The “Original Hybrids’” Hidden Rally

In the late 1960s, Maserati’s Ghibli was one of the true “it” cars, a GT of striking design, and formidable performance, thanks in great part to its 300+ horsepower, 4-cam V8

The “Original Hybrids’” Hidden Rally

Last week we examined the absurdity of dust covered, grime encrusted cars bringing a serious premium at auction when compared with the prices of true preservation and concours condition cars. On the other end of spectrum is a sensible pricing trend that has gone largely unnoticed by the collector car world: the rising value of the “original hybrids,” and how in many cases these cars are now more desirable than GTs with homegrown engines.

Until the late 1990s, the term “hybrid” had nothing to do with a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, batteries, electric motors, stop-start technology and more. Instead, hybrid meant a European sports or GT car with an American engine, typically a V8. For decades some shortsighted purists looked down on these trans-Atlantic marriages even though they often had equal or greater horsepower, equivalent or superior performance, and were more reliable than their supposed thoroughbred European counterparts.

An “Italian Tune-Up”

A key competitor to the Ghibli was Iso’s Grifo. It also had a V8 up front, only it came from America. Depending upon the horsepower output, the Grifo was quicker and faster than the Ghibli. Today’s collector car marketplace has recognized that, for at auction a Grifo typically brings double (or more) than the Maserati.

Plus they were more tractable in traffic, especially in congested situations such as a city. Back in the day there was a term often used with high-strung European cars: “Italian tune up.” This meant you had to rev the engine to blow out the carbon while a fast sports/GT idled or moved along at continuous slow speeds. This wasn’t applicable to the American powered GTs, and in most cases, they also didn’t overheat.

These attributes and more are why “best of both worlds” was a much better moniker than “hybrid,” yet that didn’t stop the purists from looking down on them, as if to say the Transatlantic concept had little merit. One place they would point to was marketplace values, for such machines typically brought less…

That blue blur is in an even faster version of the Grifo. The raised center section of the hood means this particular Iso has a 427 in place of the standard 327. Mated with a 5-speed transmission, it was good for 170+ mph.

Best of Both Worlds

…Until recently, that is. In the past four years, a number of “Best of Both Worlds” cars have become equal or more costly than their 100% European competitors, a trend that really came into focus at last year’s Gooding & Co. Scottsdale auction when a late 1980s Pantera sold for $300,000+. This was double or triple the price of the best Ferrari 328, and the more I researched, the more I realized this wasn’t a one-off transaction.

For example, historically Ferrari Daytonas have cost five to six times the price of Iso’s two-seat Grifo, but today the best small-block Grifos are nearly at parity with many Daytonas, and the rare big block 7 Liter and Can-Am Grifos (90 made) often cost more. And Grifos are typically double or even triple the price of Maserati Ghibli’s coupe—which personal experience says is sensible, for the Grifo is a better, faster car.

Superior Performance Wins

In 1970 the Grifo got covered headlights, and the big block version was known as the Grifo Can Am. Today the big block Grifos’ value typically exceeds that of a Ferrari Daytona.

I discovered this in the 1980s when I had a 5-speed Series II (covered headlight) small-block Grifo. A friend had a mint condition 5-speed 4.9-liter Ghibli SS, and to see which one was quicker we did a number of rolling starts and ran them to 130 mph; repeatedly the Grifo was ahead by a number of car lengths when we hit that threshold. Then in correspondence I had with Paul Frere, the former Le Mans winner who was one of the great automotive journalists and tested both cars when they were new, he declared his preference for the Grifo, and one thing he noted was its superior performance.

While I think Isos likely remain the pinnacle of the “Best of Both Worlds” machines, a true contender for the “Best” title is the last of the Panteras. Known as the “Nuova Pantera” or “Pantera 90” when it was in production in the first half of the 1990s, its design was a Marcello Gandini redo of the original Tom Tjaarda wedge, and it looked sensational. The 5.0 Ford V8 had been balanced and blueprinted by De Tomaso, and was mated to a 6-speed transmission.

Another GT that used an American V8 was the Apollo, in this case a 3.5 or 5-liter Buick. While the former is a better balanced package, the larger engine gave very impressive straight line performance; company president Milt Brown says in a race on the street with a 289 Cobra, the cars were even to around 130 mph

An Impressive Machine

Santiago De Tomaso was running the factory at the time, following his father’s stroke, and he told me the chassis and underpinnings were all new. On the road the Nuova Pantera was an impressive machine, and the engine was a sweetheart. The cam came on at 3,000 rpm so the 300+ horsepower V8 gave you a serious shove into the comfy leather seat. The soundtrack was lovely, the chassis tight as a drum, the ride communicative and compliant. The whole car was considerably more refined than the original rough-and-rumble Pantera that was built from 1971 to 1989, and definitely equal or superior to Ferrari’s 348 that was in production when the Nuova Pantera debuted in 1991.

The Nuova Pantera remained in production into 1995. With just 41 made it’s quite rare (Ferrari made around 8,200 348s), and the one in the photos may be the only targa version. Needless to say, it would bring a pretty penny at auction today, and considerably more than its Ferrari counterparts.

A Twist on the Classics

The Apollo Spyder is a luscious machine. Beautiful to look at and wonderful to drive, I was totally captivated by the car’s charm during the day I spent with this example. That’s Apollo founder Milt Brown behind the wheel.

Another intriguing Transatlantic Marriage was the Apollo. Back in the first half of the 1960s when Iso was making a name for itself at its state-of-the-art factory in Bresso, Italy, over in Oakland, California Milt Brown was developing his own twist on the V8-powered GT recipe. “Even though people admired cars like Jaguars and Ferraris,” he told me, “they were scared of them because of their reputation. Our concept was a car with the dimensions of the Jaguar E-Type, an Italian looking body and the reliability of a Buick.”

The Apollo had a proprietary ladder-type chassis that was sent to Italy where Carrozzeria Intermeccanica mated it to a berlinetta or spyder coachwork, and installed the interior. The package then returned to Oakland, where the Buick powertrain and more was installed. As with so many of these type of efforts, the passion was there, the concept and intent was good, but proper funding was lacking so just 88 Apollos were built from 1961-1965/66.

Ferrari’s V8-powered 348 debuted in 1989, and was made up to 1995, with around 8200 built. Intriguingly, there was another mid-engine V8 that was also built in Modena at the same time that is quite desirable, but not nearly as well known.

A True Rarity

I’ve driven a handful of Apollos, and was completely charmed by the spyder version. Designed by Franco Scaglione of Alfa BAT fame and more, at the end of my day with Milt Brown’s personal car, I found it to be a comfortable, exciting and well-balanced package. But they are also exceedingly rare, with just 11 made—which was just one of the reasons I asked Milt Brown if he would include me in his will so I could have the car!

Needless to say, Apollos, Iso Grifos and Nuova Panteras are just the tip of a very interesting iceberg, for there are many Transatlantic Marriages that deserve the recognition they are getting. For as said at the beginning of this piece, it looks like the marketplace has finally caught onto the inherent goodness of the concept, and thumbed its nose at the purists.

Simple yet Exotic

While many know of the Panters made in the 1970s and ’80s, the Nuova Pantera of the 1990s is much more rare. It was certainly more refined than Ferrari’s 348, and is quite rare–just 41 were made from 1991-1995.

“Enthusiasts would prefer to have a rare, beautifully built Italian exotic with the simplicity of an American engine,” says long-time new and classic car dealer Steve Serio, who has had a lot of experience selling sports and GT cars with American engines as well as numerous new and collectible Ferraris, Astons, Maseratis and more. “Today’s collectors don’t want to worry about maintaining something far more exotic under the hood, compared to the amount of real use any of these cars actually gets. Simply put, large service bills are no longer en vogue.”

In other words, the Best of Both Worlds recipe holds as much merit now as it did when such machines were new, and today’s collector car market has embraced the value and performance proposition they bring to the game.

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