The Isetta Saga, Chapter 3: Discovering You Are Not Alone Among the Bubble Cars

In Chapter Two, we voyaged with our intrepid travelers as they braved all manner of hardships to secure safe passage of their beloved bubble cars back to NJ.

Chapter Three brings us the exciting discovery that there are others who own and collect Isettas, and can even provide much-needed parts and technical knowledge. However, none of that solves the challenges of the need for time, space, and money.

CHAPTER 3: DISCOVERING YOU ARE NOT ALONE AMONG THE BUBBLE CARS

We came back from Vermont with more than just cars and parts.  Wes Turner had also given us a small pile of papers: a spare parts list, exploded diagrams, and other print material. Although we visually scanned the documents before heading home, the significance of what we had took some time to sink in.

The spare parts price list was from the Ludwig Motor Corp., “imported spare parts specialists”. It was also dated June 1962, making it 17 years old. We surmised that it was more than likely that Herr Ludwig und Co. were no longer in operation.

 

The Ludwig Motor Corp. Isetta Spare Parts Price List

 

The exploded parts diagrams were fascinating in their detailed precision. (We didn’t know it at the time, but these drawings were from the factory BMW Isetta parts catalog.) In red, at the top of the page was an ink stamp: “Felling Enterprises” of Topanga, CA. We contacted said Enterprises to learn that it consisted of the husband & wife team of Carl and Marilyn Felling. Not only did they have Isetta spare parts to sell; they headed an organization called the HMI Club.

 

BMW’s official Isetta exploded parts diagrams. These would come in very handy down the road.

 

HMI stood for “Heinkel / Messerschmitt / Isetta”, the 3 most popular microcars at that time. (The Heinkel was conceptually similar to the Isetta. The ‘schmitt, with its tandem seating, yoke steering, 8″ wheels, 2-stroke engine, and side-hinged canopy, made an Isetta look normal.)

The club was for members interested in restoring, collecting, and showing their bubble cars (so called due to their rounded bubble-like shape). From their home in Topanga, the Fellings published a quarterly magazine, sold replacement parts, restored their own Isettas, and generally made themselves available to fellow bubble-nuts.

 

Marilyn sent out this letter in response to a recent Motor Trend article about her

 

It was almost too much for me to take in that right here in the U.S. were others who were equally interested in Isettas, and were available with resources to support my vision of a restored final product. I signed up for HMI Club membership immediately.

My HMI Club membership card

If one looked hard enough, there were other sources to be found. At Carlisle in 1979 (a primarily domestic automotive flea market), I found a literature vendor with four pieces of BMW Isetta sales literature, in both English and German. I bought everything he had, and paid close to $50 for it. When I showed my dad, he thought I had really lost it.

While occupied with research on the Isetta, I still needed to remind myself that I also owned a 1957 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop. My daily driver continued to be my 1977 VW Rabbit. At the age of 24, I owned 5 cars, never mind that three of them were disassembled microcars which were an unknown oddity to the automotive world at large. Given that the Ford ran and the BMWs didn’t, the Skyliner got some priority.

During the summer of ’79, I committed to rebuilding the very tired and worn Y-block V8 in the Ford. It had 140,000 miles on it, and pulling the valve covers revealed sludge so thick that I couldn’t see the head bolts. Having never rebuilt an engine before, I rented a cherry picker, borrowed an engine stand, disassembled the entire engine, had machine work done to the heads and block, and put it all back together. At one point, I even had the bare block in the back of the Rabbit.

 

Summer of ’79: engineless Ford, Rabbit, and Isettas all crowd into my folks’ backyard

 

Later that summer, with a trip to the Washington DC area in the making, I took advantage of the HMI Club directory. I looked up a club member named John Malcolm who lived in Maryland, and invited myself to his house. John was more into Messerschmitts and Subaru 360s than he was Isettas, but he was technically brilliant (he had written several how-to articles for the club newsletter), so I picked his brain as much as possible. In addition to his various project cars strewn across his parents’ yard, he also showed me his ‘modern’ Bond Bug microcar.

The cars of John Malcolm:

As 1979 drew to a close, the Skyliner was running but still needed significant body and interior work. There was no real progress to speak of with the Isettas. I had bought some carburetor parts from the Fellings (and even found some Volvo o-rings that would work), but the main stumbling block was that there was no plan. Access to my cars was about to get worse.

 

Any Volvo parts guys recognize those part numbers?

 

On January 1, 1980, I moved from my parents’ house on Staten Island to an apartment sans garage in Somerville NJ, which put me about a mile away from my job at Autosport. All the collector cars stayed with my folks, meaning, there was no regular opportunity to work on them.

In 1981, my father retired, and my parents decided to sell their Staten Island home and move to a retirement village in southern New Jersey. This meant that I could no longer rely on free storage for my rolling pipe dreams. My mechanic’s career was not exactly making me rich, and rather than selling off the collection, which would have been the mature decision, I spent what little extra funds I had on rental storage for all the cars.

The Isettas were moved into one half of a two-car detached garage in Maplewood NJ. Mike Adams, a salesman at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, where I went to work in August of 1980, had a Volvo PV 544. He was storing the Volvo in one half of a garage he was renting from a friend of his, Sue Stetson. He told me that the other half was available for $20/month. So I rented a truck, moved the 3 Isettas into this dirt floor garage, and told myself that at least they had a roof over their heads. As noted in greater detail here, the Skyliner was moved to Van’s Storage in western Jersey.

The decade of the 1980s began with me owning four collector cars, none of them stored anywhere within the proximity of my living quarters. Nine long years would pass before any further progress would transpire for my “rolling eggs”, as the Germans called the Isettas.

 

Stay tuned for Chapter Four, when we’ll discover how a clandestine rescue mission brought the Isettas home to a garage to call their own. 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK:

Ford’s flip-top Skyliner was not the world’s first retractable hardtop/convertible brought to market, but was certainly the first mass-produced one. The engineering was initially intended for the Continental Mark II, but when the bean-counters realized that the projected low volume of the Continental would never amortize the costs, the entire project was moved over to the full-size Ford platform. First introduced in 1957, Skyliner sales reached 20,000. But in 1958, volume dropped to 14,000, and for its third and final year, 1959 sales only hit 12,000 units. While Ford gave up on the retractable hardtop, the decklid and package shelf mechanisms lived on in the soft-top Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental convertibles of the 1960s.

 

 

 

 

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 2: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

Chapter One recounted the genesis of the Isetta Saga: Richard and Don, almost on a whim, answered an ad in Road & Track magazine by making a 16-hour round trip to northern Vermont, where they left a $100 down payment on the purchase of 3 or 4 (they really weren’t sure) BMW Isettas.
 In Chapter Two, we will see how our two intrepid automobile-restorers-to-be would go about bringing home their spoils.

 

CHAPTER TWO: FETCHING YOUR ISETTAS IN SEVERAL EASY 16-HOUR ROUND TRIPS

It was mid-November, 1978. As we promised Wes Turner, we did return, about three weeks later. In the interim, we plotted a low-cost method for obtaining the equipment we needed to move our non-running vehicles: we would borrow it.

My younger brother Karl happened to own a Chevy C-10 Suburban (the model with one door on the driver’s side, and two doors on the passenger side). It was equipped with a trailer hitch, and my bro had no problem lending it to us for a weekend.

For our next loan, we turned to Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal at Autosport, our employer. Jerry was a part-timer race car driver (his primary weapon in 1978 being a track-ready Fiat 124 Spider), and he owned an open-deck trailer. We asked him if we could borrow it (racing season was over), and he generously said yes.

As if this trip were to be all fun and games, we decided to invite our girlfriends along for the ride.

Instead of the bonsai back-n-forth-in-under-24-hours jaunt we pulled off last month, we decided to make a weekend of it. The plan was to leave New Jersey on Friday night after work, stay in a hotel halfway along, arrive in Moscow on Saturday, load the cars, stay in Moscow on Saturday, and drive home on Sunday.

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as our first trip.

Trouble started about two hours after departure. Somewhere on the Connecticut Turnpike, we heard a booming/crashing sound behind us. Pulling onto the shoulder (and keep in mind it was dark by this time), we discovered that the trailer’s wooden ramps, which were not secured, had flown off and were lying on the highway.

We gave brief thought to the idea of dashing out to retrieve them, but other vehicles kept driving over them, reducing the ramps to splinters. We had no choice but to continue without them.

Saturday morning, we arrived at Wes’s and surveyed the situation. Our borrowed trailer was not going to fit more than 2 Isettas. There would be one more round-trip in the future. For now, it seemed most prudent to load the two vehicles which would most likely to roll on their own: the two-tone blue/grey car (the most complete of them), and one of the red cars (the one without the door vents).

With the girlfriends’ assistance (and maybe Les), we pushed and grunted the cars onto the trailer (remember, we had no ramps). To secure them, we used nylon rope we brought with us. We knew nothing of tie-down ratcheting straps, and I did my Boy-Scout best to make good knots. This loading and lashing took Saturday afternoon AND Sunday morning, so by the time we left Vermont, it was early Sunday afternoon. We had 8+ hours of driving in front of us, and we all had to work Monday morning.

Sunday’s drive was uneventful for the first six hours or so. Actually, we were a bit taken aback by our fellow motorists, hooting, hollering, honking, pointing, and acting generally hysterical at the sight of these forlorn Isettas.

Soon after entering New Jersey, we began to hear a clicking/clunking sound coming from the back of my brother’s truck. It quickly grew in volume and frequency. Checking around the truck with a flashlight (of course, it was dark outside), I noticed that one of the rear wheels was held on with only 4 of its 8 lug nuts. Four of the lugs had snapped off. We slowly motored to the nearest service station, left the truck/trailer/Isetta combination there, and called a family friend for a ride back to the dealership where we again had left our cars. It was very late on Sunday night when I finally made it back to my house, and I was deflated.

Monday after work, Don and I headed back to the service station (we had spoken to them during the day, and the Chevy was fixed), and I drove the truck, following Don to his house in Pittstown.

At some point during all this time together, we had come to a gentlemen’s agreement: Don wanted the two-tone blue/grey car. It was the most complete of the four, and based on appearances alone, it seemed to be the one car that would most easily respond to attempts at resuscitation. If I agreed to that, Don said, then I could have “the other three”. I agreed.

Arriving at Don’s house, we got what was now his car off the trailer. With the car sitting at the top of a gentle hill, Don suggested that I climb in, and he’d give it a push. I did, and he did. The gravity-fed ride was probably 30 feet and lasted 10 seconds. I had just had my first ride in an Isetta. I wouldn’t be in the driver’s seat of a moving Isetta for another seventeen years.

Returning to my parents’ house, I unloaded the one remaining Isetta, drove the rig back to the dealership, and unhooked the trailer. I don’t think either one of us said anything to Mr. Lustig about the ramps!

With winter about to start, we would wait until spring for what would be our third and final round-trip to Moscow VT.

By March of ’79, Don now owned a Dodge van, with hitch (how convenient). We again borrowed a (different) trailer from Mr. Lustig, who generously agreed even though we had lost his ramps.

Similar to our November trip, we decided to use the entire weekend for the adventure. Unlike November, the girlfriends stayed home, and I brought a camera. Wes, learning of our plans, offered to let us stay in a spare room on his property, which we gladly accepted.

Mar. 31, 1979: my first-ever photo of our Isettas. Don lashes the chassis to the trailer.

The two remaining cars were the red car with deluxe door vents, and the body sans chassis (plus boxes of loose parts presumably belonging to Isettas and not to Borgward Isabellas). We loaded the cars onto the trailer, tied them down the best we could, and prepared for the long ride home.

The door vents identify this car as a deluxe model (note Wes’s Celica Liftback in background)

This was the weekend of March 31-April 1, 1979. While in Vermont, we heard the news that there had been a nuclear plant accident at a site called Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. We had our own mini-crisis (again) when we spotted a fuel leak from a small hole in the gas tank. We took care of it the best way we knew how: we drove faster.

At a service stop, I tried adding air to this tire. It held. Note professional rope-lashing job. 

With both cars coming back to Staten Island, we drove straight to my house, and dumped these two next to the one we fetched in November. My parents were thrilled.

Summer ’79: “my” 2.5 Isettas in my parents’ backyard (body on right is lacking chassis)

 

Another view: note 1965 VT plate

 

With engine cover missing, gaping hole reveals that engine is missing too

So here it was, the spring of 1979, and what had we accomplished? Don and I had completed three round trips to Moscow VT, totaling around 50 hours behind the wheel. Each trip was made in a different vehicle. We never kept track of the money spent on gasoline, tolls, hotels, meals, and unexpected repairs.

We each had laid out $325 to Wes Turner for the purchase. We would never have contact with Wes again.  I had no titles, no bills of sale, nothing to legally show that these cars were mine.

I was working as an automobile mechanic, and my thinking was “these cars are so small! What could be so difficult about getting one to run?” The truth was, I didn’t know where to start.

Of the 4 cars, I never photographed Don’s. This car, spotted years later, is the same color combo as his (but not in this condition).

Stay tuned for Chapter Three, when your humble Isetta restorer discovers that there are others in the U.S. who are as crazy about Isettas as he is (actually, crazier).

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK

BMW began production of its version of the Isetta after several BMW executives spotted the Iso Isetta at a European car show. BMW signed a contract with Iso which allowed the company to install their own (motorcycle-based) drivetrain, but they were prohibited from making other changes. The BMW Isetta turned out to be a huge commercial success for the Bavarian Motor Works, with final production numbers exceeding 160,000. It was the largest-volume BMW automobile model produced to date.

The BMW Isetta Saga, Chapter 1: Finding your car in the Road & Track ads

Happy New Year! January 2018 brings us near the completion of three years of Richard’s Car Blog. Post #1 was February 2015, and we’ve managed to publish 144 more since then. Thanks to all of you for your readership, and your comments, whether sent to the site, to my email, or delivered to me in person. The support is greatly appreciated.
All my blog posts relate to either my automotive career, or my immersion in the car hobby (which really started as an obsessed two-year-old). I’ve gone back to reflect on my dad’s cars, and I’ve posted rally and auction results within days of participation.
There is one vehicle, a car that I owned for 30 years, which has yet to be the subject of a blog post (although it has been mentioned in passing). Many of you know that I owned and restored a 1957 BMW Isetta. Unlike what you see on TV, the restoration didn’t take 60 minutes. In my case, 17 years elapsed between purchase and my first drive.
So we’ll kick off 2018 by launching the Isetta Saga. Memory-triggering is helped by my photo collection (plus the fact that I’m, like, really smart). Chapter 1 will be followed by umpteen more, taking us through much of this winter, as we patiently await for Spring Carlisle in April. Thanks again for reading along.

In October of 1978, I was 24 years old, living at home with my parents, and was all of two months into my job as an apprentice mechanic at Autosport, a Volvo/Honda/Alfa Romeo dealership in Somerville, NJ. I had become fast friends with a parts counterperson named Don Krech, whom I met when I started working there in August. Don and I were the same age, and shared similar interests in cars and music.

One day that month, the November issue of Road & Track magazine, to which I subscribed, arrived in the mail. I noticed an ad in MARKET PLACE, their classified ad section:

R&T, Nov. ’78. Look in the 2nd column, 3rd ad.

I brought the magazine to work and showed it to Don. The ad had neither a phone number nor street address (only a PO Box), yet we almost immediately decided to make the 8-hour one-way drive together, on the presumption that we would figure it out when we got there. Our plan was to depart late that Friday in order to arrive in Moscow VT early on Saturday morning.

Don played guitar in a band, and he had a gig that Friday. After the gig, I met Don at the dealership and, leaving my VW Rabbit there, climbed into his yellow Toyota Corolla SR-5 Liftback. We departed central New Jersey around 1 a.m. on the morning of Saturday October 21, 1978, headed for Moscow Vermont. We had paper maps, a bunch of music cassettes, some money, and precious little else with us.

Don did most of the driving. Even though I had caught a few hours shut-eye after getting home from work, I was tired, and I typically don’t do well when challenged to stay awake all night. We kept each other going by blasting The Cars’ first album on the Toyota’s stereo.

We arrived in the hamlet of Moscow, just outside the better-known ski resort of Stowe, around 9 a.m., groggy from lack of sleep, and convinced that we should have no trouble finding a Mr. “W. Turner” in a town so tiny. But first we found coffee.

We stopped several people on the street and inquired “do you know a W. Turner?” By the time we asked the fifth person, we got a semi-intelligent answer: “oh yeah, he lives in that corner house with the Honda on the front lawn”. Sure enough, on our way into town, we had driven past a Honda 600 up on jack stands, and joked that this must be his place. It was.

We knocked. An older gentleman answered the door, and responded in the affirmative to the question “Are you W. Turner?” When we told him that we were there in response to the Isetta ad, he was shocked. But he shrugged his shoulders, told us the cars were in a barn a mile away, and instructed that we should follow him in his Toyota pickup truck.

Wes Turner emerging from his Toyota. We are about to see the Isettas for the first time.

The barn door yawned wide, allowing daylight to hit its inner surfaces for the first time in who knows how long. What little light there was revealed a number of Isettas scattered about on the dirt floor, none of which was completely assembled. Some had all their glass, some did not. Various Isetta-ish-looking parts were on the cars’ floors. We sort of made out an engine or two. One Isetta had a Vermont license plate. From 1965.

What we saw in that barn should have sent us scurrying back to New Jersey.

But it did not. As two naïve 24-year-olds, all we saw was potential: here were three BMW Isettas, plus an extra body without a chassis, as the ad described. We weren’t horrified! We were delighted. They were small; they were cute; and they certainly gave the impression of being easy to restore.

We didn’t ask if he had titles (he didn’t); we didn’t ask if there was any wiggle room on the $650 asking price; we forked over a deposit of $100 (amazed in retrospect that we had that much cash between us), and told Wesley D. Turner that we’d be back up “in a few weeks” to drag our new treasures home.

This signed deposit receipt was the only proof we had that we bought Wes’ Isettas

 

 

Wes was always an enigma to us; he gave us this card, but we still didn’t have his number

We departed Moscow around 12 noon to head home. At no point during the 8-hour return trip did Don and I A) talk about exactly how we would “divide” the spoils among us; or B) try to figure out exactly how we would drag these admittedly tiny vehicles back south.

Here’s the entirety of what we knew: it was already late October, and if we were going to bring any of it home in 1978, it had better be before winter weather hit.

Don got me back to the dealership and my car around 8pm. I made the 45-minute drive home and went straight to bed, knowing I’d see Don at work on Monday, when we would resume our plans.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK

The Isetta was not a BMW design, but originated in Italy, brought to market by a company called Iso. The original Iso Isetta was a commercial flop. (The name Isetta is Italian for “Little Iso”.) Iso had better success in the 1960s with the Iso Rivolta and Iso Griffo, hybrids with Italian design and American V8 muscle.