The Isetta Saga, Chapter 23: The Isetta Enters Its First Public Car Show

As mentioned in the Isetta Saga Chapter 6, it was at a car show in Ohio in 1992 when I was introduced to the national Microcar & Minicar Club. I became a member, and greatly enjoyed their club newsletter, “Minutia”. The club held an annual convention every year, and the summer of 2000 was the first time since I had joined the club that the convention would be convenient to home.

 

Official show poster. It’s melancholic to see Twin Towers.

The show was planned for Sunday August 12, 2000, at a hotel in Park Ridge NJ, just an hour’s drive from my home in Morristown. I registered for the event, and on the appointed day, got the car on the trailer and the trailer attached to the tow vehicle. During the car’s restoration, I trailered the bare body to and from the body shop; I had also trailered the chassis to several different locales. But I had never trailered the completed car, or any car for that matter! At the Carlisle flea market several years prior, I purchased trailer tie-downs, each rated for 3,000 pounds (a complete Isetta weighs about 770 pounds). I wanted triple assurance that this car wasn’t going anywhere. The straps were wrapped around the chassis both front and rear, and secured to D-rings I had bolted to the trailer floor. With the trailer hooked to the Aerostar, and a final check of functioning trailer lights, we were off.

Newly acquired tow vehicle and trailer

Shades of 1978! As I motored north on Route 287, staying in the right lane, cars and trucks approaching me in the center and left lanes would slow down and match my speed as they caught up to me. The passengers in these other cars would point, wave, smile, laugh, and in some cases, act completely bewildered. The worst was when a driver would become so distracted by the shiny red object that the driver’s vehicle would begin to drift into my lane. I stayed calm, and would acknowledge their attention with a slight smile or wave, but I felt so nervous about my cargo that it was the two-hand death grip and eyes straight ahead almost without exception during the drive.

Looking for a parking spot (photo courtesy of Carol Ladd Hansen)

 

Piloting the machine (photo courtesy of Carol Ladd Hansen)

 

I arrived at the hotel parking lot and got the car off the trailer. It seemed that I was a little late. Almost every spot dedicated to show cars was filled. The organizers put my car in an aisle along with a few others. I decided to walk the show and see what else was on the ground.

Margaretanne and I demonstrate the ample interior room for the crowd

It had been a while since I last attended a microcar show, and I was overwhelmed at the large number of Isettas in attendance. Actually, Isettas looked like the normal cars there compared to the much more unusual microcars on display. There were Messerschmitts, Lloyds, Heinkels, and a couple of miniature woodie wagons. Everyone was very complimentary about my car, and perhaps I was a bit too apologetic about it, exclaiming that it was its first public outing. (A photo of my car made it to the club’s website with the caption “newly restored”.) We stayed for the banquet dinner, made some new friends, and headed home.

 

It’s not an Isetta; it’s a Heinkel Trojan

 

 

Velorex (fabric covered body)

 

 

Lloyd Alexander

 

Morris woody wagon

 

Austin 7 woody wagon (my car directly in front of it)

 

 

Messerschmitt (when your car is barely bigger than your baby stroller)

 

It was a rush to finally show my car in a public setting. It was the kind of event that made the efforts of the previous ten years worthwhile. I was interested in more, and had already taken care of that. Labor Day Weekend was approaching, and that meant the annual Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival. My car was registered for the Sunday show, and I couldn’t wait.

Flanked by my mom (L) and Aunt Rita (R). Yes, we’re all standing on the same level ground.

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 22: It’s Almost Showtime

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.

Until 2000.

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.

Front & rear glass installed, waiting on side glass, sunroof, & bumpers

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.

Margaretanne washes the egg. Still no sunroof, so be careful with that hose! Note peeking Sunbeam Tiger.

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.

Proudly I pose as we prep the car for showtime

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 sunroof in the process of being reinstalled

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.

OMG! Someone parked an Isetta on top of a gargantuan statue of one!

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Abarth Obsessed

Does the name Abarth ring a bell? If you’ve been around automobiles a while, you may recall a line of performance mufflers and exhaust systems sold under the Abarth name. For much of the ‘50s through ‘70s, it was one of the hot setups. Relatively affordable compared to more extensive modifications, an Abarth exhaust system bolted on easily, provided at least a few additional ponies, and sounded like you added more than just a few.

 

This Abarth exhaust ad is from the Oct. 1960 issue of Sports Cars Illustrated magazine

Fast forward a bunch of decades, 2012 to be exact, and remind yourself that this was the year Fiat reentered the U.S. market, offering new Fiat automobiles to Americans for the first time in about 30 years. To start, there was one model, the 500, available in several trim levels. Top of the heap was the Abarth, utilizing a turbocharged engine which gave it a 59-horsepower advantage over its lesser brethren. A few years after that, when the 124 convertible was reintroduced, there was an Abarth version too.

Of course, there’s more to the story. The Abarth company was started by and named after its founder, Carlo Abarth (born Karl Abarth in Austria), who moved to Italy, amended his first name to sound Italian, and began to build performance engines. From there he progressed to modifying Fiats, and eventually manufactured his own cars. The Abarth company was at its peak during a 15-year run from about 1956 to 1971, at which time the company was purchased outright by Fiat. His Astrological sign, Scorpio, inspired the Scorpion image which adorns the Abarth badge.

The March 1962 issue of Car & Driver magazine included this blurb on Carol Abarth

I’ve long been obsessed by Abarth cars. First, they’re Italian. Second, their diminutive size is something I’ve always found attractive (this coming from a former Isetta owner). Third, their status as the “David” versus the “Goliaths” of the day always had me rooting for them. Amazingly, in spite of a sometimes tremendous horsepower disadvantage, they racked up a series of impressive racing wins. Not a lot of Abarth cars were built, more than a few were wrecked, and even fewer were preserved, so spotting one today is a treat.

I’ve photographed Abarths at Hershey, at Lime Rock, and at the New England 1000 rallies, yet I realized that I knew very little about the cars. Poring through my automotive library in search of historical information on the brand, I was surprised how little I found. Most of my general-interest books on European cars do not mention Abarth, and I would venture to guess that they were thought to be similar to a ‘tuner’ like Dinan for BMW or AMG for Mercedes-Benz. The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-1990 has the most extensive Abarth coverage of any of my books, with good technical specs yet few photos.

 

This page is from Tad Burness’ scrapbook-like Imported Car Spotter’s Guide

 

This Abarth was seen at Hershey in 2015

 

This Abarth joined us during the 2014 New England 1000

 

Found on display at Lime Rock in 2014

 

 

Searching online, I discovered a book by Peter Vack: Abarth Buyer’s Guide, published in 2003 by Veloce Press. I bought it and have begun reading it. It’s not easy keeping track of models with such similar names as Fiat Abarth 750 Berlina, Fiat Abarth 750 GT Zagato, and Fiat Abarth 750 Allemano. Then we move to Fiat Abarth OT 850 Series, Fiat Abarth OT Coupes, and Fiat Abarth OT Sports Racers. Some have stock Fiat sheetmetal, some are externally modified, and some have bespoke bodies. All of them have rear-mounted Fiat-based engines, modified modestly or aggressively. For some models, the book notes that “no two cars were alike”.

There will be more to say about Abarth cars in the coming weeks.  Actually, this post will be tied into another recent post, and will become an ongoing storyline through the summer and fall. In the meantime, if you come across an Abarth on the street, please snap a pic and send it to me. Thanks.

 

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

My Old Isetta is Going Back on the Block

In the almost seven years since I sold my Isetta at an RM auction in October of 2013, I occasionally scan the automotive classifieds, both in print and online, wondering if I will come across my former car for sale. Up until a few weeks ago, that search had turned up blank.

My Isetta at the Oct. ’13 RM auction in Hershey PA. Note suitcase on package shelf.

Checking out an email I received for an upcoming RM Sotheby’s auction, I was drawn to what appeared to be an outstanding collection of Italian cars: the expected Ferraris and Alfas but also Autobianchis, Isos, and some rarely-seen Fiats. That’s when I saw it.

An all-red BMW Isetta was part of the sale. Clicking on the photos, I looked for tell-tale signs, the kinds of things that I, having owned the beast for 35 years, would recognize. (I’m fond of an expression picked up from a hobbyist friend, who says of his own car: “I know where the bodies are buried”.) Checking the chassis number was the final proof. I called my wife into the room and showed her the photos.

Wife: “How do you know it’s yours?”

Me: “509090.”

Wife: “Huh?”

Me: “It’s the chassis number. I have it memorized.” (Oh, and still on the package shelf is the ‘50s-era suitcase covered in travel decals which I picked up in an antique store for $10.)

The auction, billed by RM Sotheby’s as “The Elkhart Collection”, is scheduled to take place on October 23 & 24 of 2020. Those are the rescheduled dates; initially the auction was supposed to run in May, and it’s presumed that the coronavirus was the proximate cause of the postponement. At this writing, it’s listed as a “live” auction, however, all RM Sotheby auctions since the global shutdown have been online only. While I’m long out of the business of predicting the future, I would venture to guess without too much risk that this one will revert to the online-only format soon enough.

Here’s how the RM Sotheby’s website describes the collection:

OVER 240 CARS AND WIDE SELECTION OF COLLECTIBLES OFFERED ALMOST ENTIRELY WITHOUT RESERVE

The result of decades of judicious and targeted collecting, The Elkhart Collection – Offered Almost Entirely Without Reserve comprises the most exceptional marques and models in automotive history. The focus is at once broad but highly selective from sporting British and Italian cars to microcars, classics, supercars, modern sports cars, ‘50s convertibles and coachbuilt icons. Stay tuned for the digital catalogue coming soon. To view lot listing, click here

It didn’t take much snooping to get the rest of the story. This is from AutoWeek:

Damn, This Accused Fraudster Has Excellent Taste in Cars

There’s something for everyone in the RM Sotheby’s Elkhart Collection catalog—and with the sale moved to October, you’ve got plenty of time to browse it.

The gist of the AutoWeek story is that this 240+ car collection was amassed by one person, an Indiana businessman named Najeeb Khan, who has now been accused of fraud, although the author is also quick to note that he has not been charged with a crime. But his collection is being liquidated so that he can pay back his creditors.

Personally, I don’t really care about this guy’s personal problems. He has excellent taste in cars, especially of the Italian variety, although the remainder of the collection is also worth a gander. I’ve asked myself if Mr. Khan is the person who purchased my car at the 2013 Hershey auction. While it’s impossible to make that determination from the auction company’s website, I checked the mileage on my car on the date that I sold it, and the mileage shown in the current listing. The Isetta has been driven exactly one mile in the previous 6.5 years. Which is a shame, really, because the car runs well and it’s a blast to drive!

To the new owner, whoever you are: get some new tires. I bought those Michelins in the early ‘90s.

There’s more to discuss about the Elkart Collection Auction in future posts. The discovery of my old car will also spur me to resume the Isetta Saga. There’s lots more to share, and I want all those bidders to have the entire story!

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

 

Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 8

With the Alfa’s hydraulic brake replacement essentially finished, there was one more related task to complete. As the previous owner had suggested to me, the battery B+ cable could stand to be replaced. Not only had he indicated that it was undersized, he also wasn’t sure that its attachment points had stood up over time. (My car was born with its battery in the engine compartment, but Pete had relocated it to the trunk, where it still is.)

Conveniently, the cable almost completely followed the routing of the brake line from rear to front. There was no extra work to dropping the battery cable when removing the brake lines. The old cable looked to be possibly 2 gauge; I had purchased a “Battery Relocation Kit” which included 20 feet of zero gauge cable (the smaller the number, the larger the cross-section). I only needed about 16 feet.

The old cable had been secured in place with metal hose clamps; thankfully, there were no signs of potential incendiary damage. The new cable followed the same routing as the old, and instead of clamps, I used about two dozen high-temp plastic cable ties. (Cable, or “zip” ties, are available in different quality levels. In the past, I had some which snapped upon tightening. For this job, I researched and purchased higher quality cables.) I was quite happy with the appearance of the end result; the new cable is tucked far enough up into the underside that at no point is it the lowest object under the car.

New battery cable securely in place under the car

To gain access to the starter solenoid, I had removed the intake plenum. (Alfas and some other Italian cars do not have a traditional intake manifold. Instead, the air filter feeds air to the plenum, mounted to the outside of the side-draft carburetors. The carbs in turn are mounted to small tubes which themselves are bolted directly to the cylinder head.) I gave the plenum a cleaning, ran a 6mm x 1.0 tap on all the studs, used new washers and nuts, and with new gaskets at the ready between plenum and carbs, bolted it all back together. The thread chasing and new nuts helped immensely given that 4 of these attachments are completely blind and are in tight quarters.

Dirty plenum, old gaskets
Clean plenum, new gaskets

Saturday was going to be the big day; there always are the dozen final details (spark plug wires and various other small connections underhood), and I triple checked all around the car, which was still on jackstands, still with tires off. The battery had been on trickle charge. Nervously, I completed the final connections at the battery. Nothing caught fire. Climbing up into the driver’s seat, I turned the key on, pumped the pedal about a half-dozen times, and cranked. The crank was strong, but the engine made no attempt to run on its own. Key off, pump the pedal some more, try again. And again. I smelled fuel, got out, and peered underneath. Raw fuel was pouring out from under the front right corner. Key off, battery safety switch turned to off. Time to stop, take a breath, and think.

Was this related to what I had been working on the last 11 months, or was this complete coincidence? Grabbing a flashlight, I looked into the right front corner, where the mechanical fuel pump and fuel filter are. Feeling with my hands, the wettest area was the rubber fuel line for the pump’s outlet. It took about 2 minutes to loosen the clamps and remove the hose.

Old hose looks quite bad

The hose was completely dry-rotted. First, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was ‘just’ a hose. I also immediately realized that, like the brake system I had just overhauled, I really didn’t know how old these hoses were. A quick car ride (with mask) to Advance Auto Parts, and I was back with 3 feet of 5/16” fuel hose.

Old hose looks worse close up

Sunday morning, all 4 fuel hoses, each only about 8-10 inches long, came off and were replaced with fresh rubber. Time to try again. This time, after about 7 to 8 pumps of the pedal (and no leaks), the engine started. Hooray! I bolted the tires back into place, removed the jackstands, and my Alfa was back on the ground for the first time since July of last year.

New fuel hose is CARB-compliant

Gingerly, I moved the car outside under its own power. The brakes worked well, even if the pedal still felt a little soft. One more round of bleeding is in order. I’m also going to try to adjust the ‘throw’ at the master cylinder, as the brake pedal is not quite lined up with the clutch pedal. These are mere details, and I will get to them in the coming days. For now, I’m happy, satisfied, and truly pleased to be able to say that this project is done.

My Alfa sees sunshine for the first time in 11 months

 

Here, nicely framed by garage door; can’t wait to put some miles on it.

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 7

I’ve always likened working on an old car, when there’s little or nothing in the way of published instruction, to dancing the tango. It’s two steps forward, and one step back. Two forward, one back. And repeat….

In the last post about the Alfa’s brakes, two weeks ago, I wrote about the awkward position of the brake master cylinder. Like so many cars with pedals coming up from the floor (what Alfisti call “standing pedals”), the master is underneath, bolted to the pedal box. When I removed the master cylinder last fall, there were no written instructions to follow. I loosened the pedal box just enough to lower it and access the two bolts holding the master in place. The removal was such a chore that frankly I had been dreading the reinstallation.

Re-reading my words in that last post, I see that I was unintentionally vague. The sentence that now bothers me reads “Once the lines to the master cylinder are done, I need to reinstall the pedal box in the driver’s footwell, as all three pedals had to be loosened/removed to gain access to the master.” My sentence leaves it completely unclear whether I had removed the entire pedal box, or had merely loosened it, when in fact it was the latter.

Why am I harping on this? Because I found myself doing the tango. In the process of attempting to reinstall the new master, I ended up completely removing the pedal box from the car. If only I had done this during the initial disassembly! The hang-up was a bracket which I had mistakenly identified as part of the transmission cross member, but is a bracket for the front exhaust pipe. Laying on my back, on the garage floor, holding a flashlight, and trying to focus through my progressive lenses made its correct identification difficult. Once I realized that it could be safely removed, I undid 5 bolts and it was off. Suddenly, the entire pedal box was in my hands. Eureka!

Pedal box on my workbench. New master is in front.

Since the exhaust bracket was off, I replaced the two rubber bushings inside it, cleaned it up, and repainted it with Eastwood Chassis Black. When friends ask why this brake job isn’t finished yet, it’s these “might as well as” side jobs which eat up time, but are important to complete.

 

With paint open, I dipped the bolt heads and nuts in it. Drilled wood holds them while they dry.

With the new master cylinder bolted in place, I reinstalled the pedal box, sealing it against the unibody with fresh dum-dum (I have a box of 3M dum-dum that’s probably 25 years old, and that stuff stays pliable!). The two final brake lines were bent to line up with the threaded inserts on the master, and I was happily surprised that I got the threads to “bite” after just a few minutes of trying.

Brake lines at master, ready to be bent to shape

The time had come to add fresh brake fluid to the system. I filled the reservoir, attached the little magnetic one-man bleeder bottle from Eastwood to the right rear caliper bleed screw (always start with the brake furthest from the master), and began to pump the brake pedal by hand. Forum posts on the Alfa Bulletin Board (AlfaBB) recited tales of horror about the difficulties in bleeding Alfa hydraulic brakes. I believe that later cars with dual circuits AND dual servos can be a challenge to bleed. I was happily shocked that I had fresh fluid coming through the hose on the bleeder screw on the second or third try.

This item, under $10, makes one-person bleeding a breeze

I was less happily shocked to also see that I had some leaks. There were two leaks at flare fittings that still weren’t tight enough. An eighth of a turn with the 7/16” flare nut wrench solved that. I continued to add fluid and pump the pedal, moving from right rear to left rear to right front to left front. But then a larger fluid leak sprung, from a lousy location: the master cylinder. I got under the car, but both lines at the master were as tight as I dared to make them. My heart sank. Could the new master cylinder be defective?

When you’re doing the tango, and your feet start to go in a direction that could make you trip and fall, it’s sometimes best to get off the dance floor. I put down all the tools, exited the garage, went for a walk, and came back to have lunch. (I learned during the Isetta restoration that before anxiety drives you to act hastily and BREAK something, walk away, think about it, then go back to it.)

An hour later, I believed I had diagnosed the problem, without even touching the car. The leaking line ran from the exit port on the master up to the brass four-way junction block on the firewall. I remembered that when I had formed that line, I told myself that it was “symmetrical”, that is, the same flares and the same flare nuts on each end. While the flare NUTS were the same, the flare at the master needed to be an ISO bubble flare, and I had formed a 45 degree double flare. It took about two minutes to pop that line out of the master to confirm my diagnosis. Yup – I formed the wrong flare fitting.

Oops. Old line at left is bubble flare; new line with double flare doesn’t match.

Back to the two steps forward and one back routine. It was a complete pain to remove that line, cut off the wrong flare, make a new flare, and fit the line back in place. However, the rapid diagnosis made up for it. The fixed line was back on the car, bleeding resumed, and there were no leaks. In a short while, I had a pedal! I’ll bleed the entire system one more time, then the hydraulic work will be done.

 

This is better.

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The 1940 Triborough Bridge Authority Map

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I collect maps. I’m especially fond of older maps which were printed before the era of modern interstate roadways. As a native New Yorker, I’m partial to maps of the metro NY/NJ area.

Most of my old maps are undated, which is a shame. However, careful study of streets, highways, bridges, tunnels, and other human-built structures usually provides enough clues to date a map to within a year or two of its printing.

One of the more unusual maps in my collection isn’t a typical gas station giveaway of a city or state. This map is entitled “TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE AUTHORITY TRAFFIC CROSSINGS”. It shows most of the five boroughs of NYC, and as the title states, it highlights the bridges and tunnels which are under the purview of that agency. The map has another quite unique feature: it illustrates a crossing as “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” which never got built.

Look at those tolls! But remember, back then they were collected each way.

Because four of the five boroughs of New York City are on islands, as vehicular traffic increased during the first half of the 20th century, structures were erected to allow cars and trucks to traverse waterways without using ferries. While the Brooklyn Bridge was opened in 1883, well before automobiles became mainstream, the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Queensboro Bridges were all completed during the first decade of the new century. After that came the Holland Tunnel in 1927. The next 13 years saw rapid growth as the George Washington, Triborough, and Whitestone Bridges along with the Lincoln and Queens Midtown Tunnels were up and running by 1940.

Much of NYC, with some of NJ, as it appeared circa 1940

It’s impossible to discuss this growth without bringing up the name of Robert Moses. A hero to some and a villain to others, I will not even wade into those waters. However, the decade of the 1940s was a difficult one for him because it was one of the few times when he didn’t get his way. I’m referring to his plan for the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge.

It was 1940 when Mr. Moses made his proposal for a bridge to connect the southern tip of Manhattan with downtown Brooklyn. While he had his supporters, the opposition on this one was strong. Among those in the “against” camp were the U.S. Government, who saw such a bridge as a potential bombing target; a bombed bridge would then block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There was also a fierce argument put forth that such a structure would ruin the view of the downtown skyline from Brooklyn.

Yet my map labels the bridge, and refers to it as “under construction” (a wildly optimistic claim with no basis in fact). I estimate this was printed around 1940, based on the inclusion of the (1939-1940) World’s Fair site. By the late 1940s, Robert Moses acquiesced and agreed to the construction of a tunnel in lieu of a bridge, which has given us today’s Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (officially the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, but try telling that to a Brooklynite).

An enlargement from the map showing the Brooklyn-Battery ‘Bridge’

By the way, have some fun hunting down other landmarks shown on the map, including Penn Station, Grand Central Station, and all 3 Major League Baseball stadiums!

 

All scans are from my personal map collection.

 

 

 

Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 6

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Perhaps the ongoing lockdown has distorted my sense of time. Brake System Update Part 5 was posted on April 3, and I would have guessed that it was more recent than that. Progress has continued, and I’m not shy about admitting that 12 weeks of working from home has allotted additional free time with the removal of a two hour round-trip commute. It also felt redundant and nonconstructive to add a post which only stated “… and today I cut and flared two more brake lines….”

The month of May had me in limbo because of the master cylinder. I was keen on keeping the original part and simply rebuilding it. I had taken a chance last year by ordering a rebuild kit that I knew might not work, and it didn’t. Then I found a new supplier based in Germany whose website looked like they had the correct ATE rebuild kit. That order was placed in late April, and I’m still waiting. Supposedly DHL has the part (or more likely has lost the part).

New reinforced brake hose alongside old hose

As much as I wanted to avoid the expense of a new master, I bit the bullet and bought a brand new unit (almost two bills) from my main vendor Classic Alfa. One concern is that there are so many master cylinder variants (standing vs hanging pedals, LHD vs RHD, non-servo vs one servo vs two servos, 20mm bore vs 22mm bore). While I was nervous about getting the correct one, I needn’t had worried. It arrived in two days (the usual Classic Alfa timeliness), and all threaded fittings and mounting points are 100% accurate.

Clamping the brake line forming tool in the bench vise frees up both hands to manipulate the line

As of today: all 3/16” brake lines have been replaced with new lines cut and formed by me, all new flare fittings are on, and all lines are in place on the car (some final fitting still needs to be done). All three rubber brake hoses have been replaced with steel woven reinforced pieces (this is a case where originality is easily overridden by better quality).

New male and female brake line fittings plus bleeder screw caps

All four rebuilt brake calipers have been reinstalled, with new Ferodo pads in place (the Centric front pads I had installed several years back shed a lot of dust; let’s see if these are better).

Old and new pads side-by-side

The new master is (loosely) bolted in place, but the two brake line connections have yet to be made to it. (Not since the Isetta have I worked on a car with the master located below the floor. The Isetta was easy because the body had been removed from the chassis. The accessibility on the Alfa is horrible.) Once the lines to the master cylinder are done, I need to reinstall the pedal box in the driver’s footwell, as all three pedals had to be loosened/removed to gain access to the master.

I can’t prove it, but “ATE” mark on rear pad might indicate it’s never been replaced

I then have the ‘extra’ job of replacing the positive cable for the battery. The previous owner had relocated this car’s battery from the engine compartment to the trunk, and used (in his own words) “a battery cable sourced from a junkyard Renault”. Since purchasing the car from him, he has recommended that I replace this cable. I’ve purchased a much heavier-duty one from Taylor Cable, which needs to be cut to size and have the appropriate terminals connected. Part of the intake plenum was removed for access to the starter, so that will need to go back together.

New caliper pins (L) didn’t fit, had to clean up & reuse old ones (C & R). Never throw old parts away!

The goal is to get this vehicle off the 4 jack stands upon which it’s been sitting before we reach the first anniversary of the brake seizure which happened in July 2019. I miss driving my Alfa! As I said, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It may not look like much, but this is progress

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

The Transportation Exhibits at the 1964/1965 NY World’s Fair

I collect maps. Unlike most other things I collect (cars, tools, books, cameras), maps take up very little space. I can bring home a few maps and slip them into my collection without it raising an eyebrow.

When I attend automotive flea markets, typically Carlisle and Hershey, I see vendors who specialize in maps, and vendors who happen to have a box of maps along with other stuff. Map collecting is a subset of the automotive hobby, and the map specialists recognize this and price their wares accordingly. I don’t know what makes one map more valuable than another, but obviously, age, condition, and rarity all play a part. I tend to do most of my pickin’ at the vendors who are not specialists.

A few years back, rifling through a box of maps at one of these shows, I came across a copy of the “official” map of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. It was in like-new condition, and while I don’t recall the exact price I paid, it was five dollars or less. I thought that was a sweet deal, especially since I didn’t own a copy.

 

The map’s cover and some general information

Although I attended the ’64-’65 NY World’s Fair six times with my family, I have only fleeting memories of it. I was just a kid, and as if you need the reminder, this was 56 years ago. So the map was a welcome way to revisit the event. It came as a surprise to me to see that the exhibits were arranged by category: Industrial, International, Federal and State, and Transportation.

 

The complete exhibit map

In Transportation, the buildings from Ford and GM dominated. Everything else (Chrysler Corporation, rental car companies, oil companies, and suppliers) was small potatoes compared to these behemoths. (Notably absent was Rambler/American Motors; even back then their budget was so tight that they had to sit this one out.) If the full map is done to scale, and it likely is, then it appears that the Ford Motor Company exhibit may have been the single largest building at the Fair. (In an earlier blog post, I had shown a postcard image of the GM building from this Fair.)

 

The Transportation exhibits

Look at the index which is part of the map. The ‘time’ next to each exhibit name indicates the approximate amount of time needed to tour the exhibit. This was intended as a way for attendees plan their day, and (as the fair organizers hoped) realize that a return visit would be necessary to see it all. GM, Ford, AND Chrysler each have a recommended visit length of one hour.

 

The index of Transportation exhibits

When the Fair closed, most of it was torn down with the notable exceptions of the Unisphere and the NY State Pavilion. Flushing Meadow Park, where the Fair was located, still exists, and I visited it in 1984 and took these two photos.

The Unisphere in 1984. Made of stainless steel, it shows no signs of aging.

 

The New York State Pavilion in 1984

 

Then, in 2004, the local Mustang Club invited a select few of us back to the Park for the unveiling of the new 2005 Mustang, replicating the launch of the new 1964 ½ Mustang at the NY World’s Fair in April ’64. A photo of my 1968 California Special at that event, with the Unisphere in the background, made its way into the Mustang GT/CS Recognition Guide & Owner’s Manual (3rd Edition) by Paul M. Newitt.

My GT/CS is in the upper right corner

If you visited the Fair, I hope that some of this brings back pleasant memories. If you were not able to visit, I hope that you can marvel at what seemed so futuristic to us in the mid-‘60s.

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

You Can’t Predict the Future

In the latest edition (June 2020) of Sports Car Market (SCM) magazine, a reader wrote a letter to the Editor, requesting an explanation of the so-called “frequent flier” phenomenon (referring to the same vehicle appearing at multiple auctions over a short period of time). I will quote part of his letter:

“… often in the auction reviews, you note a car has been at or across the auction block three or five times in four or six years. Is there a story here? ….Is there a certain type of car which attracts this ‘flipping’ activity?’ …. Is there a certain type of buyer/seller involved in this? The easy answer is ‘speculators hoping to make a quick buck’…..”

I think that SCM dodged providing a real answer when they responded: “There is indeed a certain type of seller – we suspect possessing a world-class stubbornness – who trucks a car to several auctions in a short period of time. … (these) cars mostly have an impact on the bank account of the present owner….”

Whether the individual who posed the question intended this or not, the answer presumes that the ‘frequent flier’ vehicle never gets sold, so the same owner incurs transportation costs, auction fees, and the like. From my own observations of the auction market, the reality is different. Many frequent fliers DO get sold, chalking up multiple new owners over the short haul.

The obvious next question is: did the seller make a profit? Here’s the crux of the issue. Why would any owner of a special-interest vehicle consider selling it within the first year or two of ownership? While there could be any number of reasons (needs the money/found something else/didn’t meet expectations), was the car principally purchased as an investment?

The subheading on each month’s cover of SCM is “The Insider’s Guide to Collecting, Investing, Values, and Trends”. I’ve been a subscriber since 1997. I enjoy the magazine. It’s always done a great job of reporting auction results worldwide, in a timely fashion for a print periodical. What SCM cannot do, and no one can, is predict the future. This is not a knock on the magazine. A vehicle, or a class of make and model vehicles, rises in value faster than the overall market for a multitude of reasons. Many of these reasons have no basis in rationality. Several of my car buddies agree with me that the #1 rule is to buy what you like, enjoy it, and don’t worry too much about values. Yet it’s always interesting to speculate what would have happened if I bought X instead of Y.

Late in 2003, I bought a 1968 Mustang ‘California Special’ aka GT/CS. At that time, average selling prices for cars with the small block 289/302 V8 were around $15,000. There was a 20% premium for the ‘S’ code (4 barrel carb) big-block 390. I found a car for sale with the ‘X’ code 2-barrel 390, and paid $16,000, which I thought was a fair price, not a steal, but perhaps slightly under market. I liked that Mustang a lot, drove it to many shows and events, and sold it nine years later. The irony is, I had been considering some vehicles other than the Mustang, including an older 911, but it wasn’t so serious that I actually sought out or test drove one.

Why hadn’t someone told me 911 values were going to go through the roof? Is it because no one knew?

From the Jan. 2004 CPI

 

I subscribe to, and keep old copies of, the price guide known as Cars of Particular Interest (CPI). The book publishes retail values for cars in excellent (#2), good (#3) and fair (#4) value. I decided to have some fun with this by going back to the January 2004 edition and looking up 10 cars of interest to me whose #3 value was very close to my Mustang’s purchase price. (That copy of CPI had my Mustang at $18,600 for a #3 car.) I then compared those numbers to their 2020 CPI values, and calculated the percentage increase (none lost value). The chart is arranged in order of value increase from smallest to largest.

YEAR MAKE MODEL Value 2004 Value 2020 CHANGE
1970 Plymouth Barracuda 340 coupe $15,525 $26,000 167%
1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 $15,600 $28,000 179%
1968 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 convertible $13,750 $27,000 196%
1971 Alfa Romeo Montreal $13,100 $42,000 321%
1969 Jaguar E-Type Ser. II coupe $14,500 $55,000 379%
1968 Mercury Cougar GT-E 427 $13,000 $53,000 408%
1967 Mercedes-Benz 230SL roadster $14,900 $61,000 409%
1963 Porsche 356 S90 coupe $14,750 $62,000 420%
1961 Lincoln Continental 4-dr conv. $11,500 $56,000 487%
1969 Porsche 911 S coupe $11,500 $83,000 722%

 

Again, we’ve kept things apples-to-apples by using CPI and by using #3 condition values. I’ll make the following observations:

  • It surprised me to see that the 3 cars with the smallest value changes are all domestic. None of those cars are performance slouches, and given the general trend that “muscle sells”, I expected higher numbers.
  • The other two domestic cars posted extraordinary results. The big-block Cougar rose over 400%, and the Continental disproves the adage that 4-door cars aren’t collectible.
  • The value of the Montreal seems artificially low to me, and I say that only as an Alfa owner who follows the market. However, the Jag value looks spot-on for a Series II coupe.
  • The two ‘ringers’ are the Porsches. Note that in 2004, the 356 was actually valued higher than the 911S! And in 2004 dollars, the 911 is the lowest-value car here, tied with the Continental.

What does all this mean? Nothing. (Like Seinfeld.) Seriously, it means that no one saw any of this coming. Looking at this with hindsight, do I have a twinge of regret? Ever so slightly, but not really. The Cougar is the same year as my Mustang, but would not have looked as unique as my car. I adore E-Types, and perhaps missed the boat my not snagging one when I could have. But making those statements does not take in the complete picture:

  • When I bought the GT/CS, it was in Maryland, about 3 hours away. I felt lucky finding one within a day’s round trip drive. Who knows where I would have found any of these other cars?
  • The Mustang was comparatively easy to work on, and I did most of my own maintenance and repair work.
  • Wrenching on a Jag or Porsche of any flavor means exponentially higher parts prices, and greater levels of complexity.
  • The Cal Special was very reliable. I drove it to Nashville, and on two complete New England 1000 rallies. Who is to say that any of these others would have been equally reliable?
  • There was something very special about the uniqueness of my GT/CS. To recap, that model was never officially sold east of the Mississippi by Ford, so very few of them are on the East Coast. Many people who saw it, even seasoned car show veterans, didn’t know that such a model existed. It was an exciting conversation piece.
  • I sold my GT/CS in 2012 for $20,000. You think I made a profit? Adding up insurance, routine maintenance, and repairs, it’s closer to the truth to say I broke even. But I had nine years to enjoy the hobby in it, and there’s no telling what kind of experiences any of these other vehicles could have delivered. So no regrets at all.
My GT/CS, the only domestic in sight, at the 2007 New England 1000 rally

 

Can anyone predict which collector cars of today will show value increases of 400% over the next 15 years? It’s fun to talk about, but I won’t be using real money to place any wagers. I’d rather get out there and drive.

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.