AUTO ITALIA

09.10.2006 Golden Wonder Iso Grifo IR8 - The result of 30 years dedicated to restoring a 1970s supercar

This feature appears in Auto Italia - Issue 124


"Not a lot of people know what it is," says Barry Twitchell as we stand admiring his 1971 Grifo. "Most of them think it’s a Ferrari. There was this sharp young bloke who came wandering up at the Brooklands Auto Italia event this year; he looked like a footballer, I thought, and he had this nine out of ten bird in tow who fell in love with the car at first sight. "They walked round it slowly a couple of times and finally he comes up to me and says, ‘What is it?’ and before I could answer, he says, ‘She loves the style, especially the colour; I’ll give you 90 grand for it. I’ll write a cheque now.’"

Barry was not tempted. Maybe, you might think, he should have torn the man’s arm off before he changed his mind but Barry has owned this car since 1976, when he bought it for 2800. In 30 years of ownership he has driven only 2000 miles in it. Instead, he has spent the last 28 years restoring it to utter perfection. He knows exactly what the restoration has cost – getting on for 50,000 – and it seems he’s not in a hurry to part with it at any price. It has been the labour of love to end all such things. Now he wants to enjoy driving it at last.

Auto Italia readers, unlike the rest of the world, will not be so mystified. Along with Barry Twitchell himself, you and I know exactly what the problem has been with the Iso Grifo right from the start. It’s as simple as this: it’s not a Ferrari, a fact which made it that bit harder to sell when it was new and it has probably kept its value unfairly low ever since.

Back in 1971 this actual car was displayed at the British Motor Show, Earl’s Court. The UK concessionaire was Peter Agg’s Trojan company. The first Iso Grifo had appeared in 1963 but this model, eight years down the line, was the new-look IR8 with a restyled front end, still by Bertone, featuring ‘drop eyelid headlamps’. A five-speed ZF gearbox was another new feature and the interior of the opulent 2+2 Grifo had been completely revised, only the best materials being used to trim it out. Priced from 8750, it was offered with 300bhp or 350bhp engines, a seven-litre option also being available, and the Italian opposition at the time included the Ferrari 365 GTB4, from 9572, and the 9152 Lamborghini Miura S. Today, of course, a perfect example of either of those would be expected to fetch well over 100,000. In all honesty, loopy footballers apart, the best Grifo is very unlikely to get near the magic six figures. That’s life – and life, as we know, is not fair!

If the Grifo was largely overlooked in its day simply because it was not a Ferrari, that did not stop it from being a very fine car. The mechanical layout, designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, was exceptionally good, the engine being unusually well back in the chassis, which was an immensely strong and complex platform, fabricated in steel, on which the bodies, also steel, were mounted. The sophisticated suspension system was by de Dion axle at the rear, with radius arms and Watt linkage, and double wishbones with an anti-roll bar at the front. Coil springs were used all round. Final drive was via a Salisbury limited-slip differential and the ZF gearbox, new to the Grifo for 1971, was pretty well bullet-proof and a pleasure to use, if slightly ponderous by modern standards.

No one should have been put off by the use of American engines in an Italian supercar. The Chevrolet V8s – a classic in their own right – were not simply taken from crates and bolted into the Grifo. They were rebuilt to a special specification by Iso, strengthening the bottom end and improving the breathing among other modifications. Far from being the lazy lumps used in so many American cars, Grifo engines gave tremendous high performance and a very lively feel in the higher rev ranges.

Back in 1966, the great John Bolster had described a Grifo as superb to look at and a sheer delight to drive, being an ideal combination of limousine luxury and racing performance. He wrote that in one of his regular Autosport magazine road tests after visiting the factory and driving one back to the UK for the importer, Peter Agg.

Like so many others, Barry would probably have bought a Ferrari if he’d had the money. When he spotted the much more affordable Grifo, it was five years old, with very low mileage, and had been owned by a series of successful businessmen who had kept it properly serviced. He snapped it up and then realised that, as a used car, it was already in need of fairly serious restoration. The tell-tale signs were there, suggesting that rust was forming deep in the structure. With a young family soon coming along, Barry decided to keep the Grifo as his long-term project, his very long-term and highly treasured project. The car was stripped and slowly rebuilt over the years, the most painstaking attention going into the restoration or recreation of every individual item.

Before long, naturally enough, Barry had become one of the most committed and knowledgeable Iso enthusiasts on the planet. As a family man, he then acquired his 1972 Iso Lele. That was a straightforward restoration project which he got on with at some speed because, as a proper four-seater, it was rather more useful to him then than the Grifo. Barry’s target to complete the Lele was the Auto Italia day in 1985, than held at Syon Park.
 

ISO GRIFO IR8

Back in 1966, the great John Bolster had described an Iso Grifo as superb to look at and a sheer delight to drive, being an ideal combination of limousine luxury and racing performance.

ISO GRIFO IR8

Back in 1971 this actual car was displayed at the British Motor Show, Earl’s Court. The UK concessionaire was Peter Agg’s Trojan company. The first Iso Grifo had appeared in 1963 but this model, eight years down the line, was the new-look IR8 with a restyled front end, still by Bertone, featuring ‘drop eyelid headlamps’.

ISO GRIFO IR8

The mechanical layout, designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, was exceptionally good, the engine being unusually well back in the chassis, which was an immensely strong and complex platform, fabricated in steel, on which the bodies, also steel, were mounted.

ISO GRIFO IR8

No one should have been put off by the use of American engines in an Italian supercar. The Chevrolet V8s – a classic in their own right – were not simply taken from crates and bolted into the Grifo. They were rebuilt to a special specification by Iso, strengthening the bottom end and improving the breathing among other modifications.


Taking the top prize there, Barry’s Lele became the magazine’s first ever Car of the Show and has since been covered extensively by us. Meanwhile, the Grifo continued to take shape step by step, whenever Barry had time to get at it. He had started by removing the engine and gearbox. The rolling chassis went to Clive Smart at Bodylines in 1980 for new front and rear valances, a new boot and door skins. Progress on the Grifo was also halted for a time by a new business venture but he always came back to it, keeping at it persistently. With the bare chassis exposed, the predictable rust spots around suspension pick-up points and behind the sills were revealed. The rot was far from catastrophic but it all had to be cut out and freshly fabricated sections welded in. The rebuilt chassis platform was then given the proper protection against future rust which no cars of that age, however exotic and expensive, received when new. Barry sandblasted it himself, then primed it with 769 Rustoleum ready for undercoating.

By about 1990, Barry was working on suspension components and brakes, sandblasting, priming or applying powdercoat as necessary. Meanwhile, Parts and Panels fabricated a new boot floor and many other items, including a new bonnet with cooling louvres and a new aluminium fuel tank with details to Barry’s own design. While the car was still a bare body shell, he discovered that the original door-sealing rubbers were unobtainable. He therefore reduced the door aperture flanges very slightly so that modern push-on rubber sections could be used. "Much fettling and filing was needed to get the doors to fit correctly. It took me about six weeks." When it came to the brightwork and other body details, Barry made many of the parts himself from scratch. He feels that his louvres in the side of the body are exactly as the originals were meant to be, just better!

Adrian George at Spraytec did the bare-metal respray after much research into the specification for the correct original Champagne Cocktail finish. Barry made several trips to Italy to get that right and eventually an old friend there, Roberto Negri, very kindly obtained an original Glidden Salchi colour sample for him.

Final assembly – as he fondly thought! – began in 2000 but endless small problems still had to be sorted out. Never once did he lose his patience and everything was dealt with to his perfectionist’s standard. "Fitting up the electric window mechanisms alone took an absolute age," says Barry, "about one week or so per door, having to shim it all up to work correctly." Towards the end the engine came back from Real Steel. It had been rebuilt to a higher specification, including a forged steel crank, special con-rods and pistons. With the rebuilt gearbox and back axle, the whole car finally came together.

On the road at last, and through its MoT, Barry then found he had to dismantle the gearbox as it was sticking in second. "That was the most gut-wrenching thing," says Barry. "The gearbox had been assembled incorrectly, and I had to remove the engine to put that problem right." (The gearbox company responsible has since gone into Receivership.)

In March this year, out it came and all I can say is that it’s the best Grifo I have ever seen, or am likely to see. On the road, it is just as John Bolster described the Grifo in his road test 40 years ago, though he failed to mention the huge turning circle and the classic Italian driving position – short legs, long arms. Barry is not entirely happy with the handling yet, and I’m sure he’s right that the standard damper settings are the problem. There’s a slight sense of wafting vagueness that could be eliminated without spoiling ride quality, and he’s now consulting top guru, Rhoddy Harvey Bailey, to perfect the settings. More than is the case with mass-produced machinery, handmade cars like the Grifo can benefit from intelligently applied ‘sorting’ of this kind, and Barry has done a truly fantastic job from start to finish. 

Iso Grifo IR8 Technical Specifications: Engine: 5785cc (bored +0.020 from original ‘350cu in’); Bore x stroke: 102.1mm x 88.4mm; Compression ratio:  9.8:1; Ignition and fuel: Mallory magnetic distributor and Holley 670cfm 4-barrel carburettor; Power: 362bhp @ 6200rpm; Torque: 404lb ft @ 4120rpm; Transmission: ZF S5-325 5-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive; Brakes: 4 solid discs; Wheels: Campagnolo mag alloys 7x15; Kerb weight: 2804lb (1272kg); 0-60mph: 6.4-7.4 seconds (estimates); Top speed: 165mph (claimed); Cost: 8750 in 1971; value in 2006, at least 40,000 but maybe much more (agreed insurance valuation is 50,000).

Story by Tony Dron / Photography by Michael Ward
 

This feature appears in Auto Italia, Issue 124, October-November 2006. Highlights of this month's issue of the world's leading Italian car magazine, which is now on sale, include road tests of the Alfa Brera Q4 V6 and Autodelta 156 JTS Super, as well as features on the Maserati Quattroporte IV, Alfa Tipo 33 Sportscar, Ferrari 330P and Le Mans Classic. Call +44 (0) 1858 438817 for back issues and subscriptions.

website: www.auto-italia.co.uk

Text & Photos: Auto Italia