The collector car hobby experienced tremendous growth during the latter part of the 20th and early years of the 21st centuries, a good part of which was fueled by small town “cruise nights”. The name is certainly a misnomer: participants aren’t cruising anywhere except into the town or lot where the evening show is being held. Each owner finds a parking spot while the general public wanders among the vehicles. It’s a nice way to spend a warm summer evening.
Compared to larger and more formal car shows, cruise nights have proven to be simpler to organize and run. Vehicles are usually not limited by make, model, or age; spectators do not pay a fee for the privilege of attending; weekday evening time slots makes it family-friendly and possible to sample while still arriving home at a reasonable time; and maybe best of all, local towns have benefited as restaurants, bars, and retail stores stay open during cruise night hours to service the increased foot traffic.
Sometime during the summer of 2006, my friend Richard Sweeney let me know that his hometown, Metuchen NJ, was hosting a monthly cruise night on the first Wednesday of each month, and he suggested that the Isetta would be a hit there. I had become friendly with Richard because his wife and my wife worked together for many years. Richard and I got along, but I would never describe him as a “car guy”. Yet, he knew about my Isetta, and from our conversations, I sensed that he was more interested in the public’s reactions to my car than he was interested in the car itself. Wednesday would be somewhat difficult, as Metuchen is 45 minutes from my house, and I didn’t relish getting home too late with work the next day, but I agreed, really for Richard’s sake, as he was genuinely excited at the prospect.
On the appointed night, my wife and I drove to Metuchen. Like the Friday night Somerville cruise night, Metuchen cordoned off its downtown Main St. and reserved street parking for show cars. After parking the tow rig and trailer and unloading the Isetta, I drove the Isetta along Main St., snagging one of the last available parking spaces.
Women practically lined up to pose with the car and me
This event was also the debut of a board game I created called Isetta Jeopardy. At every previous showing of this car, I was struck how show-goers repeatedly asked the same questions. I found myself reciting the same answers so often that I wondered if I should make up a sign with all the answers preprinted. This gave birth to the idea of a game whereby, when a question was asked, I would point to a board which would have a dozen different numbers on it. I would then challenge the questioner to guess which number correctly answered their question. The numbered “answer” would then be raised to reveal the “question”, a la the real Jeopardy game.
A few weeks before the cruise night, I revealed the Jeopardy game to Richard, and not only did he enjoy it, he committed all the answers to memory (a brilliant man, he was the Chief Librarian at NJIT, the New Jersey Institute of Technology), and, he volunteered to be the one to work the crowd that night! I made sure to pack a folding table so we had somewhere to place the game.
Of course, the crowd loved the Isetta, and the usual questions arose. “How much did this cost new?” “How many were sold in the U.S.?” “What does it weigh?” Although I had known Richard for years and had always observed him to be mild-mannered, he was a different animal that night. Overhearing the crowd’s questions, he practically pulled people over to the Isetta Jeopardy display and dared them to pick the right answer. I’m not sure which Richard was having more fun.
The cruise night continued well past sunset, and it was shortly after dark when a Corbin Sparrow pulled in behind me. The Corbin was a one-passenger all electric “commuter car”, and the owner, an enthusiastic young man, told me he was driving by when he saw the Isetta and had to stop. The Corbin was within 3 inches of the Isetta’s total length, and while the electric Corbin beat my little bubble for efficiency, I must point out that the Sparrow is strictly a one-passenger vehicle, while my Isetta, at least in a pinch, could fit three people (provided they really liked each other).
Some cruise nights have awards, and if they do, it’s “People’s Choice”. Well, the Isetta won. “We” got the proverbial blue ribbon, and I really wanted Richard to have it because of his relentless enthusiasm. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Richard Sweeney, the non-car guy, got full immersion into the sociological impact that a BMW microcar can have on the public. This was the first, but would not be the last time that Richard would join me and the Isetta at an automotive event.
All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.