This week in our history article I will describe a company that started out making a non-motoring product, was acquired and revamped into a car manufacturer and after it failed, its descendant became a successful property group.
Iso Rivolta started out as Isothermos and developed refrigerators and equipment for railways. In 1948, Renzo Rivolta bought the company to move into a new more popular market – the personal transportation business. His family had built a very successful real estate business in Italy and after the war there was a push for cheap transport options. The company acquired the rights to a scooter called the Ferret and struggled to sell them against the Vespa and the Lambretta from Innocenti, so they designed their own copy – the Isoscooter 7hp with a 123cc motor. This was more successful and they followed it up with the Isocarro, Isosport and Isomoto. All cheap scooters with a classic Italian style.
In 1953, with the company now heavily into motorised transportation and real estate, the company was reformed as Iso Autoveicoli and at that years Turin motor show launched the Isetta, a microcar that used a two cylinder, 230cc , two stroke engine that produced a mere 9.5hp! It had one door, being the whole front of the vehicle and seated two in cosy comfort. The car shared a number of components with the scooters and due to its shape became known as the “bubble” car.
It wasn’t a fast car by any means but did get around 60mpg or 4.7 litres per 100kms. This was a car for the times – cheap, cheerful and frugal. Iso also had a commercial version called the Autocarro. With initial success, Rivolta started to sign licensing agreements in other countries and also opened their own factories in Spain and Belgium. This was a good thing as their bubble car came under pressure from FIAT and others and sales started to decline. So, as manufacturing ceased in Italy, Iso signed an agreement with BMW to build it under licence – including taking the tooling from the Italian factory. BMW replaced the scooter engine with their own motorcycle-sourced power plant – a 4 stroke, single cylinder of 250cc producing 12hp. The designs were updated and improvements made – they did retain the single door concept though.
The BMW Isetta 250 was replaced by the Isetta 300, which had sliding windows and a 300cc engine. This model was in production until 1962. In 1957, BMW released the 600 that was a stretched Isetta with a rear door and a 600cc motor – a twin cylinder from a motorcycle. It lasted in production for only two years. Interestingly, BMW sub-licenced the design to Isetta of Great Britain who manufactured cars for several years, although they weren’t hugely successful.
Iso also sold a licence to Velam in France who sold their version, the Velam Isetta for three years in the mid 1950s. As BMW had the tooling, Velam created a copy with a subframe holding the rear components. Iso also sold a licence to a Brazilian tool manufacturing company, ROMI. The Romi-Isetta was in production for five years and started out as a direct copy with Iso engines and after Iso ran out of parts, they switched to the BMW motor.
The licensing provided the funds for Iso to look at the opposite end of the market and build a supercar. Rivolta’s first, released in 1960 was the IR300 a classic mix of a car – the design was by Bizzarini, a well known sports car designer and ex-Ferrari, the engine and gearbox came from Chevrolet – the 5.4 V8 from the Corvette – and the suspension and braking system from Jaguar. The IR300 – named after its power output – was a two door, 2+2 coupe built by Bertone and was in production until the end of the 1960s. However, only about 800 were built.
The next model was the Iso Grifo, another Bertone designed and built 2+2 with Corvette running gear although the later models used a Ford V8 instead. Bizzarini started the design and it was finished by Giugiaro who was working for Bertone at the time. Styling was reminiscent of a mix of the Lamborghini Miura (the rear shape) and Jensen Interceptor (the front), both of which were on the market at the same time. The engines started out as the same 5.4 litre and grew over the ten years of production to culminate in a 7-litre Corvette motor before the Ford engines were fitted.
The Grifo was unusual in that Bertone designed and built the A3/L model – the “L” for luxury, however, Bizzarini took the car and made the A3/C – for Corsa, a lightweight racing version using aluminium. Iso built the A3/C alongside the Bertone built A3/L. Only 22 A3/Cs were built, although Bizzarini used it as a basis for his own later sports car.
In 1966, Renzo Rivolta died and his son Pietro took over the management of the company. Pietro’s first model was the Fidia – also known as the Iso S4. This was a four-door saloon in the mould of a Maserati Quattroporte. Like the other recent Iso cars it was fitted with the Corvette running gear and was also designed by Giugiaro who had recently jumped ship to Ghia who also built the bodies. Only 200 or so were built. The final road model that was built alongside the Grifo was the Lele – reminiscent of Lamborghinis of the same era. It was a swoopy 2+2 designed by Gandini at Bertone using the common mechanics of the other models (Chevrolet and then Ford). Only about 300 were built.
Before the company collapsed in 1974, they got together with Marlboro and Frank Williams to develop the Iso-Marlboro Formula 1 team for the 1973 season. The team finished the championship in 10th place with only 2 points after very poor results and the partners went their separate ways. The car wasn’t a true Iso, but was an updated design from Len Bailey who was ex-Ford and Lola and was known as the Politoys FX3 in previous years. Williams Racing used the chassis for the 1974 season as well, changing the name from the FX3B to the FW01 and built a couple more being the FW02 and FW03. In 1975, they were renamed as a Williams rather than Iso and became a chapter in the history of the current Williams F1 team.
After the closure of the Italian company, Pietro took his family to the US and built a second real estate empire and a marine business in Florida, now run by his son. Pietro’s daughter married into the Zagato design and coach-building family. Finally, thanks to their relatively low volumes, any Iso car would be a valuable collectors item today. Microlino has recently launched its modernised version of the original bubble car – with electric power.