Skip the coffee and ditch the Red Bull today, it’s time to upgrade your morning ritual with an Iso Grifo A3/C and the accompanying soundtrack of a modified small-block Chevy echoing in the hills of Bergamo. Almost impossibly low and wide, it is only more striking today than when it debuted in the 1960s. The original cars are exceedingly rare today, and their story in period was rather short-lived and fraught with disagreements between the men responsible for its creation.
It was really Giotto Bizzarrini’s baby, and the great Italian motorsport mind—having such cars as the Ferrari 250 GTO and Breadvan to his credit—did not half-ass it when it came to the A3/C either. The Corvette-sourced engine was robust and reliable, Giugiaro’s wind-tunnel-developed shape was endlessly sexy, but the car wasn’t destined to live up to the greatness of the men who built it. Today’s film star is an exacting recreation of one of the original ten cars produced with the riveted alloy bodywork, and better yet it’s owned by a former employee of Iso, who today runs a restoration business that is emphatically the place to go for a perfect restorations of the marque’s machines.
That man is Roberto Negri, the principal at Il Bottegone Restauro, who kindly handed the keys to his son Federico for the drive depicted in today’s film. Words cannot add much to the audio-visual treat, but perhaps some background on where the Iso Grifo A3/C came from is in order.
Following the infamous Palace Revolt in which all but the entire engineering and motorsport staff were fired or else walked out from Ferrari, there was a sudden influx of talented “free agents” who were free to apply their talents elsewhere. It almost doomed Ferrari, while the former employees of the Prancing Horse almost immediately went on to find success with companies like Autodelta and ATS (less so), and they created plenty of smaller consulting firms in between. Giotto Bizzarrini was among the group “purged” from Maranello, and so he had no qualms about going off to help Lamborghini by designing the V12 that would power the Ferruccio’s bulls in one form or another until as recently as the late 2000s.
His time at Ferrari was auspicious before the massive staff exodus, though, and as head of experimental development it was Bizzarrini who turned the 250 GT SWB (a car that came into being thanks to his inputs already) into the even more legendary 250 GTO. He’d been scooped away from Alfa in the late 1950s to test and develop cars for Ferrari, and it was paying off in spades only a few years after he’d come on board; the GTO was a winner, Bizzarrini was cemented as one of the finest minds in the business of performance automobiles.
As mentioned above, he was also the creator of the 250 GTO Breadvan, which came about when Ferrari refused to sell a standard one to Count Volpi, who in turn asked Bizzarrini if he could make him one instead. That’s a story for another day, though.
In addition to designing the motor for Lamborghini, Bizzarrini’s company was also commissioned by Renzo Rivolta to work on cars for his moto-auto company called Iso Autoveicoli. Rivolta had a background in kitchen appliances (the door mechanism of the BMW Isetta, for instance, is borrowed from a freezer), and his goal was to build comfortable, elegant, reliable GT cars. Bizzarrini wasn’t concerned with all that: he wanted to continue where he’d left off at Ferrari more or less. He wanted to build something fast and light that didn’t give two hoots about how comfy its occupants felt.
He convinced Rivolta that in order to sell his road cars, there would need to be a racing and sports side to the company. That would manifest in the Iso Grifo A3/C (as opposed to the Iso Grifo A3/L “Lusso” model). It borrowed a shortened version of the chassis from the existent Iso Rivolta, and the first ten A3/Cs had their bodies constructed with an exotic alloy of aluminum, copper, and magnesium that proved more than a little tricky to weld. The solution from coach builder Piero Drogo came in the form of thousands of pop rivets, earning the car the nickname Mille Chiodi (“thousand nails”) in the process. Besides the aircraft-esque appearance, the bodywork was also novel for its shape; the A3/C was one of the first prominent racing cars to feature slab sides, which would evolve into an integral part of the so-called “ground effects” revolution in aerodynamics.
The car was light, moved through the wind well, and it was powered by a tuned Corvette-sourced small block that was good for just shy of 400hp in race trim. Bizzarrini reportedly called it his evolution of the GTO—high praise that was impossible to live up to. The cars didn’t find enough success in their preliminary races to convince Rivolta that it was a good idea to keep dumping resources into racing, and the butting of heads between him and his talented engineer led to Bizzarrini leaving the company in 1965, wherein he continued to produce A3/C road and race cars under his own company, renaming the car the Bizzarrini 5300 GT.
Despite there being nothing wrong with the 5300 (it did win its class at Le Mans after all), it is the first batch of the “rivet cars” that collectors go nuts over. As you can guess, there being only 10 original cars made over 50 years ago, they are exceedingly rare today. Which brings us back full circle to Roberto and Federico Negri. With permission from the Rivolta family along with access to their spare parts, he is recreating the Mille Chiodi in ten “new” examples. Sort of like all the continuation cars that Jaguar is making these days.
The car featured in the film today was the first of the new series of 10, and it hasn’t left the Negri family’s possession since it was completed a decade ago. And as you can see in the film, it gets its fair share of exercise.