Escape Road: Intermeccanica Italia: Italian-American with an identity crisis

By John Mattes

I was skirting the Virginia shore of the Potomac River on the downstream side of Washington, D.C., the Italia's chino-creased fenders framing the asphalt and vintage geometry of the George Washington Parkway, when the Mustang appeared in my peripheral vision, coming in from an entrance on the right In contrast to Italia's glistening red coat, the '68 notchback was dirty and dark green. But they were sisters under the skin, both with Ford V-8s rumbling under the hood.

It seemed a filial attraction as the Mustang drifted closer. But it was just a case of the driver steering where he looked, and he was looking at the Italia, another victim of the Italia' s charm.

Not that I didn't understand. I too had been entranced by the Italian-American hybrid. And in the driver's seat, the effect was much more intense.

But this Italia was a borrowed car, from AutoMarque in Arlington, Va., and I had no intention of letting it become a victim of its own charm. So I did the only reasonable thing. I accelerated. Or. I should say, caused the Italia to accelerate, which is something it does as well as cast spells.

The Italia was always good at casting spells, and the first to be ensnared had the beat of intentions. It was Jack Griffith, the car's creator, whose previous automotive enterprises included a Ford dealership in Connecticut and the Griffith TVR, an ill-conceived and short-lived mating of the Ford V-8 and the TVR chassis.

Resolving to do it right the second time around, Griffith had GM School of Design graduate Bob Cumberford (late of the Cumberford Martinique effort) design a body for the new car. He also arranged for Frank Reisner, whose Automobili Intermeccanica facilities In Turin, Italy, were Idle after the L.A.-based Apollo project collapsed, to lay out and produce a chassis and Cumberford's body.

The contract, signed in the spring of 1965, provided for 2,250 body-chassis units to be built over a three-year period. Each car, complete less Its Ford engine, transmission and rear end, would be shipped to Long Island, N.Y., where Griffith would finish it. The cars, not yet Italias, would be known as Griffiths.

Reisner kept his end of the bargain, swinging into production and shipping cars to America. But Griffith hit a major snag: Ford, as a result of a billing dispute, refused engines to the budding manufacturer. Chrysler, however, would sell to Griffith. But those engines. heavier than the new lightweight Ford for which the car was designed, threw the car out of balance, and the best efforts of Griffith's chief development engineer, a young fellow by the name of Mark Donohue, couldn’t completely remedy all the problems. But to pay his bills, Griffith had to sell his cars.

It didn't work. The bills came in faster than the cars trickled out. Result: Exit Jack Griffith, reportedly $600,000 poorer.

Enter young Steve Wilder, engineer, auto magazine editor, and possessor of old New England money, to try to do what Griffith couldn't. He restored the supply of Ford engines, and with Bob Cumberford as partner, operations were moved to Charlotte, N.C. Lee Holman, son of John Holman, partner In Holman and Moody, would oversee the assembly of the car. now named Omega. at the H-M facilities, Whereupon Wilder bought out Cumberford, then split with Holman and Moody after differences. Finally, after building about 80 Omegas, Wilder decided that being an automotive magnate wasn't his proper lot in life. It's reported that Wilder made money on the affair, but probably only by his selling the name Omega to Oldsmobile.

Of course, all this time Frank Reisner was in Italy, able only to watch the market for his half-care wax and wane based on the business acumen of others. Deciding enough was enough, he began Importing Ford engines and transmissions Into Italy so that he could build com-: plate automobiles, which would then be sold In the U.S. as Intermeccanica Torinos by the then-Triumph Importer, Genser-Forman.

This went on from 1967 through 1969, with 650 cars coming into the U.S. Not all were Torinos, however, as Ford objected to the duplication of the name it was applying to its intermediate sized car. So, in 1968 the car came at last to be known as the Italia.

Intermeccanica continued Italia production through 1973, alongside several other models, but with sales primarily to European customers. Intermeccanica survived the Italia, though it's now Reisner making fiberglass Porsches in Vancouver. B.C.

But that's another story. The topic at hand is the Italia, and all the discussion of ownership changes, production changes, name changes only detract from the car itself, just as the events themselves diminished the car's chances for real success and significant levels of production.

And that's the irony of it all. There is actually nothing wrong with the car, though It Is obviously a product of 1965 technology and philosophy. Remember that in those pro-enlightenment days, we believed true sports cars should be only marginally civilized and that the true way to better handling was stiffer springs and shocks. The Italia lives up to these expectations.

The suspension certainly is humble and direct, with the front being modified Flat truck unequal length wishbones with coil springs, and the rear a standard Mustang live axle mounted on coils and controlled by a pair of radius rods, a Panhard rod, and a trailing torque reaction rod. Even though the car I was driving was built In 1972, it had that mid-'60s feel. It rode hard, and there was clunking sound from Under the rear but that Is one of the inconveniences that an enthusiast was expected, and expected, to endure back then.

Naturally, the handling didn't really benefit from the "racetrack inspired’ settings. On a smooth surface, the Italia has a tendency toward oversteer even with a neutral throttle. Crack the butterflies, and be prepared to catch the rear end as it comes out. And a rough road, a real world road, will keep the driver busy just trying to go straight.

The car came with four-wheel Girling disc brakes, though it was probably more a marketing decision n than one of engineering. With the bias set up properly, the rear pads probably never get warm. And with too much rear brakes, that light rear end would come around faster than a flag in a tornado.

The interior fits right in with the pleasure-pain experience of the Italia. It's stark and dark in there. Everything is black except the steering wheel and the numbers on the Jaeger gauges, individual units mounted in a black vinyl dash. The seats are nice, but the shifter never Ford's standard T-handle unit, n one of the slickest and no better, than usual here. Worse, actually, as a tall mock console over the driveshaft forces a choice between a high-elbow/low-wrist position, or keeping the elbow close to one's side and bending the wrist back to reach the shifter. Neither of which Is satisfactory.

Fortunately, the right pedal connects to a lot of torque, and In the case of the 1972 model I was driving, it came from Ford's 351: The engine of choice grow in size over the years as Ford stretched the dimensions of its small block. It may not have bow romantic, this mover of a million LTDs, but in a 2,600-pound car, performance is the stuff deja vu is made of. With the 271-horse 289, the car was tested with quarter-mile times In the 140, and a top speed of 125 MPH. Top speed was limited not by power but by the 3.25:1 final drive ratio. The coupe Is small-only 46 Inches high-and at least It looks very aerodynamic.

Ah, the looks. How could anyone not love them? Cumberford should have retired the pencil he used to draw It. And Reisner's Italian craftsmen, working Irk at" over a ladder-type four-inch tube frame, should have been allowed to sign every one made.

Certainly the car was a spellbinder. It’s history reads like a B-movie, one about a beautiful woman, demanding the eccentric who leaves a wake of shattered men and broken dreams. It’s a Gabor of an automobile, embraced by those who should have known better, should have known the predictable course of events, the certain end. But once in the web, what choice does one have?

AutoWeek April 2, 1984 page 46