Collecting Iso Grifo

With a mere 413 built, new fans will have to keep an eagle eye out for the car named after the mythical king of beasts, says Simon de Burton

City trader Zak Dhabalia’s 1967 Iso Grifo 5.4-litre coupé, bought for £191,900 at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed auction
City trader Zak Dhabalia’s 1967 Iso Grifo 5.4-litre coupé, bought for £191,900 at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed auction | Image: Bonhams

Considering that some still regard it as a bit of a mongrel, Italy’s Iso Grifo has a pretty impressive pedigree. Its sleek, grand-tourer bodywork was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro (whose CV also includes the Lotus Esprit and the Volkswagen Golf); its mechanicals were designed by Giotto Bizzarrini (who was responsible for Ferrari’s celebrated 250 GTO); and its powerplant came from the Chevrolet Corvette.

The brainchild of Iso founder Renzo Rivolta (whose industrialist forebears made a fortune from products as diverse as bubble cars and refrigerators), the sporting two-seater launched in 1965 to be sold alongside the “two-plus-two” Iso Rivolta. The Grifo, named after the griffin, the mythical king of beasts, was intended to provide serious competition to the likes of Ferrari and Maserati by combining the beauty and style for which Italian GT cars were renowned with the strength and reliability for which they weren’t – hence the use of tough American gearboxes and V8 engines. The first models used “small block”, 5.4-litre Corvette engines, which, thanks to the car weighing less than 1,000kg, gave a top speed of around 170mph – instantly making it the fastest road car of the day.

The last-built 1974 Iso Grifo 7-litre, sold for about £280,000 at Sotheby’s
The last-built 1974 Iso Grifo 7-litre, sold for about £280,000 at Sotheby’s | Image: Erik Fuller

It’s believed a mere 413 Grifos were built during its nine-year production run, making them rare by any standard. Yet prices have only recently started to climb. The best ones can still be found for “only” around £200,000. The current record sale price stands at $440,000 (about £280,000), set last year by RM Sotheby’s – one of the best sources – for the very last one built. And many believe prices still have a way to go.

But regardless of whether or not they do, accountant Andrew Yaras can remain confident that the £26,200 he invested almost 25 years ago was money well spent. “I bought mine purely by chance after ending up at a Coy’s auction in London,” says Yaras. “I just fell in love with the shape. Fortunately, it turned out to be an extremely good example – and a rare one too. It’s the only known Series I right-hand-drive Grifo fitted with a factory sunroof. It really is a fabulous cruising car, with an awesome amount of power.”

The hand-built Grifo was made in Series I, Series II and IR-8 versions, the latter two featuring larger-capacity engines of up to 7.4 litres and a restyled front end that partially hid the car’s headlamps. Although the IR-8 is the rarest, the Series I and II models are more sought-after for their clean lines.

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At this year’s Wilton Classic and Supercar Show, Yaras’s Series I car was named Best Classic. “It was surrounded by many phenomenal entries – including a Ferrari 250 California and a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso – but I think people are starting to realise that any collaboration between Bizzarrini and Giugiaro must be something rather special.”

City trader Zak Dhabalia agrees that the once-overlooked Grifo is finally being recognised – which is why he paid almost £192,000 for a 1967 Series I model at a Bonhams auction at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. “The car’s history file contained 900 photographs showing every step of a four-year, £180,000 restoration,” he says. “It had belonged to the official photographer of the Monaco royal family for 35 years. It had deteriorated badly in the salty Mediterranean air – they are known for suffering from rust – but had been meticulously rebuilt.”

“What I hadn’t expected, though, was the attention a Grifo attracts,” he adds. “On several occasions people have jumped out of their cars at traffic lights just to take a look and ask what it is.”

The dashboard and steering wheel of Zak Dhabalia’s 1967 Iso Grifo 5.4-litre coupé
The dashboard and steering wheel of Zak Dhabalia’s 1967 Iso Grifo 5.4-litre coupé | Image: Bonhams

Dhabalia soon found that the only dedicated Iso Grifo specialist in the world is former factory engineer and test driver Roberto Negri, who restores the cars at his workshop in Clusone, Italy – some distance from Dhabalia’s home in Kent. But the Iso’s American mechanicals mean it can be taken to nearby Dart Services, a US cars specialist, for maintenance.

“The running gear of the Iso Grifo is almost entirely Corvette and the engines are ultra-reliable,” says Dart Services’ Steve Caldwell, who established the business some 40 years ago. “They are nicely engineered cars, but quite basic – which means bills to service them are usually in the hundreds of pounds rather than the thousands, as they might be for a comparable Ferrari or Maserati.”

Getting hold of a Grifo, however, is not at all easy. A large number were sold to Germany, where their pace made them popular on the autobahns; a significant quantity went to the US; and a mere 32 right-hand-drive models were imported to the UK. Those that do come up for sale tend to be offered at auction or through the Iso & Bizzarrini Owner’s Club network in the US. Currently, Coys has a 1970, German-registered, 7-litre car on its books. Fully restored in 2004, it is finished in dark metallic green with a tan leather interior and is being offered by its long-term owner for about €300,000.

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“The vast majority of those built are still around,” says opera singer Chris Lackner, who bought his 7-litre Series I Grifo in 1987 and then founded the UK branch of the owner’s club (which currently has around 30 members). “Anyone who wants to buy one should act fast, as prices have started to rise quite markedly. Word is out that the lowest mileage example in the world is about to come onto the market with a price tag of $1m.”

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