My Alfa is a mostly completely original car, meaning that it’s never been “restored”, not in the sense that classic cars are restored with all-new cosmetics and completely overhauled mechanicals. Yet with 65,000 miles on it (and counting), there have been maintenance and wear items needing attention.
The car is wearing about 90% of the paint and 100% of the interior with which it left the factory. The engine, gearbox, and rear axle are likewise the same assemblies that Tony, Vito and their fellow factory workers installed. During the past 51 years, the car has gotten new tires, brakes, belts, hoses, bulbs, shocks, clutch, tune-up parts, and fluids. I’m very conscious of my role as “steward” of this car, and hope that when it eventually moves to its next owner, the preservation efforts will continue.
As you may know from reading this blog, I’m not shy about putting several thousand miles a year on it, and if the paint gets a little worn or slightly chipped from my enjoyable time behind the wheel, so be it. But I would never consider repainting the car. Likewise, should a major engine component fail, I’ll repair it as necessary, but I’m not going to seek out a larger engine from another Alfa. I’m continually striving to maintain that balance whereby I get to enjoy the car while only fixing what needs fixing.
Earlier this year, I discovered that the reverse light didn’t work. The truth is, in the 5 years I’ve owned the car, I don’t think I had ever checked the back-up light. Its inoperative status gave me the impetus to remove the light assembly (there’s only one, below the rear bumper) and get it working again. The overall goal was not to replace it, but refurbish it, reusing as many of the original components as possible.
The first challenge presented itself when two of the four fasteners snapped during removal. The clear lens was held in place by two Philips head screws, and half of one stayed in the housing. The housing itself used two studs with nuts, and one stud broke in half. Unlike the recessed screw for the lens, the broken stud projected far enough above the housing that a pair of locking pliers got it out the rest of the way.
The gasket beneath the lens had been some kind of rubber that had turned to stone. It’s likely that it had never been disturbed until now. The chrome housing was somewhat pitted, and looked like it would respond to some metal polishing. The rubber bezel, mounted between the housing and the painted rear valence, would be treated to a trick I successfully deployed during the Isetta restoration: using Meguiar’s #40 Rubber Reconditioner, the bezel would be submerged and soaked for several days, hopefully returning some of the rubber’s pliancy.
While that sat in its bath, I tackled the removal of the old gasket. This was more of a fight than I anticipated. Not wanting to damage either the housing or the lens, I started with a plastic scraper, but made little progress. Next, I tried various solvents, attempting to soften the material. WD-40 had a minor effect on it, so I kept at it with that, fearful that anything stronger would also harm the lens. The most effective removal tool turned out to be a single-edge razor blade, but this took time. Eventually, both surfaces were rid of the hardened white material.
Instead of purchasing a replacement gasket, I fashioned one from sheet cork which I keep just for such purposes. I tacked it in place using non-hardening gasket glue. Three days in the conditioning bath brought the rubber bezel mostly back to its former glory.
The broken screw was drilled out, and retapped with my metric tap and die kit. The studs were installed with a dollop of thread-locking compound. The old incandescent bulb was replaced with an LED bulb from CARiD.com. As the repair books state: “reassembly is the reverse of disassembly”.
As you can see, the back-up lamp burns brightly. There’s just one more thing to report, but before I do, I must ask you to think like an Italian. You see, when I first tested the refurbished assembly, it still didn’t work. And that’s when I remembered: in 1967, as far as the Italians were concerned, a driver didn’t need the back-up light to illuminate everytime you put the car in reverse! After all, it would provide little or no help in daylight. But if the headlampsare on, indicating it’s dark out, THEN a reverse lamp would prove helpful. So the back-up light is wired to come on only when the light switch is on. I’ll be taking a night cruise just to confirm how well I can see behind me….
I just recently came across these photos, which I had frankly forgotten about, which is why this technical procedure, performed in May, is only getting its own blog post now.
If your memory is good, then you’ll recall reading back in May’s report on this year’s New England 1000 that the Alfa’s alternator failed us in the middle of the rally. If your memory is not so good, or if you’re just joining us, you can read about it here.
The truth is, I should have been wise to an impending failure, as even with the Red-Top Optima battery on trickle charge, the car would still occasionally need a boost. Alternator output measured at the battery was barely 13 volts, a weak statistic which I rationalized to a low idle.
As mentioned in the rally write-up, the drive to our starting destination was done in a steady rain, with lights blazing and wipers flailing. It’s likely that was enough to seal the fate of the battery.
Tuesday morning, we bought a NAPA-brand battery, and leaving the Optima in its place in the trunk, we simply swapped the cables onto the new unit, using bungee cords to keep it from sliding around. The alternator wasn’t completely dead, just on life support. With the new battery, we had zero starting issues the rest of the week, and coasted home on Friday.
Once again I must give a shout to my friends at Classic Alfa in the UK. A new alternator, ordered Tuesday afternoon after they had closed for the day, arrived at my house on Thursday evening. I dare say that most U.S.-based suppliers would not have been able to get me one with such speed. So Memorial Day weekend was spent in part performing the alternator-ectomy.
Access to the unit in the engine compartment was quite good, improved by the battery’s relocation to the trunk, performed by the previous owner (PO). The PO had also removed the factory generator (which I still have) and installed this alternator plus an external voltage regulator. My new replacement alternator has an internal regulator, and it’s a so-called one-wire job.
I photographed the wiring to help with any reinstallation questions, then removed the two components. I noted that the alternator’s upper mounting bracket was at a slight angle, and vowed to focus on improving that geometry when putting it all back together.
With everything hooked up, I measured a steady 13.8 volts at the battery (yet another new Red-Top that I purchased to be on the safe side). I was able to recover the old Optima by very slowly trickle-charging it, and both that battery and the barely-used NAPA one were sold to a young man in my office who is always working on 3-4 project vehicles at a time. (And for the record, both the old alternator and regulator were put in the trash. I don’t keep worn-out parts around.)
The only issue, and it’s the smallest of nits to pick, is that the one-wire alternator needs to be ‘excited’ after initial start before it will charge (much the same can be said about me). The ammeter reads zero until I bring engine revs above 3,500 rpm (waiting a few minutes so that oil circulates), at which point, the amp gauge needle jumps to life. It’s a small price to pay to be secure in the knowledge that the battery’s got the juice to crank that 1300cc monster to life.
In Chapter 12, it was early spring 1995, and the blog post contained video evidence which proved that the “thumper”, as one-cylinder engines are sometimes called, would start and run. You could say that this completed the mechanical portion of the restoration. Of course, there were “mechanical” elements to be addressed once the body and chassis were reunited, such as pedal and shifter linkages, gauges, lights, and so on, but, the running chassis was essentially done.
Now it was crunch time. Now, a fear crept into me because I was about to embark on a path over which I would have much less control. I am a technician, an automotive repairman, by trade. The nuts and bolts were, if not easy, at least resolvable by me. As I looked at the forlorn Isetta body, I was reminded of how little I knew about body and paint work. There was also an element of procrastination in play here. I could have sought out body estimates in 1994. However, it was easier to tell myself to push forward with the chassis work, and allow the bodywork to wait until it was absolutely necessary to move on it. That time was now.
As had been my habit for this entire project, I grabbed my trusty Nikon EM, loaded it with a fresh roll of Kodak ISO 100 (or 200) film, and photographed all the details of the red body in its “before” state. This was done both to document its current condition as well as to provide a guide during reassembly. The body was still complete, with door, glass, sunroof, lights, wiring harness, and interior panels in place. There was no sense in disassembling any of it until I understood the next steps, which would only happen after speaking with several body shops.
The body was loaded onto my landscape trailer, and the trailer was hooked to the back of my Volvo wagon. Off I went to visit two different restoration facilities in northern New Jersey. As both these shops are still in business, and as I have nothing to gain by presenting potentially disparaging remarks about them in this public forum, I shall refer to them as “Shop A” and “Shop B”.
Shop A is a first-class enterprise with a stellar reputation in the hobby. They are known for their award-winning vehicles, and even market their own line of automotive paint. The patriarch of the business greeted me personally, and invited me to sit with him so we could discuss my progress and my intentions.
I told him that I had essentially completed the drivetrain, and wanted a shop to take on only the body shell. “You have done an excellent job managing your own restoration”, he said to me, and I wasn’t sure if the comment was a compliment, or if he regretted that I hadn’t handed over the whole stinkin’ pile of parts for him to sort out. He continued: “We can restore this body, certainly can. Our process will be, you leave it with us while we do our research and preliminary work, and we will send you an itemized bill on a monthly basis”.
My next question was obvious, or so I thought: “What will be the total cost of the body and paint work?” He replied “Oh, we have no way of knowing that. Besides, that’s not how we work. As I said, we will perform a certain amount of work every month and bill you accordingly. You are also welcome to stop by and see the progress first-hand”. I told him that I would think about it. The walk back to my car wasn’t complete before I had concluded my thinking about it. This was the traditional model of automotive restoration. The owner trusts the restoration shop to proceed at a fair pace, and pays the bills with no clear end date in sight. This shop was not getting my business.
Shop B was introduced to me when its proprietor visited my office for an evening’s “hobbyists’ gathering”. He was fairly new to the business, and wanted to introduce himself to a wider audience. He spoke in a friendly and down-to-earth manner, and explained that his shop was the restoration place of choice for the common man. At the end of his presentation, I approached him and asked about paying a visit. A short time later, I trailered the red body out to him for his inspection, and he promised to get back to me ASAP.
This was 1995, so we used fax as a speedy means of communication. The first page of the fax was a cover sheet, and the second page had a detailed line-by-line estimate for metal work, fabrication, priming, sanding, and painting. I knew I was in trouble reading the first line of his cover page: “Dear Rich, I hope you’re sitting down!” His estimate for total parts and labor? $11,150. That only meant I needed to keep looking.
A work colleague, friend, and all-around great fellow hobbyist Dennis Nash was someone I sought out for advice. Dennis said that he knew someone through the Rolls-Royce Owners Club who ran a collision shop but also fit in a fair amount of restoration work. He was in Maplewood, about a 20 minute drive from my house, and much closer than either Shop A or Shop B. The person’s name was Jody Fitzgerald, and the name of this business was The Shop.
I called. Jody answered, “This is …. The Shop”. (This is how he always answered the phone, with a purposeful delay between “this is” and “The Shop”.) We had a pleasant initial conversation, and he invited me to visit with body in tow. It didn’t take him long to look it over and for him to tell me that this was something he could handle. He made himself very clear that there were certain things he would, and would not, do. He said that he would:
Expect me to deliver the body with glass and soundproofing removed.
Paint the body in a single-stage urethane, and color-sand and polish the exterior.
Paint the interior to match, but not color-sand or polish it.
NOT paint the underside of the body. (He suggested that I paint it before bringing it back to him.)
Complete all the body and paint work in an approximate 3-4 week time period.
Jody said that the total cost in material and labor would be $4,000. That was a very acceptable number to me. Before we signed any papers, Jody said he had one more item of importance to discuss with me:
“I will take on this job, which will cost you $4,000, only if you verbally assure me that you understand this cost exceeds the total value of the car.”
In retrospect, I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to ensure that I understood the price/value relationship. We both knew that good, but not perfect, running and driving Isettas were available for around $3,500 in 1995. There was too much emotional attachment in this project for me, so I was more than willing to spend what I believed was a fair price for the body shell restoration. Jody simply didn’t want to start this job and have me remorsefully abandon the car with him.
I rushed home to begin the disassembly so that I could deliver the shell to Jody. It was June of 1995. There was no time to waste.
Those of you who have followed this Isetta Saga have endured 11 chapters of a story that has covered parts of three decades. You’ve read about the initial discovery of these tiny cars, first in a magazine ad, then in a Vermont barn. You learned that I’m very good at letting a few years (like, ten) go by without any work transpiring. You saw that getting my own garage gave me the work space I longed for. My pictures illustrated progress with dismantling and restoring major components such as the chassis, engine, and rear axle.
At what point, dear readers, did you ask yourselves:
WHEN IS THIS THING GOING TO RESEMBLE A CAR?
Can’t say as I blame you. If you didn’t know better (and I have yet to prove that you will), you might conclude that the freshly-painted engine is destined for a museum display cabinet. And “rolling chassis”? Please. The cynics out there (I know who you are) are thinking “just throw a sheet of plywood on it and use it as a garden cart”.
But are we any closer to actually taking it for a drive? Let’s recap the two most recent chapters. Chapter 10 included the story of the combo starter-generator known as the Dynastart. Its renewed wiring was complete, even if it was yet to be reinstalled onto the crank nose. And Chapter 11 displayed photos of a Dynastart-less engine bolted to the chassis, with a complete transmission and final drive axle right behind it. The next steps were to install the Dynastart, obtain a voltage regulator and battery, and pick up a quart of fuel at the local gas station. Oh, and then try to start it.
Any book about the internal combustion engine will tell you that provided your internals are mechanically sound, only three things are needed to start an engine: air, fuel, and spark.
I made a checklist.
Air: check. (My backyard had an abundance of it, and there were no obstructions in front of the carb.)
Fuel: check. (The Isetta has no fuel pump. Someone just needed to hold a funnel higher than the carb, and pour fuel into it while a hose ran to the carb.)
Spark: check. (If I was correctly reading John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration, touching certain wires from the Dynastart and the voltage regulator to a 12 volt source would crank the engine and deliver spark to the plug.)
On Sunday, March 26, 1995, I rolled the chassis out of the garage and into the backyard. Enlisting the help of my friend John M and his 10-year-old son Nick, we poured fuel into the funnel, and touched wires to the battery.
John not only lent the services of his son, perched as he was on a step stool for this grand experiment; John also had a video camera set up, ready to record the scene live as it happened.
This long-hidden VHS tape was recently rediscovered and transferred to DVD. Please click on the YouTube link below so that you may verify the results with your own eyes:
I assure you that these moments were not rehearsed. Once I remembered to supply sufficient fuel to the carburetor, the engine actually started on the first try. The fist-pumping at the end was a spontaneous display of exuberance, a reflexive reaction to the sheer joy of the moment. The feeling was indescribable; it certainly energized me to keep pushing myself to complete the car in the few short months I had remaining to meet my own self-imposed deadline.
The PLAN was to spend free time during this past winter working on the Miata. What happened? Where did the winter go? Of course, I ask that based on the CALENDAR, not on the actual WEATHER. (As I sit here composing this missive at 7:24 p.m. EDT on April 15, it is 38 degrees F outside, and the rain and wind make it feel like 31F. Clearly, it does NOT feel like spring!)
The to-do list for the ’93 Miata, drawn up last November, included: rear brake service, transmission service, new lights, new tires, and an engine compartment detail. I haven’t gotten very far. The first item to be tackled, the brakes, wasn’t started until March, and still needs bleeding and parking brake adjustment before it’s crossed off the list.
Since e-brake adjustment requires removal of the center console, I combined that with servicing the shifter. Here was a case where online forums provided information not to be found in a service manual.
My Miata service book, published not by Mazda itself but by an independent publisher, is quite good. However, it says nothing of servicing the shifter “turret”. The turret is an oil-filled box at the rear of the transmission, in which the shift rod connects to the external shift linkage. It does not share its oil with the rest of the gearbox.
Once the shift knob was unscrewed and the center console lifted out of the way (the leather boot attached to the console is but a decorative item), it was obvious that repair work was overdue. (This is what happens when you drive the same car for 21 years, and the small deteriorations are not noticed.) The large rubber shift boot was shredded, and the flexible rubber cap, bonded to a metal plate which forms the top of the turret, was equally damaged. Removal of the cap allowed the shift rod itself to be extricated. The plastic bushings at the bottom of the rod were worn but not broken. Most of the turret’s gear oil was gone.
One of the major forum findings was just that: “You’ll find the turret to be empty or almost empty. Service it by refilling it with oil”. The mystery remains: where did the oil GO? Using a turkey baster which has been appropriated to the garage, the scant remaining oil was sucked out, and fresh 75W-90 gear oil was added until it almost reached the top of the turret.
It was time to rebuild the shift knob. The aftermarket replicates all the needed plastic and rubber parts; however, scanning the various online listings convinced me that spending a bit more and getting OEM components was the wiser move. A Mazda dealer in Vienna VA, Priority Mazda, runs an eBay store and had the best combination of price/availability/shipping cost/delivery time. I placed the order and had all my parts, in Mazda bags, at my house in 3 days.
The new pieces went together quite easily. With the turret full, everything at the center console was reinstalled. While I was there, I drained the gearbox oil, and again using a recommendation from the forum, refilled it with Valvoline “Manual Transmission Fluid”, GL4, NOT GL5. After visiting 3 auto parts stores looking for this stuff, I had to order the Valvoline online also. What did we do before the World Wide Web?
The Miata is still up on 4 jackstands; just as well, because it ain’t goin’ out in this weather just yet. Once it warms up, I’m excited to take that first test drive and try out the shift action. With fresh tranny oil, refilled turret, and new rubber booties, I have great expectations. But I better put a hustle in my bustle. The NJ Region AACA annual car show is Sunday May 6, EXACTLY 3 weeks from today, and my now-25-year-old Miata will be making its AACA debut there. It’s at the Mennen Arena in Morristown. If you’re in the area, I expect you’ll come by.
The Isetta Saga has many more chapters to go before reaching its inevitable conclusion. With the help of some colleagues, I’m working on a big surprise, and hope to have it available for your viewing pleasure soon.
Road & Track magazine, in its July 1989 edition, ran its first full road test of the new 1990 Mazda Miata. A sidebar article crowned it one of the “World’s Best Cars”. Here’s what they said about its manual transmission:
“…. performance is further enhanced by a close-ratio 5-speed that rates nothing less than a 10 for its smooth, positive operation. With the feel of a Formula car, this tranny is fun just to run through the gears.”
In Chapter 10, the rolling chassis debuted to the world. In Chapter 11, that chassis gets the rest of its drivetrain reunited with it, but not before a very long drive turns fruitless.
The year 1995 had dawned. Staring me in the face was the sign I created and hung in my workshop: “The Isetta Will Drive in ’95”. Could this be possible? Theoretically, I had until 11:59 p.m. on December 31, but practically, I knew that it needed to happen before winter set in.
Never mind the still-unanswered dilemma about body and paint. There were two more immediate challenges:
The restoration had reached the point of discovering that many small pieces were completely missing. I had no ignition switch, headlight switches (on/off and low/high beam), turn signal switch, motor mount brackets, or hub caps. Some of the pieces I did have were in such poor repair that it would help if I could find other used ones in better condition.
My completed engine and transmission were not yet installed in the restored chassis. This was a priority because once installed, I needed to prove that the engine would start and run. Should there be a failure there, I wanted enough time to correct whatever needed correcting.
The solution to Challenge #1 came to me via interoffice mail. A fellow-fanatic colleague, Bob McCown, sent me a clipping from Old Cars Weekly magazine. Either I no longer subscribed, or I had missed the ad. Someone in Pennsylvania had a “complete, solid” Isetta PLUS a rolling parts car, for $1,000. I called the number, and the conversation went something like this:
ME: Hi. About the complete car you’re selling, what would it take for it to run?
SELLER: A battery.
ME: And the rolling parts car, is it complete?
SELLER: It has no drivetrain, but the rest of it is there.
This sounded like a deal to me. The plan was already decided: I’d buy both cars, strip them, keep what I needed, and sell off what I didn’t. What the heck, I’d been doing exactly that for the past 5 years!
I called my good friend Steve M, who was always up for an adventure. Checking a map (no, not Google Maps, that hadn’t been invented yet), I found the town outside Pittsburgh, about a 6 hour drive one-way. Steve and I agreed to a Saturday 6 a.m. departure from my house. I hooked up the open landscape trailer (a recent purchase made for express purpose of moving Isetta bodies) to my Volvo 850 wagon, and we were off.
Steve said: “You know, showing up with an empty trailer is bad. He’ll conclude that you’re buying his cars no matter what. I suggest that you find a spot about a mile from his house and park the trailer.” I would have none of it. I retorted “Look, as excited as I am about these cars, if I don’t want them, I’m not buying them.”
We arrived at the seller’s house around noon. The property was a large farm, with numerous outbuildings. About 50 yards away I spotted a canvas cover draped over the unmistakable silhouette of an Isetta. We didn’t see a soul, so we headed toward it. Peeking under the cover, the Isetta was quite rough. “This must be the rolling parts car” I told myself.
“John” the seller emerged from one of the buildings. Spotting the NJ plate, he correctly presumed that I was the guy who called.
ME: So this must be the rolling parts car.
JOHN: No, that’s the better of the two.
We peeled the cover completely back. The sunroof was missing. The interior was gutted. The engine was on the floor of the car.
ME: You told me on the phone that the better car only needed a battery to run.
JOHN: Well, that engine would run once it’s reinstalled. At least it’s there.
ME: Oh boy. Since we’re here, let’s look at the rolling parts car.
We followed him to another part of the farm. The roller was inside. The roller had been in a fire. Everything consumable was gone: paint, glass, plastic. There was sheetmetal, but it was impossible to tell what color the car had been. The roller was worth more as scrap metal.
I was too disappointed to be angry. There was no way I was purchasing these two Isettas from him. If he had offered them for free I would have declined, as neither car had the parts I needed. In a situation like this, the best way to get even is to walk away. I said to John, “I’m not buying these”, shook his hand, and we got back into my car. Steve and I had a nice dinner somewhere in PA. So much for that idea.
Challenge #2 was more within my control. Bolting major mechanical subassemblies to the chassis with the body removed was quite straightforward, except for the missing components. I had no motor mount brackets, and they weren’t being reproduced, so one of my local suppliers was able to fulfill an order for a pre-owned set. The engine, complete with cylinder head, carburetor, and clutch, went in first. Next, the transmission was installed.
The world’s shortest driveshaft, freshly painted and with a Giubo at each end, was positioned between the trans output and rear axle input. Two issues here required focus:
One, the Giubo bolts were special items with very thin heads. The clearance between the bolt head and gearbox case was so small that standard-sized bolts would rub against the case, gouging it. This was written about repeatedly in the club newsletters.
Two, the flanges on either side of the driveshaft were not aligned, and again, newsletter articles warned novices NOT to align them. Something about the way the entire drivetrain moved required the flanges to be ever-so-slightly offset, with the flexible Giubos correcting the difference.
The drivetrain was installed. I resigned myself to being “nickel-and-dimed” from local suppliers for any further missing parts. Spring was on its way. Next, I would attempt to start the engine, then really get serious about finding a body shop.
Did I mention that I didn’t have a title to the car?
Next time in the Isetta Saga: As taught in class, an engine only needs 3 things to run: air, fuel, and spark. Is that still true if you only have one cylinder?
Giubo joints have their own Wikipedia page. The name “Giubo” (pronounced JOO-boh) is derived from the first three letters of “giunto” (Italian for “joint”) and the first two letters of the inventor’s last name, Antonio Boschi. “Giubo” is frequently misspelled as “guibo”, and then mispronounced as “guEE-bo”. The coupling was first used on the Alfa Romeo 1900 of the early 1950s, and was used on many BMW cars throughout the second half of the 20th century.
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.