In all the years I’ve been turning wrenches on cars as both a professional and a hobbyist, I’ve had plenty of successes and more than a few botched repairs, probably about the same as anyone else with my experience. While I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a skilled technician, I will acknowledge that I enjoy being the student, and the desire to learn has only grown stronger as I’ve gotten older. Before diving into a project, I’ll research it as much as possible in order to approach the task in a more educated way.
This willingness to go ‘back to school’ as it were paid off when working on the Weber carburetors on my Alfa. In my first blog post on this topic back in early October of this year I said the Webers seemed “unnecessarily complex”. In fact, they really aren’t. The perceived complexity exists in the myriad combinations of different sized jets and deciding whether to replace them. Changing jet sizes up or down can be a trial-and-error process, involving test drives, spark plug examinations, and yet more jet swaps. In my case, there was no need to replace jets, as I was having no related driveability issues. That kind of experimentation becomes necessary when installing Webers on a modified engine, or on a vehicle not originally fitted with them. (One of the best online articles I found re: Weber side draft operation was on a Datsun 240Z website, as these side drafts are a very popular upgrade on that sports car.)
The sole reason for the ‘rebuild’ was to replace leaky seals and gaskets, after which I would need to reset the basic settings. I was using no fewer than four different Alfa Romeo / Weber service manuals, and while there were some slightly different approaches among the four, they all agreed on the basics. Those basics were: Remove the top, side, and bottom covers (note that the float is attached to the top cover). Do NOT remove the jets, throttle plates, or throttle shaft. Clean out the carburetors. Set the float height. Reassemble the carbs with new seals and gaskets. Reset the idle air/fuel mix, the carb synchronization, and the engine idle.
One service tip I learned is that good access to the carbs is available without unbolting them from the engine. The float, the internal mesh filter and all the jets are all accessible once the top cover is removed, held on with 5 screws plus the fuel line banjo bolts. On my car, one does not even need to touch the plenum cover. However, I wanted to get to the bottom cover, and also wanted to perform a thorough ‘off the car’ cleaning.
The float setting is a bit fussy. There are actually two settings: the top and the bottom. The top cover gasket must be in place. The two setting measurements are 8mm and 14.5mm, and the books claim that a deviation over 0.5mm can be troublesome. I fashioned my own measuring tools, one using a hex key wrapped with masking tape, and the other made from a piece of rubber hose. Both floats were off enough that they needed both their top and bottom settings adjusted.
The new rubber carb mounts arrived from Classic Alfa, and I was a little disappointed that the studs were not anchored in place. It’s a good thing I discovered this before putting it all together, and the problem was easily resolved with some threadlocker. While I can’t prove that my old rubber mounts were part of any problem, the rubber was clearly past its prime.
It was news to me that there was a mesh screen filter inside each of the carbs. Thankfully, a replacement was part of the carb gasket kit. I went through about 5 cans of Gumout before I was reasonably satisfied with the cleanliness, and even then, there was some dirt on the outside (but none on the inside).
The corner had been turned, and it was time for reassembly. First, the rubber mounts were bolted to the intake manifold (remember that half the bolts are hidden on the cylinder head side of the manifold). Adding yet another step to this litany of work, I decided at the last minute to replace the coolant, which was more than several years old. This meant hunting down some old-fashioned green antifreeze and distilled water (Walmart was down to its last 5 gallon bottles of distilled, but I only needed 2). The manifold was bolted back to the cylinder head, the coolant hoses were reattached (it’s a wet manifold), and the radiator was filled.
The cleaned carbs were bolted to the rubber mounts, and the choke and throttle linkages were reattached. I decided for now to leave the intake plenum off the car. The engine would run without it, and I didn’t want to do any more work than necessary in the very unlikely event that the carbs needed to be removed again.
It was time to try to start the car.
Many minutes were spent pumping the throttle and cranking the engine in short bursts so as not to overheat the starter motor. The engine wasn’t even trying to start. After about five minutes of this, I knew that something else needed to change. Each two-barrel carb has two idle mixture screws, so there are four, one for each barrel (obviously). My repair books differ in describing the basic setting of these idle mixture screws. While all the service literature agrees that each screw should be turned down to ‘bottom’, then turned ‘out’ (counterclockwise), the exact number of recommended turns differs. I had settled on one full turn out, while some books recommended two, and others didn’t even give an exact number. When the car wouldn’t start, I turned each idle air mix screw one full turn further out. Climbing back into the car, the engine started on the next try.
Next, the books advised on how to continue with the basic settings, including carb synchronizing and idle setting. Before either of these can be set, however, the engine needs to reach full operating temperature. I watched both the temperature gauge and the coolant level, and both were fine. But as the engine warmed up, the idle kept increasing. Nothing I did at the carbs seemed to have any effect on my ability to lower the idle. After a few minutes, the car was ‘idling’ at 2500 rpm, and it should be between 800-1000 rpm. While I was happy that the car was running, and running well to my ears, something else was up with the idle control. It was time to shut it down and hit the books again.
“On Friday, October 10, stock markets crashed across Europe and Asia. London, Paris and Frankfurt dropped 10% within an hour of trading and again when Wall Street opened for trading. Global markets … experienced their worst weeks since 1987 and some indices, S&P 500, since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
On October 10, within the first five minutes of the trading session on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 697 points, falling below 7900 to its lowest level since March 17, 2003…. Trading on New York Stock Exchange closed for the week with the Dow at 8,451, down 1,874 points, or 18% for the week, and after 8 days of losses, 40% down from its record high October 9, 2007…. The bonds of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers were auctioned on Friday, October 10. They sold for a little over 8 cents on the dollar.”
If you’re reading this and asking yourself, “when did this become RichardsFinancialBlog?”, no need to worry, as the story has a car connection. On the same day that Lehman Brothers’ bonds were auctioned, I was watching some high-dollar automotive machinery go up for auction at the annual RM classic car auction in Hershey PA. I paid a whopping $60 (!) for entry to the auction within the Hershey Lodge, and that included my own copy of the catalog (but not a bidder’s pass). This was my initial foray into the world of so-called catalog auctions, undertaken so that I could decide if this would be a reasonable avenue for selling my Isetta.
Prior to this, auctions I had attended were what I call the ‘carnival’ style: a vehicle rolls up onto the block, an auctioneer starts to chant so loudly and so quickly that he can barely be understood, and 45 to 90 seconds later, a gavel falls and the next car in the parade arrives. This is what you see on TV at the typical Barrett-Jackson or Mecum auction. They are boisterous, ear-splitting, lightning-paced, and ultimately mind-numbing experiences. I understood from reading auction reports that the catalog auctions were more, shall we say, mild-mannered and discreet, and I wanted to witness this first-hand.
On that Friday inside the Hershey Lodge, I immediately noticed the differences, starting with the voice and tone of the auctioneer. I could actually understand him; if anything, the New Yorker in me wanted him to speak more quickly! He was in no rush to get to the next car, meaning, he was putting 100% of his attention on the car in front of him. He would make little quips to the bidders, such as “sir, but what else are you going to do with your money?”, and “would the gentleman in the back like to bid again?” There was none, I repeat, none of the hyperbole one hears at other venues, such as “look at that fabulous paint job”; “restored using only the finest high-quality parts”; and “guaranteed to only go up in value”. B-J this was not.
Each car spent from 3 to 5 minutes on the block. When the reserve was met, the auctioneer, using the same level tone, would state “we are selling this car today”. (At Carlisle Auctions, the auctioneer SCREAMS “THE RESERVE IS OFF!!!” while a neon sign over his head blares the same message.)
Another difference: the bidders. Everyone sat calmly in their seats, with the very occasional bidder wandering up to the block for a close-up inspection. There was no yelling, jumping, fist-pumping, or showing off for the cameras (of which there were none anyway). The men bidding (and they were all male) would catch the eye of the auctioneer or one of the assistants (“callers”) and with the subtlest of head nods, place their bets.
Midway through the afternoon, a 1913 Locomobile reached the block. Resplendent in white with black top and interior and lots of brass, it was so long that it looked like it would miss fitting in my garage by about 10 feet. The bidding opened at $50,000, and moving in $25,000 increments, quickly reached $300,000. In the row in front of me sat a white-haired elderly man, perhaps 80 or 85. When the auctioneer asked for $325,000, the old gent raised his bidder’s pass like he was ordering a cheeseburger at Wendy’s, the gavel fell, and the brass beauty was his. It was at this moment that I had the epiphany: the Lehman Brothers collapse meant nothing to those who had discretionary funds to spare, and a catalog-type auction would be a classy place to sell my car.
The catalog cover car, and star of the show, was a 1933 Duesenberg phaeton. It sold for $1,535,000, again proving that those who have it can spend it. (The next day, while waiting to cross Hersheypark Drive to enter the AACA show, this same Duesenberg sailed past at about 60 mph. It sounded like a locomotive, and you could hear it from a quarter mile away.)
For the sale of my own car, I was in no great rush, and I had weighed the pro’s and con’s of such a move for much of the first decade of the 21st century. A few half-hearted attempts were made by placing some ads, most of which generated no response. A few years after attending this RM auction, I ran an ad in the national AACA magazine, and a man from Philadelphia showed up at my house, went for a ride with me, and told me he would buy the car (my ask was $30k, and I believe he said he was ok with the price). But the next day he called and said he changed his mind. That’s how it goes when trying to sell cars.
In the meantime, I also checked out the Bonhams auction, which had become an annual mainstay as part of the Greenwich Concours event in early June. The auction style was similar, however, the setup was in a tent, on grass, and Bonhams jammed as many cars into that tent as possible, with the remainder scattered outside along its perimeter. The ambiance was not as pleasing as RM which had the advantage of a large hotel conference room, with better sound and lighting. But still, both were within consideration, as both were within a day’s drive on the East Coast. Friends who suggested that I truck my car out to Barrett-Jackson in AZ were not calculating the overhead (fuel, food, hotels, time) that such a trip would entail.
In 2013, after much back-and-forth in my own mind about continuing to try to sell the car on my own (more control over asking price vs dealing with stubborn buyers) compared to an auction consignment (devoted in-person audience vs less control over bidding price), I decided to move ahead with RM. A few years back, I had reached out to RM and had communicated with Ian Kelleher. Since I had his email address, I picked up where I had left off with him. (It’s surprising to me to see that my first email of the year to him was sent on June 26, less than four months before the auction.)
Ian replied, and I was taken aback when he told me that while there was plenty of time to get my car on the docket for Hershey, it would need to be a no-reserve entry. He said that they would be willing to publish a pre-sale estimate of $30,000-40,000, but any cars valued below $50,000 are strictly sold as no-reserve. My heart sank. What if bidding only reached $20,000? I wasn’t willing to give it away. There were numerous email exchanges between Ian and me, during which I successfully negotiated for the following:
Vehicle listed as No Reserve, with auction estimate of $30,000-40,000;
Minimum of one full page in the auction catalog, desirably two pages;
Professional photography taken by RM for catalog photos;
Input and review by me of catalog write-up;
Vehicle will cross block on Friday (the 2nd day of a two-day auction)
RM will allow me to display various items alongside car during auction preview including photographs, posters, magazines, literature, scale models, and tablet.
As a balm for the no-reserve listing, and as a courtesy to me as a first-time consigner, Ian agreed to reduce my consignment fee from $1,000 to $500, and my seller’s commission from 10% to 7%. This made me feel a whole lot better about the no-reserve deal. RM sent me a consignment form, which included the requirement that I sign and send them the title to my car. Now it was getting serious!
You will note above that I told Ian that I wanted “input and review by me of catalog write-up”. Previous catalog write-ups I had read included flowery vehicle descriptions with 80% general history of the marque, and 20% specific detail of the actual lot. I wanted to reverse those percentages for my car, and be sure that the catalog text spoke to my car’s specifics. Still, I was sent a first draft and needed to make the following corrections:
Rear springs were described as semi-elliptic, when they are quarter-elliptic;
“Four-wheel drum brakes” was corrected to “front and rear drum brakes”;
“… ideal for the streets of postwar Germany” was changed to “… Europe”.
My suggestions were accepted without further discussion; RM was continuing to please me with their treatment of me as a consigner.
Quite a few acquaintances were taken aback with the fees, even at reduced rates. They would ask with incredulity: “what exactly are you getting for all that money you’re paying?” My first-hand experience allows me to report that my fees helped to cover:
The dispatching of a professional photographer to my home, where he spent about three hours taking photos of my car.
Display of those photos on the RM website, in the published catalog, and in several email blasts sent by RM.
A full maintenance crew on hand at the Hershey Lodge to assist with needs such as adding fuel, charging batteries, and maintaining cleanliness of the cars.
As an owner, I felt that the website, email, and catalog exposure was fairly extensive, and reached a level of marketing that I could not match. That still didn’t stop me from creating my own marketing efforts. Since test drives would not be possible on-site, I opted for the 2nd best thing and made two videos which would show prospective bidders that this car was no trailer queen, and did get occasional exercise:
Some final tidying up of the vehicle was done, especially in the interior. I resprayed the fiberboard interior panels, and added the underseat panel which had been missing all these years. Some minor adjustments were made to the horn and to the parking brake, and of course the car was detailed.
Hershey week arrived. The actual auction was scheduled for Thursday October 10 and Friday October 11, 2013. On the Tuesday morning of that week, I left my house, Isetta in tow, bittersweet at the thought that I would be returning at the end of the week with an empty trailer. Upon arrival, I got my car situated under the big tent in the Hershey Lodge parking lot. The Hershey area had significant downpours for much of the week (what we’re used to in that part of the world in October), but things stayed calm and relatively dry in the tent. Each and every weekday, I never left the car’s side, as I wanted to answer any questions from anyone who might be bidding. My heart sank again when I found a 2nd Isetta at the same auction, red like mine, but in a condition that was one or two steps below mine. Crossing the block on Thursday at no reserve, it hammered sold at $25,000. I felt that number established a value floor and made me more optimistic about my own car.
Finally, it was Friday, auction day for my rolling egg. When RM had told me that my consignment included two free entrance tickets to the auction, I had the nerve to request several more. Again, RM exceeded my expectations by granting that request without delay. Several friends from Volvo Corporate attended the big moment with me, and provided lots of emotional support (thanks Andy and Larry!).
The head of the RM maintenance crew had gotten to know me. RM’s procedure is to queue up the cars outside the entrance ramp so that the cars can be driven as close as possible to the block, at which point they’re pushed, to minimize exhaust fumes in the conference room. The crew chief pulled me aside, and likely knowing what he was about to offer wasn’t ‘by the book’, said to me “why don’t you drive your car up to the ramp? It’ll be the last time you’ll get to drive it”. I gladly took him up on that. I climbed in, started it, and as soon as I reached the entrance, shut it down. The crew on hand stopped it from rolling back; they would push it from here. I went in and sat with my wife and my buddies.
Max Girardo, the charming, eloquent and multi-linguistic auctioneer, was at the podium. As Andy pointed out to me later, Max spent more time extolling the virtues of my car than he did with any of the cars preceding or following my car. The bidding opened at $10,000, quickly climbed to $25,000, and then slowed somewhat, although it did reach $30,000. Max held on for me as long as he could, with the bid intervals dropping from $5,000 to $2,500. At a final bid of $32,500, the gavel fell. The car was officially sold. Although RM told me that I would receive payment in 6 weeks, they completed an electronic transfer of funds to me in 3 weeks, yet again exceeding my expectations.
The auction sale date was 10 days shy of 35 years from October 21, 1978, when Don Krech and I made the first of three 16-hour round-trip journeys from central NJ to Moscow VT for these funny-looking little bubble cars that Wesley Turner had for sale for $650. In October of 1978, I had never heard of AACA, or Hershey, or Carlisle, or car auctions. The rigmarole of transporting the cars back from VT, storing them offsite at cost, and figuring out how to perform a restoration on them had me almost walk away from the entire mess more than once. It’s very likely that I kept the cars all that time simply because they were so small and easy to stash somewhere (had I made my investment in a ’59 Caddy it would be a different story).
This is the final chapter of the Isetta Saga. Getting all this out on my blog was a process in itself. Chapter 1 of the saga was published on January 7, 2018, just shy of three years ago. Thirty-five chapters spread out over 34 months is an almost-perfect one chapter per month! Wish I could say that I planned it that way, but that would be a lie….
To those who have stuck it out and have read along as each chapter was published, a big thank you. To those who occasionally dipped their toes into the ups and downs of this Isetta’s story, you still deserve my thanks. I can only hope that my perseverance with this project (some would say insanity) may possibly provide some motivation should you be considering a similar journey. For me, it was great fun to relive it all!
It was probably 1982 and I was at Hershey, in PA, in October, at the big annual AACA Hershey show. It was perhaps only the 3rd or 4th time I was there. I was young, and this was still all new, and I had so much to learn about the collector car hobby. I was living in an apartment without a garage. I had my Isettas stored in one garage not near me, and my ’57 Ford Skyliner stored in another garage not near me. I still dreamed of that future point in time when I would get back to these cars to perform a complete restoration on each of them. However, I had no real concrete plan for getting to that point.
As I strolled the aisles of that Saturday car show, I was still learning that these cars were here to be ranked and rated by AACA judges. The judging was a very strict and formal process. The car owners took this very seriously, and very much wanted to win. They wanted their 1st Junior, or 1st Senior, or their Preservation Award, things I had yet to learn about. It was neat for me, the neophyte, to discover that the vehicles were arranged in something resembling a sensible order, based on year, make, and model.
A particular recollection concerns the Baby Birds, the 2-seat Ford Thunderbirds only made from 1955-1957. They were all lined up, in their candy colors of red and blue, and pastel colors of green and yellow, and monochrome colors of black and white. They didn’t look like cars! They looked like edible sweets on a shelf. As I walked down this row of cars which were barely 25 years old, I could not get over how perfect each car was. With hoods up and trunks open, reproduction chalk marks and ink stamps were exposed. It was clear to me, the newbie, that these cars were rarely, if ever, driven.
The entire spectacle depressed me. How does an owner, I asked myself, get to a point that the car is so perfect that it’s not driven? Was this what the hobby was about? I was yet to learn that some owners did indeed treat their cars as trailer queens, driven only on and off trailers, and brought to shows only to collect awards. It was impossible for me to imagine a day when I would show a car at Hershey.
Fast forward exactly 30 years, and here I was in 2012, with a car of mine on the Hershey show field. I was as giddy as could be, and while I took the whole spectacle seriously, the event was eliciting a reflexive ear-to-ear grin that I could not erase. How did I get to this point? Having joined the National AACA around the year 2000, and attending almost every Hershey since then, the urge to enter a car was growing. With over 10 years of experience in showing the Isetta, as you’ve been reading in the Isetta Saga, it was time to put the car in the big boys’ show.
There was not much prep necessary. I had my trailer and my hitch-equipped Volvo V70 ready to make the journey. A logistical issue for anyone bringing a show car to Hershey is the question of “what do I do with my car during the week?” The judged show is always Saturday, but the flea market / car corral begins four days prior on the Tuesday. Owners who drive their show cars to the event leave them overnight in the hotel parking lot. They’ll then use those cars to commute back and forth during the week. If they have a flea market spot, they’ll just drive it onto the field and park in their spot.
My little Hershey secret, which I had begun to use about 10 years prior, was to stay at a local Bed & Breakfast in lieu of a hotel. (I refer to it as a ‘secret’ because if too many show attendees started doing the same, it wouldn’t be as easy to book a room. Compared to hotels, which start booking rooms for next year’s event the day after this year’s event ends, I found that local B&B’s had rooms available as late as 6 or 8 weeks before Hershey week.)
The B&B’s were more comfortable than hotels, they included breakfast (to go if I asked), and were about the same cost. There was a B&B in Dillsburg, located halfway between Hershey and Carlisle, which I started frequenting. When I called for the reservation, I asked permission to leave the Isetta on its trailer somewhere on the grounds. The woman proprietor, with whom I was on a first-name basis, told me that was absolutely fine, and said she had a spot behind the barn where my rig would be away from other guests’ cars, as well as out of sight from the road. Upon my arrival, I put the trailer where asked, unhooked it, and was then able to use the Volvo to-and-from the show during the week.
Once Saturday morning arrived, I reconnected the trailer and was off to ‘trailer parking’. AACA had set up a lot about 1.5 miles away from the show field dedicated to the dozens and dozens of trailers which needed to be staged somewhere. I asked my bestie Larry if he wanted to meet me there and ride with me in the Isetta, and he was more than game. As he climbed in, I handed him my camera and asked him to take as many photos as he could manage. We were literally in the parade of cars that I had witnessed as a spectator on so many prior occasions.
Once at the grounds, I was directed to my parking spot in Class 04B, “small vehicles 1942 and later” (04A is 1941 and older). I parked next to the only other Isetta at the show that day. Other cars in my class included a Vespa and several VW Beetles (which look large next to an Isetta). I exited the car, put up my signage, and stuck around as required for judging. The judging team was there soon enough to do their thing. Once that was done, I was free to walk around, but as is my wont, I preferred to stay near the car and engage with attendees.
The other Isetta was a beautiful two-tone blue & grey car, from Maryland, and the car was there for its Preservation Award, meaning that it had already achieved Senior status. Cosmetically, I thought it was a notch above mine; it certainly looked ‘fresher’ (I wasn’t telling anyone that the paint on my car was already 17 years old). The owner was sitting in her folding chair behind her car, and I went up to her to make a sincere effort to both compliment her on her car as well as engage her in conversation about it. When I asked her some details about the restoration process, she demurred, and didn’t really make any attempt to answer my questions. What eventually came out of our conversation was the realization that she was not an active participant in the car’s restoration. It’s what we call a “checkbook restoration”; she wrote the checks to the shop that did the work, and picked up the car when it was done. This is not to take anything away from the obvious quality of the work. But there is something to be said for taking more ownership of your own restoration, which helps elevate the understanding of how the car is designed, engineered, and built, and how it operates.
Around 3 p.m., the show cars began to exit the field. It was a magnificent day on so many levels: the car ran great, the judging went smoothly, the audience enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the audience. It helped that the fickle Hershey weather was near perfect. I drove the car back to the trailer parking, loaded it up, and headed home, arriving before dark.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail from AACA, announcing that I had succeeded in winning my 1st Junior award (there was, as always, an Award Banquet on Saturday night, but I did not attend). Had I been there, I would have been handed my trophy. The letter from AACA informed me that if I wanted the trophy, I would need to pay the nominal shipping cost, which I did.
At the close of 2012, I realized that I had been trailering my Isetta to various shows throughout NJ, NY, CT, and PA for the past 13 years! While I had previously made half-hearted attempts at selling the car, with absolutely no success, I knew that 2013 was going to be the year to let it go. I had had my fun. An auction was the best choice, and it was a question of selecting an auction company, having already held preliminary conversations with both Bonhams and RM. The Bonhams auction I had in mind was their Greenwich event held in conjunction with the Greenwich CT Concours in early June. For RM, the Hershey auction in October was also being considered. I had some time to decide, however, the wheels were firmly put in motion at the end of 2012. After 35 years of ownership, and 13 years of show attendance, it was time.
On Saturday, October 24, at the RM Sotheby’s Elkhart Collection Auction, the 1957 BMW Isetta, chassis number 509090, formerly owned by me, sold at a hammer price of $31,000. When RM does post the result on their website, the published number will show as $34,720, as they will include the 12% buyer’s commission in the total shown. (This is a tactic that all auction companies engage in, as a way to display an even higher sale number than the hammer price. As they would argue, this is the more accurate representation of the dollars coming out of the purchaser’s pocket. But it’s still not the same as the hammer price.)
While it was no surprise that the car sold (after all, the auction was No Reserve), and even though I had previously estimated a hammer price of $30,000, I had begun to underestimate myself after watching Friday’s live stream, where the majority of cars met, or more typically exceeded, their pre-sale auction estimates. There was a sell-out in-person crowd in Elkhart, plus phone and internet bidding. With few exceptions, cars stayed on the block only for one to two minutes, and the bidding was aggressive and quick-paced. In the Isetta’s case, the pre-sale estimate of $35-45,000 was a tad optimistic.
I’m very happy for the new owner, whoever s/he may be. I hope that the car gets driven and shown a bit more than the previous owner managed to (not) do!
I’ve purposely held back the final few chapters of the Isetta Saga, pending this sale. Watch for the Saga’s conclusion to appear on this site in the very near future. (Then what am I going to write about?)
The time has come: the auction of the “Elkhart Collection” by RM Sotheby’s has commenced as I type these words. The auction began at 10 a.m. on Friday October 23, and will run through tomorrow. As most of these auctions do, the lots start with what is loosely referred to as automobilia (defined as automotive-related stuff other than vehicles), which here includes tools, shop supplies, books, and sundry collectibles. Once done with the automobilia, the cars will start to cross the block.
While I’m keen to watch what some of the more interesting Fiats and Ferraris will hammer for, the car of most interest to me is my former Isetta, about which I’ve spilled so much digital ink. It is Lot #2157, scheduled to cross the block on Saturday. (I’ve been asked by more than one person “how do you know it’s the same car?” The easiest way is via its chassis number, 509090. But there are also some tell-tale signs about the restoration that mark is as uniquely mine. Oh, then there’s that suitcase on the parcel shelf.)
I’ve also been asked if I knew who bought my car back in 2013 (no), if I knew the car had stayed in the U.S. (no), and if I knew how much the car has been used (yes). Checking photos of the odometer, I can attest that the mileage when I sold it was 29,529. Based on a photo on the RM Sotheby’s website, the current odometer reading is 29,530. One. Mile. Difference. The car probably gained that “mile” while being driven on and off transport trucks, which is a shame, because it IS fun to drive.
This also caused me to go back and verify how much I drove the car while it was in my possession. I found a photo of the odometer from 1995 showing 29,437 miles. So I drove it 92 miles, seemingly not a lot, but I also never ventured more than about four miles from home base either.
Most of the lots for this auction are no reserve (as this one is), meaning that they will sell to the highest bidder. And all of them have been assigned pre-sale estimates. For this Isetta, that range is published as $35,000 – $45,000. Nicely restored Isettas sold at auction within the last few years are off their high values of five-to-eight years ago; the more recent sales have hovered around $25-30,000. My best guess for #509090 is that it will hammer close to $30,000 (plus 12% buyer’s commission, which will be folded into the number that RM Sotheby’s eventually publishes).
I wish nothing but the best for the new owner, whoever that may be. And I know where you can read a long drawn-out saga about that car online.
All photographs courtesy of the RM Sotheby’s website.
APRIL 2011: THE PETITE CONCOURS AT THE NY AUTO SHOW
Sometime early in 2011, I received an email from an outfit billing itself as “Teeny Tiny Productions”. Almost deleting it on the presumption that it was spam, I opened the email to discover that Teeny Tiny Productions was actually associated with microcars. Reading further, I learned that they planned to host a special exhibit at the upcoming New York International Auto Show (NYIAS), and this email was my personal invitation to participate.
I called the provided number and spoke to a gentleman named Burt Richmond who assured me that this was legit. He and his business/personal partner Diane Fitzgerald had hosted a number of microcar-themed events in and around the Chicago area, where they resided. The email targeted me as an Isetta owner who lived in the NY Metro area. There were no costs to me outside of the need to transport the vehicle in and out of the city. He asked “are you game?” to which I replied “sure”, thinking that adding a display at the NYIAS to my Isetta’s résumé could only be a good thing.
According to the schedule I was provided, the “Petite Concours”, as the special display was named, would run only for the first five days of the show, including press days, and not its entirety. We owners would load our vehicles into the Jacob Javits Center before the show opened, and would get them out on a Sunday, after that day’s show had ended. This made it easier for me, as traffic in the area would be (relatively) minimized. Burt and Diane were on hand when I loaded in, and Burt was in charge of the floor arrangement. My car was chosen as one of four Isettas to be arranged in an “X”, with the cars’ tail ends inward. Thankfully, the vehicles were stanchioned off, and there was 24-hour security provided by the Javits crew.
Because we were in a room on the lower level, and not part of the main exhibit, I won’t pretend that the Petite Concours was a major spectator draw. Certainly, the other vehicles on display, which included Messerschmitts, Crosleys, Citroen 2CVs, old and new Hondas, Fiats, and NSUs, attracted some of the crowd that just happened to be meandering past, not necessarily aware of the special showing. As I’ve observed when an assortment of miniature cars is at a show, the Isetta becomes viewed as something that’s almost ‘normal’ when surrounded by some of its more abnormal contemporaries.
The five days went quickly enough; the probable highlight of the entire affair was being behind the wheel of my car and piloting it through the dungeon known as the Javits’s basement. I’ve walked the show enough times, and had the pleasure of attending so often on a press pass, yet never imagined there would be a day when my little bubble car and I would be in that locale together.
OCTOBER 2011: THE MONMOUTH COUNTY CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE
Later in the year, my good friend Dennis Nash called me up. He explained that he was very involved with an acquaintance of his who would be hosting a car show called the Monmouth County Concours d’Elegance, and 2011 was to be its 2nd running. Dennis said that they were quite short of judges, and asked me if I would judge for the day (no special training needed!). He also threw in the fact that the show vehicles were admitted as invitation-only, and he was extending such an invitation to my Isetta.
The show was scheduled for October 1, and checking my calendar, I noted that I had no conflicts, so I told Dennis I was in. Dennis’s only other request was that I arrive early that day for a judges’ meeting, and to be assigned to a team.
The day turned out to be cool and overcast, but we were thankfully spared the wet stuff, which counted for a lot, given that I was dressed in the de rigueur judge’s outfit of navy blazer, white shirt, chinos, and loafers (boater’s hats were optional). Dennis was running the judges’ meeting, and we were all put into teams of two. My judging partner was…. Dennis’s wife Ann Marie! I was happy to be with someone I knew, and the judging was quite informal anyway. There was a wonderful and eclectic selection of vehicles on the lawn, but to be blunt, the caliber of vehicles didn’t strike me as what I would expect to find at an “invitation only” concours. I did enjoy myself, in large part because the Nashes are a wonderful couple, and as dedicated to the old car hobby as any married pair I’ve ever met.
I don’t believe that the Monmouth Concours continued much past 2012, if it even made it that far. As well-intentioned as the show organizers were, they learned how difficult it is to put on a top-notch fling, especially with the calendar becoming more and more crowded with collector car type events every weekend from April through October.
POSTSCRIPT: FALL HERSHEY
The following weekend was Hershey, and of course I was there. Wandering the aisles during the Saturday car show, I spotted this forlorn BMW out for judging:
This was the germination of an idea – could I, would I, consider putting my Isetta on display at Hershey? Stay tuned for the answer!
December 23, 2009 was my final day of work at Volvo Cars of North America, where I had been employed for over 23 years. For the first time since college graduation, I was free of daily obligations. I had every intention of resuming my career, but with my wife’s encouragement, I decided to take some time off.
As 2010 dawned, I looked at the collector car calendar and could foresee upping my participation above what had already been a busy schedule. While the garage held both the ’68 Mustang and the Isetta, I decided to look for opportunities to get the Isetta out more. The additional time needed to load and unload the car would be less of an issue now.
My friend Larry, who lives in the vicinity of this school, made me aware of this show, which sounded like fun. It was also a chance to lend support to a bunch of teenagers who wanted to experience the makings of a car show in their own back yard.
The kids of course, enjoyed my car, and I in turn enjoyed the variety of vehicles in attendance. Two young men floored me, as they showed me around their VW bus while wearing tie-dye shirts. Flashing the peace sign was their idea, not mine!
MAY: AACA NJ REGION ANNUAL CAR SHOW
I had only recently become a member of the NJ Chapter, so none of my mates in the club had seen the Isetta yet. Entering the microcar in the same class as the American iron of the ‘50s meant that it was up against some very stiff competition (it also looked like a toy next to these ‘50s gargantuans).
My friend Ron, whom I knew from the multiple New England 1000 rallies we’ve run together, showed up in his ’55 T-Bird and parked next to me. Lo and behold, when it was time to depart, his Bird wouldn’t start! Ron knew the car became fuel-starved because of a hot soak issue, and he said that all he needed to get going was a bit of fuel to pour into the carb. But where to get that fuel? From the Isetta’s fuel tap!
MAY: NESHANIC STATION MEMORIAL DAY PARADE
We were getting good at parade participation, and this one was close enough to my house that I could actually drive the 3 miles back and forth, and I did! My stalwart friend Richard Sweeney did not miss the chance to ride in the car, and waved to the crowd as if he were the mayor.
JULY: BREAKFAST AND ISETTA RIDES AT THE REINAS
As a changeup from the typical Sunday morning breakfast drive, I emptied my garage of cars, set up a table and chairs, brought out the electric griddle and coffee pot from the kitchen, and invited a bunch of the regulars down to breakfast. (My wife said it looked like I could move in there; perhaps that was a hint….) Even Irv Gordon made it (after receiving the invite, he called me up and asked “Rich, do you think the guys would mind if I drove the C70 instead of the 1800? I want to ride in air conditioning”.)
We had something of a mini car show on the lawn and in the driveway, and for anyone brave enough, rides up and down the road in the rolling egg were freely offered.
This show, held in the charming town of Macungie PA since the 1960s, wins the award for “car show name with greatest ratio of consonants to vowels”. I’ve attended “Macungie” as we call it (easier to say) since the early ‘80s, as it was a known gathering spot for microcar owners.
There was no contingent of micro units this year, but I did manage to secure a shady spot on what was a typical hot and humid summer day. This show has always prided itself on an eclectic variety of display vehicles, typically arranged by year, make, and model. One particular memory is of a young woman who described herself to me as an artist. Having gone through my restoration photos, she seemed to take great delight in informing me that I too, was “an artist”. I accepted the compliment!
By the autumn of 2010, I was back to work, albeit only on a part-time basis. With the show calendar quickly coming to a close, I was already anticipating more of the same in 2011.
It’s long been a tenet in the old car hobby that cars like to be driven; they don’t do well when they sit; and as long as you’re on top of maintenance, there’s no reason not to expect some reliability from an older car.
I’ve been lucky with the Alfa Romeo (although frankly, luck has little to do with it): having purchased the car in March of 2013 with 54,000 miles on the odometer, by July of 2019, the car had just shy of sixty-six thousand on the clock. In a little over six years, I managed to drive a 1967 Italian car almost 12,000 miles, which neatly works out to 2,000 miles a year. That changed, though, when the brakes seized, resulting in a complete teardown and rebuild of the braking system that took a year to complete. The car had not sat silent under my ownership for that long before, and when I did restart it, it ran poorly. Suspecting the fuel had gone sour, I drained the tank, added fresh premium, and swapped out the plugs. Success! Except … now I had a fuel leak under one of the carbs.
So, much of September was spent reading up on Weber carburetors. At first blush, they seem unnecessarily complex. Add to that complexity the words of the late Pat Braden, as he wrote in The Alfa Romeo Owner’s Bible, a copy of which I own (and I’m paraphrasing here): “if your car is running fine, don’t touch the carbs. Everyone wants to fiddle with the carbs. If it’s running ok, leave the carbs alone”.
Well, Pat, the car does ‘run’ fine, but liquid fuel dripping onto my starter motor does not get me very excited, at least not in a good way. I did some more research, including reading some very helpful posts on the Alfa BB (Bulletin Board), and concluded that the gaskets and seals were probably old, and the float height should be measured and adjusted, but other than that, I am going to leave the carbs alone!
I’ve never removed the Webers from my car before. Removal didn’t look complicated, but would certainly prove to be time-consuming. First, the upper plenum is removed (two hose clamps, one bolt, and two nuts, all easily accessible). Next, the lower plenum comes off (ten nuts and washers, four of which are totally blind). Now one has access to the carbs themselves (eight nuts, four of them blind). Once the banjo bolts for the fuel connections are undone, the carbs can be removed from the car. The carburetors bolt to 4 rubberized mounts, each of which has 4 studs. To remove the mounts, one first must remove the intake manifold, as 8 of the nuts for the mounts are only accessed if the intake manifold is unbolted from the cylinder head (7 nuts, some of them only reachable with an open-ended wrench, which only allows 1/6 of a turn at a time).
Back to these rubberized carb mounts: it was eye-opening to learn from the Alfa BB that side draft carbs, hanging off the right side of the cylinder head, are prone to enough vibration to cause fuel delivery issues. To combat that, Alfa employed a bracket extending upward from the right motor mount to the lower plenum, and mounted the carbs on rubber mounts which absorb vibration. But a number of the Alfa owners on the BB stated that these mounts should be considered service items: eventually, the rubber hardens and develops hairline cracks which allow air to enter the intake stream, throwing off the fuel-air mixture.
Former owner Pete must have replaced them at one point, because I had an old set among the spares he had given me. Checking the website of my favorite (really only) parts supplier Classic Alfa, I saw that they had a carburetor gasket kit for $35, and new carb mounts for $25 each. That all seemed reasonable enough, and as usual, my order arrived from the UK 48 hours after I placed it. I was ready to get to work.
It was important for me to stay focused on the goal: I wanted to clean out the carburetors, inspect them for any obvious faults, then reassemble them using all new gaskets. Perhaps it’s from a lifetime of dealing with old cars, but I do have the habit of over-repairing my vehicles. The issue with Webers is that other than setting the idle mixture, idle speed, and float height, any other adjustments involve a lengthy trial-and-error game of swapping jets. One more time: aside from the fuel leak, the car ran fine. I selected the rear-most carb (the leaker) and removed all the covers.
Having several service manuals with exploded diagrams at my side, things didn’t look too bad. There was clearly some dirt built up, but no obvious faults or defects as far as I could see. Numerous cans of Gumout were emptied to clean things up, and I’ve been pleased with the progress. The float needs to be carefully measured and adjusted, and once that’s done, reassembly will commence, which is where I will pick up next time.
RM Sothebys, the automotive auction company, recently concluded its Auburn Fall auction which was held September 3-5, 2020. Unlike many of RM’s recent previous auctions conducted online due to the coronavirus, RM allowed this one to be an in-person gathering at Auburn Auction Park in Indiana. However, being onsite was not a requirement for bidding, as telephone and web-based bids were still accepted.
Over 500 motor cars crossed the block, and while most sales were under the six-figure mark, several notable high sales included a 1935 Auburn Speedster which sold for $700,000, and a 1936 Duesenberg Tourster which hammered for $575,000. (Both these number are without the auction company’s 10% buyer’s premium added, so they reflect actual final bid when the gavel fell.)
Scanning through the results, I was amazed to see that over 60 of the automotive lots sold for under $10,000. True, many of these cars were projects, or unpopular pre-war vehicles in pedestrian body styles. But much of my amazement is simply finding so many cars available for an initial outlay of ten grand (or less). Frankly, I still hear the cries of “the hobby has gotten too expensive for me”, and again, those cries are originating from those who lament passing on that chance in the early 1970s to score a Shelby Mustang for $1,500. While those days are over, there are still plenty of affordable ways to enter the hobby.
A mantra of mine, which I chant to those looking for that first collector car, is “be open-minded”. If one is willing to consider brands, models, and body styles outside the typical collector’s purview, there are lots of choices, and there’s also lots of fun to be had.
Among the low-priced sales at RM Auburn, I selected six which struck me as interesting cars at fair prices. I’d be happy to have any one of these cars in my garage; some of them I might hold onto just for a few months so I could say “yeah, I had one of those once”; others might be worth hanging onto a little longer. While the selected six are personal favorites, I also made an attempt to select from a variety of body styles. You’ll find sedans, convertibles, trucks, and station wagons on my list. Undoubtedly, your six choices would be different. That’s the fun of collecting.
Let me know your thoughts: do you have a favorite among these? Is there one car which you think represents a best value? I’m more than happy to entertain a little back-and-forth about my picks. The results are arranged in ascending hammer price order (when you click on the link, please note that RM Sotheby’s shows a higher price because they always include the 10% buyer’s premium).
1988 Toyota Celica GT convertible hammered sold for $3250
The cheapest car on my list, it might also qualify as the most reliable. The bulletproof qualities of most Toyotas include this rare convertible variant. While not much to look at stylistically, this would be a fun car to take to cars-and-coffee events and cruise nights. I’d guarantee that you would have the only one there.
From a value perspective, Bring a Trailer (BaT) sold one in 2019 for $7,650. My Cars of Particular Interest (CPI) retail price guide puts this car in the range of $2000 to $5000 for a good-to-excellent value, so $3,250, while perhaps not a steal, seems a fair price.
1952 Kaiser Manhattan sedan hammered sold for $4750
Kaiser is a brand which I see at car shows so infrequently. It’s usually takes a National AACA show like Hershey for me to come across one. Kaiser production ended in 1955, so there aren’t many around, and therein lies the charm here. For under five large, you can have an almost “one of a kind”. One downside might be parts availability, but hey, the hobby is all about the adventure of scrounging for rare parts.
This price looks especially good when checking CPI, which publishes a range of $8,500 to $20,000 for cars in the good-to-excellent condition categories. And BaT sold one earlier this year for $8,800 , so buy this one and flip it if that’s your thing.
1988 Buick LeSabre Estate wagon hammered sold for $5750
Station wagons, known as long-roofs among collectors, have really taken off in just the last few years. While much of the interest seems focused on ‘60s and ‘70s American cars, this Buick wagon from 1988 is a little more modern, and a little more ready to be pressed into daily driver duty if necessary. The subject car even has the de rigueur reverse-facing rear seat (for when a minivan is just too ordinary).
The CPI values, at $1,500 to $3,600, surprise me, and frankly I think they’re low. Again, while older wagons have risen in value, snagging this ’88 puts you ahead of the curve. Compare this car to the one I found on Hemmings which is on offer for $9,000, and I think the RM car looks pretty pretty good.
Pickup trucks are hot: they’re hot as new vehicles (last I checked, which was earlier this year, average transaction price for a new pickup truck out the door was $51,000), and they’re hot as collectibles. Of my six choices, this one shocks me the most. Maybe I’m missing something; yes, it’s a long bed, and yes, it’s RWD. But still….
Of these six selections, this one is the project car, and for that reason, I hesitated in choosing it (I got over my hesitation). The aura exuded by this automobile is so overwhelmingly impressive that no matter its condition, it remains an object of desire. Now, even at a smidgen over seven grand, you’d need to pour in multiples of that to turn this into a reliable road car, never mind something show-worthy. And RM sold two other ‘56s, one of which, while over our arbitrary price break at $17,000 , was certainly the better deal.
Check out these numbers from CPI: $42,000 for “fair”, $68,000 for “good”, and $123,000 for “excellent”. Your choices are: park this one on your lawn as an ornament, or put $100k into a restoration, sell it for $120k, and net $3,000. I’m going to mull that one over and get back to you.
1976 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham coupe hammered sold for $7250
Tied for most expensive car on my under-ten-grand list, I think this might be the best choice in many ways: GM parts availability, orphan brand with huge hobby support, final year of the big GM full-size cars, roadworthiness as a touring car, and lots of creature comforts including air and cruise.
It’s difficult to find comparables, although Mecum did sell a ’76 Bonneville four-door for $10,500 way back in 2017. The CPI range is $6,000 to $14,000, which means this sale price is not a steal but not a rip-off. I’d need to blow a hole in the garage wall to fit it, but it might be worth it.
The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance has a very strict rule: a vehicle can be shown at one of its events only every three years. As Bruce Wennerstrom himself told me, this ensured that repeat audiences would see different cars the following year. I had shown my 1957 BMW Isetta in 2001, 2004, and 2007, and when 2010 rolled around, I didn’t hesitate to apply again. The Wennerstroms welcomed me back for a fourth, and what would turn out to be, final time with the Isetta.
My dear friend Richard Sweeney, NJIT Library Head and non-car person extraordinaire, jumped at the chance to accompany me, which also meant that my long-suffering wife was off the hook this time, although I didn’t hear too many complaints from her about it. Richard was of great help from the get-go, and as we got the car positioned as instructed by the field organizers, Richard wanted to play an active role in standing near the car, chatting it up with attendees. I could tell he loved every minute of it.
To my eye, 2010 had significantly more spectators than I had noticed during my previous outings. Perhaps it was the beautiful weather; certainly, a major factor was the increasing recognition that Greenwich was getting, with some press calling it “The East Coast version of Pebble Beach” – high praise indeed. The caliber of vehicles, always high, seemed to create even more oohs and ahhs among show-goers.
At awards announcement time, the Bubble made the cut yet again, winning “Most Fun Car” for the Sunday Europa show. Well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad at all. I think Bruce had a soft spot for my little car, as we won in 2001 and 2007 too. Once we reached the awards table, Bruce presented my trophy and again asked me if my Isetta has the ‘big block’. Microphone in hand, I again told the assembly that European cars got 12hp, but we in the states got the 13hp version. Bruce again chuckled; he never tired of that story.
My friend Richard was overjoyed at the prospect of riding in the car past the viewing stand. He couldn’t stop talking about peoples’ reactions, because his interest was completely enveloped in the sociological and cultural impacts of this car on an audience. It wasn’t the car per se; it was how people reacted to the car, whether they were seeing an Isetta for the first time, or reliving memories of one from long ago. He never let go of his idea of making a documentary about the car and the public’s responses to it.
We got the car loaded onto the trailer and got back on the road just as a major late spring storm hit. We made it back safely, though, and I thanked Richard profusely for all his help. All he could say was that he’d gladly do it again.