The Isetta Saga is back! You didn’t think it was done, did you? In honor of chassis number 509090 returning to the auction stage later this year, the story picks up where it left off. The new owner (and there will be a new owner, as this car is being sold at No Reserve) deserves to have the complete story at hand, so here we go!
With the over-the-top Bubble Party behind me in October of 1995, I was exhausted. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the majority of my free time during the five preceding years was spent on this car’s restoration. Having achieved the mission (“The Isetta Will Drive in ‘95”), I needed to step back for a while. Little did I realize that a while would be A WHILE.
My personal life suffered a momentous setback: I got divorced. This blog is not about sharing those details, but I must acknowledge that it happened. My wife and I separated, we both moved elsewhere, the house we shared was sold, and the Isetta was put into storage. I had no physical or emotional energy to resume work on it, which is a shame because there was so little left to do!
During this time, I continued my membership in the Microcar & Minicar Club, the national organization which supported all small cars with engines of less than 1,000cc (one could fuse together 3 Isetta engines and still be a member). The Club published a great newsletter, full of technical articles and other interesting features, and there still was an annual National Meet, each year held in a different part of the country, but never in the Northeast.
Sometime in 1999, the M&M Club announced that the “2000 North American International Microcar Rally” would be held in August 2000 in Park Ridge NJ. The town of Park Ridge was less than an hour’s ride from my then-domicile in Morristown NJ. This was the kick in the pants I needed. I would finish the Isetta’s restoration and bring it to its first public show.
What was left to do? The Bubble Party video shows a car missing all its glass, its fabric sunroof, and the front bumper horns. With about nine months’ time before the August show, the remaining work didn’t seem overwhelming. The first items to tackle were the front bumpers. One bumper had a tiny dent in an inconspicuous spot, but both bumpers had weak chrome. I dropped them off at a replating service facility in Hillside NJ, which charged $130 to rechrome the pair. They looked great.
The windshield and rear glass were designed to fit into the rubber seals the old-fashioned way: the glass sat in a groove in the rubber, and the ‘rope trick’ was employed to get them back into place. Using lots of detergent as a lubricant, a rope was placed inside the rubber seal. With the glass placed against the outside of the seal and a second person pushing in on the glass, the rope was gently pulled outward, which lifted the seal’s outer lip up and over the edge of the glass. It was tricky, and it took time and effort, but both glass pieces were reinstalled without breakage.
The side glass was another matter altogether. My Isetta body style is called the sliding-window model specifically because of the way the side windows operate. There are two pieces of glass on each side: the rearmost piece is fixed in place; the front piece slides horizontally. When pushed fully rearward, the front and rear pieces overlap by about 50%. It’s crude in practice, but on a hot day, you need all the ventilation you can get. The entire assembly is held in place by a metal trim piece along the bottom, riveted to the body. The trick, like the front and rear glass, is to enlist another set of hands or two, as the glass, the rubber weatherstripping, the metal trim, and the rivets all need to be aligned and held in place before the first rivet is driven home.
For the sunroof, professional help was again sought. A local convertible top installer was given the original but very worn black vinyl sunroof to use as a pattern. In one of the few deviations from stock, I requested beige Haartz cloth material. They returned the completed sunroof assembly to me, and I installed it on the car, again using the rivet gun to fasten to rear edge to the existing holes in the roof.
The hubcaps I owned were problematic. They were dented, dull, and I only had three! A set of new reproduction hubcaps was purchased from a domestic Isetta parts supplier, but they didn’t fit my rims. While a set of hubcaps would finish the exterior look, the lack of them wasn’t going to be a dealbreaker for the show.
Finally, I needed a tow vehicle and a trailer. (I had sold the previous trailer when I moved in 1996.) An Isetta weighs about 770 lbs. if its 3-gallon fuel tank is full, and a 10-ft. open landscape trailer comes in around 300 lbs., so I didn’t need or want a full-size body-on-frame truck for towing duty. At the time, the only other car I owned was the Miata; my daily driver was a Volvo company car, and I usually had little choice of body style. I reasoned that something with some carrying capacity would be handy to have, even when I wasn’t towing anything. An ad in the classified section of the Newark Star-Ledger caught my eye (online ads weren’t a big thing yet): “For sale: 1992 Ford Aerostar van. Original owner. 92,000 miles. $3,900.” I saw it, I test drove it, and I bought it, rationalizing that its RWD powertrain would make it more capable of pulling a trailer (which also made it impossible to drive in the snow). Next, a 5×10 open deck landscape trailer was purchased. A local repair shop installed a hitch on the Aerostar, and I was ready. The Isetta would soon be in attendance at its first car show.
All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.