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In the fashionable and flighty world of the Italian supercar – a genre that, by its very nature, was always about boutique baubles rather than life’s necessities – the big four-seaters of the late 1960 sand early ’70s were promoted as the new working members of their respective families.
Yet they were also the flagships, often costing many thousands more, in period, than the two-seater siblings that today make purists dribble and extract seven-figure sums from collectors.
If you were a Latin manufacturer of exotic grand touring automobiles in the late ’60s, the idea of offering a full four-seater in your line-up was already becoming an inevitability rather than just an interesting option.
This was driven in part by the local styling houses (then in perhaps their most creative phase), and by rising buyer demand for a more versatile product in a marketplace that was busier than ever with wannabe exotica and hybrid hopefuls, but had a fairly static number of potential customers.
Then, moving into the more hard-bitten ’70s, with its various fuel shortages and general po-faced attitude to the pleasures of the super rich, having a four-seater option became a necessity if you wanted to sell very fast, very expensive cars in any meaningful numbers.
Somehow, the possibility of two additional spaces – with the useful bonus of a decent-sized boot – at a stroke defused buyers’ anxieties without trashing the supercar fantasy.
The rise of the four-place super-GT also gave new scope for previously near-heretical options such as power-assisted steering, air conditioning and automatic transmission, all designed to further tame the excesses of these heavyweights for supposed everyday civilian use.
So while the image-making front- and mid-engined ‘recreational’ two-seaters still grabbed all the headlines and tempted buyers into the dealerships, the four-seater models equalled more customers, more volume and, hopefully, more profit.
Even if these machines’ (typically male) customer of the time might never take his wife – or their offspring – in that family-friendly Ferrari or Maserati, the point was that he could if he wanted to.
In that way spouses were placated, and boards of directors’ concerns that their chairman was about to have a very expensive, Ferrari-shaped mid-life crisis were reassured.
Somehow a supercar with four seats seemed marginally more socially and domestically responsible than one with two.
It is hard to say, of course, how many Ferrari 400GT or Lamborghini Espada drivers of 50 years ago really took their cars to the supermarket; or if former Ghibli and Grifo customers were to be seen lining up to trade them in against an Indy or a Lele, just so they could take granny to church or the kids to school.
To be honest, the notion that individuals with £8000 or more to spend on a motor car in the early ’70s actually needed a dual-purpose handbuilt Italian car was a nonsense: ‘need’ doesn’t come into it with these vehicles.
Such people usually had staff (and a second car) for life’s chores, and if they truly wanted to be practical they could buy themselves one of the latest 3-litre BMWs, a V8 Mercedes-Benz or, best of all, a V12 Jaguar.
That would do the job better for a lot less cash – as if value for money was ever a consideration at this level of the market.
What is certain is that four-seater supercars such as these did good business by the rarefied standards of the exotic-car trade, then still in its infancy.
I’m not sure that Lamborghini has ever produced a more successful front-engined V12 than the Espada (with 1227 built from 1968-’78), while the Indy (1136 examples from 1966-’74) is easily one of the most prolific of the ‘classic-era’ V8-powered Maseratis.
Likewise the Ferrari. Launched in 1972 as the 365GT4, it became the 4.8-litre 400GT (and 400 automatic) in 1976, and then the Bosch fuel-injected 400i in 1979.
The full 5-litre 412GT ran from 1986 to 1989, giving a final tally of 2911 cars with this body.
The Iso Lele is a different story. The marque was not yet 10 years old when the Bertone-styled Lele was introduced in 1969. Five years and 317 cars later the Lele was gone – as was Iso itself.
The company had caused a sensation with its beautiful Grifo; less so the Lele, which was really just a reboot of the four-seater concept that had launched the marque, in 1962, with the Rivolta.
The slim-pillared elegance of that car was replaced by an angular Brutalism in the Lele, with its heavy tail and C-pillar plus the sullen, sleepy look of its half-hidden quad headlights.
Iso’s formula of luxury fittings and a refined drivetrain in a rigid, Bizzarini-designed chassis had wowed press and buyers alike in ’62.
But by the early ’70s, those with £10k to spend were less forgiving of the Lele’s poor ventilation, 11mpg thirst and cumbersome steering lock: you could, after all, buy all the same shortcomings in a faster Aston Martin or a much cheaper Jensen.
Iso of Milan was near-unique among Italian exotic marques in using a non-homegrown engine yet, in a way, the Chevrolet V8 (later examples used Ford units) is the best part of a car that seems to have all the right ingredients but fails to come together as a credible entity.
From the off this 1971 Lele’s over-styled dash and ugly seats do not endear the car to me, and the dramatic sweep of the roofline compromises the headroom in the otherwise commodious rear seats.
Maybe the five-speed Sport version would get the Lele over the line as a car to engage the driver.
As an automatic, as here, it is at least fast and quiet: only when squeezing the throttle hard for a lunge of acceleration does it raise its voice above a distant rumble.
Its general smoothness and refinement complement the low levels of wind noise, the slick-shifting gearbox (which gives 90mph in second and a bit over 130mph in top) and the pleasantly firm ride, which takes bumpy corners in its stride.
Certainly the Lele, with its de Dion tube rear suspension, is stable, swooping through long curves fluidly and capably.
Yet it feels harder work than it should do in a series of tighter turns: slower, with too much roll and wheel-twirling.
The Maserati Indy is, to me, better looking than the Iso but lacks the drama of the Espada and the formal elegance of the 400GT.
Built to supplement the four-door Quattroporte (with which it shares much of its chassis structure and drivetrain), it has roughly equal legroom in the rear to the Ferrari and Iso.
But it can’t match the brilliantly packaged Lamborghini, which is shorter and much lower than either, yet noticeably roomier in all directions inside.
The hatchback treatment of the Indy’s Vignale-styled body cannot be a bad thing although, like the Espada, this arrangement does tend to leave all your goods and chattels exposed in the boot.
There’s a hint of the over-styling suffered by the Lele inside, but its wide, shallow dashboard, with the five minor gauges on a level with the big speedo and rev counter, is more handsome and (slightly) more logical than the Iso’s confusion of switchgear and far-flung minor instruments.
The 1970 Maserati’s V8 (4.2 in this case, but a 4.7 was available) is an oddity in the world of Italian power units in that it has all the complication of quad camshafts and twin-choke Weber carburettors yet gives the driver a modest rev limit to play with. In theory you can use 6500rpm, but 5500rpm tends to feel like enough.
The good news is that the V8 is velvety and superbly flexible at all revs, from its steady idle to well over 100mph in third, or with a solid and exciting surge of mid-range torque as you accelerate through the five well-spaced and smoothly operating ZF-supplied gears.
Higher-geared than the Iso, but not so fierce in pick-up as the V12-engined Lamborghini and Ferrari, the Indy winds itself up quickly and unfussily to the high cruising speeds that feel like its natural habitat, their sustainability limited only by its tanks as it swills fuel at 13mpg.
Total stability, strong brakes and good sealing against wind noise make the cultivated Indy relaxing, and its weight and size are soon forgotten.
On the move it tends to belie the simplicity of its live rear axle and semi-elliptic leaf springs, only hinting – at lower speeds, on bumpy surfaces – at the limited wheel travel and unsprung weight implications in its firm ride.
I can only assume that well-padded seating and deep sidewalls on its 70-profile Michelin rubber combine to make the Indy more comfortable than it should be, as well as more wieldy.
The handling is neutral and there is enough feel in the powered steering to make accurate judgements, but it’s more predictable than agile.
The progression of the throttle, the well-spaced ratios and the seamless power delivery make it instinctive to drive quickly but smoothly.
The Espada and 400GT, with their oversquare four-cam V12 engines and bespoke double-wishbone suspension all round, seem like the most natural adversaries within this four-way comparison.
If you can accept their slightly compromised long-arms/short-legs driving positions then four adults can travel comfortably in each all day, urged along behind engines with one Weber choke for each cylinder that will rev out to almost 8000rpm (in the case of the more aggressively tuned Lamborghini) and push these 4000lb grand tourers to more than 150mph.
Both are steel-bodied, but whereas the Espada has a unitary shell the 400GT retains a classic tubular chassis.
At £13-15k, these were among the most expensive cars listed in the UK in the mid-’70s. By my reckoning, only a Countach, a Rolls-Royce Corniche or a Mercedes-Benz 600 cost more – or, to put it another way, for the price of an Espada you could have two Jaguar XJ12s with enough change left over to buy an Alfasud.
To a certain extent, that high cost was reflected in the engineering.
Where the Iso and Maserati relied on all kinds of off-the-shelf componentry (much of it Jaguar, in the case of the Indy), the V12 cars are much more bespoke in character.
To maintain the purity of concept of the basic drivetrain, both the Espada and 400GT had, for instance, fabricated aluminium suspension wishbones and in-house transmissions; the Lambo ’box even had synchromesh on reverse.
There is something of the wild, adventurous spirit of the Miura in the futuristic, waist-high Espada, while the classic, formal proportions of the Ferrari can be traced back to a line of thought that began with the 250GTE in the early ’60s.
The original 365GT4’s claim to fame within the confusion of the Maranello line-up is that, if you discount the more compact 365GTC/4, it was the first Ferrari four-seater to use the quad-cam 4.4-litre V12 shared with the Daytona, but with a wet sump and side- rather than downdraught Webers mounted on either side above the exhaust cams, instead of in the vee between the cylinder heads.
You can tell the 365 externally from the later 400, 400i and 412 versions of this classic Aldo Brovarone-penned shape by its sextet of rear lights and centre-lock wheels; the 400GT sprouted a discreet chin spoiler.
Entering through long doors, you can see straight away that this ’76 car’s muted but richly leathered cabin has been styled to echo the neat simplicity of the body design.
Its handsome seats and padded headlining look inviting and the dashboard, with its angled, clearly marked minor instruments, is concise by ’70s supercar standards.
The chunky column stalks and ski-slope centre console, with its intuitive heating, ventilation and air-con controls around the long, assertive-looking gearlever, appears as well thought-out as the Iso is haphazard.
The angle of the Momo steering wheel, with its sensuous rim and pleasingly weighted response, looks odd; yet it’s perfectly placed for weaving this easy-to-see-out-of, XJ6-sized machine through traffic.
The V12’s flexibility means you can leave it in third most of the time, then accelerate in one fluid, progressive lunge to beyond 100mph before you start looking for fourth.
The heavy but smooth clutch (a feel common to all the manual cars here) seems a reasonable penalty to pay for a gearbox that has long but precise movements, copes easily with the torque demands and is handily positioned to favour the steering wheel.
With perfect gear spacing there is a silky athleticism to the way the 400GT spins up to high cruising speeds.
The lusty, sustained push still impresses but doesn’t terrify as you exert fine control over the Webers through a beautifully weighted throttle pedal.
The crescendo of sounds from up front means the Ferrari is anything but quiet at high revs – who would want it to be? – but throttle back and it settles into a contented, distant growl.
The ride is so generally excellent that you almost don’t notice how comfortable the 400 is, and you could say the same of its mostly neutral handling composure.
It simply asks that you remember how many revs you have in hand (always more than you think) and the throttle is your friend when it comes to urging the car through any corner with a good line of sight.
It is incisive but not twitchy, tenacious yet not so glued to the road that you feel its limits are only for the truly gifted. It tells you everything that is going on, and you get the idea at once.
By the time Ferrari introduced its 400, the Lamborghini Espada was well into its third series with vented discs, more power and, best of all, power steering to silence critics of its hefty low-speed manners.
The dashboard of this ’73 car looks less exotic than earlier types, but is more rational without fully embracing column-stalk operation in the way the Ferrari does.
After a short whirr of the starter, the Espada’s V12 hums into life. You sit slightly knees-up, operating closely spaced pedals and a much shorter, snickier gearchange than the Ferrari’s long wand, but with a similarly sweet action and a heavy but progressive clutch that allows you to dish out the seamless flow of torque precisely for serene low-speed progress.
On the move it feels a more uplifting place to be than the 400 – in keeping with the Espada’s dream-car-for-the-road personality – but in many ways they come to the same dynamic and functional conclusions.
It feels bigger and less easy to see out of, if not oppressively so in either case. The in-gear maxima are similar but the Lambo picks up a fraction more enthusiastically and shuts down more eagerly.
There’s plenty of torque, yet once the fluids are warm it feels natural to let it rip. Use 7900rpm and you won’t be changing into fifth until 130mph; but even deploying 6500rpm you get that delicious sense of endless thrust and a magnificent, multi-layered, chain-threshing, cam-spooling sound that only comes with a carburetted Latin V12.
Controllable within fine limits, the Espada has a touch of initial understeer – mostly disguised by the power assistance – and just enough lean to give a sense of the high cornering forces you are generating as it sweeps through curves, parrying crests and cambers with an agility that belies its bulk.
If the steering doesn’t have quite the feel of the Ferrari, if its shell doesn’t seem quite so of a piece, it doesn’t matter. There is a sense of theatre and adventure about this fabulous car that sweeps all such thoughts away.
Cars such as the Espada, the Indy and the 400GT still represent the most affordable route into the golden era of the multi-cylinder, multi-camshaft European supercoupé of 50 or so years ago.
An Iso Lele is likely to be even cheaper, but also harder to find: that Iso produced so few of them highlights the dilemma with this genre of American-engined European exotic.
In the end, it lacked both the credibility and the staying power to go the distance in a more hostile ’70s environment, whatever the supposed servicing and durability benefits of its 5.7-litre American engine, latterly Ford Cobra Jet rather than the Corvette-sourced smallblock in this car.
In their purest, most full-blooded forms, these people-carrying supercars are, for me at least, the most intriguing of their ilk: getting four full-sized adults into a vehicle with a bulky engine, a low centre of gravity and a sleek profile created unique packaging issues for stylists and body engineers.
Meanwhile, suspension boffins had to factor in wide variations in all-up weight (hence the Ferrari’s self-levelling struts on the rear) and accommodate new expectations in ride comfort in a car that was up to 40% faster than the average family saloon.
These four-seaters should not be dismissed as the poor relations of the ’70s exotic car world, but venerated as game-moving engineering achievements in their own right that, as a way of covering great distances at high speed, with stability and luxury, aspired to the highest contemporary standards.
They enhanced the hard-won reputations of the most glamorous motoring names in the world and as such should be celebrated enthusiastically, especially at a time when ‘exotic’ marques are increasingly reinventing themselves as purveyors of obese, ostentatious and ungainly SUVs.
Somewhere along the line they forgot that the first job of a ‘supercar’ is to create fashions for others to follow, and to set people’s sights higher – with cars exactly like the fun, futuristic Espada – rather than slavishly pander to the desires of rich people with no taste.
Images: Roman Rätzke
- Sold/no built 1976-’79/502
- Construction tubular steel chassis, steel body with glassfibre floor, aluminium bonnet and bootlid
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4823cc V12, six twin-choke Weber 38DCOE carbs
- Max power 340bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 347lb ft @ 3600rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar f/r; telescopic front dampers, self-levelling rear struts
- Steering power-assisted ZF worm and roller
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 9in (4810mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1803mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1320mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10½in (2700mm)
- Weight 4160lb (1887kg)
- 0-60mph 6.7 secs
- Top speed 153mph
- Mpg 12
- Price new £23,999 (1978)
- Price now £30-65,000*
- Sold/no built 1968-’78/1227
- Construction steel monocoque, aluminium bonnet
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3929cc V12, six twin-choke Weber 40DCOE carbs
- Max power 350bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 290lb ft @ 5500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering ZF worm and sector, optional power assistance
- Brakes vented Girling discs, with twin servos
- Length 15ft 6½in (4730mm)
- Width 6ft 1½in (1867mm)
- Height 3ft 11in (1195mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8½in (2655mm)
- Weight 3875lb (1761kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 158mph
- Mpg 15
- Price new £10,945 (1973)
- Price now £80-140,000*
- Sold/no built 1969-’74/317
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 5736cc V8, four-barrel Carter carburettor
- Max power 260bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque 380lb ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission GM400 three-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear de Dion axle, twin longitudinal arms, Watt linkage; coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs
- Length 15ft 3in (4650mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1750mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1350mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10½in (2700mm)
- Weight 3704lb (1680kg)
- 0-60mph 7.3 secs
- Top speed 132mph
- Mpg 11.3
- Price new £9945
- Price now £30-50,000*
Maserati Indy 4200
- Sold/no built 1966-’74/1136
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4136cc V8, four twin-choke Weber 42DCNF carbs
- Max power 260bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 268lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted ZF recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 16ft (4877mm)
- Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
- Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6½in (2600mm)
- Weight 3638lb (1650kg)
- 0-60mph 7.5 secs
- Top speed 156mph
- Mpg 14
- Price new £9677 (1973)
- Price now £30-60,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication