THE ISETTA SAGA, CHAPTER 5: Three Little, Two Little, One Little Isetta

Chapter 4 recounted how a stealth mission reunited the 3 MIA Isettas with their owner after a lost decade of neglected storage. The initial cleanup of the pile of parts was barely the beginning of the restoration process to come.  

In Chapter 5, the first Big Restoration Decision is made: shall we restore one, two, or all three cars? After all, they’re so small – how difficult could it be?

My newly-acquired home had the advantage of an attached garage, with a walk-through door leading to a basement room equipped with a workbench and my full tool set. It was also heated, courtesy of the gas burner with which it shared space. A disadvantage was that the garage was single-car sized. Isettas are small, but three of them (plus parts) managed to rather completely fill that space. This also left precious little room for wrenching on them.

The first of what would be many consequential decisions was about to be made. I needed to ask myself “what exactly is my plan? What do I hope to accomplish?” The answer to those questions was this: perform enough mechanical restoration work to ONE Isetta to make it drivable. This was the goal at the start; nothing more, nothing less.

In surveying the cars, bodies, chassis, and crates full of loose items, I realized that that a complete inventory would not only be necessary; it would serve as a road map for a logical progression with the mechanical work. Allow me to remind my readers, most of who were not there, that these cars had been taken apart, and not by me. To put it in a Rumsfeldian way: I didn’t know what I had, and more importantly, I didn’t know what I didn’t have.

Much of the next two years was consumed with A) disassembling everything; B) arranging all parts, including multiples, in marked bags and boxes; and C) keeping the “best one” of each, while selling off the duplicates. This otherwise-boring job was greatly aided by the Isetta parts diagrams that Wes had given us (and which a cleaner copy was later obtained from the HMI Club).

 

Parts cleaning was done with various solvents for the grease and grime; a 3M plastic “stripping” wheel was chucked into a drill to strip rust, old paint and other hard coatings.

Shoeboxes, milk crates, cookie tins, and plastic produce bags were all pressed into service as parts organizers, at little or no cost. Everything was sealed shut with masking tape, and a big black Sharpie identified the contents.  Once cleaned, parts were placed on a set of shelves I built from scrap wood for the sole purpose of storage and organization.


THE FOUR CARS

Isetta Number One (car on left) was solid red, with twin wipers and door vents, making it a “DeLuxe” model. The body on this car was the most rusty of the four. I never recorded its chassis number.

Isetta Number Two (car in center) was also solid red, without door vents, and with a single wiper. Its chassis number was 509090. This was the car that I restored and kept.

Isetta Number Three (car on right) was just a body, without a chassis. Its chassis number was 509516. While currently red, signs of the original pastel yellow were very obvious on both the outside and inside.

Isetta Number Four was two-tone blue grey (two-tones are very common on Isettas). Its chassis number was 511502. (Note the proximity of the three chassis numbers.) This was the vehicle which Don kept, and it is the one vehicle of which I have no photographs.


While this was going on, I more closely examined the three car bodies. The casual observer would have seen little difference among them, but each was different. All three were red, but only two were born that way.

One had left the factory in a pastel yellow, and had received a rather crude hand-brushed repaint in red (maybe Wes wanted all of them to match). The yellow car was also the one with the missing chassis, not that we couldn’t mount it to another one.

The second car was a “DeLuxe” edition, with fresh air vents in the door, and, luxury of luxuries, TWO wiper blades!  While these were positives, a rather large negative was the body’s condition: of the three, it had the greatest amount of rust and sheet metal damage. The roof was dented, and some hack had cut a rectangular opening in the shelf above the engine.

This view shows the poor shape of the body. Before selling, it would be stripped of all its parts.

 

Note left-hand shifter, sunroof (standard), door vents, and dealer-installed ashtray

The third car was a “standard” body, as most Isettas were, lacking door vents and a 2nd wiper blade, but aside from a 2-inch rust hole in its battery tray, its body was in the best shape.

I decided to sell the DeLuxe body. From what I had seen among Isetta parts suppliers, the door grilles and internal air vents were not available as spare parts, and I feared that this would prove to be an obstacle down the road. (Only much later did replacement parts become available, and I would later regret selling that door, as “DeLuxe” Isettas were rarer and potentially more valuable.)

The bare body shell as offered for sale

I unbolted the body from the chassis, removed all the glass and trim, and began to advertise it. While attending Imports at Carlisle, I created a wearable sign, hoping to garner some attention and a possible buyer. While I can’t speak to the attention I may have gotten, no one was waving dollar bills in my face (I sadly underestimated the on-site market demand for Isetta bodies).

I walked the field at Carlisle wearing this sign. No one talked to me.

Back home, I placed an ad in Old Cars Weekly, asking $100, and I got it! A dentist from Long Island drove out to my house with a flatbed (overkill; the body would have fit in the bed of a Ford F-150). He claimed that he was going to turn it into a race car. And I thought my dreams were ambitious! Before it left my possession, I posed for a final picture:

Parting company, and now down to two.

This left me with two rather complete cars, plus a spare engine, as I had three crankcases. The next decision was easy: the yellow car would go, and I’d keep the remaining red car, as its body was the best. Since my initial intention was to just get a car running, it looked like the red body might not need much of anything, other than to be bolted to a completed chassis.

My step-son, who in his young age already had several automotive projects under his belt, wanted to buy the yellow car from me. At first, I was completely against the idea. He lived in Colorado and expected me to store it for him “for the time being”. Recalling the patience my parents displayed when I unceremoniously dumped three Isettas in THEIR backyard, I relented. He offered me $500 for the yellow car, and I told him that I’d keep the car in NJ until he could make plans for it.

The red body came off the chassis so that I could remove the suspension, brakes, and remaining drivetrain pieces. The body, sitting on wood, was back to hibernating in a garage until I would get to it.

509090 waits for its wedding day

As tempting as it was to peruse the numerous (both) Isetta parts catalogs so that parts purchasing could commence, I held off. For now, I stayed focused on the short-term goal to complete the cleaning and cataloging. Only when that was done would I start literally at the bottom, by bringing one chassis back to like-new condition.

Light bedtime reading

 

In Chapter 6 of the Isetta Saga, we see lots of stripping action, as the chassis is first stripped of all its components, and then stripped of its factory paint, as the mechanical work begins in earnest.

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

The August 1990 issue of Car & Driver magazine (released around the time the above work was going on) featured a preview of the soon-to-be-available BMW 850i. Complete with 12-cylinder engine, it carried a base price of $73,600 (a far cry from the $1,098 starting price of a ’57 BMW Isetta). The 5-liter engine produced 296 horsepower and 332 ft. lb. of torque. Today’s electronically-controlled turbocharged and supercharged engines easily top those numbers with way fewer cylinders.

 

The AACA Annual Meeting, Phila. PA, Feb. 2018

The Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) held its 82nd annual meeting in Philadelphia PA, from February 8-10, 2018. There is a long history of annual meetings for the club in this city. This was not the first such meeting I’ve attended, but it has been a while since I’ve headed down there. There are years when the Atlantic City Car Show and Auction conflicted with the timing (as was the case this year), but I chose the AACA meeting.

The registration counter at the host hotel, The Sheraton in downtown Philly

The primary purpose of the annual meeting is the Saturday banquet, during which prize winners from the previous year are recognized. There is a General Membership Meeting on Saturday afternoon. Other meetings for officers, Regional Presidents, and judges are also scheduled. Seminars on various topics of interest to the hobby are held all day Friday, and half the day on Saturday. In parallel, a Trade Show is on site, populated by businesses which support lovers of old cars. For someone like me who attended only on Friday, there is lots to see and do.

If there is an issue with the Seminar schedule, it’s that one cannot attend every seminar of interest! There are five time blocks during the day on Friday, but each time block is hosting SEVEN different seminars in seven different rooms. So you need to pick the most interesting one. Given that each time block is 90 minutes, there is the option of jumping from room to room, with the obvious downside of potentially missing something interesting.

Friday’s jammed-packed Seminar schedule

I began Friday morning in the “Market Value Trends” seminar, hosted by the Auto Appraisal Group (AAG) Company. Larry Batton was the presenter, and he showed us various slides which crunched the sales figures from the most recent (Jan. ’18) Arizona auctions. By his own admission, Larry is a numbers guy, and of course, dollars are numbers.

Larry Batton of AAG during his presentation

One of his more interesting observations was summarizing “average sale price” for the auctions MINUS the $1M+ sales, and MINUS the charity sales (which tend to be beyond “fair value”). It gave a somewhat refreshing look at what cars really sell for, once these outliers are struck from the equation.

Larry’s slide shows average sales prices minus the million-dollar cars

He also regaled the audience with a humorous story about a man who “bought back” his own car at an auction, and in doing so, set a world’s record price for that make and model. A few months later, the owner tried to sell the car privately, claiming that the car was worth what he bought it back for. Larry’s point? Do your homework, ask a million questions, ALWAYS ask to see the title, and seek professional help (a plug for his own company).

Next was a session called “Repair, Restoration, and Maintenance” by James Cross. Jim approached his topic in a folksy, low-key, somewhat random way. He’s an old-school, likely self-taught restorer who has focused much of his own collection on pre-war cars (he owns a 1909 Buick). He entertained AND educated us with his list of home-brewed remedies (for example, ketchup will clean the outside of brass radiators, and Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda will clean their insides).

Jim Cross with a bag of his homemade gaskets

One topic covered by Jim which inspired quite a bit of Q&A from the audience was the repair and restoration of wooden wheels. Based on participants’ reactions, your humble blogger was pleasantly surprised to learn that so many hobbyists still have a need to know how to do this. And this observation brought out the one issue with this presentation (which does not cast the slightest aspersion on Mr. Cross): the room was full of old white men, not one of whom was under the age of 50. All this knowledge is great stuff; but how does it get transferred to succeeding generations? This is not an original thought, of course, and yet it remains a vexing issue for the entire old car hobby.

Jim showed this photo of his own contraption for reassembling wooden wheels

The third and final morning seminar that I joined was given the somewhat misleading title of “Decorating Your Garage”. Dan Matthews, the presenter, is an extremely knowledgeable expert in automobilia and petroliana, having written three books on the topic. His main focus was giving advice to the audience about distinguishing “real” tin and porcelain signs from “reproduction” ones. His fast-paced delivery did not always mesh well with his goal, but it was enough to highlight some of the clues one should look for.

The crowd anxiously awaits the start of “Decorating Your Garage”

It helps if one has some basic knowledge (he was able to rattle off statistics such as “there were only 12 made of this particular sign, and the last one sold for $20,000”), and perhaps one of his books on the subject would help the serious shopper. At the end of the day, the warning is one we’ve heard many times before: “if the price seems too good for it to be real, it probably isn’t”.

Jim Matthews making his presentation

My two post-lunch choices were much more AACA-specific. The “Publications Seminar” hosted by outgoing AACA Publications Chairperson Mary Bartemeyer was designed solely for those who work with their own Regions’ newsletters. (Starting this year, I will be taking a more active role in writing for the NJ Region’s newsletter.) AACA has a long list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for these newsletters, and there is special focus on copyright infringement. We were all admonished that you simply cannot take a photo off the Internet and reprint it in your newsletter.

Mary Bartemeyer, discussing Regional newsletters

We heard one sad story about a Region which violated a copyright and was contacted by an attorney. When the Regional representative said “hey, we’re sorry, we’re just a non-profit club”, the attorney’s retort was “too bad, this is the amount it is going to cost you to settle or we’re going to court”. Mary made the point that the Club’s insurance does NOT cover such matters!

Art Briggs of the NJ Region spoke about copyrights and newsletters

The final seminar for me was simply called “HPOF” (in AACA-speak, that’s Historical Preservation of Original Features). The presenter was Fred Trusty, who is the Chairperson for HPOF. He started with an interesting look back at the origins of HPOF. This new class one born in the late 1980s in part from the realization that many of the vehicles entered into Class Judging were over-restored, and it was no longer  possible to literally see how the factory made these cars. Preserving an original car as “original” was deemed to be in the greater interest of the hobby.

This slide from Fred Trusty highlights the emphasis on “preservation”

HPOF started off recognizing cars 45 years old and older; that cutoff was then moved to 35 years, and then again to where is it today, cars 25 years old and older. HPOF judges would rather see imperfect yet original, instead of perfect but non-original. There are some grey areas, such as re-painting, however, that also depends on the vehicle’s age.

Regarding paint, two examples were given: a 1920s car that was repainted once, in the 1940s, probably has so much patina that judges cannot tell with absolute certainly how old the paint is. The car would likely be judged to be “original”. On the other hand, a 1970s car with a complete repaint would not be considered eligible for HPOF.

With “30” a perfect score, note the lower standard for older cars to win HPOF

I have a more than passing interest in this class, as my 1967 Alfa Romeo already has its HPOF award, and one of my challenges as its caretaker is to maintain it in as close to original condition as possible, while still driving it about 2,000 miles per year. I also intend to enter my 1993 Mazda Miata (it turns 25 this year) in the HPOF class at Hershey in 2018. I’m anxious to see if it qualifies for an award.

If you are an AACA member and have not attended an Annual Meeting, I highly recommend that you do so. If you are not a member of AACA and are interested in old cars, the history of old cars, and preserving history, I strongly recommend that you join. Ownership of an old car is NOT a prerequisite. For me, the best part about my membership is conversing with like-minded individuals.

A meeting tradition is the hanging of Regional banners in the hotel lobby

 

An overview of the trade show

 

One last one of the Trade Show

 

You were maybe expecting Chapter Five of the Isetta Saga? It’s coming along nicely, and you’ll read all about it next week, promise.  

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

The original Mazda Miata debuted in the summer of 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show. The first vehicles were 1990 models, making them 28 years old this year. At the time of its introduction, the traditional affordable 2-seat roadster had all but disappeared (Austin-Healey, MG, and Triumph were gone). The Miata’s closest competitor was the Alfa Romeo spider, riding on a body/chassis design that had been introduced in 1966.

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 4: A Garage of My Own for the Isettas

In Chapter Three, we empathized with our wanna-be restorer who uncovered copious sources of Isetta parts and technical information, but who was still unable to accomplish any restoration work of significance.

Chapter Four ends happily when a clandestine mission brings all the Isettas to the same home as the author for the first time in a decade.

 CHAPTER 4: A GARAGE OF MY OWN FOR THE ISETTAS

As the decade of the 1980s progressed, my dreams of restoring my Ford and BMWs were constantly beyond my reach. That’s not to say that I wasn’t spending my time productively. Much effort went into advancing my automotive career, as I progressed from Service Writer to Service Manager to a position with Volvo Corporate; I also embraced every opportunity to indulge in the drummer-as-alternate-career role, an activity which consumed a tremendous amount of time and energy.

In 1983, my girlfriend and I took a week’s vacation, traveling to Germany to be with her sister and brother-in-law. The BIL was in the service, stationed in Frankfurt. I insisted that we find our way to Munich so that we could visit the BMW Museum. (This was the same trip during which we visited the Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse France.) The museum had an Isetta on display, alongside its contemporary 507. The 507 was graced  with a statue of Elvis alongside it, who owned one. The Isetta featured a life-size likeness of Marilyn Monroe alighting from its front door. This is what the Germans thought of ‘50s American culture.

The BMW Museum brochure, 1983

 

Difficult to believe that these two cars were in BMW showrooms at the same time

Aside from this visit, I paid little heed to anything Isetta-related, as my tiny car collection remained tucked away in its Maplewood garage. I continued to mail garage rental payments to Ms. Stetson, but otherwise had no contact with her. Mike Adams, who was sharing the garage with me to store his Volvo 544, left his employment at Smythe Volvo, and I subsequently lost contact with him.

The HMI Club still published newsletters, but I eventually stopped my subscription. An odd side-effect of having my name and number in the Club Directory was that, about once a year, my phone would ring and I would immediately face a barrage of questions: “I’m calling about the Isettas. Do you still own them? Can I ask you some questions about your Isettas?” These conversations, easily lasting an hour or more, would be pleasant, but did nothing to further any progress with the cars.

After the Ford Retractable burned to the ground in 1984, I was so disgusted with myself that I wanted out of the car hobby altogether. I ran an ad in the Want Ad Press, a weekly classified rag that was published in two editions: Automotive, and Everything Else. The ad read:

“Three BMW Isettas for sale, disassembled. Need complete restoration. Take everything for $500.”

One person responded, someone who drove out from Brooklyn. He met me at the garage. I opened the garage door. He took one look, said “have a nice day”, and headed back to his car. Soon after this, I stopped making rent payments. My secret hope was that Sue Stetson would sell her house and the new owner would take possession of the pile in which I had lost all interest.

A very toasty ’57 Ford Skyliner

As the decade was about to end, about three years into my employment at Volvo Cars of North America, my fiancée and I bought a house with a one-car attached garage. She was very supportive of my desire to be in the car hobby, and it was her son who helped hatch The Recovery Plan. He urged that we should drive to Maplewood under cover of darkness, and without alerting anyone, ascertain if the cars were even still there.

One night in the summer of 1989, we drove to Sue Stetson’s house. I barely remembered the way. We arrived close to 10 p.m. The entire block was eerily quiet. Sneaking down her driveway with flashlight in hand, we reached the detached garage behind the house. On tippy toes, I peered through the garage door window. Turning on the flashlight, and prepared for the reality that the garage might be empty, I saw them for the first time in years: three mournful Isettas stared back at me, seemingly untouched all this time. We did nothing more that night than sneak back to my car and drive home.

The decision was mine, and it was resolute: I would contact Sue Stetson, own up to my obligations to her, drag my bounty back to my garage, and begin the restoration process in earnest. I called Sue. She didn’t seem surprised to hear from me. As soon as I offered to pay her 100% of the back rent (about $1,200), she said that wouldn’t be necessary. I insisted. We compromised: I wrote her a check for $600, and we verbally agreed that this would fulfill all back-owed rent.

On Saturday, October 21, 1989 (eleven years to the day from when Don and I made our first trip to Moscow VT), I rented a box truck from U-Haul which could fit everything in one trip. At the end of a very long day, and for the first time in almost ten years, the Isettas and I again lived at the same address.

The 3 Isettas, in their new garage, about to get baths

The following weekend brought glorious weather, what we usually refer to as Indian summer. Taking advantage of the warmth, I dragged all three cars and all the accumulated parts out of the garage and into the driveway to begin an initial cleaning and sorting. The only tools I needed that day were the garden hose and the garbage can.

The 3 car bodies, getting washed for the first time since who knows when

First, the three bodies: I was happy to learn that my fine German automobiles served as home to many cats and mice during the last ten years: there were dozens of mouse skeletons, and more than a few shovelfuls of cat excrement to be scraped out of all the interiors. The only positive note regarding the clean-up was that much of the smell had dissipated. Using nothing more than car wash soap and water, I hosed down all three cars.

Then there were the mechanical bits. As you may recall, none of these Isettas were assembled in the traditional sense at time of purchase. Nothing had changed from 1978 to 1989: the various engines, transmissions, brakes, body pieces, etc., were still loosely collected in boxes and crates. On Cleanup Day, the best I could manage was to pose the pile on the ground for a picture.

An engine, carb, tires, exhaust, and body parts are some of what’s recognizable

 

This is what I started with: this is the car that I eventually completely restored

 

 

One chassis stayed in garage. Note Volvo 544 door which belonged to Mike Adams

 

With cleanup done, everything went back into the garage. For once, time was on my side as I plotted a course of action which would bring me into the decade of the 1990s, about to embark on a full-scale restoration of an Isetta.

In Chapter 5 of the Isetta Saga, we begin to disassemble all 3 cars, after which all loose parts are thrown into a pile, and the best of the bunch is selected while wearing blindfolds.

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

After World War II, the Bavarian Motors Works (BMW) was struggling to survive. Showroom offerings ranged from the $1,098 Isetta microcar, to the $8,988 507, of which only 253 were ever built. (To put that price in relative terms, a ’57 Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing was $7,295, and a ’57 Porsche 356 Cabriolet was $5,915.) Collector car values for the 507 languished for years. According to Sports Car Market magazine’s price guide, ten years ago, in 2008, the value of a 507 ranged between $300,000 and $500,000. Today, that same price guide pins its value at $2,077,500. Not a bad ROI.

Tucker Restoration Shop Holds Open House

For a vehicle which reached a production count of only 51, the “Tucker 48” automobile has fascinated auto enthusiasts, historians, collectors, and conspiracy theorists ever since the Tucker Corporation ceased operating in 1949.

On Sunday January 28, 2018, I had an opportunity to visit a shop which is in the process of performing a complete restoration on Tucker #1044. Via my membership in the NJ Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), the word went out that Ida Automotive, a shop in Morganville NJ, was hosting an Open House, allowing invitees to see this Tucker in its disassembled state.

Arriving shortly after the announced start time of 11 a.m., the lot surrounding the building was already so crowded that finding a parking spot took a few minutes. By the time I worked my way inside, I would estimate that I was one of at least 100 people in attendance.

This is one of three shop rooms

There is no need to delve into the detailed history of Preston Tucker and his eponymous cars here. If interested, the author invites the reader to visit this Wikipedia page, or this page from the AACA Museum website. Indeed, Richard’s Car Blog briefly highlighted the Tuckers at the Museum when we visited in early 2017.

Back to Ida Automotive: the shop building is set back from busy Texas Rd. by about 100 yards. With no identifying signage out front, those driving by on this busy street would have no idea it existed. Entering the front door, one passes through a small but neatly painted and carpeted front room and then into the shop area itself. There are multiple rooms, and each room is jammed with cars-in-process, tools, supplies, machine equipment, lifts, parts, and most notably, sheet metal, both in ‘stock’ and ‘formed’ shapes. The mob on hand made it so crowded that moving about took time and patience.

Having visited my share of automotive repair shops, there was an immediate sense that this operation is different. The primary work product here is sheet metal fabrication. The car collection within was eclectic, and included a ’50 Mercury convertible, an unidentifiable ‘40s-era pickup truck under cover, a Ferrari 365 GT “Queen Mother”, and a ’58 Cadillac custom (covered and on a lift, exposing its rack-and-pinion steering!).

’50 Mercury convertible, almost done (but I found green over red colors odd)

A FERRARI IN A FABRICATION SHOP?
The question was answered once I spotted the “before” photo: something had crushed its roof, and the skilled metal workers at Ida Automotive had beautifully repaired it:

That brings us to the Tuckers. One was immediately drawn to a brilliant blue Tucker, appearing to be a perfectly restored car – until one noticed the twin-turbo engine out back, sitting in a chassis that looked about 4 inches lower than stock. This Tucker otherwise appeared ‘normal’, but the blank VIN plate caused me to conclude that this was a replicar, albeit an extremely well-done one.

Behind it was a wooden buck (upon which sheet metal is formed into shape), and again, first glances proved deceiving. While the overall form looked Tuckerish (if that’s not a word, it should be), certain shapes on the buck deviated from the blue car next to it.

Moving into the next room, the shiny object in front of me was some sort of car, but what? Again, the word “Tuckerish” came to mind. But there were enough hints lying around in the form of printed images to solve the riddle. Ida Automotive is in the process of recreating the original Tucker Torpedo, the design study shown to the public in two-dimensional form, but never built. It’s an odd-looking thing, especially without glass and doors installed, preventing you from seeing the whole shape. But the more one stared, the more one could see the familial resemblance. Oh, and that buck behind it is for this Torpedo.


THE TUCKER TORPEDO
The “Torpedo” was the name given to the illustration of the prototype. Many mistakenly called the production car the “Torpedo ’48”, but that was not its name. The efforts by Ida Automotive to create a vehicle which never existed is fanatical.
Minus doors and glass, Torpedo looks awkward from this angle
Its most unique feature (so far) is the seating arrangement. There are 3 seats, arranged on an electrically-powered carousel disc. There is one seat in the front for the driver, who sits behind the centrally-mounted wheel; in the rear are two passengers. However, the carousel rotates, which means any one of the 3 seats can be the driver’s seat. This might also assist with ingress and egress. One can only hope that the carousel’s rotational ability is disabled while the Torpedo is in motion.
The Torpedo’s 3 seats, mounted on a carousel (note magazine illustration)

The final room held the star of the show, Tucker #1044 (its serial number). Interestingly, this very car was recently featured in Hemmings’ Classic Car magazine. The gentleman who owns it bought it last year, and must have decided that, although a decent driver, it deserved a complete do-over, and he concluded that Ida Automotive was the best place for it.

Spacious interior looks even more so here

 

Front suspension detail. Originally car had rubber suspension.
There was always a crowd around #1044 (note wall posters)

 

It was very generous for the proprietors to open their doors on a Sunday to those of us interested in Tuckers. Our hosts went so far as to provide coffee, water, and breakfast treats. There were no formal presentations, so we were left to figure things out by snooping around the place.  A poster on the wall was a big giveaway: a man named Joseph Ida was the dealer principal of a Tucker dealership in New York, so it’s not a far stretch to conclude that a descendant owns Ida Automotive. Another poster proclaims: “Ida Automotive Est. 1959”, so they’ve been at it for a while.

Wall poster shows Joseph Ida in front of his Tucker dealership in NY

MACHINE  AND SHEET METAL TOOLS


The business’ associated websites offer little in the way of clues as to what actually transpires within these walls. Based on the quality of work I observed, it’s fair to say that Ida Automotive excels at what they do. It’s also refreshing for this collector to see some things still done the old-fashioned way. We in the hobby can only hope that workers with these skill sets continue to be around so that our automotive treasures can continue to be maintained and enjoyed.

Please don’t be alarmed: Chapter Four of the Isetta Saga will return next week, promise.  

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

Tucker #1029, the car personally owned and driven by Preston Tucker, was sold by RM Sotheby’s at their January 2018 Arizona auction for $1,792,500.

 

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 3: Discovering You Are Not Alone Among the Bubble Cars

In Chapter Two, we voyaged with our intrepid travelers as they braved all manner of hardships to secure safe passage of their beloved bubble cars back to NJ.

Chapter Three brings us the exciting discovery that there are others who own and collect Isettas, and can even provide much-needed parts and technical knowledge. However, none of that solves the challenges of the need for time, space, and money.

CHAPTER 3: DISCOVERING YOU ARE NOT ALONE AMONG THE BUBBLE CARS

We came back from Vermont with more than just cars and parts.  Wes Turner had also given us a small pile of papers: a spare parts list, exploded diagrams, and other print material. Although we visually scanned the documents before heading home, the significance of what we had took some time to sink in.

The spare parts price list was from the Ludwig Motor Corp., “imported spare parts specialists”. It was also dated June 1962, making it 17 years old. We surmised that it was more than likely that Herr Ludwig und Co. were no longer in operation.

 

The Ludwig Motor Corp. Isetta Spare Parts Price List

 

The exploded parts diagrams were fascinating in their detailed precision. (We didn’t know it at the time, but these drawings were from the factory BMW Isetta parts catalog.) In red, at the top of the page was an ink stamp: “Felling Enterprises” of Topanga, CA. We contacted said Enterprises to learn that it consisted of the husband & wife team of Carl and Marilyn Felling. Not only did they have Isetta spare parts to sell; they headed an organization called the HMI Club.

 

BMW’s official Isetta exploded parts diagrams. These would come in very handy down the road.

 

HMI stood for “Heinkel / Messerschmitt / Isetta”, the 3 most popular microcars at that time. (The Heinkel was conceptually similar to the Isetta. The ‘schmitt, with its tandem seating, yoke steering, 8″ wheels, 2-stroke engine, and side-hinged canopy, made an Isetta look normal.)

The club was for members interested in restoring, collecting, and showing their bubble cars (so called due to their rounded bubble-like shape). From their home in Topanga, the Fellings published a quarterly magazine, sold replacement parts, restored their own Isettas, and generally made themselves available to fellow bubble-nuts.

 

Marilyn sent out this letter in response to a recent Motor Trend article about her

 

It was almost too much for me to take in that right here in the U.S. were others who were equally interested in Isettas, and were available with resources to support my vision of a restored final product. I signed up for HMI Club membership immediately.

My HMI Club membership card

If one looked hard enough, there were other sources to be found. At Carlisle in 1979 (a primarily domestic automotive flea market), I found a literature vendor with four pieces of BMW Isetta sales literature, in both English and German. I bought everything he had, and paid close to $50 for it. When I showed my dad, he thought I had really lost it.

While occupied with research on the Isetta, I still needed to remind myself that I also owned a 1957 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop. My daily driver continued to be my 1977 VW Rabbit. At the age of 24, I owned 5 cars, never mind that three of them were disassembled microcars which were an unknown oddity to the automotive world at large. Given that the Ford ran and the BMWs didn’t, the Skyliner got some priority.

During the summer of ’79, I committed to rebuilding the very tired and worn Y-block V8 in the Ford. It had 140,000 miles on it, and pulling the valve covers revealed sludge so thick that I couldn’t see the head bolts. Having never rebuilt an engine before, I rented a cherry picker, borrowed an engine stand, disassembled the entire engine, had machine work done to the heads and block, and put it all back together. At one point, I even had the bare block in the back of the Rabbit.

 

Summer of ’79: engineless Ford, Rabbit, and Isettas all crowd into my folks’ backyard

 

Later that summer, with a trip to the Washington DC area in the making, I took advantage of the HMI Club directory. I looked up a club member named John Malcolm who lived in Maryland, and invited myself to his house. John was more into Messerschmitts and Subaru 360s than he was Isettas, but he was technically brilliant (he had written several how-to articles for the club newsletter), so I picked his brain as much as possible. In addition to his various project cars strewn across his parents’ yard, he also showed me his ‘modern’ Bond Bug microcar.

The cars of John Malcolm:

As 1979 drew to a close, the Skyliner was running but still needed significant body and interior work. There was no real progress to speak of with the Isettas. I had bought some carburetor parts from the Fellings (and even found some Volvo o-rings that would work), but the main stumbling block was that there was no plan. Access to my cars was about to get worse.

 

Any Volvo parts guys recognize those part numbers?

 

On January 1, 1980, I moved from my parents’ house on Staten Island to an apartment sans garage in Somerville NJ, which put me about a mile away from my job at Autosport. All the collector cars stayed with my folks, meaning, there was no regular opportunity to work on them.

In 1981, my father retired, and my parents decided to sell their Staten Island home and move to a retirement village in southern New Jersey. This meant that I could no longer rely on free storage for my rolling pipe dreams. My mechanic’s career was not exactly making me rich, and rather than selling off the collection, which would have been the mature decision, I spent what little extra funds I had on rental storage for all the cars.

The Isettas were moved into one half of a two-car detached garage in Maplewood NJ. Mike Adams, a salesman at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, where I went to work in August of 1980, had a Volvo PV 544. He was storing the Volvo in one half of a garage he was renting from a friend of his, Sue Stetson. He told me that the other half was available for $20/month. So I rented a truck, moved the 3 Isettas into this dirt floor garage, and told myself that at least they had a roof over their heads. As noted in greater detail here, the Skyliner was moved to Van’s Storage in western Jersey.

The decade of the 1980s began with me owning four collector cars, none of them stored anywhere within the proximity of my living quarters. Nine long years would pass before any further progress would transpire for my “rolling eggs”, as the Germans called the Isettas.

 

Stay tuned for Chapter Four, when we’ll discover how a clandestine rescue mission brought the Isettas home to a garage to call their own. 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

Ford’s flip-top Skyliner was not the world’s first retractable hardtop/convertible brought to market, but was certainly the first mass-produced one. The engineering was initially intended for the Continental Mark II, but when the bean-counters realized that the projected low volume of the Continental would never amortize the costs, the entire project was moved over to the full-size Ford platform. First introduced in 1957, Skyliner sales reached 20,000. But in 1958, volume dropped to 14,000, and for its third and final year, 1959 sales only hit 12,000 units. While Ford gave up on the retractable hardtop, the decklid and package shelf mechanisms lived on in the soft-top Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental convertibles of the 1960s.

 

 

 

 

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 2: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

Chapter One recounted the genesis of the Isetta Saga: Richard and Don, almost on a whim, answered an ad in Road & Track magazine by making a 16-hour round trip to northern Vermont, where they left a $100 down payment on the purchase of 3 or 4 (they really weren’t sure) BMW Isettas.
 In Chapter Two, we will see how our two intrepid automobile-restorers-to-be would go about bringing home their spoils.

 

CHAPTER TWO: FETCHING YOUR ISETTAS IN SEVERAL EASY 16-HOUR ROUND TRIPS

It was mid-November, 1978. As we promised Wes Turner, we did return, about three weeks later. In the interim, we plotted a low-cost method for obtaining the equipment we needed to move our non-running vehicles: we would borrow it.

My younger brother Karl happened to own a Chevy C-10 Suburban (the model with one door on the driver’s side, and two doors on the passenger side). It was equipped with a trailer hitch, and my bro had no problem lending it to us for a weekend.

For our next loan, we turned to Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal at Autosport, our employer. Jerry was a part-timer race car driver (his primary weapon in 1978 being a track-ready Fiat 124 Spider), and he owned an open-deck trailer. We asked him if we could borrow it (racing season was over), and he generously said yes.

As if this trip were to be all fun and games, we decided to invite our girlfriends along for the ride.

Instead of the bonsai back-n-forth-in-under-24-hours jaunt we pulled off last month, we decided to make a weekend of it. The plan was to leave New Jersey on Friday night after work, stay in a hotel halfway along, arrive in Moscow on Saturday, load the cars, stay in Moscow on Saturday, and drive home on Sunday.

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as our first trip.

Trouble started about two hours after departure. Somewhere on the Connecticut Turnpike, we heard a booming/crashing sound behind us. Pulling onto the shoulder (and keep in mind it was dark by this time), we discovered that the trailer’s wooden ramps, which were not secured, had flown off and were lying on the highway.

We gave brief thought to the idea of dashing out to retrieve them, but other vehicles kept driving over them, reducing the ramps to splinters. We had no choice but to continue without them.

Saturday morning, we arrived at Wes’s and surveyed the situation. Our borrowed trailer was not going to fit more than 2 Isettas. There would be one more round-trip in the future. For now, it seemed most prudent to load the two vehicles which would most likely to roll on their own: the two-tone blue/grey car (the most complete of them), and one of the red cars (the one without the door vents).

With the girlfriends’ assistance (and maybe Les), we pushed and grunted the cars onto the trailer (remember, we had no ramps). To secure them, we used nylon rope we brought with us. We knew nothing of tie-down ratcheting straps, and I did my Boy-Scout best to make good knots. This loading and lashing took Saturday afternoon AND Sunday morning, so by the time we left Vermont, it was early Sunday afternoon. We had 8+ hours of driving in front of us, and we all had to work Monday morning.

Sunday’s drive was uneventful for the first six hours or so. Actually, we were a bit taken aback by our fellow motorists, hooting, hollering, honking, pointing, and acting generally hysterical at the sight of these forlorn Isettas.

Soon after entering New Jersey, we began to hear a clicking/clunking sound coming from the back of my brother’s truck. It quickly grew in volume and frequency. Checking around the truck with a flashlight (of course, it was dark outside), I noticed that one of the rear wheels was held on with only 4 of its 8 lug nuts. Four of the lugs had snapped off. We slowly motored to the nearest service station, left the truck/trailer/Isetta combination there, and called a family friend for a ride back to the dealership where we again had left our cars. It was very late on Sunday night when I finally made it back to my house, and I was deflated.

Monday after work, Don and I headed back to the service station (we had spoken to them during the day, and the Chevy was fixed), and I drove the truck, following Don to his house in Pittstown.

At some point during all this time together, we had come to a gentlemen’s agreement: Don wanted the two-tone blue/grey car. It was the most complete of the four, and based on appearances alone, it seemed to be the one car that would most easily respond to attempts at resuscitation. If I agreed to that, Don said, then I could have “the other three”. I agreed.

Arriving at Don’s house, we got what was now his car off the trailer. With the car sitting at the top of a gentle hill, Don suggested that I climb in, and he’d give it a push. I did, and he did. The gravity-fed ride was probably 30 feet and lasted 10 seconds. I had just had my first ride in an Isetta. I wouldn’t be in the driver’s seat of a moving Isetta for another seventeen years.

Returning to my parents’ house, I unloaded the one remaining Isetta, drove the rig back to the dealership, and unhooked the trailer. I don’t think either one of us said anything to Mr. Lustig about the ramps!

With winter about to start, we would wait until spring for what would be our third and final round-trip to Moscow VT.

By March of ’79, Don now owned a Dodge van, with hitch (how convenient). We again borrowed a (different) trailer from Mr. Lustig, who generously agreed even though we had lost his ramps.

Similar to our November trip, we decided to use the entire weekend for the adventure. Unlike November, the girlfriends stayed home, and I brought a camera. Wes, learning of our plans, offered to let us stay in a spare room on his property, which we gladly accepted.

Mar. 31, 1979: my first-ever photo of our Isettas. Don lashes the chassis to the trailer.

The two remaining cars were the red car with deluxe door vents, and the body sans chassis (plus boxes of loose parts presumably belonging to Isettas and not to Borgward Isabellas). We loaded the cars onto the trailer, tied them down the best we could, and prepared for the long ride home.

The door vents identify this car as a deluxe model (note Wes’s Celica Liftback in background)

This was the weekend of March 31-April 1, 1979. While in Vermont, we heard the news that there had been a nuclear plant accident at a site called Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. We had our own mini-crisis (again) when we spotted a fuel leak from a small hole in the gas tank. We took care of it the best way we knew how: we drove faster.

At a service stop, I tried adding air to this tire. It held. Note professional rope-lashing job. 

With both cars coming back to Staten Island, we drove straight to my house, and dumped these two next to the one we fetched in November. My parents were thrilled.

Summer ’79: “my” 2.5 Isettas in my parents’ backyard (body on right is lacking chassis)

 

Another view: note 1965 VT plate

 

With engine cover missing, gaping hole reveals that engine is missing too

So here it was, the spring of 1979, and what had we accomplished? Don and I had completed three round trips to Moscow VT, totaling around 50 hours behind the wheel. Each trip was made in a different vehicle. We never kept track of the money spent on gasoline, tolls, hotels, meals, and unexpected repairs.

We each had laid out $325 to Wes Turner for the purchase. We would never have contact with Wes again.  I had no titles, no bills of sale, nothing to legally show that these cars were mine.

I was working as an automobile mechanic, and my thinking was “these cars are so small! What could be so difficult about getting one to run?” The truth was, I didn’t know where to start.

Of the 4 cars, I never photographed Don’s. This car, spotted years later, is the same color combo as his (but not in this condition).

Stay tuned for Chapter Three, when your humble Isetta restorer discovers that there are others in the U.S. who are as crazy about Isettas as he is (actually, crazier).

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK

BMW began production of its version of the Isetta after several BMW executives spotted the Iso Isetta at a European car show. BMW signed a contract with Iso which allowed the company to install their own (motorcycle-based) drivetrain, but they were prohibited from making other changes. The BMW Isetta turned out to be a huge commercial success for the Bavarian Motor Works, with final production numbers exceeding 160,000. It was the largest-volume BMW automobile model produced to date.

The BMW Isetta Saga, Chapter 1: Finding your car in the Road & Track ads

Happy New Year! January 2018 brings us near the completion of three years of Richard’s Car Blog. Post #1 was February 2015, and we’ve managed to publish 144 more since then. Thanks to all of you for your readership, and your comments, whether sent to the site, to my email, or delivered to me in person. The support is greatly appreciated.
All my blog posts relate to either my automotive career, or my immersion in the car hobby (which really started as an obsessed two-year-old). I’ve gone back to reflect on my dad’s cars, and I’ve posted rally and auction results within days of participation.
There is one vehicle, a car that I owned for 30 years, which has yet to be the subject of a blog post (although it has been mentioned in passing). Many of you know that I owned and restored a 1957 BMW Isetta. Unlike what you see on TV, the restoration didn’t take 60 minutes. In my case, 17 years elapsed between purchase and my first drive.
So we’ll kick off 2018 by launching the Isetta Saga. Memory-triggering is helped by my photo collection (plus the fact that I’m, like, really smart). Chapter 1 will be followed by umpteen more, taking us through much of this winter, as we patiently await for Spring Carlisle in April. Thanks again for reading along.

In October of 1978, I was 24 years old, living at home with my parents, and was all of two months into my job as an apprentice mechanic at Autosport, a Volvo/Honda/Alfa Romeo dealership in Somerville, NJ. I had become fast friends with a parts counterperson named Don Krech, whom I met when I started working there in August. Don and I were the same age, and shared similar interests in cars and music.

One day that month, the November issue of Road & Track magazine, to which I subscribed, arrived in the mail. I noticed an ad in MARKET PLACE, their classified ad section:

R&T, Nov. ’78. Look in the 2nd column, 3rd ad.

I brought the magazine to work and showed it to Don. The ad had neither a phone number nor street address (only a PO Box), yet we almost immediately decided to make the 8-hour one-way drive together, on the presumption that we would figure it out when we got there. Our plan was to depart late that Friday in order to arrive in Moscow VT early on Saturday morning.

Don played guitar in a band, and he had a gig that Friday. After the gig, I met Don at the dealership and, leaving my VW Rabbit there, climbed into his yellow Toyota Corolla SR-5 Liftback. We departed central New Jersey around 1 a.m. on the morning of Saturday October 21, 1978, headed for Moscow Vermont. We had paper maps, a bunch of music cassettes, some money, and precious little else with us.

Don did most of the driving. Even though I had caught a few hours shut-eye after getting home from work, I was tired, and I typically don’t do well when challenged to stay awake all night. We kept each other going by blasting The Cars’ first album on the Toyota’s stereo.

We arrived in the hamlet of Moscow, just outside the better-known ski resort of Stowe, around 9 a.m., groggy from lack of sleep, and convinced that we should have no trouble finding a Mr. “W. Turner” in a town so tiny. But first we found coffee.

We stopped several people on the street and inquired “do you know a W. Turner?” By the time we asked the fifth person, we got a semi-intelligent answer: “oh yeah, he lives in that corner house with the Honda on the front lawn”. Sure enough, on our way into town, we had driven past a Honda 600 up on jack stands, and joked that this must be his place. It was.

We knocked. An older gentleman answered the door, and responded in the affirmative to the question “Are you W. Turner?” When we told him that we were there in response to the Isetta ad, he was shocked. But he shrugged his shoulders, told us the cars were in a barn a mile away, and instructed that we should follow him in his Toyota pickup truck.

Wes Turner emerging from his Toyota. We are about to see the Isettas for the first time.

The barn door yawned wide, allowing daylight to hit its inner surfaces for the first time in who knows how long. What little light there was revealed a number of Isettas scattered about on the dirt floor, none of which was completely assembled. Some had all their glass, some did not. Various Isetta-ish-looking parts were on the cars’ floors. We sort of made out an engine or two. One Isetta had a Vermont license plate. From 1965.

What we saw in that barn should have sent us scurrying back to New Jersey.

But it did not. As two naïve 24-year-olds, all we saw was potential: here were three BMW Isettas, plus an extra body without a chassis, as the ad described. We weren’t horrified! We were delighted. They were small; they were cute; and they certainly gave the impression of being easy to restore.

We didn’t ask if he had titles (he didn’t); we didn’t ask if there was any wiggle room on the $650 asking price; we forked over a deposit of $100 (amazed in retrospect that we had that much cash between us), and told Wesley D. Turner that we’d be back up “in a few weeks” to drag our new treasures home.

This signed deposit receipt was the only proof we had that we bought Wes’ Isettas

 

 

Wes was always an enigma to us; he gave us this card, but we still didn’t have his number

We departed Moscow around 12 noon to head home. At no point during the 8-hour return trip did Don and I A) talk about exactly how we would “divide” the spoils among us; or B) try to figure out exactly how we would drag these admittedly tiny vehicles back south.

Here’s the entirety of what we knew: it was already late October, and if we were going to bring any of it home in 1978, it had better be before winter weather hit.

Don got me back to the dealership and my car around 8pm. I made the 45-minute drive home and went straight to bed, knowing I’d see Don at work on Monday, when we would resume our plans.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK

The Isetta was not a BMW design, but originated in Italy, brought to market by a company called Iso. The original Iso Isetta was a commercial flop. (The name Isetta is Italian for “Little Iso”.) Iso had better success in the 1960s with the Iso Rivolta and Iso Griffo, hybrids with Italian design and American V8 muscle.