The first time I became fully aware of an ISO Lele was back in the early part of last season when I got stuck behind a red one in a creeping crocodile of traffic travelling from Dijon to Geneva. Traffic in both directions was crawling along behind slow lorries or 2 c.v. Citroens and neither the driver of the Lele nor I in my E-Type Jaguar were making any headway at all. Reading the name ISO Rivolta Lele on the tail of the red car caused me to give some thought to it as we crept along, and slowly my brain worked and I remembered that the Frank Williams Racing Team had conjured up some sponsorship from ISO and Marlboro, thereby causing his racing cars to be called ISO-Marlboros, and I then recalled that Marlboro, the cigarette people, had given Lele Sport cars to the Williams team drivers, Howden Ganley and Nanni Galli, the publicity blurb referring to the cars as ISO-Marlboro Lele, which I felt was a bit hard on Mr. Rivolta who was making some bits for Frank Williams. The driver in the car in front of me was Howden Ganley and after some miles of this bad Monday-morning traffic I turned off down a country lane, with a map in one hand, and enjoyed some B to C motoring, leaving him to crawl along on the A to B route.
The firm of ISO (pronounce it 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. Recently 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 present series which are powered by Ford. There are two versions of the Lele (pronounce it Lay-lee), the standard model and the Sport, while there is a longer wheelbase, four-door, four-seater sports saloon called the Fidea. All three models are powered by an American Ford “Cobra Jet” V8 engine of 5.76 litres giving a nominal 325 SAE horsepower, while the Sport version has this uprated to 360 American horsepower. These engines are 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 gobble petrol at an alarming rate if used to the full. Transmission is optional, the choice being an automatic box or a ZF 5-speed manual box in unit with the engine. Front suspension is independent by unequal-length double-wishbones and coil springs, with an anti-roll bar and at the rear a de Dion layout is used, the Salisbury axle unit, like a Jaguar, with inboard disc brakes, is chassis mounted, with universally jointed driveshafts out to the wheels. Radius rods locate the de Dion tube fore-and-aft and sideways motion is resisted by a Panhard rod, while the springing medium is by coil springs and telescopic shock-absorbers. The power steering is by ZF, similar to that used by Maserati on the Indy and Ghibli, and the Lele runs on Michelin XWX tyres on 215/70 VP15 radial type, these being mounted on Campagnolo alloy wheels. The bodywork is designed by Bertone and made by ISO in their own factory, the body/chassis structure being in one.
While the firm has been changing hands in Italy so has the Concession in Great Britain and it has now passed into the energetic and enthusiastic hands of Nicholas Van Der Steen Ltd., of 72 Upper Thames Street, London EC4, their smart showrooms being on the north side of Southwark Bridge over the River Thames. Van Der Steen has an infectious enthusiasm for rare and expensive cars, deriving pleasure from selling such things as Daytona Ferraris, Maserati Boras, BMW CSL coupes, Lamborghinis and the complete ISO range; if you want exotic, he’s got it. The firm’s whole thinking is in the £10,000 range, which is around the figure the ISO models will sell at, and nobody thinks about fuel consumption, the price of petrol, or mundane things like insurance. It was from Nick Van Der Steen that I borrowed a yellowy-gold Lele Sport, with 5-speed ZF gearbox, lightweight bumpers, the minimum of unnecessary outward trim, and an airspoiler across the front below the radiator, and the 360 SAE rated engine. Although the Bertone body is a two-door coupe, there are 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 are very good indeed, providing good all-round location without any gimmicks, and the leather-bound Nardi steering wheel is adjustable in-and-out and up-and-down. Quite often when a car design is changed from left-side steering to right-side steering the driver suffers on gearchanging with a central lever, but in the ISO Lele he gains, for the ZF box has an H-pattern for 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th with the lever spring-loaded to 2nd and 3rd, while 1st is away from you and back, being very much a starting-off gear. As long as the wheels are rolling the big V8 picks up in 2nd with no strain at all. Reverse is opposite 1st which makes for easy to-and-fro movements in small spaces. In 2nd and 3rd gears the car is typical V8, with a lot of “rush” and not much result, but in 4th it really gets on its way and using a mere 5,000 r.p.m. it is all happening pretty quickly when you pull the little stumpy gear-lever back into 5th. A nice ambling 90 m.p.h, is achieved at a mere 3,000 r.p.m. in 5th gear and 125 m.p.h. cruising on the Autostrada would not strain the 5.76-litre engine. The wind-noise with everything closed up is commendably low, as is the engine noise, so that there is no strain on the driver whatsoever. The ZF steering is 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 road-going performance, is pleasantly neutral, with a small degree of stabilising understeer on long, fast, sweeping bends. On tight bends, such as a roundabout, you can feel the de Dion layout taking control just when you think the rear is going to take up an attitude of roll like the front, and at this point you can accelerate hard without any drama whatsoever. In fact, the whole character of the Lele is that it has no particular character. It is a refined, luxurious and quiet means of transport that covers the ground quickly and effortlessly with no drama. It is one of the easiest high-performance cars to drive that I have come across, almost too easy in that it does not leave any impression other than being “nice and easy”. The ride is good, so that undulating secondary roads can be taken at any speed, there never being any feeling of the car “flying off the road”, though hump-back bridges can catch the suspension out, the front end giving a couple of flops, after the rear end has dealt with the situation.
The Bertone styling has a rather heavy looking rear three-quarter view and the large rear window looks a bit flat, but from the driver’s seat there is no problem over visibility, apart from the Continental wipers leaving an unwiped part of the windscreen in the vital right-hand corner. This, and one or two other interior details, are in the process of being put right for the British market, such as re-positioning the switches for the electric windows, improving the sun visors, changing the rather bizarre Italian carpet colour for something more appropriate to the interior styling, and dimming the warning lights for the rear window heater and the air blower. In front of the driver are 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, are four matching dials reading Amps, Water temperature, oil temperature and petrol in the 22-gallon tank. If the water temperature rises in heavy traffic a thermostatically-controlled electric radiator-fan switches on, and if that is not enough a second fan can be switched on manually. The four headlamps are only partially covered by hinged “eye-lids” which raise up when the lamps are switched on, but in daylight with the lids down there is sufficient area of lamp 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 with some high-performance or specialist cars. Although it is an amalgam of engineering from America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, clothed in Italian coachwork it seems to be a highly successful amalgam. In the specialist market it would seem to fall between the way-out exotics like Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, and the good, large production cars of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. It is not a car that attracts attention, like an Espada, while you won’t see one on every street corner, and there are no “peasant’s models” as with BMW. It could well appeal to those who want something different but not startling, and a testdrive in one would not disappoint such an individual.—D.S.J.
There must be comparatively few sports which can switch venues from the Equator to the Arctic Circle without losing any of their quality, any of the intensity of their competition and any of the enthusiasm of their devotees. Most sports could not survive such a climatic transplant, of course, and it would be inconceivable to expect cricket to be played on a glacier, water polo in the Sweetwater Canal or the Eton Wall Game against the North Face of the Eiger. Rallying is quite a different category, and whilst the world’s leading drivers are coping with floods, mud holes and the heat, dust and exhaustion of the East African Safari they know full well that they could cope just as we’ll with frozen rivers, violent blizzards and desperately low temperatures up near the Arctic Ocean.
The winter rallies of this world, of which those in Sweden, Finland and Canada are perhaps the best known, have one thing in common with those which take place in hotter countries; they rely on climate to provide the conditions which determine their character. The most northerly rally of any international consequence is what was once called (and is still referred to locally as) the Tunturiralli. It takes place annually in Finnish Lapland where winter temperatures regularly drop lower than 30°C below zero and utilises frozen rivers and lakes in addition to the snow-packed tracks which are ploughed through the deep snow. A low, dulled sun for just a few hours per day; the presence of reindeer herds and the occasional pack of wolves in the white wilderness through which the rally passes; high snow banks which cushion the impact
of departure from the road and which demand as much physical exertion by digging as Safari mud does by pushing and pulling. These are just some of the things which characterise the Arctic Rally. There are many more, of course, not the least of which is the friendly nature of the northern Finns and their work-hard-play-hard philosophy. Since rallying penetrates a country’s interior far more than any race meeting, the people of that country, their ways and their philosophies, can do much to make or break a rally. It says much for the Finnish people that nearly every foreign competitor in a Finnish rally, whether it be in summer or winter, has gone home vowing that he will return as often as possible.
When the energy crisis began to affect sporting activities in many countries of the world, it was generally felt that Finland would remain largely unaffected. Besides the fact that Finland gets most of her oil from the Soviet Union, rallying is immensely popular there and it is realised that the activities of the leading Finnish rally drivers have done much to publicise the country and to increase its prestige overseas. But Finland did not remain unaffected, not so much because of a shortage of energyproviding commodities but because of a lack of foreign exchange facilities with which to buy them. Thus an energy crisis was created where there should not really have been one and the Finnish Government decided to call off all motor sporting events until May 28. There was an immediate outcry against this blanket ban, mainly because it would stop the Arctic Rally, and eventually the Government announced that the organisation of that