It All Began in Parma

It All Began in Parma

It was Parma Italy, in June. I was the spousal appendage to my wife in her Learn Italian class and this was their annual pilgrimage to the headwaters of the mother tongue. The mornings were planned, the afternoons were free. Somehow, my preoccupation with MMR had gotten the better of my time and before I realized it we were landing in Milan. I enjoy Italy and on previous trips I had planned outings to the many motorsports shrines that dot the country. Many of these are wonderfully casual affairs. Memorably, a trip to Tarquina took us through the small city of Bagnoregio. The area is dotted with small high towns perched atop hills formed when the surrounding ground simply fell away over the centuries. These towns are now only accessible by footbridges. Quite dramatic!

My wife spotted motorcycles in a window and a small “Museo” sign and signaled me to stop. Sure enough, there it was, the Museo Piero Taruffi. What a wonderful surprise! With matinee idol good looks, Taruffi was a successful motorcycle racer and a Ferrari and Maserati driver who won the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia and one Formula 1 race. I mostly remember him as the author of The Technique of Motor Racing. It was the first book I ever read about motor racing. Amazingly, the museum door was unlocked and the building was unattended. His trophies, helmets, gloves, etc. were all on open display and all were accessible. We stayed for a half hour, signed the guest book and left. Never saw a soul.

On this day I was travelling to Monza, just east of Milan. Elsewhere on the MMR site, in Short Stories, you will find Iso Rivolta is Back! The story of my day at Monza and the discovery of Iso’s rebirth.

On my recent trip to New Hampshire, I had an opportunity to think back on my day at Monza and my chance encounter with the people who now produce the Iso cars. I seized an opportunity to drive Chuck Schwager’s Iso Grifo. The Grifo is the quintessential Grand Touring car. The GT label has been attached to so many types of cars that about the only thing they all have in common is a fixed roof. Everything below that is fair game for a GT.

Interestingly, in the beginning, a sloping fastback top, sometimes fitted luggage for the trunk or the area behind the seats, is what determined a touring car. Touring, itself, was ideally pictured as weekend getaways for mature couples in a powerful and comfortable two-seater luxury car. A dream hotel was always the destination and good scenic roads with long sweeping curves and little traffic in between was equally ideal. What a dream!

After the heavy classic touring cars of the 30s and 40s, these sportier models filled the needs of post war prosperity. The sixties Ferraris, Maseratis, Astons and Mercedes all bespoke power, comfort, and luxury touring. Flattering themselves, Sunbeam, Triumph, MG, Ford Mustang, even Shelby, made cars with the GT nomenclature. They also rode the dream that Grand Touring implied.

Iso Grifo at The Farm

Iso Grifo at The Farm

At the same time a number of smaller European manufacturers, mostly Italian, built touring cars with powerful American engines. Jensen, Monteverdi, Apollo, and Iso (later to be Bizzarrini) built cars to a market requiring fast, comfortable, and stylish touring at a more affordable price. In my youth, I enjoyed a ride in a friend’s Jenson and although it was mildly terrifying thru turns, it was the power and sound of the 440 Chrysler engine on straights that made you wish you had lead a far purer life. So, to have an opportunity to drive a Euro-American purpose-made Touring car from a period, unlike today’s, where frame rigidity is the new god of engineers, was a longed for experience.

By current standards it floated, but then again, I shortly abandoned that automatic buttock clenching reflex every time I saw a mild deviation in road surface. The car absorbed ripples, it leaned a tad in the corners, but not suddenly or overly. The 327 Chevy engine and 4-speed transmission supplied plenty of power and enough bottom end torque to make unnecessary the rowing of more gears.

Comfortable and spacious cabin

Comfortable and spacious cabin

Corvette 327 and 4-speed

Corvette 327 and 4-speed

The seats were cushy and the steering was just fine, thank you. The styling is classic of the period and remains classic today. No wings or winglets, no splitters or spoilers, and it won’t do anywhere near 200 MPH. But I bet it would be comfortable at 120!

A true GT

A true GT