My Car Quest

October 24, 2020

Classic Car Design Critique: Iso Grifo

by Wallace Wyss –

When I first became interested in the Iso Grifo nobody knew what they were except for the founders of the Iso & Bizzarrini Owner’s Club. So they were dirt cheap, I think about $7,000 in the early ’70s for one with some rust.

They were thought of as the “poor man’s Ferrari”. Ferrari owners looking down their noses at the Chevy engine, never you mind that you could buy a 327 engine from a junkyard for the price of twelve Ferrari pistons. The original Grifo coupe made at Iso was a much sexier design, the A3/C and A3/L, two low slung aluminum bodied cars engineered by Ing. Giotto Bizarrini when he worked for Iso and designed by Giugiaro while he was at Bertone.

Iso Grifo A3/L Prototype

Iso Grifo A3/L Prototype – 2012

Iso Grifo Prototype - mid 1970s

Iso Grifo A3/L Prototype – mid 1970s – photo by Ron Kellogg

But after Bizzarrini and Renzo Rivolta had a falling out, he left their employ and took the A3/L design with him to make as the Bizzarrini GT 5300. His winning argument was that he had copyrighted the name Grifo and wouldn’t give that back to Iso unless they gave him a little something, so he got the first design, already discontinued, to make under his own name. He got a little over 100 cars made compared to Iso making several hundred of the steel bodied Iso Grifo GL model. But now Bizzarrinis are very sought after, because of the “rub -off” of being designed by the same man who designed and engineered the Ferrari 250GTO (while working for Ferrari).

Iso Grifo and Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada

Iso Grifo Series I and Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada

Giorgetto Giugiaro, while working for Bertone Carrozzeria, went from strength to strength before going to Ghia. I do not know if he designed the GL model taller street Iso Grifo before Bizzarrini left or after, but Renzo was happy switching over to the new design, making steel bodied Grifos instead of dealing with eggshell-thin aluminum (some Bizzarrini GT5300 Stradas were also fiberglass bodied).

Rivolta even managed to update the car several times, one time with an offering of a big block, another time with the targa top and the third time with the hidden headlights. Alas he only got one Grifo Spyder made, in 1968, and that sits in a junkyard in Los Angeles guarded by ravenous dogs to this day. There was one unplanned switch in power plants when GM turned against him as an engine supplier and he was forced to go to Ford V8s.

Iso Grifo 7 Liter

Iso Grifo 7-Liter

The production steel bodied Iso Grifo GL went into production in 1965. The engine was Chevrolet´s 327 cubic inch (5.4 liter) small-block V8 rated at either 300 or 350 hp. Though it was priced at three times the Corvette it was still threatened by the big block Corvette so, starting in 1968 the Grifo was also available with Chevrolet’s 427 cubic inch big-block V-8; this version was known as the Grifo 7-liter and was easily recognized by the broad air inlet on the hood which I alone have dubbed “the wedding cake” hood. The Series II, introduced in 1970, featured concealed headlights and a slightly modified nose.

Iso Grifo Series 2

Iso Grifo Series II

Giugiaro left Bertone and started Ital Design and, accordingly the first car he designed in his new digs was the Bizzarrini Manta show car, on a Bizzarrini mid-engined race car chassis, so he knew that tying in with Bizarrarin again was a good move even if only one car was made.

Here’s my take on the Iso Grifo GL design:

FRONT It is a gentle splitting of the two grille intakes, with very sculptural, shall I say, organic dividing of the two. Ironically Pontiac had a split grille around that time but by comparison the American split grille is crude, and sharp edged. The switch to hidden headlamps achieved its objective well, updating the car to fit those who had hidden lamps yet further extending the shape of the original, giving it, say another 10 years before the shape became “old”.

Iso Grifo

Iso Grifo Series I

SIDE Very graceful, with a pleasant side venting, though about one fourth the excitement of the prototype car which had a downward exhaust pipe peek-a-booing through the gills. Adding some excitement was the exhaust vent on the rear quarter fender. The targa version with the brushed metal band over the roof unfortunately copied Porsche 911 Targa a little too much, they could have added more sculptural details to make it not so obvious.

Iso Grifo side view

Iso Grifo Series I

REAR Too bad they had to use stock taillights from another car (Alfa Romeo GTV 1750). You wonder what a 2021 version would use, if they would finally pony up for their own taillight design.

Iso Grifo

Iso Grifo Series I

INTERIOR Par for the course for the early ‘70s. All the gauges more or less in a row, the toggles all mystifying. The use of wood is generous. If it were brought back they would have to do more on the inside than the outside to make room for that damn display screen that’s in all new luxury cars.

Iso Grifo GL Interior

Iso Grifo Interior

IN SUM It was a great design for its time, too bad that Renzo didn’t make the racing design en masse, but he felt it had to be more conservative to penetrate the businessman market, not the weekend racer.

I had an Iso Grifo once, a red long nose, for a couple weeks but somehow thought that they would always be around as the general public didn’t realize they existed. I sold it for $1,000 profit in the parking lot of the Barrett Jackson auction (shop those parking lots!). I think products of small automakers are always worth looking at as collector cars. You have the problem of a lack of body panels, and window glass, but the beauty of this one is that the engine was known even if the mechanics at the gas station didn’t know the brand.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Iso Grifo Series I

Iso Grifo Series I – photo by Eamon Duffy.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss, the author of 18 car histories, has been a guest lecturer at the Art Center College of Design. He is currently doing oil paintings of exotic cars on commission. He can be reached regarding art at malibucarart@gmail.com.

 

Iso Grifo logo

Unless noted otherwise all photos by Mike Gulett.

Iso Grifo A3/L

Iso Grifo A3/L Prototype – by Giorgetto Giugiaro

Summary
Classic Car Design Critique: Iso Grifo
Article Name
Classic Car Design Critique: Iso Grifo
Description
The Iso Grifo is a classic Italian car design that still looks great and has caught the attention of collectors over the past several years.
Author

Comments

  1. Rob Krantz says

    Great history and information on the Grifo. Thank you Wallace. Always one of my favorite cars and timeless design. I still have my Matchbox toy Iso Grifo I’ve owned since I was a boy. Met Mike at the Blackhawk Cars & Coffee event when he had his Grifo. A gorgeous car! Wish I had bought one back in the day!

    • Rob,

      I remember that day in 2013 at Blackhawk well. You introduced me to the AC Cobra Mk IV, which led me to go find and buy one!

      Here is a photo from that day with my Grifo in front and behind is your AC Cobra.

      • Rob Krantz says

        Mike, I’m glad we got to meet that day and my AC inspired you to find one for yourself. Your AC is a beauty. Loved the Grifo and it was nice to share stories about our cars.

  2. wallace wyss says

    Forgot series 2 had 454 big blocks. Someday I will find out how Iso got cut off from Chevy. I think it had something to do with Bitter wanting to use Chevys in his cars and he was in tighter with GM so got the “enemy” locked out. But compare the value of a Grifo to a Bitter today and you’ll see how GM backed the wrong horse….

  3. Mike Kerns says

    Wallace, you tell a great story. Love the Iso story. Really interesting to learn about. Have always loved these cars. I have a rust bucket Lele and an almost perfect Grifo.
    I see you always in Malibu walking around but you are always busy with all the celebrities etc.
    One day we will get to speak..

  4. Lennox McNeely says

    Owned a red Iso Grifo in Toronto about 1990 for a couple of years–bought and sold for about $12,000 –when I bought it was snowing at night and drove it then. Believe it found it’s way to Italy and taken back to it’s original blue–there was a story on you tube but can’t find it now.

    Went on to Maser Glibli supper with a hardtop and a Lusso but always regretted selling the Iso

  5. The first year of Bitter CD production was not until 1974 and the Grifo Ford engine was introduced in 1972 so it may not have been so much the Bitter issue.

  6. Wallace and Philip,

    The Iso change from Chevy to Ford engines was prompted by organization changes at GM and the new requirement for Iso to pay cash up front for engines. This was a big burden for a small company like Iso. Ford offered much more favorable payment terms.

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