Italian Muscle: 10 Cars With Italian Bodies and American V8s
Updated October 4, 2018
Italian sports car manufacturers with resources, like Lamborghini and Ferrari, built their engines. Smaller builders chose US V8s. Here are ten of the best.
Coachbuilding in Italy was a significant industry from the 1930s, paused for the war, and then from the 1950s through the 1970s. Even the major manufacturers like Ferrari would allow a customer to purchase a chassis with engine and running gear, so that they could take the underpinnings to a coachbuilder and have the exact body design they wanted fitted to the car (sometimes coming out a little, um, usual).
With all this expertise in design and construction, smaller firms began building low-volume sports cars of their own. Unable to construct their own engines, and with Italian manufacturers disinterested in selling their engines to these upstarts, the small builders turned to American V-8s. Cheap, plentiful, and reliable, these engines allowed a variety of interesting designs to come to life, and with their maintenance cost far below that of a V-12 Ferrari or Lamborghini, have actually helped keep them on the road.
De Tomaso Pantera
Designed by American Tom Tjaarda (while he was working for Ghia) and launched at the NY Auto Show in 1970, the DeTomaso Pantera is the poster child for Italian sports cars fitted with American V-8s. A full monocoque chassis initial carried a Ford 351C, later to be replaced by a 351W, and backed by a ZF gearbox. The Pantera became a cultural touchstone, subject of countless posters (with and without women), a work-over by the Ring Brothers, and one was even awarded to a Playboy Pet of the Year.
The Iso Grifo was manufactured by Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. between 1965 and 1974. Intended to compete with Grand Touring cars from Ferrari and Maserati, it used a series of American engines. Styling was by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone, and mechanicals the work of Giotto Bizzarrini.
The first production GL models appeared in 1965 and were sold with modified Chevrolet Corvette small-block 327 fitted to Borg-Warner 4-speed manual transmissions. With over 400 horsepower and a weight of less than 2,200 pounds , the Grifo was able to reach speeds over 170 mph.
In 1970 the Grifo Series II appeared, with sleeker styling and hide-away headlights, now fitted with a Chevrolet 454 big block. It was replaced in 1972 with the Grifo IR-8, which used a small-block Ford Boss 351 engine. This was the last Iso of any type, as the manufacturer shut down in 1974.
Former Ferrari chief engineer Giotto Bizzarrini left the Modena marque to strike out on his own with racing and fast road driving machinery. The Strada was launched company in 1965 built on the welded monocoque platform of the Iso Rivolta 300, also designed by Mr. Bizzarrini
The Strada was powered by a 365 hp Chevrolet 327 small-block Corvette engine for street use, and could be upgraded to 400 hp for competition. Drive went through a T-10 transmission to a limited-slip diff. Four wheel discs were used all around. A total of 133 Stradas were built between 1965 and 1968 and are highly sought-after collectables..
While not designed in Italy, the AMX/3 was constructed there using an AMC V-8. The work of Dick Teague’s styling staff in Kenosha, WI an AMX/3 that was little more than a fiberglass shell was first shown at the 1970 Chicago Auto Show.
American Motors placed an order for 30 operational cars with Giotto Bizzarrini, whose Turin facility hand made drivable mid-engined, steel bodied cars. Built on a 105.3-inch (2,675 mm) wheelbase, the Bizzarrini prototypes used the AMC 390 V-8 and an Italian OTO Melara four-speed transaxle.
Five completed cars were produced before the $2MM program (over $12MM in today’s money) was cancelled. AMC needed to focus their attention elsewhere; the time for an AMX/3 car had passed. The remaining parts that remained in Italy were used to assemble a sixth car.
The Iso Rivolta was a luxurious Coupé designed by Bertone and introduced in 1962. Intended to be a true Grand Tourer (GT) with the role of moving four adults comfortably, at speed, over highways around the continent. Power came from a Chevy 327 V-8 backed by a floor-shifting Borg Warner all-synchromesh four-speed. Suspension was designed around comfort and excellent highway manners, particularly at speed.
De Tomaso Mangusta
The fantastic-looking De Tomaso Mangusta suffered from a poor chassis design, a central backbone type as used by Lotus in lighter and less powerful cars. This impacted handling and as a result, sales. It was on the market for just four years and 401 units were sold before being replaced by the stiffer, much more successful Pantera.
Giugiaro designed the car, which can be recognized by its gull wing doors over the engine and luggage compartment. Power came from a 289 Ford V8 originally, a 302 in later cars, driving through a 5-speed ZF transaxle. Other issues that limited the lifespan of the Mangusta was its tail-happy 32/68 weight distribution, flexible chassis, and a cramped interior.
Wealthy Texas oilman and road racer Gary Laughlin and his co-conspirators Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby enlisted the help of Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole to build their dream sports car: Corvette underpinnings with an Italian body. Three 1959 Corvette chassis were shipped without bodies to Scaglietti who would produce a small run of bodies for the Corvette. At the time, Scaglietti was busy turning out Ferrari’s Tour de France model. The Scaglietti Corvette would follow the lines of the Tour de France, adapted to fit the Corvette’s dimensions. Laughlin insisted on a proper Corvette grille. Upper management at GM caught wind of the project about the same time as Enzo Ferrari did, so the cars were quickly shipped back to the US, only one having been completed in Italy, the other two in Houston.
Now here’s a hybrid for you, and I don’t mean gasoline/electricity. The Frua was built on an already dated AC Cobra 427 Mark III chassis extended by 6 inches. The chassis was built at the AC works in England then shipped to Frua’s workshop in Italy where the body was fitted and then sent back to England to have the power train and trim added. Engine was Ford’s 428 V-8 backed by a four-speed Ford “toploader” transmission. The cost was high and the cars could not be sold at a competitive price, and any potential buyers quickly learned they’d be fried by engine heat pouring in through the firewall.
Pininfarnia Rodine Corvette
The only steel-body Corvette, the Rodine is the product of a long-running relationship between GM and Pininfarina to display a more European version of the Corvette for the 1963 Paris Auto Show. The Rodine was designed by our old friend, American designer Tom Tjaarda while he was working at Pinninfarina, and powered by the Corvette engine of the day – fuel-injected 360 hp, 327 V8 backed by a four speed 4-speed manual. The French weren’t impressed and the idea of a European ended with just a single car.
Momo Mirage 2+2
Peter Kalikow partnered with ex-Briggs Cunnignham and current NYC Jaguar dealer Alfred Momo to build a four-seater GT for the American market to fill the gap between Ferrari and Rolls-Royce.
Pietro Frua took the initial drawings and turned them into full designs and executed in metal, to fit over a chassis constructed by race car manufacturer Stanguellini. The car was powered by a 350 Chevy V8 backed either by a GM three-speed automatic of a ZF five-speed manual.
The original plan to turn out 25 vehicles a year fell victim to the Italian partners raising their prices and an ailing US economy. It is believed that five cars were constructed in 1972, and that three of which remain in Peter Kalikow’s ownership.
Categories: Gear Grinding