Expensive Failures: Iso Grifo

Classic Cars

A good idea on paper, the Grifo was a bit too obscure for its price.

We’ve been bringing you a fair number of European cars with American engines in the past few weeks, so since we couldn’t very well let this series go by without another one, we give you the Iso Grifo. Following the theme of several other of the cars in this series, the Grifo was a machine with superb DNA, one which really should have been a much bigger success. But the combined regular difficulties of a small automaker along with some plain old bad luck conspired together to kill it.

Iso Rivolta is a company which has rated a mention in a previous series, but not in any way that would hint at it having made a car like this. Iso was the original maker of the Isetta, a hilariously tiny bubble car which BMW would later buy the rights and tooling for and produce on its own. Later still, TV character Steve Urkel on "Family Matters" would acquire one as a daily driver, forever securing its legacy of coolness. But after the Isetta, Iso would abruptly change direction in its approach to building cars. It would employ the talents of Giotto Bizzarrini, the man largely responsible for the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO, to build it a sports car.

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This car was the Iso Rivolta IR 300, later the 340 and finally the 350. Apart from the Chevy 327 V8 engine under the hood, this car was every bit what you would expect from a Sixties Italian Gran Turismo, and that is a good thing indeed. But Iso felt that the idea could be improved upon, and in 1963, it brought out the Grifo. This was also the work of Bizzarrini, as well as then-Bertone designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (designer of countless other vehicles, plus a couple of handguns). The 2+2 coupe featured a hood which seemingly stretched on forever, under which was found a Chevy V8, with different years having different size options.

This engine, the long hood and the fastback design seemed to suggest a muscle car. But the price, the elegant Italian lines of the body and the absolutely gorgeous interior were pure European exotic. In terms of price, the Grifo was about on a level with the Ferrari 275 GTB. The two cars were also of roughly similar proportions, weights and power ratings. The Iso name obviously didn’t carry the same weight as Ferrari, but in an era when it was damn near impossible to get a Ferrari serviced outside of Italy, an exotic with an American engine was really just good business sense.

This was a period when Ferrari shop manuals were, to quote P.J. O’Rourke, "translated from Italian into English by people who spoke only Chinese". Exotics were seriously exotic in those days, and having the option of taking your car to the local garage for a tune-up and an oil change was all the more appreciated by Iso’s customers. The engines offered varied from the same 327 (5.4L) as the IR to a massive 454 (7.4L) V8. But the most powerful was a 427 (7.0L) that produced a Ferrari-beating 435 horsepower. This all sounds like a great combination, but there were a couple of issues. The first was the previously mentioned name recognition problem.

The Grifo was expensive for a car from a company nobody had heard of. Alternatively, those who had heard of it probably associated it with the dorkmobile Isetta, which is possibly even worse. The final nail in the coffin for both the Grifo and for Iso as a whole was the energy crisis of 1973. Only 412 units had been sold prior to this, and the company was having a difficult enough time with the downturn caused by skyrocketing gas prices. Iso folded in 1974, one of many casualties of the oil crisis.

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