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.

 

 

 

 

 

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