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.

 

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