The Iso Grifo: Italian Coachwork, American Muscle

Story and Photography by John Webber

When Darren Frank was a kid on Long Island, New York, he was the envy of all the young gearheads in town. You see, his dad drove a 1967 Iso Grifo. It could be argued that this sleek Grand Turismo excited Darren’s friends even more than another sexy Italian import, film temptress Gina Lollobrigida. 

I was the only kid I knew whose father owned an Iso Grifo, and I was tremendously proud,” Darren recalls. “I used to help my dad clean his car on the weekends—a chore I relished—and it was fun to go for drives.” 

Today, Darren is all grown up, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is still the envy of all the gearheads in town: Darren drives a 1969 Iso Grifo. 

He’s as proud of this car as he was of his dad’s. He enjoys cleaning it on the weekends and loves taking it for drives. Most of all, Darren cherishes the way his Iso (pronounced “EE-so”) provides a memorable link to his late father.

Rivolta: Refrigerators to GTs

Before World War II, Italian engineer and industrialist Renzo Rivolta built Isothermos refrigerators. He continued this business after the war and also branched into transportation, building scooters to help fill Italy’s need for cheap mobility. 

These scooters—and later small motorcycles—sold well, and in the early 1950s Rivolta started building a tiny car called the Isetta. (Its name is said to come from “little Iso.”)

These popular bubble cars set off a microcar boom that lasted several years, enabling Renzo’s company to license manufacturing rights to auto firms in other countries, including BMW. In the mid-1950s, BMW bought all rights to the Isetta.

Flush with cash from this sale, Renzo, who loved to drive fast, luxurious cars, turned his focus to the upscale GT market. He was undeterred by his well-known Italian competitors, Ferrari and Maserati, because he thought he had a better plan.

Rivolta had owned several expensive English and Italian GTs, but he considered them far too temperamental. Perhaps a four-cam, six-carbed powerplant had left him stranded in the Italian countryside one too many times. 

Whatever his motivation, Rivolta vowed to create a GT that combined the style, speed and panache of a Ferrari with American-made power and reliability. This was not a new concept, of course, but Rivolta was the first to apply it to an exotic, sophisticated Italian car. He assembled a formidable design and engineering team with impeccable credentials.

In 1962, Iso entered the supercar market with the Iso Rivolta GT. This rakish 2+2 coupe was engineered by Giotto Bizzarrini of Ferrari GTO fame and styled by Bertone’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, who also created the Maserati Ghibli and the De Tomaso Mangusta. 

The Iso Rivolta GT was powered by a 327-cubic-inch Corvette engine and offered buyers their choice of transmissions: automatic or four-speed manual. This plush GT could carry four people and their luggage in comfort and style at speeds up to 145 mph. In 1964, Sports Car Graphic raved about the car: “The Iso is, in short, one of the most desirable pieces of property we have tested in some time.” Between 1962 and 1970, Iso built nearly 800 Rivoltas.

Enter the Grifo

In 1965, Iso expanded their lineup with the Grifo, a two-passenger, sporty Berlinetta with long, flowing lines. It was also designed by Giugiaro and engineered by Bizzarrini. For those who could afford it—including celebrities such as George Harrison as well as Sonny and Cher—this car became a sought-after status ride. The Grifo listed for nearly $15,000, about twice the cost of a new Corvette, and by the end of the production run the price had climbed to $20,000. 

The Grifo crouched on a wheelbase of 98.4 inches, measured 174.4 inches long, and stood just over 47 inches tall. The Bertone-formed bodywork was all steel except for the aluminum hood. 

Each corner sat on coil springs and tube shocks, with a hefty anti-roll bar in front. The front wheels were suspended on unequal A-arms, and a Burman recirculating ball unit controlled the steering. In the rear, a de Dion axle was used.

According to contemporary reports, this suspension combination worked well, offering a supple, well-damped ride and competent cornering. Servo-assisted disc brakes provided the stopping power, with the rear discs located inboard on the axles. The Grifo rode on 15-inch Campagnolo alloy wheels, with Borrani wires offered as an option.

Series I Grifos were powered by Corvette engines ranging from mild to wild. They initially received four-speed transmissions; the ZF five-speed was a later option. 

Grifo customers could specify a 327-, 350-, 427- or 454-cubic-inch engine with a variety of horsepower ratings. Since the big-block engines were taller and sat higher in the chassis, these cars sported a distinctive raised insert in the hood, dubbed a pagoda.

The Series II cars first appeared for 1970 and featured a facelift: partially covered headlights plus a wider, one-piece grille that eschewed the “nostril” treatment found on the earlier cars. In 1972, Iso switched to Ford’s 351C engine backed by a five-speed ZF or three-speed automatic transmission. These Grifos also wore the pagoda hood. 

In keeping with its price, the Grifo’s elegant styling and hand-built craftsmanship were considered superb. According to a piece in Motor Trend, Bertone referred to this elegant coupe as his masterpiece. Inside the cozy cockpit, passengers found a leather interior, full instrumentation, air conditioning and power windows. An AM/FM/shortwave radio helped driver and passenger enjoy la dolce vita, and a spacious trunk could carry their custom luggage.

The Grifo was well received, both for its style and performance. According to contemporary road tests, the 365-horsepower version could travel to 60 mph in about 6 seconds and to 100 mph in less than 15 seconds. Top speed was about 140 mph, and big-block versions could reach 175 mph. 

Sports Car Graphic rated the Grifo “one of the top GTs in existence,” with a particular nod toward its styling. Autosport extolled the Grifo’s quality craftsmanship and ended its review with an exclamation point: “Many people are forced by mundane considerations to drive a car with four or more seats, but for the man who wants the ultimate in two-seaters, this is the best money can buy.”

In addition to the Rivolta and Grifo, Iso continued to produce luxurious, high-performance sedans and coupes in small numbers, including the Fidia (advertised as “the fastest four seats on wheels”) and the Lele. However, profitable operation remained elusive. The company also teamed up with Giotto Bizzarrini to build about 25 racing cars, which ran with some success at Le Mans, Sebring and other road courses. 

Unfortunately, beset by financial and labor problems, the company slid into bankruptcy and the factory closed in 1974. Iso had produced 412 examples of the Grifo, including 333 Series I and 79 Series II cars. Of those, 17 were Targa models and one was a Spider. All Grifos have become highly pursued by collectors, but to some enthusiasts the small-block-powered Series I cars are considered more desirable for their better handling, simpler front-end treatment, and more modest hood.

Grifo prices recently popped, with nice Series I coupes fetching $110,000-$155,000. In recent years, big-block prices have surpassed the $200,000 mark.

Chasing a Grifo

In a perfect world, Darren Frank would be driving the Grifo that belonged to his father. In the real world, however, that car was severely damaged in an accident and his dad sold it in 1968. But for Darren, the itch to have a Grifo of his own never went away, so years later he joined the Iso and Bizzarrini Owner’s Club and started searching. 

Years passed before the search bore fruit. After several false starts, he finally located a 1969 Grifo for sale in Salt Lake City. Quickly, he made the call. No response. He made another. And then another. “I called every day for a month and left a message,” Darren admits. 

After he made his 30th call, the owner, who had been away, called back. It seems other potential buyers had inquired, but none even came close to Darren’s 30 calls. At that point, Darren figured there was no use being coy, as he knew he had blown the number one shopper’s rule: Never seem too anxious. “I told him I would buy it sight unseen,” Darren says.

When the Grifo arrived at Darren’s New York home in 1989, he discovered that it had suffered some indignities in the hands of three previous owners. The elegant body showed some rust and needed paint, the interior was shabby, and the engine didn’t run due to a carb problem. On the plus side, it was a complete and unmolested 300-horsepower Series I GL—one of 77 such cars built—fitted with optional Borrani wire wheels, air conditioning and a 3.31:1 ratio performance rear axle. Naturally, Darren looked past the car’s problems and happily started making lists and collecting parts.

Taming a Grifo

The restoration ended up taking nine years, and Darren tackled it in stages. He first installed the proper intake manifold and carb, replaced the garish white-letter tires, and got the car running. 

For the next six years, he researched, made contacts, sourced parts and—somewhat gingerly—drove the Grifo. In 1995 he pulled the tired engine, disassembled the entire car, cleaned and evaluated each component, bagged each part, and compiled extensive tracking lists. 

“I was the general contractor on this job,” Darren explains. “I sourced all the parts, rebuilt or refinished what needed doing, and then had the mechanical, paint and bodywork, and interior done by professionals.” 

In other words, he did all the grunt work. During the process, however, he learned the true meaning of the term “ground-up restoration.” He also became impressed with the way the Grifo was designed and built. He says all who helped on this car commented on the way it was over-engineered.

While parts and expert help for the American-made engine and transmission were easy to come by, sourcing other components and services took detective work, long-distance communications and even a trip to Italy. The front suspension required original parts from Iso restorer (and former Iso employee) Roberto Negri of Clusone, Italy, who bought what was left of the company’s parts warehouse. 

New badges came from the Italian family that made them for Iso. A headliner, dash vinyl and other interior pieces came from another original supplier in Italy. A new windshield was sourced from Finland. Other parts came from Jaguar, Lamborghini, Maserati and Fiat, among others. 

Along the way, Darren developed a worldwide network of friends and suppliers who helped with parts and information. He also ran up hefty phone bills and shipping charges.

When the paint and body shop stripped the Iso’s shell, they discovered that it was remarkably sound. However, the trunk floor had suffered rust damage due to water intrusion through the antenna hole, and the lower door sections had some rust spots. New metal replaced the bad; minor accident damage on the nose was repaired; and the body was blocked, primed and refinished in the original red. Inside, upholsterers duplicated the original interior color using hidden pieces of leather as a guide. 

Countless nights and weekends passed into years, while hundreds of rebuilt pieces and new components came together. As with any project, glitches cropped up. 

Darren bought a new, handmade aluminum gas tank through a friend in Switzerland who drove to Italy, picked it up and shipped it. The tank never showed up. Finally tired of waiting, they collected shipping insurance and ordered another. Three years later, the first tank arrived, crushed and useless. It had been “found” in Customs at Kennedy International Airport. 

With parts sent out for refurbishing around the world, Darren admits to some sleepless nights. “I had serious doubts that it would ever come back together again to form a car,” he admits.

But finally it did. Along with his suppliers, vendors and the Iso and Bizzarrini Owner’s Club, Darren credits friend and enthusiast Jon Keil in helping him finish this lengthy and complex restoration. Darren puts it this way: “We always joke that Jon, who is actually a Triumph guy, has more experience working on Grifos than most mechanics in the U.S., if not the world. He encouraged me to work on the car myself and really get my hands dirty tackling projects.”

Bellissimo!

Darren says people tell him his car is beautiful, even if they don’t have a clue what it is. “A lot of people think it’s a Ferrari or a Corvette,” he says. “They have the devil of a time figuring out what it is—even though it’s written in chrome on the trunk, and even after I tell them what it is.” 

While Darren didn’t set out to restore the Grifo as a top show car, it is very original and has won a shelf-full of trophies, including best of show awards. “I wouldn’t own it if I couldn’t drive it,” he says. “I’ll admit the first rock chip in the new paint was traumatic, but it got easier from there.” 

While owning and driving this Italian exotic is a big boost to the ego, it’s also rewarding in other ways. Not long ago, the Grifo needed a replacement alternator. Darren and his friend Jon strolled into the local NAPA store and bought one over the counter. 

Try that with your Lambo. Looks like Renzo Rivolta did have a great idea.

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wspohn
wspohn Dork
2/26/20 2:13 p.m.

Not long ago, the Grifo needed a replacement alternator. Darren and his friend Jon strolled into the local NAPA store and bought one over the counter. 

Try that with your Lambo.

Actually, you would be surprised.  I was able to find the brakes parts and many items of switch gear for my 69 Islero S by sourcing from Lucas sources for British cars, and when my Jensen CV8 had a voltage regulator go out, I just picked one up at the local NAPA store.

The Italians made beautiful bodies and sourced a lot of other stuff from all over the place - the trick is working out what it is and where to look for it.

That Grifo is a lovely car, but like the Jensens, it lacks the added interest of a bespoke engine and gearbox.

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