Glorious Swan Song:
Iso Lele

It ended up being the company’s last new production car, although nobody could have known that when the Iso Lele debuted in 1969. Meant to replace the original Iso GT, the Iso Rivolta IR300 that had debuted in 1962, the Lele hued close to the familiar formula. A big GM V8 powering a sleek Italian GT with lines by a serious pro – in this case Marcello Gandini.

In many ways, the recipe was just about perfect. Isos were well-thought-out for production and reasonably well made from the start. Gandini’s styling was the equal of his similar GTs for Lamborghini, the Espada and Jarama. Chevrolet’s small block was as powerful, durable, and smooth in the Lele as it was in a Corvette. Being an Iso, it was genuine exotica, Chevy V8 or no.

The Lele was, however, to remain the privilege of a small clique of enthusiasts, and after Renzo Rivolta’s untimely death in 1966, the company was increasingly on shaky financial ground.

Under its new styling, the Lele re-used much of the mechanical layout of the car it was designed to replace – the original Iso Rivolta IR 300. That car, Iso’s first GT and arguably first proper car, had debuted in 1962; but the story starts way back in 1939 with refrigerators.

Iso Origins & the Iso Rivolta

Renzo Rivolta, born in 1908, was 31 when he had his first successful venture – Isothermos. This was a little company that made refrigeration and heating units. After the war the company began making scooters and motorcycles in the great Italian Scooter boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Tiny 3-wheeled trucks followed the scooters, and finally, in 1953, a four-wheeled microcar. Designed during 1952 by Ermenegildo Preti and Pierluigi Raggi, Iso’s bubble car was the famous Isetta. But the Isetta did not do all that well in Italy. It wasn’t until Rivolta licensed out the car to VELAM in France and BMW in Germany that the car succeeded.

That enabled Rivolta’s next project, the seeds of which were sewn by the British Gordon-Keeble GT, the prototype of which was shown at the 1960 Turin show. The car had been styled by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone, and months later Nuccio Bertone introduced Rivolta to John Gordon, who was looking for help producing the car. Rivolta wasn’t interested, but he did like the idea of a GT with a Corvette V8 and a De Dion rear.

To make a truly world class car, he figured, it couldn’t feel like a kit car or a parts-bin special, and you’d have to have the right people to engineer it. Here Rivolta was fortunate, already knowing Bertone; already being adept at manufacturing; and most especially being able to pick up the talents of engineer Giotto Bizzarini, freshly fired by Enzo Ferrari in 1961. 

Bizzarini was always more interested in racing and Rivolta more interested in fancy Gran Turismos, but the pairing created a spectacular cars – all powered by Chevrolet.

The first was the IR 300, a remarkably polished GT that was meant for volume production – not built-in-a-shed one-off stuff. The IR 300 was not dissimilar from the Gordon Keeble, but was more fully resolved and built in much higher numbers.

Their encore was the legendary Grifo, again styled by Giugiaro and arguably Iso’s single most enduring design. Bizzarini departed in 1964 but his design work informed all of the later Isos.

Despite their merits, the cars weren’t huge sellers, which eventually put the firm under financial strain. That may have contributed to Renzo Rivolta’s heart attack in August of 1966. By all accounts a hard-driving executive at work but a generous and gregarious man at home, he was just two weeks shy of his 58th birthday.

Piero Rivolta, Fidia, and Lele

Renzo Rivolta’s passing thrust 25-year-old Piero Rivolta, his son, into the top spot at the company. The younger Rivolta would prove adept at keeping the company going in the face of challenge after challenge, but in the first year the biggest hurdle was launching a four-door competitor to Maserati’s Quattroporte, already in development in 1966.

The “Iso Rivolta S4” formula was again the same – but with four doors. It appeared at Frankfurt in 1967 but wasn’t really ready for production until early 1969, renamed “Fidia” for its press launch in Athens (after Greek sculptor Phidias).

An impressive and fast counterpoint to the Q-porte, “the fastest four seats on wheels” was not quick to fly off the order books, despite celebrity endorsements from John Lennon, Pete Townshend, and Sunny Bono.

It was cold comfort later on that De Tomaso’s rather “me too” Deauville, launched in 1970 as a direct competitor, only sold 244 units in fourteen years to the Fidia’s 192 units in six years. The Fidia cost a vast amount to buy but also to design and build – and it never really made back the entire investment, which put pressure on Iso’s thin margins.

The next Iso was to be a new mainstream GT in the mold of the original IR 300, still in production, but updated for the contemporary styles of 1968-69. This would be a car to take on the main rivals – the Lamborghini Espada, Maserati Mexico, Jensen Interceptor, and Monteverdi High Speed – all four place GTs, the latter two being similar transatlantic “hybrids” (but using Mopar power).

The new car was entirely traditional – re-using much of the technical layout of the IR 300 but clothed in a new body. The only break with the past was the actual designer. The previous three Isos were styled by Giugiaro, the first two during his time at Bertone and the third, the Fidia, during his brief tenure at Ghia. Iso returned to Bertone for the Lele but the stylist would be Marcello Gandini, who had also penned the Espada.

The Lele Arrives

The new Lele, named for Piero Rivolta’s wife Rachele (Lele is a diminutive), broke cover at the 1969 New York Auto Show, in part to tempt American buyers. It looked every inch a muscle car with its long fastback and hooded grill and lights, but in a fine Italian suit.

Under the hood was a 327-cid small block pushing 300 hp, which in time gave way to a 350-cid small block with up to 350 hp. The Chevy small block may not have been exotic but it was good – Bizzarini himself, a veteran of many exotic-powered machines and father of the 250GTO, complimented the engine in the early sixties by saying “I was shocked. It was superior to Ferrari’s engines.”

Maybe not in everybody’s view? From an ownership perspective, however, the prospect of an Italian exotic that didn’t come with a temperamental and highly-stressed engine was a good idea. The small block was effortlessly powerful and never needed complicated maintenance. Iso was known to change cams and other components, but mostly the engines were as they came from GM, and they were mated to a GM four-speed or hydramatic.

Isos could never match Ferrari or Lamborghini on cachet, but they were of higher quality and far more reliable than, say, early DeTomaso Panteras.

The old Bizzarini-designed chassis provided neutral handling although the car was a bit hefty for its size – about 3,700 lbs. But you could take three of your friends hooning around with you in a comfy and modern leather interior. Real brute performance was then the arena of the Grifo 7-liter, the Lele stuck more to the comfy and fast GT that the IR 300 had been.

The Lele’s styling is in the eye of the beholder and some thought the Lele looked back-heavy, but it compared well to other cars of its type and in 1970, Gandini’s similar Lamborghini Jarama used some of the same themes.

The Jarama was a very slow seller itself but it couldn’t have helped sales of the Lele. Nor could a new crop of cars like the Maserati Indy and Ferrari 365GT4 2+2, which were aimed at the same buyers.

Despite its many merits, the car just couldn’t seem to find a large number of customers in such a tiny and crowded field, and Iso couldn’t really lower the unit cost – though Piero Rivolta certainly did try.

Varedo Days

In 1972, GM began demanding pre-payment for engines, so the company switched to Ford power (and a ZF 5-speed) for its remaining production cars. The switch really didn’t affect performance at all, although it required some minor re-engineering. About 40% of Leles were made with GM power, and about 60% – including the late-in-the-run Lele Sport – with Ford power.

Rivolta also downsized the factory – selling off the old Iso works in the Milanese suburb of Bresso and moving production to Varedo, a little further out from the city center. At the new factory a mid-engined prototype was developed with Bizzarini’s help, although it was never produced.

By the time production was established at Varedo, the company was struggling. A tie-up with Frank Williams for the 1973 F1 season brought attention but not sales, and an infusion of capital from American investor Ivo Pera quickly became contentious. Eventually, Piero Rivolta was out.

Not long after, the bottom fell out for Iso due to new DOT and NHTSA restrictions in the USA, labor unrest and generally anti-plutocrat attitudes in recession-wracked Italy, and then the coup de grace – OPEC (which also took out several competitors). Iso closed in 1974.

Numbers seem to vary on how many Leles were built, but the consensus figure is 285 (some sources say 260, others as many as 317). Later on, Leles were often cannibalized for parts for Grifo and Rivolta restorations, so probably only about half survive – though an exact number is unknown.

About 125 of them were Chevy-powered, including this one – the 38th car built overall. It was built in September, 1970 and original sold in Italy. Just 70 Leles were imported to the U.S. as new cars, and this one came to the States in 2007. It is owned today by Iso specialist Maurice Mentens, who runs Maurice Mentens Restorations.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *