Irv Gordon passed away last week. It is almost impossible to be in the old-car hobby and not know about Irv and his claim to fame. In 1966, he purchased a brand new ’66 Volvo 1800S coupe, and proceeded to spend the next 50 years driving it everywhere. He eventually surpassed three million miles in the car, and although he spoke of retiring it (Volvo corporate had already gifted him 3 new Volvos), I read that at the time of his death the 1800 had 3.2 million miles on it.
As an employee of Volvo Cars North America, I had more than a passing relationship with the man. While I likely had met him at one corporate event or the other in the 1990’s, it was during my time as a field service representative on Long Island that he and I became friendly.
As I strolled into the service department of Volvoville one morning, there was Irv, sitting in the service area, shuffling some paperwork. At that time, in the late 1990’s, he had a part-time gig at the dealer, performing test drives and attending to some administrative chores. Parked on the street around the corner from the store was the red 1800, of course, as he used it to commute to work. He used it to fetch a cup of coffee in Boston, and he used it to join dealer events in Oregon. How do you think he got to 3,000,000 miles?
Early in our friendship, I asked him, “Irv, what’s the secret your success?” With a pause and a twinkle in his eye, he replied “a strong bladder”. Watching him in action, he had a ready smile, a quick wit, and the patience to answer whatever questions were put to him. Frequently, he would be standing near the car while being questioned, and not one to waste a moment, he’d check various fluids as he spoke. I learned about Irv’s fastidiousness when I watched him pull the dipstick to check the oil level, but then use the few droplets on the end of the stick to lube his hood hinges!
Later, in the early 2000s, I traveled to SEMA with a group of fellow VCNA employees, and Irv was on that trip too. Watching him at SEMA was like watching a rock star, but one who had some degree of modesty attached. Generosity was another trait that perhaps few saw, but I clearly recall one holiday season at Volvo HQ when Irv showed up with several cases to wine to give out to employees.
In the summer of 2010, my wife and I hosted a breakfast at our home for a few of our hobbyist friends. Irv was on the invite list, and I was thrilled that he accepted. The day before breakfast, Irv called me. “Hey Rich, do you think the guys will mind if I drive the C70 coupe instead of the 1800? To tell you the truth, it’s hot, and I wouldn’t mind riding in A/C.” (Do I need to point out that the ’66 did NOT have air?) I said “Irv, I don’t think this crowd gives a hoot what you show up in. We’re just glad to have you join us.”
As Larry and I took over the reins for our Sunday morning breakfast runs, Irv was on our distribution list, but rarely joined. He always had some lame excuse, like, “I’m driving to San Antonio that weekend”. However, in October 2010, he did come out for one of our drives, and even brought the 1800. This was probably the last time I saw Irv.
I’m glad to have known you, Irv. It was an honor to call you a friend.
A frequent question I get is “what makes a car a classic?” There is no one right answer. The definition of such a car can be up to you! If you think your vehicle is “interesting” on some level, and the car is used more for special occasions (anything from Sunday drives to cruise nights) than as a daily driver, then it fits the bill. Who am I to say that a 3-year-old Camaro which is only driven in dry weather to GM-themed events isn’t a collector car?
Attendees at Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) shows typically see cars which have been restored to the highest professional standards. A true “#1 condition” car is rare, but you’ll find them in the AACA. These cars are almost never driven on the road; the engines are run long enough to move them into and out of an enclosed trailer to preserve their perfected state, and that’s it for the driving.
My first AACA experience was Hershey in the early 1980s. As a young man not yet 30, the rows of perfect Mustangs and T-Birds depressed me into concluding that I’d never have a vehicle which could qualify there. These owners’ cars were judged by arbiters who would dole out trophies and bragging rights, so there was no such thing as “too nice”.
Except, there was. The Overseers at AACA began to realize they had a problem: strictly speaking, their own rule book said that cars should be restored to be as close as possible to “factory new” condition, when in practice many of these cars were better than new. Trim which the factory buffed was now chromed; single-stage paint now wore a clear coat; and unpainted surfaces were now sealed. It’s a condition called “over-restoration”. Some owners complained that their ultra-low mileage never-restored cars were losing out to restorers with deep pockets and questionable taste.
To its credit, AACA created a new judging class: the Historical Preservation of Original Features, or HPOF. The concept was simple: reward vehicle owners whose steeds still were screwed together as the factory did it. Dull paint and worn upholstery didn’t matter, but original equipment and fittings did. The goal was to encourage the preservation of cars in their original state for future generations to observe, study, and learn from them. HPOF has become a very popular category for owners and spectators alike.
As a separate class, there would be no clash in trying to judge an HPOF car against a fully-restored one. An obvious example from the HPOF rule book is paint: a car must wear all or almost all of its original paint to be eligible in this class. In fact, a car which wins an HPOF award and is subsequently repainted will lose its HPOF accreditation.
When I purchased my 1993 Mazda Miata in 1996, it was a gently-used 3-year-old car with barely 30,000 miles on it. The first-generation “NA” models were still in Mazda showrooms. The Miata got driven a lot, but never in the winter. I kept up with all maintenance on the car, and I can count the total number of repairs on one hand: a clutch slave cylinder, a power antenna, a heater core, and one headlight bulb. (Service items such as hoses, belts, fluids, brakes and tires are all part of routine maintenance.)
Perhaps the most difficult part of owning this car for 22 years (it now has 104,000 miles) has been avoiding the temptation to modify it. The aftermarket business for the Miata has always been strong and keeps getting stronger. I’ve been tempted to add a turbo; replace the stereo; reupholster the seats; install bigger brakes, wheels, and tires; and add interior wood trim. While a few small changes have occurred (I upgraded the floor mats and replaced some lighting with LED bulbs), the car appears the same as it did when I got it in ’96.
This year, the car turned 25 and became eligible for AACA events. I was excited to enter it into the Hershey show in the HPOF category, and last week, the package arrived informing me that indeed, my 1993 Mazda Miata had earned its HPOF badge. I’m a proud papa, and plan to continue to enter this car in HPOF, notably, in the June 2019 National meet which the NJ Region is hosting in Parsippany NJ. There will be plenty to talk about between now and then.
Our “Sunday Morning Breakfast Run” has been a semi-regular feature for so long that my partner-in-crime Larry and I decided to mix it up a little bit: we decided to piggyback onto the popular “Cars & Coffee” trend by holding our own such event. We did so for the first time on Sunday October 21, 2018.
BTW, the name “Cars & Coffee” has become so ubiquitous that organizers around the country are creating variations such as “Cars, Coffee & Donuts”, “Cars & Croissants”, “Caffeine & Carburetors”, and “Caffeine & Octane”. I think we’ll stick to “Cars & Coffee” for now.
Our choice of rendezvous was The Fireplace, a Paramus NJ fixture for over 60 years. In its favor, it’s easy to reach (on Route 17), it has an extensive breakfast menu, it’s spacious inside and out, counter service means that everyone orders and pays on their own, and the staff will let you sit and hang out as long as you want (with help-yourself coffee refills always available).
There’s no point in talking about the (poor) weather except to point out that at our inaugural event, the participants and their coffee stayed inside! So much for admiring each other’s machinery. The planned loitering was postponed for a more inviting day.
In all, 12 colleagues showed up for breakfast. Toward the end of our stay, our friend Burton arrived with his newly painted 1961 Corvette. On our way out, we lingered long enough to admire the top-notch paint job. Burton was a real trooper showing up in an open car on a cold and windy morning.
We had considered, and ultimately decided against, a short drive to be conducted after breakfast. Perhaps next spring or summer, with more inviting weather on hand, we can make that part of the event. We certainly did find The Fireplace to be an almost ideal location, so expect to see us return in 2019.
The AACA judging process may seem arcane to the uninitiated, but First Junior, First Senior, Preservation, Grand National, DPC, and HPOF are embedded in the rule book, and are chased with unbridled enthusiasm. Why? For the same set of reasons: points, trophies, bragging rights. The weather, well-known to be unpredictable in this part of the world in October, hardly plays a role. When car owners have spent most of the year prepping their vehicles for The Big One, a little bit of water will not deter them from making an entrance.
Hershey is glorious when it’s sunny and 65. It’s barely tolerable when it’s cloudy, windy, and 50, as it was in 2018. Yet I would estimate that the show field was 95%+ filled, and foot traffic was more crowded than years past. Since vehicles are arranged by class, it’s easy to walk among the cars you want to see, and skip those you don’t. My continued infatuation with pre-war classics was rewarded with some beautiful machinery. And some newer cars weren’t so bad either. As you’ll read below under STORIES, meeting new hobbyists and hearing their stories continues to be an engaging part of the hobby.
My 1993 Mazda Miata NA (1st gen), making its Hershey debut in HPOF:
Stan and the Bucket
“Hey, where’d you get the water for the bucket?”
“Ha ha! From my bathtub! I filled it up and carried it down to the parking lot.”
It was Friday evening, the day before The Big Show. The gentleman had alighted from his 1954 Pontiac at the rear of the Harrisburg Marriott where we were both staying, and watched me sponge off my quite dirty Miata using clean water from my bucket. Actually, my car had been spic-and-span clean two days before. It was the drive out on Thursday in the torrential rain which soiled it. Since it was wearing a fresh coat of wax, my theory was that a gentle bath with warm water would cleanse it again, and it seemed to be working.
“Gee, that would work on my car, if only I had remembered to bring a bucket.”
“I’m actually done with the Miata. You staying here? You can borrow my bucket and give it back to me later.”
“You sure? Ok, well, thanks.”
With that, Stan took my bucket while I said to myself, the worst that happens is I never see the bucket again. No big deal.
Saturday morning, I headed out to my car, and sure enough, my bucket was next to my car. Whether Stan had gotten to use it or not, he was honest enough to return it.
Heading inside for breakfast, I ran into Stan, and he invited me to sit with him. He was traveling by himself, as I was. We talked cars (natch), and he told me that his Pontiac was going to be a first-time entry in HPOF, as was the case for my Miata.
We shared some tips with each other about preserving paint and the like, which is when Stan told me that he had some other cars at home in Maryland, including a 1967 Volvo 1800S.
“Oh, I know those Volvos a little bit…” I always start out cautiously with a new friend about any Volvo knowledge I might possess. Treading lightly is a good start in case they have reason to despise the marque, and also to avoid any implication that I’m some kind of expert, which I’m not.
Stan continued: “I actually have a bunch of other Fords and Chevys home, and I like them all. But there’s something special about that 1800….”
I learned for the umpteenth time not to make suppositions about car people. Watching someone motor along in his 1954 Pontiac, I would never presume that the same collector would also enjoy a ‘60s Swedish sporty car. I was glad to be wrong.
Larry and the Fire Extinguisher
My Miata and I arrived on the show field a few minutes past 9am. Normally I would have preferred to make my entrance earlier, but the morning sprinkles caused me to delay my departure to minimize re-soiling my clean car. It got dirty anyway. Out came the cleaning supplies, and the Great Car Show Detailing commenced once again.
Judging was due to start at 10am. At 9:55, I was still wiping down the painted horizontal surfaces when I heard the voice: “Is this your car?” I spun ‘round to face two men wearing judge’s hats. They’re early, I muttered to myself. Can’t blame them; they’ve got a lot of cars to judge.
The judges spent perhaps five minutes looking over my car. As the proud owner, I was too anxious to answer questions they hadn’t asked. They thanked me for bringing it, and moved to the ’68 Camaro next to me. I looked at my watch: 10:01am. This was a blessing! With no need to hang around my car, the day was free to move among all the glorious machinery on the show field. I began by walking down the row of the remaining HPOF cars.
It stood out like a bright light among the cars surrounding it: a 1st gen Porsche 928 in white. The owner was still wiping it down when I engaged him with some questions.
“How long have you had it?”
“Tell me, how are the maintenance and repair costs? I hear horror stories.”
“Not bad, really. Stay up on the preventative stuff, and it’s quite reliable.”
“Do you do your own work on it?”
“No, but it’s still not bad to maintain.”
With that, the 928 owner exclaimed “Oh crap. I forgot a fire extinguisher. Now what am I gonna do?”
“Listen”, I said, “my car’s been judged. I don’t need mine. I’d be happy to loan it to you.”
“Really? I’d appreciate it.”
I jogged back to the Miata, grabbed the extinguisher, and hustled it back to him.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Richard. I’ll swing by later, or, if you don’t see me, my car is the black Miata in the row behind you.”
“Thanks again, I really appreciate it.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that this was my weekend to loan items to fellow car owners, but it was OK. Again, the worst that could happen would be I would be out a relatively inexpensive fire extinguisher.
Hours later, I was finally heading back to my car. The extinguisher was on the floor, and I thought I would swing past the 928 one more time to see how he did. Its owner was sitting in the front seat. But I had forgotten his name. As I approached the car, I glanced at the dashboard placard: “Larry Holbert”.
“Hey Larry, how did you do?”
“Oh, judging went fine. And thanks for the extinguisher. I returned it.”
“Yes, I saw. Listen, I just noticed your last name, and the dealer plate on the back says this car came from Holbert Porsche. Any relation?”
I told Larry about my band buddy, and expressed my condolences over his loss.
A while later, I looked up Larry Holbert. Up until the dealership was sold a few years ago, he had been president and CEO of Holbert Porsche. Yet when I asked him about his 928, said nothing about his executive status. He gave no hint that his stature meant that he could have these things taken care of. On a cool October Saturday on a show field in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he was just Larry, fellow car enthusiast.
“The Greatest Show on Earth”; “Automotive Mecca”; “The High Holy Days of Hershey”. The repetitive use of all these terms describes what is formally known as the AACA Eastern Fall Meet, a car show extravaganza that has been held in the quaint town of Hershey PA (“Chocolate Town USA”) since the early 1950s. This blog previously reported on Hershey in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
The Hershey Show has evolved and expanded through the decades into its current three-part form: a weekday flea market/car corral, now exclusively held on paved ground (the infamous Hershey mud is no more); a Saturday judged car show, currently held on a mostly-smooth grassy lawn; and a two-day auction conducted by RM Sotheby’s (“the official auction of AACA Hershey”).
Here we present Act I, The Car Corral.
If the RM Auction represents the higher end of the automotive hobby here in eastern PA, the Car Corral is the everyperson’s version. By AACA’s requirements, cars for sale must be 25 years old or older, and essentially stock. (Minor mods like wheels and custom paint seem to be conveniently overlooked.)
If you still think you need a small fortune to enter the hobby, then you haven’t cruised the Car Corral. Asking prices of under $15,000 are the rule rather than the exception. (A dozen cars below make that cut, and there were many more not documented here.) Better if you’re open to some off-beat choices in the way of makes or body styles.
Below are my selections of Car Corral vehicles which piqued my interest. Sellers are a mix of dealers who bring a dozen cars at a time, and individuals who present an air of credibility as they attempt to gauge your desire for their prized set of wheels. Note that asking prices are just that, asking. Serious shoppers are encouraged to banter, barter, and bring cash.
$1,400 TO $5,900:
1989 AUDI 200 QUATTRO WAGON, 5-SPEED
By far, the cheapest car I found in the corral. For the true Audi enthusiast. Manual gearbox obviates concerns over unintended acceleration.
1972 VW BEETLE, LIGHT BLUE, CLAIMED 65,000 MILES
Parts availability and technical support make this a great starter collector car, as long as you’re not racing against Hemis.
1985 MERCEDES-BENZ 280SE 4-DOOR, CLAIMED 65,000 ORIGINAL MILES
When it stops running, it still looks impressive sitting in your driveway.
$7,500 TO $9,900:
1975 BUICK ESTATE WAGON, 6-PASSENGER, CLAIMED 87,000 MILES
So-called “long roofs” are on the upswing in the hobby. This seemed like a deal for a full-size GM wagon.
1988 PORSCHE 924SE, BLACK/BLACK, CLAIMED 76,000 MILES
Long the poster-child for deferred maintenance Porsches, this 924 looked reasonably well-kept on the outside, which is not a small feat for a car with black paint.
1986 PORSCHE 944, RED/BLACK, 5-SPEED
For a few dollars more than the 924, you could move up to this 944. I peeked inside and was pleasantly surprised to see an uncracked dash, a known issue with these.
1956 DeSOTO FIREDOME 2-DOOR HARDTOP, HEMI ENGINE
Who said that you’ve been priced out of the Hemi collector market? The paint on this was a bit shoddy in places. However, the entrance fee got you a genuine hardtop.
OPEL GT, YELLOW/BLACK
The whitewall tires did this no favors. Seems like an affordable way to get a baby ‘vette, unless you can spend a few more dollars for a real one….
$12,000 TO $14,500:
1993 CHEVY CORVETTE COUPE, 40th ANNIV., 6-SPEED, CLAIMED 32,000 MILES
Clean car and lots of performance for the dollar. C4 Corvettes continue to be a bargain.
1963 CHRYSLER 300 (NON-LETTER CAR), DARK RED/DARK RED, CLAIMED 71,000 MILES
The mags and oversize tires detracted from what was otherwise an unusual MoPar. The style was polarizing in 1963 when they downsized, but it has mellowed with age.
1982 ALFA ROMEO SPIDER, LIGHT BEIGE/TAN, CLAIMED 34,000 MILES
This S2 spider had a surprisingly clean interior; most of them show significantly more wear. If the Italian tin worm has been kept at bay, this represents some affordable top-down fun.
1957 VOLVO PV444, BLUE, CLAIMED 97,000 MILES
Not sure if this blue was an original Volvo color, but other than the repaint, the car looked stock. A PV for the Volvo aficionado.
$18,000 TO $25,000:
1965 FIAT 600D, RED, CLAIMED 61,000 MILES
What does the Fiat 600 have over the Fiat 500? Two more cylinders. These Italian cuties continue to be popular, in spite of asking prices twice that of the more usable 124 spiders.
1972 VOLVO 1800ES, ORANGE/BLACK
The broken side marker light and painted rockers did not instill confidence. Still, if you must have an ES, the 1972 model offers the advantage of a smaller front bumper compared to the ’73 model.
1969 BUICK RIVIERA GS, CLAIMED 20,000 MILES
I’m on a Riviera fixation lately. This is a big car, with a big engine, big doors, and big style. If the mileage and GS status check out, you could turn this into a nice cruiser. Bring a gas card.
1980 PORSCHE 928, SILVER/BLACK, 5-SPEED
This is included only because I’ve been following the 928 market for years. There was nothing special here, and the ask was at least 50% higher than recent real-world transactions. Ironically, this car was spotted on Saturday in the Driver’s Participation Class (DPC). Ignore the hearse next door.
1957 IMPERIAL 4-DOOR SEDAN, 392 HEMI V8
A rare car when new, even rarer 60 years later. Guaranteed to impress at the next Chryslers at Carlisle event. Clean out your garage; you’re going to need every inch.
$32,000 TO $35,900:
1958 PACKARD STARLIGHT HARDTOP
A “Packard-baker”; Not attractive at all, but certainly unique. An orphan’s orphan.
1957 BMW ISETTA, RECENTLY RESTORED
The non-original green metallic was the only glaring fault in what otherwise appeared to be a very nice restoration. Every time I walked past it a crowd had gathered ‘round.
1986 FERRARI MONDIAL SPYDER, RED/TAN
The cheapest Ferrari you’ll find for sale, for a reason, as most don’t want a four-seater. Still, online comments from Mondial owners claim that it’s a great driving car.
1963 BUICK RIVIERA, DARK RED/DARK TAN
The first year for the Riv, Bill Mitchell’s design hit it out of the park new, and hasn’t lost a beat since. The colors on this one were gorgeous, but the raised white-letter tires gotta go.
$39,000 TO $49,000:
1989 BMW M3, RED/BLACK
These first-generation M3s routinely sell on Bring-a-Trailer for over $40,000, so this price seemed within reason.
1967 PORSCHE 912, 4-CYLINDER, SAND/BLACK, 5-SPEED
Porsche 912s used to sell for 4 figures. Then, 911 values skyrocketed, and as the cliché goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”, ergo, 912s are now priced above where even 911s were a few years ago.
Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park held its 36th annual Historic Festival during the Labor Day weekend, running from August 30 through September 3, 2018. If you enjoy vintage racing, then Friday, Saturday, and Monday are your days to watch classic race cars battling it out around this historic track. By local ordinance, racing is not allowed on Sundays. The Festival organizers have taken advantage of that restriction by hosting their “Sunday In The Park” event, with hundreds of classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) cars arrayed along the entirety of track’s perimeter.
Each year there is a special featured marque, and for 2018, that marque was Bugatti. By my count, there were 70 of these famed French cars on display, a number that might be rivaled only by the former Schlumf Museum’s holdings. The strong turnout speaks to the high esteem with which Ettore’s cars are held. Many of the race cars appeared to be in original condition, while most of the road-going cars have been restored at some point. No matter, as Bugatti owners (like Bentley owners) are known to drive their cars rather than treat them like trailer queens.
While the Bugatti display bordered on overwhelming, there were plenty of other vehicles on the field to draw one’s attention. This show tends to attract primarily European cars, and the British, German, Italian, and Swedish turnout did not disappoint. A relatively new feature at Lime Rock is the so-called “Gathering of the Marques”. Open classes, sometimes labeled by Country of Origin and sometimes specified by make and model, are created, and owners are invited to park their vehicles on the track.
The Gathering of the Marques attracted particularly large volumes of BMWs (especially the 2002 model), Porsches (especially 911s), Mazda Miatas, plus the cars of Sweden, Great Britain, and Italy. (Where else but at Lime Rock would a fan of Italian cars such as myself see an Alfa 1900, Fiat Dino Coupe, and Lancia Stratos all on the same day?) A smaller but significant selection of domestic iron provided a nice contrast to the European cars.
The flea market area which used to exist near the start of the straightaway has all but disappeared, but a few vendors had interesting cars for sale, at what appeared to be reasonable prices. And let’s not forget that the paddocks are open to the public on Sunday, so race vehicles otherwise not on display can be ogled as part of the entertainment.
The threatened rain showers never materialized; in fact, the temps remained reasonable, staying in the high 70s/low 80s. Anything would have been better than last year’s deluge. It’s a three-hour one-way drive for me, but the quality and variety of offerings has drawn me back almost every Labor Day weekend for the past 25+ years. The track’s setting, nestled in a valley in the Berkshire Mountains, only adds to the ambience. The Lime Rock Fall Historic Festival is a must-see event on the calendar for auto enthusiasts in the Northeast.
The New Jersey Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) held its 67th annual Antique Car Show on Sunday May 6, 2018, at the Mennen Arena in Morristown NJ. Yes, you read that correctly. This was the 67th annual show, meaning that the Region began this tradition shortly before I was born. The vast majority of cars at today’s show were manufactured AFTER the premiere event.
This was the third consecutive year for the show’s “new” location at the Mennen Arena. This was also the third year in the row for show-day weather to be wet and cool. The less I say about the climatic conditions, the more positive this blog post will remain. If there were silver linings, the rain did stop by about 10 a.m., and the dense cloud cover did make for better photographic light.
For us car guys and gals who can tolerate some dampness, the real disappointment was the reduced vehicle participation. While I didn’t count, I estimate that there were perhaps 50-60 cars on display. Previous years at the old location in Florham Park would net us in excess of 200 show vehicles.
But it is about the cars, and we still had gorgeous vehicles (and their owners) braving the elements. Below is a selection of today’s cars arranged in model year order. Your scribe entered his 1993 Mazda Miata, which at 25 years of age this year, is officially allowed to enter AACA events. Its owner is also humbled to state that the Miata took first in its class (#13b, imported two-seater cars), and it was also awarded a Membership Trophy for “Best Unrestored Car, 1976-1993”.
In Chapter 9, the transmission and final drive got overhauled, and the chain-driven axle was ready to be reattached to the chassis. In Chapter 10, the restored rolling chassis finally sees the light of day.
Smack in the middle of calendar year 1994, elbow-deep in my restoration of this fine German bubble car, I was at a “good news / bad news” crossroads. The good news: much mechanical progress had been made. One engine, minus a cylinder head, was complete. With the transmission and enclosed-chain rear axle both restored, the drivetrain was essentially done. The chassis, currently on its front tires only, was very close to rolling on all four wheels and tires.
But the bad news, like a devil on my shoulder, would lean into my ear and whisper: “You’re not going to get this done”. I still had parts procurement issues. In spite of my dealing with multiple parts suppliers, no one vendor had everything I needed, and there were still some parts which no one seemed to have. My commitment to the rebuild of a 2nd engine was detracting me from progress on my own car. Work to be sent out, in this case the cylinder head rebuild, left me stymied, as I was having difficulty finding a machine shop willing to take on an Isetta valve job. I continued to discover that I was missing parts (remember that I did not disassemble these cars), which had me on the hunt for good used ones. I had not even begun looking into a shop for the body and paint work. Yet I continued to brag how “the Isetta will drive in ‘95”, and 1995 was next year.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect back, with 25 years of hindsight. Why was I doing this? What were the motivating factors? The truth is that there was nothing rational about the time, money, and effort being expended to restore this microcar which most people never heard of, and which had little monetary value in the collector car market. This was a labor of love, driven by these factors:
Having failed once at an attempt to sell the car, there was little choice but to make something out of the pile of parts.
Fifteen years after purchasing the car, I felt an obligation to do something with it.
It was a pipe dream to prove that I could take a non-running car and restore it.
Having heard horror stories about stalled projects, I was determined to show that it was possible to finish one.
I had the tools, the space, and the mechanical knowledge, giving me the confidence to tackle the work.
This is not to say my time was otherwise not occupied. My career with Volvo was in full swing, and it included regular domestic and international travel. My home and family life were full of commitments. I continued to perform on the drum kit in various bands, although not to the extent I had during the previous decade.
Primarily, the Isetta restoration was my way of immersing myself in the old car hobby. Both the ’57 Ford and ’67 Dart were gone. Aside from the Isetta, my only other car was my daily driver, a company-leased Volvo. There was no room, financially or physically, for another collector car. What drove me? The drive came from the knowledge that a finished, drivable Isetta was my ticket into the world of collector car events.
In an earlier post on the Isetta Saga, I mentioned that one cannot embark on these kinds of journeys alone. Working for an automobile company as I did meant that I was surrounded by fellow enthusiasts. In countless ways, they provided advice, assistance, and direction. One of my colleagues, Galen Royer, was a motorcycle guy, which I was not. Speaking to him one day, he mentioned a BMW motorcycle shop near his home. C & S BMW was in Chester NY, in Orange County. Although I had contacted other BMW bike shops (the one-cylinder Isetta engine is motorcycle-based), no one had been willing to take on the head work. From C & S I finally got a positive response. I dropped off one cylinder head with them, and they performed a complete overhaul, including installation of new valve guides, and cutting of valve seats. Finally, I could complete the reassembly of one engine.
Turning my attention back to the chassis, the restoration of the rear axle along with its various attachment points brought me that much closer to a very important goal: the completion of a chassis rolling on its own four wheels. That goal was reached early in 1994, and I celebrated that accomplishment by throwing a party. Why not?
The gathering of friends to raise a glass in toast to a milestone was not intended as an egotistical, “look what I did” exercise in chest-beating. I thought of it as quite the opposite, actually. The small cadre of friends who were invited to the Rolling Chassis Debut all had been playing supporting roles in the restoration. Chris, Steve H, and Linda were of great assistance in procuring parts. Steve M and John had both been to the house multiple times when I needed an extra pair of hands.
It was also important that I not take myself too seriously, as serious as I was about doing the highest quality work I could, and getting it done in a timely fashion. It was still “just a car”, and this was supposed to be fun. By having a party, I was letting you in on the secret: this was a lark, an Isetta for heaven’s sake! I wanted you to laugh with me. If that also meant laughing AT me, well, that was OK too. Celebrating a turning point held the promise of future celebrations at future turning points. Let’s pop a few corks, tell a few stories, and hope that you’ll keep helping me as I keep pushing myself to finish the darn thing.
The next big turning point looked like it would be the installation of the engine and transmission onto the chassis. But we were not quite there yet. There were a few subassemblies for the engine, chassis, and interior which needed work:
Like almost all cars from the 1950s, the Isetta used drum brakes front and rear. Compared to normal cars, there was a difference: the lack of a differential meant that the two rear wheels, mounted on a solid axle, were not free to spin independently of each other. In execution, only one rear brake was needed, so viola, the Isetta had a total of three drum brakes.
The brake rebuild process was not without its challenge. All the wheel cylinders were frozen solid, and dislodging the pistons meant days of soaking in coffee cans full of Liquid Wrench. Even then, the pistons were still removed via destruction. The cylinders themselves were salvageable, and pistons and shoes were available from several of my local suppliers.
Brake lines, on the other hand, were not. The only solution was to purchase metric brake lines, which I cut to length and bent to form using a tubing bender. The flaring of the ends required borrowing an ISO bubble flare tool. (It was a huge advantage to complete with work on the body-less chassis. I cannot imagine doing this with the body in place.) Various articles recommended using VW brake hoses for the front, and that’s exactly what I did.
Finally, the hunt was on for a new master cylinder, as the ones I had looked like they had been stored in New York Harbor. Mr. Krause in Emmaus delivered on that front, and it was a case of “pay whatever the asking price is”, as at that time, no one else had new Isetta master cylinders for sale.
Steering wheel & column
My steering wheel had minimal cracks, and based on some discussions I had with steering wheel restoration companies at Carlisle, I wasn’t about to pay what they wanted to restore a wheel. It looked to me that a complete sanding and recoating of the wheel would get me to where I wanted to be with it.
I had read that store-bought epoxy appliance paint, intended to refinish your kitchen fridge or oven, worked quite well on automotive interior items which are subject to handling and wear. Popping into my local Home Depot, I found spray paint in a nice almond shade, and committed to using it on the steering wheel as well as items like the light switch, shift knob, and interior door handle.
The steering wheel was hand-sanded to remove all traces of existing paint, then given a good cleaning. With the rattle can, the intention was to apply multiple coats as lightly as possible. If I could get the wheel to rotate while spraying it, there would be no chance of runs. Using an old piece of outdoor furniture and a drumstick, I mounted the wheel so that I could spin it and spray it. It probably got four or five coats of paint this way, and to me it looked as good as new.
I was unsure if the steering column from the factory was painted silver or the same off-white as the steering wheel. In the end, I decided that the almond color would look better, so that‘s what it got. The u-joint at the bottom of the column was made of brass, and it polished up so brightly that it would have been a shame to paint it, so I didn’t. Instead, I sprayed it with a clear lacquer for protection.
The Isetta pedal setup is conventional: from left to right, there are the clutch, brake, and gas pedals. The steering column is located directly between the clutch and brake pedals, though, so any thought of left-foot braking, much less heel-and-toeing, must be dismissed. What do you think, this is a race car?
The assembly came apart easily enough, and the metal pedals were cleaned and painted, just like so many other parts. Knowing that the pedal surfaces would eventually show some wear, I applied extra coats of paint to them, and decided that if I drove the car enough to create evidence of use on the pedals, I’d just call it “patina”.
Instead of a separate starter and generator, the Isetta (and other contemporaneous small cars) used a combined starter/generator called a Dynastart. The combo unit mounted directly on the nose of the crankshaft. A heavy B+ lead went from the battery, to the voltage regulator, then to the starter post on the Dynastart. Turning the ignition key to “start” energized the unit to spin the armature. Once the engine started, it switched to charging mode, and along with regulator, fed DC voltage to the battery.
Mine looked like some sparrows had spent several seasons nesting in its confines. The internal magnets, wrapped in electrical tape, showed signs of fraying. Thankfully, John Jensen in his Isetta Restorationbook provided explicit instructions for rebuilding the Dynastart. I took on the task, but not until I purchased supplies of various color wiring and cloth-covered tape.
The trickiest part of the job was removing the magnets, and Jensen warned about that. The only way they could be removed was by using a hammer-driven impact tool. Compounding the difficulty, the magnets were held in place with slotted screws, which could be easily stripped. Eventually, it all came apart. All the magnets were retaped, all the wires were replaced, and it all looked visually pleasing. Whether it would start and charge remained to be seen.
The completed Dynastart meant that I could almost hear that thump-thump-thump of that one-cylinder vertical at idle. That moment would need to wait. With 1994 drawing to a close, the year gave me a final chance to take my car, as it was, to a show:
My employer, Volvo Cars of North America, had an irregular annual tradition called Toy Day. It was a chance for employees who were auto buffs to display their toys at work. A Toy Day was held in October of 1994, and I was determined to make a presentation, even if I were the only one who wasn’t going to drive his toy to work.
Measuring the back of my Volvo 245, I saw that the rolling chassis would indeed fit in the rear of Sweden’s finest wagon (2nd row seats folded, of course). I maneuvered the chassis in there, and included a folding card table so that I could display my photo album and some Isetta literature. I managed to procure a parking spot between two other fine German automobiles, a Beetle convertible and a Porsche 911. (Re-read above about “willingness to allow others to laugh at you”.) My good friend John felt it was his obligation to effect his best salesperson pose for this photograph:
Events like this only motivated me to keep going. Next, I would prove that the engine would run. Then, I could turn my attention to the body. Not for the first time, I asked myself, “how difficult could this be?”
Next time in the Isetta Saga: 1995 arrives. I said that “The Isetta Will Drive in ’95”. But will it? The year starts auspiciously, as I explore a risky way to purchase all the parts I’m still missing.
With spring just around the corner (the calendar says next Tuesday, even if I spent part of this morning clearing some residual snow from last week’s double-whammy storms), I realized that I had been remiss in updating my own “Calendar of Events”.
We car guys and gals patiently wait for those final traces of salt to be washed away so we can unhook the Battery Tenders, check fluid levels and tire pressures, and ease our old iron out into the early spring sunshine. It’s nice to be reminded that there will be plenty to do; here’s what’s on my calendar so far (and this is just the first two months of the season):
In Chapter 5, we counted down as the number of Isettas to be restored dwindled from three, to two, to one. Whew! That looks more manageable now.
In Chapter 6 below, we finally get our hands dirty, and perform the first work of any substance on what will some day be a driving automobile.
The Restoration Plan for what would eventually be ONE running and driving Isetta was coming more into focus. Some extraneous parts had been sold off, and remaining parts had been picked through and sorted, a more time-consuming process than first imagined. My gaze now turned to a rusty, crusty, but complete chassis, and the next course of action would be to remove everything from it, including its factory paint. But first, let’s shoot a roll of film!
The reasoning (which turned out to be quite correct) was that it could be a few years before I would be reassembling many of these components onto a restored frame. Previous automotive repair work had taught me that you can’t trust your memory, even if you think it’s sharp. (I had experienced instances when, after removing 4 bolts of different lengths from an assembly, I had forgotten the precise locations of those bolts by the next day!)
There was nothing to indicate that any major mechanical work had preceded my ownership of this fine German automobile, so the photographic evidence would provide documentation as to how the brake lines, suspension, foot controls, cables, etc. were installed by the factory. Once the photos were in hand, the chassis was stripped of all mechanical components, and all removed parts were labeled, bagged or boxed, and stored.
The only untouched parts were the front spindles. They were attached to the chassis via king pins. None of my Isetta parts catalogs showed replacement parts for them, and since I detected no freeplay, I let them be. They were a beautiful cast aluminum, and would not require painting. They would be masked for protection when the chassis was painted.
When stood on its end, the bare chassis was about as tall as I was, and weighed perhaps 40-50 pounds. It was a simple affair to lift and carry it into my basement shop, a more comfortable place to work compared to the garage. I set the chassis down onto an all-metal dolly that I found in a trash heap on a Brooklyn street corner while on a music gig. The dolly came home with me, jammed into the back of my wagon along with my drums.
I tackled the old paint and rust with a 3M abrasive wheel, chucked into my handy Black & Decker all-metal drill. A short time later, the chassis was devoid of paint. One could see welding splatter from the factory welds. There were no signs of collision damage, nor had rust permeated the structure in any way.
For paint, I settled on Bill Hirsch’s Miracle Paint, a product that was heavily advertised in collector car publications of the day. Compared to POR-15, Miracle Paint was promoted as not requiring a top coat (although one could paint on top of it if desired). Available in black, silver, and clear, I selected black, and when I saw how glossy it was, I decided that no top coat was needed.
I learned the hard way that if you removed the lid on a can of Miracle Paint, got some paint in the can’s lip, and reinstalled the lid, that lid was not coming off again. The “trick” was this: keep the lid on the can. Shake it well. Using an awl, punch two holes in the top (one slightly larger than the other). Pour out just enough paint as needed into a disposable cup (the 2nd hole allowed the paint to pour out more freely), and close both holes with duct tape. If the duct tape could not be removed, you only had to punch a hole through the tape, and into the existing hole. This worked like a charm.
Although Bill Hirsch sold Miracle Paint solvent, I found it much more efficient to paint with disposable foam brushes. They could be bought at Carlisle for 25 cents each, and the foam left a smooth surface without brush marks. The entire chassis, indeed much of this project, was painted with foam brushes.
By this time, we were halfway into 1992, and while progress was “steady”, it was also “slow”. In these days, prior to TV shows which glamorized auto restoration, I’d read the occasional article in Old Cars Weekly about someone who restored a ’57 Chevy in six months. Sure! First, you had dozens of parts suppliers who had everything you needed; second, you could attend any car show and find a reference car, should you need to examine one; and third, you were probably retired, and had 40-50 hours a week to devote to the hobby. My path forward offered to none of these advantages.
During the summer of 1992, I learned of a car show in eastern Ohio that was planning to feature BMW Isettas in a special class, so we went. Yes, it was a long ride to look at some Isettas, but the last time I had done something like this was ten years prior. My restoration had begun, and I was anxious for the inspiration.
We got to the show, and the turnout was better than expected. Looking much like dyed Easter eggs (and not much larger), the lineup of Isettas made for some striking photos. I chatted with a few owners, one of whom informed me of a new club, called the Microcar and Minicar Club. He provided me with an application, and encouraged me to join.
But the biggest shock of the show was provided by someone who did not have a car on display. I watched as a man set up several display tables, and proceeded to unload crates and boxes of …. new Isetta parts. His name was John Wetzel, and he operated a business that he called Isetta Johns (sic). He lived in Rutherford NJ, most convenient for me, and by all appearances, this was his full-time employment. While I did not purchase from him that day, I obtained his contact information, and assured him that I would be in touch.
My recollection of that show was that it left me feeling overwhelmed, and slightly depressed. I saw that I had a long way to go before my car would be up to the caliber of the cars in Ohio. This, combined with the discovery of someone like Isetta Johns, also altered my thinking about the project. Rather than just get the car to run, only to possibly take it apart again to fully restore it, it seemed the wiser decision to perform a complete restoration while it was all in pieces. I needed to step up my game.
The business world in the early 1990s was as much about organization and motivation as it was about making profits. This certainly was the case at Volvo, what with newly launched efforts on Vision Statements, Mission Statements, Total Quality Management, and so on. Taking a page from this approach, I decided that a motivating slogan would spur me to keep pushing forward. For the umpteenth time, I asked myself, “this car is so small! How long could it take?” The approximate answer to that was “three more years”, which would land me in 1995.
The slogan was born: “THE ISETTA WILL DRIVE IN ‘95”. I printed out multiple copies, and hung one in my workshop at home, and one in my office at work. Some of my Volvo colleagues took pity on me; others thought I had lost my mind.
In Chapter 7 of the Isetta Saga, you’ll learn how the twin discoveries of an Isetta Restoration Book and an “Isetta Dealership” in Pennsylvania provided the kick start to a rebuild of the 1-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine.
The word “chassis”(pronounced CHA-see) is actually French. Its etymology goes back to Latin, but in 13th century Old French, it was spelled “chassiz”, and defined as a “frame” or “framework”. By the 1660s, the spelling evolved to “chassis”, and more narrowly referred to a “window frame”. In 1869, the word was defined as a “sliding frame or carriage base for a large gun” (I’m picturing something more akin to a cannon, rather than a hand-held gun). In 1903, at the start of the automotive industry, it entered the English language as meaning “the base frame of an automobile”.
Although I could find no further explanation as to how the word switched from guns to cars, it seems logical that given the French dominance in the very early years of the horseless carriage, a French word for a car part would easily be adopted. After all, the word “automobile” also comes to us directly from the French.
Remember this the next time you’re eating French Fries.