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.

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