Learning the secrets of a classic Italian GT.
In 1965 buyers of two-seater GT cars were spoilt for choice. Ferrari offered the 275GTB which packed a 3.3 litre V12, while Modenese rivals Maserati had the 4.0 litre straight six-powered Mistral. Down the road in Sant'Agata, tractor manufacturer Lamborghini was entering the exotic car world by introducing its new 350GT which trumped both the established brands with a quad cam V12. Of the British manufacturers, Aston Martin was using the James Bond associations to sell its DB5 and mask the fact that the design dated back to 1958. Finally, the bargain-priced Jaguar E-Type had reached its zenith with 4.2 litre version of the Series 1 introduced in late 1964.
There was one other player in this market, with a car arguably more striking than any of its rivals and with a powerful American V8 to give it the speed to keep them honest: the Iso Grifo.
The Iso Rivolta Company had its background in the manufacture of refrigerators, but had moved into automobiles and motor cycles after the second world war. In the Fifties it was most famous for the Isetta bubble car, eventually selling the rights for the design to BMW. In the early Sixties it moved into GT cars with the Chevrolet-powered Rivolta IR300, a design rumoured to be based on the British Gordon Keeble.
Iso also employed the services of ex-Ferrari engineer Giotto Bizzarrini. Bizzarrini created a race car, the Iso Grifo A3C, which competed with Ferrari’s 250GTO, a car whose development Bizzarrini had been heavily involved with. As with the Rivolta, the racing Grifo used Chevy power.
While the A3C Grifo was under development, Iso also showed a road-going Grifo, the A3L. Despite the common name the two cars had different styling and a disagreement between Bizzarrini and Iso boss Renzo Rivolta led to Bizzarrini leaving Iso and setting up his own company that would produce street versions of the A3C as the Bizzarrini Stradale.
The new Grifo A3L was styled by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro when working for Bertone, and was available as either a GL 300 with a 300bhp version of the 327 cu in Chevrolet small block V8 or, GL350 with a 350bhp L76 version of the same engine.
The Grifo was produced from 1965 through to 1974 and during that time it evolved as its rivals evolved. In 1968 the option of the 427 big block engine became available which, when mated to a ZF 5 speed transmission, gave the Grifo the sort of straight line performance to rival the Lamborghini Miura and newly introduced Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona. In 1970 the so-called series 2 cars were introduced with revised front-end styling featuring pop-up headlamps, and lastly in 1972 Iso switched from Chevrolet to Ford power for all its cars and the final Grifos featured Ford 351 Cleveland small block V8s. Despite the long production run a mere 413 cars were produced and the car is very much a rarity today.
The stunning styling means the Grifo often graces the lists of great classic cars, but what is it actually like? To find out Drive Cult went for a ride in the very freshly restored right-hand drive 1967 Grifo GL300 series 1 that we have previously covered during its restoration.
It's very easy to be seduced by the styling as you walk around the car. Although the design dates from 1963 it actually looks more like a car of the late Sixties. Look closer, though, and you can see that Iso probably didn’t have the development budget of Ferrari and it wasn't just the engine that was off the shelf. The most obvious external clues to this are the rear taillights, which are the same Carello units fitted to the more humble Alfa Romeo GTV. However, there's no sign of cost-cutting on the inside, as the interior is swathed in leather and has a lovely wood panelled dashboard. The instruments are generic Sixties units (probably from Smiths), and are brightened slightly by a stylised Iso Grifo script printed on the rev counter.
Considering the restoration of this particular car has taken the best part of three years it is reasonable to assume that panel fit is much better than when it left the factory! Certainly the layers of Grigio Ferro paint are blemish free and the chrome is shiny enough to act as a mirror, no doubt aided by the full Perfection Detailing treatment a few days before the ride.
One visual change from original is that the car is currently sitting on Campagnolo alloy wheels that are also seen on the Lamborghini Miura, rather that the Borrani wire wheels it originally sat on.
My first surprise came when standing outside the car as it was fired up. I've spent my life around old Ferraris with their smooth single or double overhead cam V12s, and somehow I was expecting a similar sound. Instead the Grifo rumbles into life with the anger of a partially silenced NASCAR racer. Initially I didn't think it suited the car - it rather felt like going to a Katherine Jenkins concert expecting to hear opera and instead seeing her walk on stage and belt out AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Once you get over this though, the rumble gives the Grifo a more sporting intent than perhaps those svelte looks suggest.
Initial manoeuvring is not easy; the Grifo has a large 4.75 turns lock to lock on the steering and a wide turning circle. That steering is also not power assisted. As a result, three points turns are going to be something very familiar to Grifo owners! Underway on back roads, the de Dion rear suspension setup, very similar to the Jaguar saloons of the day, seems to have the back end hopping up and down over the many potholes that litter the roads of southern England. This is possibly more noticeable from the passenger seat as the driver found the car to be very smooth, but my suspicion is the double wishbone rear end on the contemporary Ferraris would have coped better on the road.
The Grifo was built to be a continent-crushing GT and once out on fast main roads it really starts to shine. Inside the cockpit the engine noise is reduced to a pleasant background rumble, with the modern sound proofing material added during the restoration helping enormously. Only when the automatic gearbox kicks down does the engine note raise to a more strident bellow. Did I say automatic gearbox? Yes, this example was originally delivered with a two-speed GM Powerglide transmission, but during the restoration this was substituted for a later three-speed GM TH350 automatic transmission, which is both quieter in operation and makes better use of the power band.
Speaking of power, when Andy Frost of Penn Autos (and Red Victor drag racer fame) rebuilt the engine it dynoed at just under the 300bhp originally claimed for the engine. Andy reckons that the standard 327 small block Chevys probably made closer to 280bhp when new. Now it provides the 1450kg Grifo with impressive overtaking shove, easily despatching slower traffic. The disc brakes all round pull the car up as well as any of its period rivals.
In period Iso claimed a top speed of 143mph for the manual GL300. I suspect the automatic gearbox would blunt that figure a little but the car will still be plenty quick enough for most classic motoring needs. With a 100-litre fuel tank the Grifo shouldn’t have to stop to many times on a trip from London to an owner's French chateau, and there's also plenty of space for luggage with a reasonably sized boot and a small leather-lined parcel shelf behind the seats. The parcel shelf is rumoured to have been incorporated so that Renzo Rivolta had somewhere for his dog to sit when out in the car!
Back in the Sixties, the use of 'off the shelf' components allowed Iso to sell the Grifo for less than its bespoke Italian rivals (although rather more than the bargain-priced Jaguar E-Type) and that follows through today. In the current market, any 60s two seater V12 Ferrari would be at least twice the price of a small block Grifo. Sure, the Grifo may have a soundtrack that’s more Glastonbury than La Scala, but otherwise it offers much the same pleasures and that Chevy V8 has the sort of parts availability and tuning potential that a Ferrari owner can only dream about.
The Grifo featured in this article has been consigned to the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale with an estimate of £150,000 - £200,000. The sale includes the original two-speed Powerglide transmission and the original Borrani wheels which have also been refurbished.
All photos by the Author.