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The Iso Grifo: 1963-1974

The¬†Iso Grifo¬†is often referred to as the “Italian musclecar.” It’s a fitting title; this little¬†Giugiaro-designed Italian beauty hid American muscle under its sleek body lines. The¬†Iso Autoveicoli A.p.A.¬†company was no stranger to this mishmash of cultures, it was already well-known for the high-performance¬†Rivolta IR300, a sleek little 2+2 GT coupe based on a¬†Corvette¬†engine and drivetrain.

 Iso Rivolta IR300

Engineer Giotto Bizzarrini was no stranger to designing fantastic Italian sports cars either, he designed the mechanicals for the fabulous, beautiful¬†Ferrari 250 GTO. He set up¬†Prototipi Bizzarrini¬†In Livorno, Tuscany after leaving¬†Ferrari¬†where he designed and consulted for Italian automakers such as¬†Lamborghini¬†and¬†Iso. He consulted with the founder of¬†Iso, engineer Renzo Rivolta, to build the mechanicals for the follow-up to the¬†Rivolta 300, the¬†Iso Grifo¬†(“Griffin” in English). The griffin is a mythical creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The lion half of the griffin represents the founder’s coat of arms, the eagle half represents the American muscle underneath the hood.

The¬†Rivolta 300¬†was not the first car to be produced by¬†Iso, however…in 1954 they created the¬†Isetta¬†microcar powered by a 2-cylinder, 236 cc, 10 HP motorcycle engine that drove the two close-set rear wheels by a chain. The steering wheel and instrument cluster pivoted out with the large hinged door that took up most of the front of the little car, making for easy entry and exit. This inexpensive vehicle was perfect for getting around the tight streets of post-war Italian villages and fuel-efficient enough to cope with post-war European fuel shortages, in fact the¬†Isetta¬†could return 70 MPG. The rights to build the little¬†Isetta¬†were bought by German automaker¬†BMW¬†in 1959.

Series 1 Grifo A3/L 1963-1969

The body of the first¬†Grifo¬†produced, the¬†A3/L, (L¬†for “Lusso”, Italian for luxury) was designed by famed Italian auto designer Giorgetto Giugiaro of the¬†Bertone¬†design firm. The long, flowing lines were instantly recognizable as Italian. Giugiaro’s other designs include the¬†De Tomaso Mangusta,¬†Maserati Ghibli,¬†BMW M1,¬†Lotus Esprit S1,¬†Volkswagen Golf Mk. 1¬†and the¬†DeLorean DMC-25. The prototype debuted at the Turin Motor Show in 1963 along with the more dramatic, alloy-bodied competition version, the¬†A3/C. The¬†A3/L¬†received praise from the automotive press and the¬†A3/C¬†did very well on the racing circuit despite having a much tighter budget than competitors¬†Ferrari¬†and¬†Alfa Romeo.

These budget constraints led Rivolta to the conclusion that he could not design both the car and its engine, so he was forced to source an existing engine and transmission. The production version got a mild facelift to make it a bit less aggressive-looking than the prototype, but the engine and drivetrain was the same; a modified¬†Corvette¬†327 cu. in. engine coupled with a¬†Borg-Warner¬†4-speed transmission. A short wheelbase of 98.4 inches and coil springs and tube shocks on each corner ensured great handling, and the¬†Grifo¬†stood just over 47 inches tall. The 15-inch wheels sat on¬†Campagnolo¬†alloy wheels, or optional¬†Borrani¬†wire wheels. The Giugiaro styling and hand-built craftsmanship were superb, in fact Giovanni Bertone called the¬†Iso Grifo¬†his masterpiece. The split-grill front fascia blended smoothly into curvaceous front fenders with the curves continuing into the rear quarter-panels, and the fastback roofline allowed plenty of view for the driver. This blended smoothly into a pleasing rear fascia. The design commanded viewer’s attention and was beautiful from every angle, eye-catching and dramatic without being outrageous, just what¬†Iso¬†needed to attract upscale buyers looking for something other than a run-of-the-mill Italian GT. In keeping with its price and status the car featured a leather interior, full instrumentation in the dashboard, air conditioning, an AM/FM/shortwave radio and power windows.

Sports Car Graphic¬†magazine rated the¬†Iso Grifo¬†one of the top GTs in existence. ¬†Autosport¬†magazine ended its review of the¬†Grifo¬†with this statement¬†“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 1966, Pavesi of Milano began converting Grifos to have Targa removable roofs for customers. Eventually sixteen such cars were built.

The 300-350 HP Corvette mills were sufficient to power the less than 2,200 lb. car to a top speed of 171 MPH and reach 60 MPH in 7.1 seconds. For those who could afford it, this became a sought-after status car akin to a Ferrari, Maserati or Aston Martin. At $15,000, twice the cost of a new Corvette, only the well-to-do and celebrities such as Sonny & Cher and Beatle George Harrison could afford them.

Series 1 Grifo 7 Litri: 1968-1969

As if the 327-powered¬†A3/L¬†wasn’t muscular enough, Iso decided to drop a¬†Corvette¬†L71¬†454 cu. in. big-block with Tri-Power (three two-barrel carbs) into the little¬†Grifo¬†in 1968. The result was the¬†Grifo 7 Litri¬†(7 Liter in English, the metric displacement of the 454).¬†Iso¬†had to modify the¬†Grifo¬†to accommodate the big-block engine. They strengthened the chassis, enlarged the engine compartment for the 454 and fitted a large raised hood section (dubbed the “Penthouse” due to its size) because the carbs sat high and would not clear the hood without it. This has become a polarizing item among¬†Grifo¬†enthusiasts, they either love it or hate it. Some prefer the small-block versions as they feel this is the purest form¬†Giugiaro’s design, I am in this category. I think that they could have done a much better hood scoop design more in keeping with the lines of the car. Whether you liked the “Penthouse” or not, the 454 transformed the¬†Grifo¬†into a true supercar with 435 HP and an 186 MPH top speed.

Series 2 Grifo: 1970-1971

The nose of the Series 2 received a face-lift in 1970 featuring a wide, open grill and hide-away headlights more in keeping with 1970’s sports cars. It also resulted in a sleeker front end and better aerodynamics. The engine and transmission remained the same as the Series 1.

Series 2 Grifo 7 Litri (Can Am): 1970-1971

With the introduction of the Series 2, the¬†7 Litri¬†became the¬†Grifo Can Am¬†and featured an even more powerful Chevrolet 454 engine mated to a ZF 5-speed transmission. The “Penthouse” remained.

Grifo IR-8: 1972-1974

In 1972¬†Iso¬†stopped putting small and big-block¬†Chevrolet¬†engines in the¬†Grifo¬†due to lack of availability and instead used¬†Ford‘s 275 HP¬†Boss 351¬†engine from the Mustang¬†variant of the same name, massaged to 321 HP. The result was the¬†IR-8¬†and can be identified by the taller raised hood section than the¬†7 Litri¬†to accommodate the large round hood scoop of the¬†Ford¬†engine. Production ran until 1974 when the Arab Oil Embargo slowed demand for fuel-hungry cars and demand for boutique low-production sports cars like the¬†Grifo¬†dried up.¬†Iso¬†was forced into bankruptcy as they did not have the resources to weather the downturn like well-funded exotic car companies such as¬†Ferrari¬†and¬†Maserati.

413 Grifos were built, including 90 7 Litris. The rarest Grifos that command the most money are the Series 2 5-speeds of which 23 were built, the Series 1 Targas with 12 produced and the Series 2 Targas, of which there are only four examples. The beautiful Giugiaro-designed cars live on, their rarity ensuring that they will continue to increase in value. In fact, most any Grifo will now fetch in the low-to-mid six figures, but well-restored examples of the A3/C racing variant have sold for $1.9 million and the A3/L prototype brought $1.76 million at auction in 2018.

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It’s President Jeff D. Boofer