Beauty – or a beast?

It may be one of the most gorgeously-styled cars ever made, but you may never have heard of it. The Intermeccanica Italia is one of life's great mysteries, which Mike McCarthy drove in Holland, while Peter Robinson delved into its history.

You must admit, it's an especially beautiful car. it also looks curiously familiar. Hard to put your finger on it, though. A touch of the Nembo Ferrari, or an open version of the 275GTB perhaps, especially the grille. The only identification is a name, Italia, in separate chromed letters across the boot lid, and two smaller badges, one each side on the flanks, that say Carrozzeria IM. Look inside and you'll see a red rampant bull in the centre of the steering wheel. Not a great deal to tell you what it is, is there? A Lamborghini, perhaps?

Nope. What you're looking at is a real, genuine 1971 Intermeccanica Italia.

It was built in Italy, it has an Italian name, but the Intermeccanica was actually backed by a Hungarian-born Canadian, Frank Reisner. Peter Robinson tells us his story elsewhere, and the convoluted background to the car, but the Italia began with the Apollo which Intermeccanica built for International Motor Cars in America. This failed but gave an idea to jack Griffith, of TVR Griffith fame. He d ail all-new car, the Griffith GT, with an X

American stylist, Bob Cumberford, and a British engineer, John Crosthwaite, but the venture failed and Steve Wilder, ex-Car and Driver, bought the operation, renamed the car the Omega - and it failed too. Enter Reisner, who was actually making almost everything, and he scooped the pool. At first he called the car the Torino, but Ford objected. Enter the Italia. Simple, really.

Thus, the Italia is, basically, an Italian-built version of such Euro-American mixtures as the Frua-bodied AC 428 (the obvious comparison) and Monteverdi. Numbers made? The best figures we've seen are approximately 400 Italias, Torinos, call them what you will, from 1967-72.

So what goes into an Italia? Now it so happens that we found ourselves a brochure for the Griffith from which the Intermeccanica Italia came. The assumption is that, engines apart, the two are the same.

The Griffith had a Plymouth Commando 273cu in (4.4-litre) engine: the Italia has a Ford unit. Beneath that shapely steel skin is as solid a steel chassis as you can find, with

two hefty side members with horn-like growths at each end to take the suspension and body. The two are 'welded into a single rattle-free unit'. There's independent suspension by coils and wishbones up front but a live rear axle, located by trailing links and a Panhard rod, designed with 'thanks to assistance from John Crosthwaite of BRM, the British Grand Prix champions', at the back.

The Ford V8 has'5.7 EFI by ITIALA' scripted on the rocker cover. '57' means 5.7 litres which translates roughly as 350cu in, which means the Ford 351 Cleveland lump. The 'EFI', though, has thrown everyone: Ford didn't provide F back then, so the system seems to be home-made. In standard form the Cleveland gave 314 (American) bhp at 5500rpm, and 418lb ft at 3200rpm.

There's a four on the floor, a Ford T10, unassisted rack-and-pinion steering, and disc brakes on each corner. Reported performance when new includes a maximum of 150mph, with a 0-60mph time of 6.5 see, so the Italia was apparently no slouch.

All in all, it's a late'60s, early '70s Euro-Yank kit car. But let's face it: this is one of the most beautiful E-Y kit cars. That slim nose, with little bumperettes on the corners. Those sensual curves atop the wings, sweeping back from the headlights to the Kamm tail. The raked-back screen. Clean, slim flanks. No embellishment. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, a blindingly beautiful motor car. 'Very fast, very Italian, Beflissima!' and 'with styling that can only be described as taut, feline in its grace' as the Griffith brochure says. Agreed.

The interior is very period: red and black leather with black PVC for the lesser bits. Ditto for the dashboard, with a big black Speedo, and tacho, with small fuel, oil pressure, water temperature and amp gauges, all Jaegers, with off-the-shelf and unlabelled switches strategically surrounding them. Intermeccanica

There are big doors and loads of room inside, too: Mr Reisner must have been a big man. The seats are bolsterless, both in squab and back, so there's not a great deal of support, especially for the passenger, but at least the driver has a steering wheel - leather rimmed, with three alloy spokes - to grip.

So the first impression of the car featured here when we arrived at Sander van der Velden near 'S-Hertogenbosch in Holland was, as the auctioneers say, pristine. The black paint was perfect, the leather nearly uncreased. Tony van der Velden didn't have any history on it - the car had been bought at auction in Tokyo after an American restoration. Now we all know there are restorations and restorations...

Switch on, start up, and the engine throbs into life. Blip the throttle, the car twitches, and you know there's a big V8 lump under that smoothly curvaceous nose. The clutch is heavyish, but acceptable, the gearchange similar -you can't expect a Japanese-type flick switch with a 23-year old T10 'box. An open road, shove throttle to the floor, revs rise to 3500rpm with a fine surge - then the engine cuts. Try again, same thing. Oops.

We find a mini-Indianapolis circuit for some action photographs. There's enough performance to show that the steering was ok, but nothing special. A bit dead and stodgy at parking, tightening up thereafter, reasonably geared and with no kickback. When we look under the bonnet we notice that the long column spears down towards the centre of the car, but to get around the oil filter, the casing has been dented to clear the column. Oh dear. 'The best handling you've had since you were a baby' announces the Griffith brochure. With a live back axle on a little diddy oval, the tail comes out at the drop of a hat - but a mite unpredictably. There's no tramp or anything like that,

but tyre breakaway is, er, um, easy come, easy go. Very American. The brakes, too. Prod them and the car could dart either way. This is going to be tricky. We find a straight bit of cobbled road - and find another flaw. The silencers bottom on the cobbles. Oh dear...

What we have here appears to be a cosmetic restoration. it looks perfect, but needs attention to the mechanicals. Like the steering, brakes, suspension, all the vital little bits. What we don't know is what it would have been like when new: presumably better.

Were they all like this though? Tony van der Velden has another, and they're both the same. Erich Bitter, of Bitter car fame and a one-time Intermeccanica dealer, is reported as saying that 'warranty claims were horrendous, corrosion protection was alien to the manufacturers, and the cars started deteriorating the moment they left the factory'.

But perhaps he was biased.

What we have here, then, is a perfect poseur's car. Looks outta sight, sounds fabulous: who cares what it's really like when you're cruising Highway I in California? You're only allowed 55mph anyway..

The man behind the name

Frank Reisner began making sports cars in 1960 in Turin. He's still building cars and the name Intermeccanica lives on.

Reisner was born in 1932 in Hungary, though soon after his parents fled to Canada. After the war, he gained a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan which led to a job in the paint industry and contact with the motor industry. After his marriage to Paula, a Czech, Frank and his bride decided to visit Europe.

Ultimately, they decided to stay in Rome where Reisner came into contact with Giannini, a small race-car builder. Reisner was asked to design a Formula Junior chassis and quickly realized that, if he wanted to be involved in the car business, Rome was not the most suitable city in Italy. In mid-1959 he founded Intermeccanica in Turin.

The early work was go-faster tuning kits for small Renaults, Peugeots and Simcas but three FJs were finished and one took the 1961 Canadian FJ championship.

In 1960, Frank began work on a small prototype based on Steyr Puch 500 bits, its air-cooled Fiat 500 engine enlarged to 645cc and producing 40bhp at 5 500rpm. The car was called IMP (Inter Meccanica Puch), its attractive body - by an unknown designer - being not unlike comparable Abarth coupes of the same period and built on a platform chassis. Top speed was over 90mph.

Reisner hoped to build 100 examples but both Steyr Puch and Fiat did nothing to ease the purchase of essential parts and in the end just 21 cars were produced.

In the winter of 1961-62, Reisner says he enlarged the IMP concept as an experiment for a bigger, front-engined car powered by Buick's then-new alloy V8 - the same engine that was later sold to Rover - to create the Apollo. Here the story becomes less clear.

For concurrently another coupe, also called Apollo, was being conceived by International Motor Cars of Oakland, California. Designed by Ron Plescia, the new coupe began doing the rounds of shows and the American motoring press in 1963. According to reports at the time, International Motors, realizing it wasn't in a position to actually construct the Apollo, went to Intermeccanica to have the bodies built.

A few cars were finished, their bodies much revised by Franco Scaglione (the same designer responsible for the Bertone BAT cars), before the venture sank.

However, Jack Griffith, a Long island TVR dealer, saw the car and began dreaming. Griffith had been assembling the V8-engined TVR in the USA using a chassis and plastic body made in England and the same 4.7-litre Ford V8 Shelby employed to power the Cobra. The TVR 200, designed to take an MGA engine, wasn't up to the task of coping with so much torque and proved fragile.

Griffith could see the potential in the Apollo and arranged with Intermeccanica to supply three cars per day - 750 cars over three years - for the American market. Originally, the deal was to involve Reisner building and finishing the steel-bodied cars in Italy and shipping them to the USA where the mechanical components would be installed by Griffith. Reisner showed them at the 1964 Turin motor show, and in New York in 1965, the prototype of a two-plus-two version.

To this day Reisner claims his Apollo was designed by Scaglione. However, American Robert Cumberford, who worked for General Motors Design in the mid-'50s, also takes credit for the car.

Reisner explains: "Griffith commissioned the car and we'd finished the design when Cumberford showed up in Turin. He told me Griffith had sent him over with a contract to design the Apollo. Cumberford told me everything named Griffith was to be designed by Cumberford. We widened our car and lowered the tail to his instructions, but it wasn't designed by Cumberford."

Cumberford's version is quite different: "I was originally engaged by Jack Griffith in 1964 to come up with a new body to replace the original TVR coupe. When Griffith met Frank Reisner at the New York show in 1965 it was decided to change suppliers as the TVR cars had proved rather too fragile for the power the V8 supplied. I began work in May 1965, sent 1: 5 layout drawings to Intermeccanica in June 1965, and then went to Italy at the end of July to inspect and approve the full-scale wooden body buck.

"Reisner told me that Scaglione had done the full-scale drawing from which the body buck was made, but he simply expanded my layouts. Scaglione was kind enough to tell me that although he would never have done the roof like mine, he liked it. Coming from the Italian designer I most respected, that was high praise indeed.

"I suppose the problem lies in the fact that Reisner did not want to pay me royalties so he put it about that Scaglione designed the cars that I did. In fact, if you look at my designs carefully you'll see that they are quite different from anything the good Ingeniere ever did, that my cars were made to take up space on American roads so they wouldn't disappear in the crowds of 20-foot Lincolns that populated our streets.

"I have seen that design attributed in print to Pininfarina, Carroll Shelby, Stephen Wilder and Giorgietto Giugiaro, as well as Scaglione, but it's not true. I conceived it and fought like a bastard to keep the Torinese from 'Italianicising' it, including a lightning trip to Turin so that I could get the buck made right."

The Griffith GT, as the Apollo would then have been called, was shown at the 1966 New York show. A report in the May 1966 issue of Road & Track magazine says the car was an, 'Italian-American project that combines chassis and bodywork by Intermeccanica with Plymouth running gear. The design of the new car was the responsibility of Cumberford Design International. Cumberford was responsible for the basic design work of the Griffith...'Autocar April 22, 1966, also attributed the design to Cumberford.

A Griffith brochure predicted 512 cars would be built in a year, but Reisner says only 90 were built. Sadly, the enterprise failed, even after Griffith had built a new factory for the car's assembly, although this probably contributed to his running out of money.

Ford refused to supply engines to the budding car constructor. instead, heavier Chrysler V8s were installed but not even the best efforts of Griffith's chief development engineer, a young Mark Donohue, could remedy all the problems.

Cumberford says: "Griffith ran into financial difficulties early in 1966 and never completed paying me. The American Arbitration Association in New York decided that all rights to the design resided with me and I licensed Intermeccanica to produce the shape conceived for the Griffith."

Enter Steve Wilder, a one-time motoring writer and wealthy enthusiast. Reisner remembers Wilder accompanying Cumberford on a visit to Turin. Wilder was involved with Holman and Moody, the North Carolina based Ford experts who built many Ford NASCAR stockers. Holman and Moody already knew Reisner through an estate car version of the Mustang he'd built in 1965.

Wilder's idea was that the cars - to be called Omega and again Ford-powered - would be assembled in North Carolina at hangar Number 4 at the Charlotte Municipal Airport. Reisner remembers Wilder commuting from New York every day to oversee the assembly. Inevitably it didn't last. Reisner was initially contracted to build 50 cars, but when the money ran Out only 36 had been constructed.

Reisner now says Cumberford claimed Chrysler was interested in supplying engines for the cars, and they agreed that for $30 a car Cumberford would help find a new backer. The details are vague, but eventually a Triumph importer funded a program that Would see 125 cars per year built in Italy from 1966 until 4969. By then the Omega (the design attributed to Cumberford in an Omega brochure) - coupe and convertible was assembled in Italy and shipped in finished form to the USA. At least this gave Reisner more control over the car's destiny

Cumberford says: "The New York Triumph distributors, Genser-Foreman first marketed the cars as Genser-Foreman Experimentals, thus GFX, then changed the name to Torino until Ford intervened and the last cars were Italias. During this period Ford engines supplanted Chryslers and grew in size from 4.7 to 5 litres and the 5.7-litre Cleveland V8.

A 1968 Intermeccanica brochure claimed the Italia was, American components encased in an Italian body designed by Scaglione.' The car weighed 2380lbs and sold for just $ 3500. Intermeccanica could boast, 'Drive in carefree comfort knowing your car can be serviced at any gas station. The Italia will retain its exclusivity in the years to come.'

For the first time Italias were sold in Europe. However, by 1969 Reisner "couldn't stand it any more" and sold up, though how many more cars were built is not known.

Another door had opened. Opel was desperately seeking ways to change its dowdy image and Bob Lutz, the current president of Chrysler but then working at Opel, believed a sports car would help. Opel wanted Reisner to use the Chevrolet V8, Hydramatic automatic and de Dion rear suspension from the Opel Diplomat in a facelifted Italia.

According to Reisner, Scaglione was again employed to come up with a new body. Work started in August 1970 and by November was completed. Cumberford believes the Indra windscreen and door skins and all the inner body panels came from the earlier car.

The car - to be called Indra after a popular hit-song of the time and not Opel's engine man Fritz Indra - was tested in Germany. The prototype was shown at the 1971 Geneva show to much acclaim from GM personnel, including styling boss Bill Mitchell. Reisner says 170 signed orders were accepted.

However, Reisner also remembers there being terrible handling problems, while the engines overheated. Twenty four cars were finished by hand, but slowly the assembly line reached the break-even point of two cars per week. At the 1972 Geneva show two Indras coupe and convertible - were displayed, with a third car for demonstrations. One who drove the Indra was Porsche's head of R&D Helmuth Bott. Reisner believes the car helped "inspire the 928". At the same time Erich Bitter, who had been one of Reisner's Indra dealers in Germany, was working "behind my back" to build a similar car. Opel decided Reisner's operation was too small to continue and broke off the deal, preferring to work with Bitter. Reisner sued after building 127 Indras and fought the case until 1978 when it was lost on a "formality".

By 1975 he had moved back to the USA, taking 16 bodies with him, hoping to convert them to Ford mechanicals. But he "plain ran out of money".

His next step was to start building and selling replicas of the Porsche Speedster. in all 650 cars were built between 1976-80 before he sold out to his partner and moved to Vancouver where he now builds replicas of the Porsche 356A. So far 300 have been made.

The full story of the Griffith/Omega/ GFX/Torino/Italia may never be told. Meanwhile, Frank Reisner goes on having fun, building cars for customers who want individuality above all.

Classic and Sportscar June 1993 pp 80-85
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