Words and Photos: Gordon Campbell
We all know the story of the wealthy Italian industrialist who was dissatisfied with the cars he bought from Ferrari and decided to build a better car. Yes, Ferruccio Lamborghini did just that, but he wasn’t the only one with that idea.
Like Ferruccio Lamborghini, Renzo Rivolta – a maker of refrigerators, heaters, small two-wheelers and the cute but quirky Isetta bubble car and a lover of fine cars – also wasn’t happy with the offerings from Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar so he decided to make his own car – and he did exactly that before Lamborghini entered the picture.
However, rather than taking the Ferrari or Lamborghini route of producing his own highly sophisticated and sometimes temperamental engine with a dozen cylinders, a handful of overhead camshafts and lots of valves, Rivolta opted for reliability in the form of the Chevrolet ‘small block’ V8 – a mere eight cylinders, 16 valves and just one camshaft with pushrods operating the valves in an engine that, by 1962, had already been built in tens of millions and proved itself to be strong on power, torque, reliability and ease of maintenance.
The use of lazy American horsepower and torque in a bespoke body wasn’t a new concept. Railton did it back in the 1930s using a Hudson straight-eight. Facel Vega did the same in the 1950s using Chrysler V8 power and Jensen was also fitting Chrysler V8s to its cars by the time the Rivolta arrived on the scene. Gordon-Keeble was another to take this route and it must have seemed to Renzo Rivolta to be an easy answer, especially as the well-proven Chevrolet small block V8 in what some regard as its best configuration – the 327ci (5356cc) version was oversquare with a bore and stroke of 101.5 x 82.55mm (4.00 x 3.25 inches) and thrived on revs, relatively speaking, while producing good power and torque.
The first Iso Rivolta was designated IR300, which was simply a reference to its horsepower (300bhp/224kW). An option was the IR340, again the horsepower (340bhp – 254kW), the increase achieved mainly by changing from hydraulic tappets to mechanical and raising the compression ratio from 10.5:1 to 11.25:1.
The car’s construction was unusual in that the body was built on a full and solid-looking steel platform chassis. This was developed by the highly talented and rather single-minded engineer, Giotto Bizzarrini, while the styling was an early design by Giorgetto Giugiaro, penned when he was just 20 years old and working for Bertone. The lines show a strong family resemblance to the Gordon-Keeble and Alfa Romeo 105 Series GTV coupé and both of these cars were also Giugiaro’s work. All three cars feature relatively deep glass, especially the Iso and Gordon-Keeble, with narrow pillars and an enduring gracefulness, overall an understated and timeless elegance that is the epitome of the word ‘classic’.
Underneath that sublime skin were features to match. The engine was mated to an indestructible Borg Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission and Salisbury limited-slip differential. A five-speed ZF manual gearbox or GM automatic were optional. There were coil springs all-round with unequal length wishbones at the front and a De Dion set-up at the rear. Brakes were servo-assisted discs front and rear (inboard at the rear). Bizzarrini was well pleased with the end result. The car behaved impeccably and he claimed that the V8 had the same power as a Ferrari engine but with better throttle response.
Having created an apparently perfect combination of American muscle and Italian styling at its very best, Rivolta became concerned when, during extended testing at speeds averaging 220km/hr, the V8 engine’s oil temperature would start to climb. Mystified, he made numerous calls to the Chevrolet Division of General Motors, who weren’t much help. His engineers took matters into their own hands – they built a transparent sump so they could observe the oil flow during engine testing, which showed that the flow near the oil pump intake was deficient. They designed their own sump to solve the problem.
If Rivolta thought that was bad he must have been appalled when cars came back to the factory with blown engines, particularly from Germany. When the V8 in a factory test car started making a strange noise, the mechanics investigated and found a hairline crack through one connecting rod. Once again there were calls to General Motors and again they were no help, initially.
Finally the problem was identified. “It is okay to use the engine at 6,000rpm, but not for one hour … in Europe you drive too fast!”
The Iso engineers set to work and made new con-rods that required a lot of hand-finishing and overcame the problems. Renzo Rivolta now had the fine-looking, well-made and reliable high-speed grand tourer he wanted. As Winston Goodfellow recorded in his book, Iso Rivolta: The Men, The Machines, its superiority was demonstrated one day when Renzo’s son, Piero, was driving from the factory in Bresso, near Milan, to Genoa. As the young man motored along the autostrada with his mother beside him he spied a Ferrari Superamerica ahead. He caught up and the race was on!
The Ferrari’s higher top speed was offset by the Iso’s superior mid-range, which came in handy as the pair had to keep slowing for other traffic and then accelerating away again. Piero had no intention of passing, he wanted to keep pushing the Ferrari and finally the Superamerica expired in a huge cloud of smoke. Mrs Rivolta thought the driver must have done something purposely – it was inconceivable to her that the Ferrari’s engine would blow up, but it had. Piero gallantly offered the Ferrari driver a lift and, as Piero told it, “After travelling several minutes in silence our elegantly dressed stranger asked me, ‘Is it always so quiet, your car?’ And I said, ‘Yes. It doesn’t make any more noise than this.’ And with a somewhat surprised look on his face he simply replied, ‘Oh.’” It’s not recorded whether the luckless Ferrari driver ordered an Iso.
Iso produced 792 Rivolta IR300s and just 167 IR340s. They were joined in 1965 by probably the best known Iso model, the Grifo. Where the Rivolta was svelte and understated, the Grifo was beautiful in a much more brutish and bold manner that certainly couldn’t be ignored and was probably more of a direct competitor for Ferrari and Maserati. The four-door S4, quickly renamed Fidia, arrived in 1967. Clearly aimed at Maserati’s Quattroporte, Iso claimed the Fidia had “the four fastest seats in the world”. They were also among the most expensive – a Fidia cost more than a contemporary Rolls-Royce. The Lele introduced in 1969 was more of a replacement for the Rivolta. Iso stopped producing cars in 1974 when it ran into financial difficulties.
The Iso featured here, chassis number 205, was completed on January 9, 1964, one of 32 IR340s built that year, and first registered in Chicago. It came to New Zealand in 1998 and the then owner used it regularly to keep it running while doing work to get it complied.
It was in a corner of his clutch reconditioning premises that one of its current co-owners, Kevin, first noticed the car. His attention was caught by a red car he couldn’t identify, partly covered by a tarpaulin. He was told it was an Iso Rivolta. He and partner, Michael, weren’t looking for another classic car at the time, but Kevin wasted no time in asking if he could buy it. He made an offer that was declined, then a higher offer that was accepted. When they went to arrange payment, the seller, who was very attached to the rare Iso, had again changed his mind about selling. They weren’t leaving without it so the offer was increased yet again and finally accepted.
That was in March 2017 and the rather tired Iso was driven directly to Auto Restorations in Christchurch for a tidy-up and to get complied, on the basis that, if you want something done properly you go to the best.
In a story that’s oh-so-familiar, a bit of a tidy-up turned into a major restoration. Photos on Auto Restorations’ website show the extent of the rust and botched repairs they found and give a good idea of the scale of the project. As an example, the later cars have smaller headlights than the early ones and someone had modified the front to take the smaller lights. With the complex shapes in that area, undoing the work was anything but straightforward, especially with aluminium guards.
Kevin and Michael took the opportunity to completely change the car’s colour scheme from red with tan upholstery to light metallic blue with a bright red interior. Their reasoning was simple – they felt the original colours didn’t do the car justice and they already had a Ferrari 412 that was red with tan upholstery.
Initially, Auto Restorations didn’t appreciate it that when Michael and Kevin requested a complete bright red interior they meant exactly that and the upholsterer had already started making black covering for the padded parts of the dashboard and rear window parcel tray and a white hoodlining. Once the message had been received loud and clear, everything was changed to red to match the seats, door linings and carpets. It almost sounds like overkill but it works and the finished interior is beautiful.
Choosing the exterior colour was fairly easy. Kevin noticed that several mid-sixties exotic cars looked particularly good in light metallic blue, including Jaguar E-Types. The chosen shade suits the Iso perfectly.
The end result is a spectacular restoration that would stand scrutiny at any car show, anywhere. It was completed and the car was registered in December 2019.
Hearing the car before you see it can be slightly confusing. You hear a distinctive V8 rumble that’s throaty without being loud and no doubt easily identified by an expert as a Chevrolet. You then expect to see a large or sporty American car come into view. Instead it’s a car of modest size and appearance that pulls up, a car unknown to almost everyone apart from a few enthusiasts.
Like their other cars, Kevin and Michael bought the Iso to use, not to keep wrapped in cotton wool. It’s interesting to note that when they’re out and about, it’s not a car that turns heads. While any of their American cars is likely to get plenty of looks and some thumbs-up, the Iso slides through town almost unnoticed. It’s relatively small and not flamboyant and attracts little attention despite being such a rare and attractive car.
Kevin says it’s an easy enough car to drive. The clutch and gear change are fairly light, the steering is easy with more turns from lock to lock than you might expect and the engine never loses its cool in traffic. But the city is not where it belongs. It was designed to be a high-speed grand tourer for four people and their luggage and is much more at home on long runs that involve sweeping bends and winding mountain passes. Fortunately there are roads with both not so very far from their home. Its performance is as good as you would expect from a reasonably light car propelled by a 254kW engine with plenty of torque. The IR340 will just break our open road speed limit in first gear, although neither Kevin nor Michael plan to test that. Our speed limit and roads ensure that this Iso won’t spend long periods at high speed.
For some reason the Iso Rivolta is a car that has fascinated me since I was a youngster poring over the few pictures of the car in well-thumbed copies of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles and The Daily Mail Motor Show Review special editions, without any expectation of ever seeing one. I’m grateful to Michael Pidgeon at Auto Restorations for putting me in touch with Kevin and Michael and I’m indebted to them for not just letting me actually see one of my dream cars, but also for willingly sharing their special car for a morning.