Iso Lele Sport
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
The name of ISO (pronounced Eee-zo) started in the wheeled world many years ago when scooters were all the rage in Italy and then progressed to the infamous Isetta bubble-car, eventually emerging into the big car world with the Giotto Bizarrini-designed Chevrolet-powered Grifo.
In the early 1970's the Rivolta family sold the firm to another Italian industrialist, by name Perra, and the operation moved from the Rivolta engineering works in the northern suburbs of Milan to Varedo, some 15 miles out in the country. Over the years the Grifo was refined and joined by a four-door version and then gave way to the Ford powered cars.
There were two versions of the Lele (pronounced Lay-lee), the standard model and the Sport, while there was a longer wheelbase, four-door, four-seater sports saloon called the Fidea. The car is named after Lele Rivolta, wife of Piero Rivolta (son of Iso company founder Renzo).
Initially the engines were sourced from GM and Ford, however in 1972 GM asked Iso to pay in advance for the engines, and so the decision was made to exclusively use the Ford Cleveland V8. Subsequent iterations of all three models were powered by the American Ford V8's, and those built in 1973/1974 were fitted exclusively with the "Cobra Jet" V8 engine of 5.76 litres giving a nominal 325 SAE horsepower, while the Sport version had this uprated to 360 American horsepower.
These engines were 101.6 x 88.9 mm. bore and stroke, with an 8.6 to 1 compression ratio with pushrod o.h.v. and a rev.-limit of 5,800 r.p.m. and they gobbled petrol at an alarming rate if used to the full. Buyers could choose from either an automatic box or a ZF 5-speed manual box in unit with the engine.
Front suspension was independent by unequal-length doublebones and coil springs, with an anti-roll bar and at the rear a de Dion layout was used, the Salisbury axle unit, like a Jaguar, with inboard disc brakes, was chassis mounted, with universally jointed driveshafts out to the wheels.
Radius rods located the de bion tube fore-and-aft and sideways motion was resisted by a Panhard rod, while the springing medium was by coil springs and telescopic shock-absorbers. The power steering was by ZF, similar to that used by Maserati on the Indy and Ghibli, and the Lele ran on Campagnolo alloy wheels shod with Michelin XWX 215/70 VP15 radial tyres. The bodywork was designed by Bertone and made by ISO in their own factory, the body/chassis structure being in one.
Although the Bertone body was a two-door coupe, there were four seats in the 2+2 idiom, access to the rear door being by tipping the front seats forward after pressing a bulge in the seat back. The front seats were very good indeed, providing good all-round location without any gimmicks, and the leather-bound Nardi steering wheel was adjustable in-and-out and up-and-down.
Quite often when a car, particularly a "supercar", design was changed from left-side steering to right-side steering the driver suffered on gear-changing with a central lever, but the ZF box fitted to the ISO Lele had the usual H-pattern for 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th with the lever spring-loaded to 2nd and 3rd, while 1st was away from you and back, being very much a starting-off gear. As long as the wheels were rolling the big V8 picked up in 2nd with no strain at all. Reverse was opposite 1st which made for easy to-and-fro movements in small spaces.
In 2nd and 3rd gears the car was typical V8, with a lot of "rush" and not much result, but in 4th it really got on its way and using a mere 5,000 r.p.m. it was all happening pretty quickly when you pulled the little stumpy gear-lever back into 5th. A nice ambling 90 m.p.h. was achieved at a mere 3,000 r.p.m. in 5th gear and 125 m.p.h. cruising would never really strain the 5.76-litre V8 engine. The wind-noise with everything closed up is commendably low, as was the engine noise, so that there was no strain on the driver whatsoever.
The ZF steering was so good that you would not know if it was power-assisted and like the Maserati system it gives a nice feel. The general handling characteristics at normal roadgoing performance was pleasantly neutral, with a small degree of stabilising understeer on long, fast, sweeping bends. On tight bends, such as a roundabout, you could feel the de Dion layout taking control just when you thought the rear was going to take up an attitude of roll like the front, and at that point you could accelerate hard without any drama whatsoever. In fact, the whole character of the Lele was that it had no particular character. It was a refined, luxurious and quiet means of transport that covered the ground quickly and effortlessly without drama. Many regarded the Lele as one of the easiest high-performance cars to drive, almost too easy in that it did not leave any impression other than being "nice and easy". The ride was good, so that undulating secondary roads could be taken at any speed.
The Bertone styling featured a rather heavy looking rear three-quarter view and the large rear window looked a bit flat, but from the driver's seat there was no problem over visibility, apart from the Continental wipers leaving an unwiped part of the windscreen in the vital right-hand corner. For the British market Iso re-positioned the switches for the electric windows, improved the sun visors, changed the rather bizarre Italian carpet colour for something more appropriate to the interior styling, and dimmed the warning lights for the rear window heater and the air blower.
In front of the driver was a large speedometer and tachometer, with the oil pressure gauge between them, and away on the passenger side of the facia, but angled towards the driver, were four matching dials reading Amps, Water temperature, oil temperature and petrol in the 22-gallon tank. If the water temperature rose in heavy traffic a thermostatically-controlled electric radiator-fan switched on, and if that was not enough a second fan could be switched on manually. The four headlamps were only partially covered by hinged "eye-lids" which raised up when the headlights are switched on, but in daylight with the lids down there was sufficient area showing to allow instant "flashing" from the left-hand stalk on the steering column.
Driven fast or slow the Lele Sport presents no problems at all, and there is nothing that you have to get used to, or make allowances for, as was the norm with many high-performance or specialist cars of the era. Although it was an amalgam of engineering from America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, clothed in Italian coachwork it seemed to be a highly successful amalgam. In the specialist market it fell somewhere between the exotics like Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, and the good, large production cars of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. It was not a car that attracted attention, like an Espada, while you wouldn't see one on every street corner, and there were no "peasant's models" as with BMW.
The production of Lele ended in December 1974, with the closure of Iso. By that time 285 had been manufactured, subdivided as follows:
- Lele 300 hp (Chevrolet): 112
- Lele 350 hp (Chevrolet): 13
- Lele IR6 325 hp (Ford): 135
- Lele IR6 Sport 360 hp (Ford): 20
- Lele IR6 Sport 360 hp (270 kW) Marlboro (Ford): 5