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.

2 thoughts on “The Isetta Saga, Chapter 4: A Garage of My Own for the Isettas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s