White Goods, Black Tie

Carmaking is a brutal business, as Renzo Rivolta discovered to his cost. But was Iso’s ultimate failure the consequence of prejudice or simply outrageous fortune?

All images (c) Driven to Write

A humble background, while rarely a barrier to financial success, can often prove an impediment to the doors behind which respectable society resides. In the high-end car business, such things as provenance and exclusivity matter, but the right name and a racebred track record is better still. By consequence, Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A, during their short heyday as purveyors of exclusive, swift and sultry Italian gran turismos, found themselves fighting their Modenese rivals with one hand tied behind their backs.

The company was formed in Genoa during 1939 by flamboyant engineer, Renzo Rivolta to produce refrigerators, before war intervened. In the aftermath of hostilities, Rivolta relocated his business to Bresso, outside Milan, where the newly minted auto manufacturer produced a successful line of motorcycle products. However, perhaps Iso’s best remembered, and commercially most successful line was 1953’s Isetta monospace, which found its most eloquent expression with a BMW roundel upon its blunt nose.

Like most successful Italian industrialists, Rivolta enjoyed fast cars, but found Maserati and Ferrari products too nervy, too temperamental. On the other hand, he felt the products of Browns Lane to be rather on the soft side. But observing what Jaguar had achieved he reasoned that an exclusive car built using mass production methods would prove a more compelling proposition than the fragile, hand-built trinkets from Modena. With profits generated from the sale of the Isetta patent he cast about for a suitable basis.

That basis would emerge from this blighted isle of all places. John Gordon, who had been involved in the Peerless automotive venture became involved in what was first shown at the 1960 Turin motor show as the Gordon GT. This attractive four-seater coupé, with a tubular chassis and de Dion rear suspension was clothed with a body of rare elegance by a youthful Giorgetto Giugiaro, working for carrozzeria Bertone.

Having difficulty in getting his ambitious venture off the ground, Nuccio Bertone introduced Gordon to Rivolta, culminating in a spare chassis making its way to Bresso for Iso’s engineering chief, Pierluigi Raggi to evaluate. Several aspects of the Gordon chassis layout were adopted, such as the suspension design and the use of the Chevrolet V8 engine, taken from the Corvette. However Raggi designed a pressed-steel chassis which would form the basis of Iso’s output for over a decade.

The Rivolta GT was introduced in 1962, bodied by Bertone (Giugiaro again) as an elegant and unobtrusively rapid three-volume gran turismo, very much in the Maserati Mexico idiom. Allegedly, the Rivolta GT chassis was complete prior to the involvement of former Ferrari engineering supremo Giotto Bizzarrini, who is widely credited with its design. According to Piero Rivolta who took over the business in 1966 following his father’s sudden death, “We employed him as a consultant to give the Iso name credibility, but never to design the car. The biggest problem was that he was impossible to work with. That’s why he left…

Iso suffered, not only from an element of snobbishness from the cognocenti (no race pedigree you see) but it seems from over-ambition. The GT was tooled up for over 2000 cars per annum, when around 500-600 proved more realistic. To avoid ruin, Piero Rivolta sold the Bresso plant to Olivetti, relocating to a smaller facility in Verado in 1971. Around this time, body production, (“Bertone didn’t care [about quality], neither did Ghia”) was brought in-house with an immediate uplift in finish.

The replacement to the GT arrived in 1969. Called Lele, taken from Piero’s wife’s name, the latest and ultimately last production Iso was based on the S4/ Fidia platform and running gear, but since that latter model was marketed as Iso’s four-seater, the Lele was seen more as a 2+2 GT. It was also the first Iso model to be built entirely in-house.

Initially powered, as with most Isos, by Chevrolet’s 327 V8, the previously cordial relationship between the general and his Italian client unravelled with GM demanding payment up-front. By consequence, Rivolta negotiated a less onerous deal with Ford, with the 351 Cleveland V8 being substituted from 1972 onwards.

Styled by Bertone, under the supervision of Marcello Gandini, the Lele’s bodyshape is an evolution of themes more dramatically expressed for Lamborghini and to a greater or lesser extent, a previous Fiat 125 concept from 1967. Some have dismissed it simply as a larger, more upmarket and slightly busier looking Volkswagen Passat, which is perhaps unfair.

It’s a curious confection, the Lele. Looking slightly frumpy in photos, (those rear three quarters are rather heavy-looking) it comes to life in three dimensions, although even then, one would have to describe its styling as an acquired taste. Certainly dramatic, yet subtle enough to pass relatively unnoticed. What one sees is perhaps an evolution of Espada, and perhaps a foreshadowing of Jarama.

But while the Bertone design can be accused of a certain fussiness, there is equally so much surface richness to take in that intrigue quickly overcomes apathy. Rarity too must come into the equation – only a mere 285 produced, one is unlikely to encounter another in the wild.

Latterly, Rivolta suggested to chroniclers that the major issue facing his company was one of image. Certainly, there was little wrong with the cars. Equally, there has been a fine tradition of so-called hybrids employing dependably lusty Detroit hardware in place of more potentially frangible European designs.

Given the car’s rarity, it didn’t seem necessary to obscure the registration. I hope the owner doesn’t mind…

Having seen his father drive himself to an early grave, Piero Rivolta was painfully aware of how difficult a balancing act his carmaking business had become, especially as the troubled 1970s hove into view. In 1973, he sold out, citing the regulatory difficulties of making cars in Italy, not to mention, selling them in America. A year later, both Iso and the Lele were gone.

Fortune favours the brave, but it’s a cruel mistress nonetheless. Iso deserved a kinder fate. The Lele? File under intriguing.

Piero Rivolta interview source: Supercar Classics November 1987.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

6 thoughts on “White Goods, Black Tie”

  1. Thank you for brightening up a dull, chilly English morning with a welcome reminder of the oft-forgotten ISO Lele.

    Your piece made me nostalgic as one of my father’s wealthy business colleague’s briefly owned a Lele, which as a car-loving kid he used kindly take me out in, terrorising the local Cortina and Avenger drivers in my home town of Marlow with its subtle, innocent-looking style defying its strong (and rather vocal) V8 performance. He bought the Lele direct from the London-based Van Der Steen ISO UK importer, but as the car proved troublesome (surprise, surprise) he soon replaced it with a 911; a major blow for me as I wasn’t a ‘Beetle Coupe’ fan as a small boy, and still dislike them today!

    As a final Lele chapter closer, when ISO ceased car production in late 1974, the little-known Italian Enzeta company acquired the rights to the Lele, and built a few more examples of the model (not sure how many) for a further 18-months or so, the Enzeta version making an annual entry into the useful World Car hardback guides for some years after the eventual demise of the model.

  2. As I understand it, they never went bankrupt, they just wound down production and sold off the assets, for some profit even if it was small. Amongst them a warehouse full of spares that could’ve been used to fully produce at least another hundred cars but have been used for keeping the very loyal customer base with parts for the last forty years.

    1. Ingvar: While I’m not suggesting you’re factually incorrect, that seems at odds with what Piero Rivolta said in 1987. It’s probably worth quoting in full… “Eventually I sold out to [Ivo] Pera, but he didn’t understand how to deal with people and, as a consequence, all the managers left. When the company finally went broke, they tried to accuse me of mismanagement because I left it in bad shape: I had to appear in court, but they discharged me. Pera though, just disappeared.”

    2. They seem to have been “swindled” by Pera, but the Rivolta family bought the name back, including all the IP. According to the series of youtube shorts called “The Iso Rivolta Chronicles” the family just wound production down still hoping to dial it up even up to this day. I would put eventual inconsistencies to the family mythology, they seem to be really passionate about it. I can highly recommend all the shorts, it really made me appreciate the brand in a way I haven’t seen them before. They’re all listed on this channel:

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwY5JA3bXFOiPY_S69VF9Xg

  3. I’m sure I’m not alone in mourning the loss of of the ’60s and ’70s Italian, British, and Swiss American-engined ‘hybrids’.

    Who would have expected Bristol to be the last survivor?

    Their demise had much to do with Europe being a dangerous place to flaunt wealth in the early-mid ’70s. Rover was a beneficiary, the utilitarian discretion of their Range Rover – something of a ‘hybrid’ itself – found favour with the super-rich.

    Only Peter Monteverdi saw the potential of the high-end suv when demand for his GTs had dried up. A prophet without honour in his own time, but I’d like to think he would have been appalled at the present Bentayga, Cullinan, Levante and Uresis ghastliness.

  4. Is it possible that Renzo Rivolta was the saviour of BMW as a carmaker?

    Without the Isetta, they might now be a little-known aerospace components manufacturer with a sideline in stodgy police and military motorcycles.

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