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?
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.
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.