Iso Grifo
Iso Grifo /Source: Gooding & Company Amelia Island 2014

Iso Grifo – The Fusion of Italian Design and American Power

The name ‘Grifo’ is Italian for Griffin, the mythological beast that’s half lion and half eagle. The lion half represents the coat of arms of the Iso company’s founder, Renzo Rivolta, while the eagle represents the symbolic animal of the United States. This symbolic union is quite fitting for the Iso Grifo considering it was pure Italian beauty in design and style, coupled with the power of the mighty American V8.

Iso Grigo symbol
Dmitry Zaltsman ©2019 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

History

The story of the Iso Grifo begins with the Italian born automotive brand, Iso, who started its life as ‘Iso Thermos’ producing heating, venting, and air conditioning products.

After the second world war, the founder of the company, Renzo Rivolta, had a burning desire to manufacture sports cars. His strong ambition developed into reality with the Iso Grifo.

The vehicle is a clear example of what the brand stood for – gorgeous Italian design, style, and passion paired with the reliability and power of the small and big block Chevrolet V8 engines.

Iso Grifo top profile
Iso Grifo/ Source: Bonhams

If you have never heard about the Iso Grifo or the legendary automotive engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, (engineered the iconic Ferrari 250 GTO), this article will lead you through one of the most interesting automotive stories to arise from the 1960s.


From Refrigerators to Sports Cars

To understand what made the Iso Grifo special, we can’t go past the incredible story of the Iso company. 

It all started in 1939 when representatives of the Rivolta family founded the company, Iso Thermos. At the time they were mainly engaged in the manufacturing of refrigerators and heating.

In 1948, Renzo Rivolta (owner and founder of the brand) expanded the brand to include the manufacturing of motorcycles, scooters, and various cargo three- and four-wheelers. By 1953, the automotive wing of the company was renamed ISO Autoveicoli.

The first car to be created by Iso Autoveilcoli was the Isetta (built-in 2-cylinder petrol engine with 10 hp), which was created in 1954.  The charm of this car was that it was a small, ultra-compact car powered by a motorcycle engine. It was ever so practical, as it would fit through the small, narrow Italian village roads.

The car was so much of a success that Iso couldn’t keep up with the orders. To meet public demand, they licensed different manufacturers from different parts of Europe to produce the Isetta.

German car manufacturer BMW was so impressed by the Isetta that they bought the rights to produce the car. By the end of 1962, BMW had turned their business around by selling approximately 162,000 units of the Isetta model. At the same time, Iso, received a royalty for each car sold, giving them capital for other opportunities.

Isetta Turismo
BMW Isetta /Source: RM Auctions

Wanting to venture into more exciting cars, the company looked at creating sports cars and developed an innovative team.

They formed a highly experienced dynamic team with Nuccio Bertone, of Bertone design. They also consulted with Giorgetto Giugiaro, being famous for designing cars like De Tomaso Mangusta and Maserati Ghibli. To add more talent to the mix, they hired Giotto Bizzarrini, an exceptionally talented engineer, who had just recently left Ferrari (was just recently fired from Ferrari during the Great Walkout, where seven of Ferrari’s executive employees were fired in one setting).

The first of their cars designed was the Iso Rivolta, which was a true GT two doors, four-seater. It contained the reliability of the powertrain of the Corvette, and coupled it with the sophistication of a Guigiaro design.

Iso Rivolta / Source Mecum Auctions

 

Lusso and Corsa – Birth of the Iso Grifo

Wanting to push further into sport cars, Giotto Bizzarrini convinced Renzo Rivolta to develop a sports car- the Iso Grifo.

Source: Bonhams

The first design for the Iso Grifo A3/L (L standing for “lusso”, luxury in Italian) was completed in 1963. Bizzarrini took care of the mechanical part of the planing, while Giorgetto Giugiaro ensured the car took on the appearance of an exceptionally attractive GT.

front of Grifo
Source: Bonhams

Bizzarini was an expert when it came to engineering remarkable sports cars, he is after all responsible for the creation of the Ferrari 250 GTO.

He estimated there would be enough demand for a race version of the vehicle to make production a success. The new sports version of the car was called the Grifo A3/C (C standing for “corsa”, racing or race in Italian).

The Corsa version of the car featured a modified alloy body and front mid-engine disposition. To accommodate for this engine placements, the A3/C Grifo needed to have a part of the dashboard removed. Bizzarrini was so invested and sure of the Grifo Corsa’s success, he even dubbed it the “Improved GTO”.

Source: Bonhams

Both versions of the vehicle were presented in 1963 at the Turin Motor Show. Each cars received major praise from the press and were deemed incredible judging by the budget they were built with.


The Italian American muscle – Powertrains

You can often hear the Iso Grifo being called the “Italian muscle car”- here is why.

Iso came to the reality that designing and engineering their own engines was simply out of their budget. Instead, they formed a partnership with Chevrolet that supplied engines for the Iso brand.

The first series of the vehicle featured a reliable 5.4L small-block Chevrolet Corvette V8 engine pushing out anywhere from 300 to 350 horsepowers (depending on the tune).

With this many American horses rumbling under the hood and a low curb weight of just 2,200lbs (1000 kg), the Grifo A3/L reached a staggering top speed of 171 mph (275 km/h). That is some serious speed, even by today’s standards. Series I Iso Grifo’s (1965-1970) was accompanied by 4-speed Borg-Warner manual transmissions or 3-speed automatic transmissions.

If that wasn’t muscular enough, the company did not stop there. In 1968, they introduced the Grifo 7 litri. Under the hood of this car was a Chevrolet L71 big-block engine. This was a true Tri-Power version of the 427 Chevrolet Corvette engine.

Iso Grifo 427

To accommodate for the big-block V8, they had to adjust several parts of the car. They strengthened the chassis, enlarged the engine compartment and fitted a hood scoop that was necessary for the engine’s deck height. The vehicle truly became an American muscle car, born in Italy.

It seemed that with every model year they were looking to improve the powertrains of the car. The Grifo series II received an even stronger Chevrolet 454 7.4L engine and an improved 5-speed ZF manual transmission. The final model years (1972-1974) featured the less brutal small-block Ford Boss 351 engines. The engine downsizing came as a consequence of the 1970s oil crisis.


From Targas to hood scoops – Designed by Bertone

Iso Grifo is known for its rich Italian style and reliable American powertrains. With a long hood and a dominant fastback line crashing right into the tail section, the Grifo screamed of performance.

The design was a clear example of the long hood and short deck trend in the 1960s.

With tailored wheel arches and carefully placed air vents, Giugiaro sourced inspiration from the world of racing.

Details like air vents and tailored wheel arches served the car’s muscular identity. From the front, the vehicle stood low and looked mean with its pair of circular headlights.

The Series II did not feature major design changes except for the headlight cover. The split grill was a distinct American feature hinting at the American “heart” under the long hood.

With the introduction of bigger engines, the car adopted a hood scoop to accommodate for the height of big-block V8 powertrains. This only helped to promote the muscular look of the vehicle.

Being a true GT car, a sizable trunk for longer rides was a priority. This is why the car features a larger rear deck lid and an overall large rear presence. The back also features a big wraparound backlight which reduced the visual mass of the large rear. 

The Iso Grifo Corsa featured a completely different design, which was also done by Giugiaro. The Corsa was meant for racing and the design speaks for itself. It takes on a more aerodynamic design, and slightly resembles the iconic sports cars of the era, like the Ferrari 250 GTO.

In 1966 a Targa version was presented at the Turin Motor Show. Very few Targa versions were made and sold in the production run (17 in total).

Specifications and Performance of the Iso Grifo

Engine LocationFront, in-line
DriveRear
ConfigurationV8
Capacity6998cc
Bore and Stroke108 x 95mm
Horsepower390bhp @ 5200rpm
Valve operationPushrod
TransmissionFour-speed Manual
Suspension-frontWishbones and coil spring
Suspension- backDe Dion axle and coil springs
ChassisUnitary
BrakesDisc
Top Speed171 mph
Acceleration0-60mph 7.1 seconds

Racing the Iso Grifo

The Bizzarrini Iso Grifo A3C was the competition version of the A3L super coupe and in 1964 it competed well at Le Mans (finished 14th), Monza, Targa Florio and the one car completed at Sebring. It would be more successful the following year at Le Mans (1965) , finishing 9th.

A3C of Charlie Rainville and Mike Gammino. They failed to finish due to an accident. Photo courtesy of mycarquest.com and The Griffon

A repeat trip to Sebring was needed and plans were made to ship two race cars to the U.S. A good finish at Sebring in 1965 might be just what was needed to boost sales in the U.S.

In 1965, Sebring 12 hours would see the two-car team of Bizzarrini A3C’s end in spectacular style.

By lap 12 the #8 car was experiencing severe brake fade as the brake fluid began to boil and evaporate in the extreme heat. With slightly more than an hour of racing on the clock, the Bizzarrini’s brakes were totally gone and when driver Silvio Moser approached the infamous Hairpin turn he had no brakes.

He headed for the escape road but managed to plunge into the crowd near the turn hitting a VW microbus. The #8 Bizzarrini was officially retired on lap 16. The car’s co-driver, Mario Casoni, never got a chance to drive the car.

Moser/Casoni Iso Grifo A3C just minutes before they lost their brakes and crashed. Photo courtesy of Dave Nicholas
Moser/Casoni car was removed to this spot to protect it from souvenir hunters. Photo courtesy of mycarquest.com and The Griffon

In the other Iso Grifo (#9) was Mike Gammino and Charlie Rainville. Shortly after the brakes were repaired, Mike Gamino left the pit stop in haste to return to the action, neglecting to buckle his seat belt. At the time a huge rainstorm had come over and had flooded the track.

Three laps later the car came around turn twelve and onto the front straight. Gammino accelerated as he passed the start-finish and the car began to hydroplane and lose control.

The car struck a support for the Mercedes-Benz pedestrian bridge broadside cutting the car in two pieces with the split coming right behind the driver’s door. When the corner workers arrived to render assistance they found Mike Gammino in his seat in the front half of the car with his hands still on the steering wheel. After the corner workers determined that he didn’t suffer any serious injuries he was allowed to walk back to the pits. 

The Rainville/Gammino Iso Grifo A3C after being split in two after hitting the Mercedes-Benz Bridge. Photo courtesy of Paul Rainville

Iso Bizzarrini: The Remarkable Story of A3/C 0222 (Exceptional Cars) Hardcover – by Richard Heseltine (Author)


Limited Production of the Grifo

The 1970s oil crisis did not play into favor for the company. Although this was not the core reason for the 1974 downfall of the Iso company.

The brand itself just wasn’t considered exotic enough for the wealthy customers buying powerful GT cars in the 1960s and early 70s. Another contributing factor was their use of “generic” American powertrains. At their time of production, all other premium brands were using their own engines, making them more appealing and exclusive.

Looking back, this was a great misconception of the time. The truth is, many American engines delivered more power and offered great reliability. The American powertrains were not a weakness but added strength to the car’s image.

Overall only 412 vehicles were ever produced, making them a true rarity. The most sought after are the Series II with the 7L V8 engine and the 5-speed manual transmission, as only 23 were produced. Even rarer still are the Targa versions with only 17 of them made.

In today’s market with the newfound appreciation of the Iso brand and especially the Grifo, the price reflects the uniqueness of this car.

Source: Bonhams

The above vehicle was auctioned in 2016 by Bonhams at Carmel, Quail Lodge & Golf Club. It was one of the most desirable variants, being the first series model that includes the small block 327ci Chevrolet engine. The power output was 350hp, and making this car more special is that it has a 5-speed ZF manual gearbox. The color is Argento Indianapolis combined with a black leather interior. At auction the car was sold under the hammer for US$ 368,500.

Show Comments (6)

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  1. somehow I was going to drive one of the isos at sebring; it had something to do with a long phone conversation with an Italian gentleman in New York whose name I hope to recall before I finish writing this! I went by the garage at sebring and the cars looked somewhat ratty. one of the mechanics told me one had been RINO ARGENTO! was the new Yorker’s name–anyway one had been crashed at Monza. it might’ve been in testing because I couldn’t find mention of a race at Monza that early in the year. at any rate no $ had ever been discussed and I quietly sauntered away from the garage and eventually spectated at the race. kinda wish I’d been more inquisitive because I was always very good in the rain: my first year in racing it rained every single weekend I was at a track! we had a new gt and iso on our showroom floor a half century ago and briefly I had a grifo–with those odd chromed slots and vents in the front fenders. bill Pryor and I had a marvelous dinner with sig. bizzarrini in ’66. the cars were a delight to drive.

  2. I’d like to learn more about the car in the photo at the start of this posting, which looks to be a 427 or end-of-line 351 version with aftermarket high-back seats. One of the most beautiful cars ever.

  3. I worked for Fred Kingsbury at the Sebring 12-hour from 1961 to 1965. He was co-ordinator for press communications. At the time the #9 Iso hit the bridge I was going up the steps on the midway side of the M-B bridge. We saw the car loose control spin toward the bridge and hit under us. We then looked toward turn one to see two parts of the car spinning in opposite directions come to rest on the other side. Unbelievably, the driver was assisted out of the car and walked away! The start-finish line at Sebring was always very slick part of the track in the rain.

  4. In the mid 1980s I worked for 3 gentlemen who imported a Iso Grifo in Silver with special cast aluminum wheels. The car was later sold to Howard Jackson. Howard being the tinkering guy, he installed a B&M fuel injection system in place of the carburetor. Howard and I took the car out on a back road and opened up the throttle. I quit at 140 and the car was still going. Howard later told me he got the car up to 180 mph. Howard later sold the car and it went to Europe. It had the 5 speed gearbox. Now I wish I had that car! It was light, fast and the best of Italian design and finish, with the US drive line. The fastest car of its time and I was blessed to have had an opportunity to drive one.