Iso Rivolta: The Coolest Cars You've Never Heard Of
Several boutique European manufacturers have exploited the "American muscle in a coachbuilt body" formula over time, with varying degrees of success. But if there's been a company that, perhaps above all others, truly mastered the art of blending new-world horsepower with old-world sophistication, that's Iso Rivolta.
Our story begins in the town of Bresso, near Milan, in 1948.
That's when the industrialist Renzo Rivolta, whose company Isothermos had been producing home appliances since the late 1930s, decided to tap into the country's strong demand for basic, inexpensive transportation with a new line of scooters and small-displacement motorbikes.
Following the sales success of models like the Iso 125 and Isomoto, Rivolta soon went for the logical next step: marry the simplicity and affordability of the scooter with the weather protection of an automobile.
Birth of an icon
Conceived by the engineer Ermenegildo Preti, the impossibly cute Isetta bubble car was presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1953.
The diminutive vehicle, powered by a 250cc engine derived from Iso's motorbike production, created a lot of interest at the show due to its unique appearance, characterized by the single large door placed at the front so that the Isetta's driver could directly step onto the sidewalk once parked.
However, the Italian buying public largely shunned the Isetta, of which Iso only managed to build around 1400 examples before giving up on the project in 1955.
Thankfully for Iso's coffers, though, the Isetta went on to enjoy much greater success abroad: particularly in Germany, where BMW manufactured under license over 160.000 Isettas until 1962.
A bold step
The rapid increase in living standards during Italy's late 1950s economic boom led to an explosion in the demand for automobiles. But as more and more people could afford a car, the market for the small-displacement 'bikes that were Iso's core business dwindled.
Seeing clearly the writing on the wall but unable to compete with Fiat's mass-market offerings, Renzo Rivolta took the bold step of abandoning the motorcycle industry altogether and bet his company's future on a kind of product that couldn't have been further from Iso's humble beginnings.
The Iso Rivolta GT
Launched in 1962, the Iso Rivolta 300 GT was developed by the engineer Pierluigi Raggi with the collaboration of Giotto Bizzarrini. The car's strong steel unibody structure offered ample space inside for four passengers, while power came from the same 327 ci. V8 used in contemporary Corvettes.
The GT's elegant lines were penned by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, then working under Nuccio Bertone. While there's no denying the similarity with some other Giugiaro designs from the period like the Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint, to my eyes the Iso Rivolta 300 GT looks even better. Yet that's nothing compared to what came next.
The Iso Rivolta Grifo
Shown as a prototype in 1963 but produced from 1965, the Iso Rivolta Grifo is a truly gorgeous two-seater based on the 300 GT's floorpan and underpinnings but with a shorter wheelbase.
Much like the 300 GT it derived from, the Grifo was as fast as it was luxurious, but that didn't stop Giotto Bizzarrini from designing a more extreme derivative aimed squarely at motorsport, presented as the Grifo A3/C and wearing a completely different body.
However, when Renzo Rivolta showed no interest in funding a racing program, Bizzarrini left Iso together with his project, which ultimately became the short-lived Bizzarrini 5300 GT.
While the Grifo's blend of stunning looks, speed, and comfort caught the attention of the international jet set and boosted the company's image, sales of Iso Rivolta's amazing cars remained low and hardly covered the costs.
Somewhat counterintuitively, it seems that using a mass-produced Chevrolet engine put off more American buyers than it attracted, mainly because folk spending Ferrari money on a boutique Italian sports car valued the cachet and exclusivity of a bespoke engine over ease of maintenance and dependability.
Nevertheless, the Grifo remained a staple of the Iso Rivolta catalog until the firm's demise and remains the most coveted on the classic car market.
Following the sudden death of the company's founder Renzo Rivolta in 1966, his son Piero inherited the firm. Contrary to what many expected, given Iso's precarious financial situation, he set out to build no other than the world's fastest four-door sedan.
Initially known as the Iso S4, then later relaunched as the Iso Rivolta Fidia following some production issues with the early cars, the Fidia followed the same formula as previous Iso Rivolta models: sharp, elegant Giugiaro lines and a sumptuous leather-lined interior, all powered by the trusty Chevrolet small-block V8.
Presented in 1969 but produced from 1970, the Iso Rivolta Lele replaced the original Iso GT and sported a sharp fastback design penned by Marcello Gandini for Bertone.
The name Lele may sound unusual, but it was a romantic choice, as it was Piero Rivolta's affectionate nickname for his wife, Rachele.
Under the new body hid the previous model's running gear, including the Chevrolet V8s: first the usual 327, then the larger 350. However, that changed in 1972, when Iso Rivolta was forced to switch to Ford's Cleveland 351 V8 due to GM imposing new and less favorable terms for their engine supply.
One of those Ford V8s ended up in the one-off Varedo, the first and last mid-engined car ever built by Iso Rivolta.
Presented in prototype form in 1972, the Varedo was styled by the former Zagato designer Ercole Spada, presumably on a Friday afternoon after an exceedingly heavy lunch, judging by the rather ungainly result.
The inevitable demise
Piero Rivolta's enthusiastic, bold efforts to project his company into the future, which included branching out with a range of snowmobiles produced between 1970 and 1973, ultimately couldn't save Iso Rivolta from folding in 1974.
Despite their high retail prices, the company hardly made any money with its luxurious GTs, even at the best of times. This left Iso Rivolta a small and undercapitalized firm, ill-equipped to weather the increasingly challenging business environment of the 1970s.