motor Sport when he spotted a low-mileage Iso Grifo advertised by Brian Classic. He phoned at once: “It was totally original and had done just 14,700 miles. It sat unused for 12 months because the owner died intestate and his widow was trying to sort his will. Although the mileage was very low, the car had been driven during the winter on salty roads. It was tatty around the edges and had started to corrode.”

Iso Grifo

Twitchell couldn’t resist driving his dream car before starting to sort the cosmetics and during those sun-soaked summers of 1976 and ’77 he enjoyed the Iso’s spectacular performance: “I had two young sons, and the Grifo wasn’t very practical so I ended up buying an Iso Lele so we could all go out. That too was in a bit of a state and I ended up taking both cars off the road with ambitions of short rebuilds. As the Lele was a family car, that took priority over the Grifo.”

Four years later the Lele was back on the road, but the part-dismantled Grifo was pushed ever further down Twitchell’s list of priorities as house extensions, school fees and new business ventures soaked up time and money. In the ’80s Twitchell saved a hoard of Iso parts when BMW demanded First Front Garages drop its franchise to focus on the German marque. “We struck a deal with Nicholas van der Steen to save the spares,” recalls Twitchell, “and it took two lorry loads to collect them. My wife was very tolerant beause every space, even under the beds, was used as storage. Among the parts was a new ZF gearbox, so that had to go in the Lele. I was young and keen, so had no idea what a huge job the conversion would be. All that further delayed the Grifo.”

Iso Grifo

Through the late ’80s and ’90s Twitchell started to tackle the Grifo’s rot. The once-beautiful Bertone body was a patchwork of original champagne paint, exposed metal and magic marker notes where he’d plotted the problem areas and planned tasks: “After blowing hot and cold, in 1996 I decided to tackle it properly.” Even stripping the body to bare metal was a challenge: “The original finish was Lesanol. This was a two-pack polyester filler that was specially used on hand-built cars to cover up imperfections. In some places it was really thick and hard to remove. We used five gallons of stripper.”

When Twitchell started sandblasting the body inside his garage he nearly asphyxiated himself: “I fitted the bare body to castor trolleys so I could move it in and out of the garage. I was using a small sandblaster and it took the best part of 12 months on and off to finish. The floorpan and arches were stripped of underseal and primed with 769 Rustoleum prior to undercoating. I also made my own Carcoon-style storage to protect it.

Iso Grifo

“The body was given to Clive Smart for new door skins, valances and boot. Later I sent the body to Parts and Panels for extra fabrication work including a new bonnet. They are superb metalworkers and that really inspired me. All double-skinned arches were cut out and new metal let in. We had a spare set of sill covers but these proved to be too long. As a result they had to be cut, fitted and then the weld ground off before polishing. In the end I decided a brushed finish would look more stylish.

Perfectionist Twitchell soon discovered to his dismay how crudely his Grifo had been built first time around as he started fitting up the shell. “These cars were not built to last,” he adds. “Mine was produced when Iso was in a parlous financial state and already in the hands of the receiver. Nothing lined up when I began putting it back together. Getting the doors to fit was a real pain and I ended up recasting bits in brass to sort it. It now shuts better than new.”

Iso Grifo

Twitchell’s eye for detail went far beyond perfect shut lines: “I reprofiled and cut all the louvres myself. They are pop-riveted together and took hours of work just to get them to fit nicely, particularly with the double curvature in the wing side. Even the replacement bumpers required modifying to match the body profile, which was longer on one side than the other. It took weeks of grinding it down to get it right.”

Parts such as the diaphragm-type door rubbers were no longer obtainable so Twitchell had to modify the whole aperture flange by grinding and filing to get the snap-on replacement to fit. Likewise, he ended up making his own triple wiring loom and the charging system also had to be modified to take the new Mallory ignition.

Iso Grifo

Once the body was ready for paint, the next challenge to track down the exact colour: “It was listed as Champagne Cocktail. Over years of Iso ownership I’ve met some great people including Roberto Negri. He was the factory test driver in the early 1970s before he was drafted into the military. When he returned to Veredo in 1975, the company was in trouble, so Roberto set up a business doing service work in a corner of Iso’s old paint shop. Roberto helped me find an original Glidden Salchi paint swatch. My son and I went around all the paint manufacturers in northern Italy to get an exact match. Adrian George at Spraytec did the final bare-metal respray.”

Twitchell has had plenty of engine rebuilding experience including several V8s and Jaguar motors. “I wanted to do the Grifo’s Chevy engine but felt the time was better put into the car so I gave it to Real Steel,” he says. “We went for Edelbrock heads, steel crank, ‘H’ Bean conrods, new Holley four-barrel carb, roller cams and Hypertech pistons. As well as getting more power, I wanted to lighten the front end which is why we switched the cast-iron heads for ally. On the dyno it turned 371bhp with 404lb ft of torque. Pete and Murray at Real Steel were great to deal with. I loved visiting their shop near Heathrow. The total engine costs were about £6000.” 

Iso Grifo

The gearbox rebuild was an altogether different experience: “The ZF 3255 five-speed had been under the workbench for 25 years and I decided to get someone to look at it despite its limited mileage. ZF isn’t interested in classics and now mainly does autos, so I went to an independent specialist. I finally got it back after 15 months, but en route to the car’s first MoT, the gearbox jammed in second. My complaints fell on deaf ears and my calls were unreturned so I had to take the engine and ’box out again. Having to undo all that work was the most gut-wrenching part of the whole project. I rang Andy Heyward at Bill McGrath Limited, he agreed to look at it and discovered the second gear syncro had been incorrectly assembled.

“So I bit the bullet and commissioned another rebuild. In frustration I sent the bill to the first specialist and got a call from the bank reporting that it was in receivership and I was just one of a long list of creditors. The most frustrating part of restoration is usually a niggling problem that is down to other people.”

Iso Grifo

While the drive-line was being sorted Twichell set about completing the interior: “The previous owner had been a smoker, so the headlining was stained but the seats and door trim were in good condition. Once treated with hide food they looked great, but I decided to replace the centre console with new leather. Malcolm Barton of Barton & Sons did a superb job. He even made up a special shuttle and needle to match the close, fine-thread Italian stitching. 

“The original carpets had shrunk so I made up new patterns while my son Alex spent ages on the internet trying to find the exact tone and pile to match. Eventually we were happy with a sample from a Dutch specialist but it took another six months to get the carpet which was produced in Australia. The hassle was worth it because the colour, shade and hessian backing are perfect. We lucked out with the carpet edging when Iso specialist Roberto in Bergamo turned up some old stock. We were overjoyed. Malcolm also did a great job with the headlining but sourcing the snakebite Negri material was a challenge. Eventually Axel Gottschalk found a few metres with an original supplier.” The instruments were sent to Adrian Sidwell in Dorset who cleaned and checked them. Twitchell also found a ’67 Radiomobile from an E-type. All were then fitted up to the new dash.

When restoring any bespoke Italian car, it helps to know where the original parts were sourced from. To keep costs down Iso used an extensive range including Alfa, Lancia and Fiat 850 Spider parts and Twitchell knows them all: “I produced a book about Iso interchangeability which I’ve made available to the club. It helps when you’re searching around scrapyards.”

Iso Grifo

In 2005, after 31 years off the road, the Grifo started to come together. Heyward and Scott made up the tubular manifold and exhaust, and Docking Engineering fabricated a new ally radiator. Says Twitchell: “After all those aches and pains from working on the car, I was determined to enjoy driving it, so mechanically it had to be right. I fitted silicone hosing with aluminium tubes and even designed my own expansion tank. Twin Kenlowes help keep it cool. The aircon never worked so that, together with the hideous Deco Remi alternator, was thrown away.” Twitchell tends towards purism, but he can’t tolerate items that don’t work or are badly made. As well as making new brackets to reposition a new smaller alternator on the opposite side of the engine, he redesigned the crude mounts for the power steering pump. The beautifully made hand-throttle linkage, with universal joints from a model boat propshaft, and the spring loading for the fuel filler cap are typical of Twitchell’s attention to detail: “Iso build quality is variable. Some things are superb such as the bumpers, which would have taken hours of finishing and polishing, while other parts are rubbish and thrown together. Some of the welding is poor and sections are trimmed with tin snips until they fit. Often they’re not even ground off. The extreme standards are frustrating.”

Iso Grifo

The Grifo S2 made its post-retoration debut run to Italian Car Day at Brooklands last May where it was the talk of the event. Twitchell was then invited to show it at the Le Mans Classic on the French Iso club stand, and relished the drive out to La Sarthe. He then rounded off the summer by scooping the ‘Best of Show’ award at Italian Car Day at Stanford Hall.

So has the Grifo lived up to 40 years of expectation? “The performance is fantastic. We had it up to 6000rpm en route to Le Mans, and it feels quicker than a big-block. At high speeds it wanders which could be down to the tyres. Also I wasn’t happy with the handling, so we’ve had Roddy Harvey-Bailey sort that. The ZF ’change is too slow and no match for my Lele. I’m even thinking about converting it.” Ever the perfectionist, Twitchell is determined to make this the best-driving Grifo as well as the most delectable.

Iso Grifo

This article was originally published in the December 2006 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Tony Baker