With its initial drive event behind me, further work on the Isetta slowed. The notebook I kept to track my progress has very few entries for September 1995. The notes which are there make scant reference to exterior lighting and door adjustments. My time and effort was directed to planning a party.
Every milestone of the Isetta’s progress had been marked with a celebration: the first running of the engine, and the body and chassis wedding, to cite two examples. This time, the festivities would be on a much larger scale. The car was as ready as it was going to be for its public unveiling, known as The Bubble Party. The date was set: Sunday, October 1, 1995. We went so far as to petition the town to close our street to vehicular traffic so that the bright red Bubble Machine could be buzzed from one corner to the next without interference. The mayor agreed (I think a small donation helped).
I did take the car out for several more reconnaissance runs, and my ear-to-ear grin gave it away every time: I never imagined that a 13 horsepower car could be so much fun to drive. The only variable not in our control, the weather, was simply ignored. The Isetta was ready, and we would be too.
It had been some wedding! The body and chassis were reunited. Now the party was over. The guests had departed. It was time to get back to work and make the reunion more permanent. The upcoming week was a vacation week for me so that I could fully apply myself. It felt as though I were days away from actually driving the creature.
First item on the to-do list: install new sound-deadening material to the interior. The commercially-available products seen in every old car magazine were one choice (Dynamat is one well-known brand). However, they are pricey, even for a car as small as an Isetta. Another issue was my desire to adhere as closely as possible to the original treatment, which resembled tar paper. (The new-fangled stuff is thick and shiny and more appropriate for a drafty ‘50s British roadster or a noisy ‘60s muscle car.)
When conveying my indecision to my neighbor, he gave me a great suggestion: a visit to Home Depot would likely yield a roll of black roofing material which could be purchased for a reasonable number. For $9.97, I bought a roll which could have completed multiple Isettas! The measuring and the cutting began.
The wiring harnesses were next. The Isetta has two: a front main harness, and a rear harness. I had earlier disassembled, cleaned, and re-sheathed them, and they were ready to be put back into place. This was a clear case of my earlier photography coming to the rescue, as it was the photos taken during disassembly which portrayed the exact locations and connections for the wiring.
The electrical system of the vehicle is as simple as it gets: front and rear exterior lights, dashboard warning lights, and the starting/charging system. No power seats, no climate control. The test-firing of the engine way back in March of that year meant that I had the battery, Dynastart, and voltage regulator connections down, so with the body resting on top of the chassis, I only needed to bring those wires to their permanent spots.
The ignition switch was a trouble spot. I had an original one, but no key for it. There was a key code on the outside of the cylinder, but efforts to find someone who could create a working key for it were futile. One gent at the local auto parts store was very patient with me as I sought solutions to a car for which he had no listings. We tried several aftermarket ignition switches, but the first few were physically too large to fit within the minuscule dash pod. Finally, he found a switch that fit. He got to know me, and came to be of great assistance on several other small universal parts I needed.
The seat had been sent out to a local upholstery shop. Here, I purposely deviated from original, as American-market Isettas used a patterned vinyl upholstery, and I did not want to sit on vinyl. Instead, I chose a beige corduroy with off-white piping. The beige seat came close to matching the beige fabric sunroof, and since I always like red & beige on Ferraris, I thought “why not?”
The steering wheel, column, dashboard, and pedals are a major subassembly unto themselves, and these were bolted into place, with pedals connected to the undercar linkages. To the left of the steering wheel, the shifter was joined to the rear-mounted transmission. Once I readjusted the clutch, I was able to shift into all four forward gears and reverse gear.
All the work recounted here took two weeks, bringing me to Labor Day weekend. That Sunday night, September 3, 1995, I discovered that the car’s battery was flat from sitting. I put it on trickle charge overnight. The next day was Labor Day. In the morning, I would attempt to start the Isetta, put it into gear, and be behind the wheel when it would move under its own power for the first time under my 17 years of ownership.
During the restoration of the Isetta, a frequent question presented to me was “what motivates you to keep going?” Of course, I wanted to see the project reach a successful conclusion, but setbacks, and there were a few, can be demotivating. There were times I questioned my own sanity, as in, “why am I spending so much time, money and effort to restore a 13-horsepower bubble car from the 1950s that most people have never heard of?” With everyday life (job, family, house) swirling around me, I was occasionally tempted to quit the whole deal.
One of my mantras during this 5+ year stretch was “celebrate your successes”. Reaching certain milestones not only feels great, but the achievement can be shared with others, which then inspires you to keep moving forward.
In August of 1995, I was ready for such a celebration: the Isetta body shell, freshly painted and just back from “The Shop”, was about to be reunited with the mechanically-restored chassis. In a traditional automobile assembly plant, the moment of “marrying” the up-until-then separate body and chassis is called the marriage point. So, in honor of that event’s facsimile, we decided to host a wedding. Before, um, consummating this union, since the shiny and clean chassis was about to be covered up again, a final set of photographs was taken to document its return to as-new glory.
The wedding was scheduled for Sunday, August 20, 1995, and since a wedding must have guests, a small ensemble was invited. (Memory doesn’t recall whether any of the invitees were tipped off that there was work to be done before food and beverages would be served.) The chassis was staged in the driveway just beyond the garage doors, with the body patiently hanging out in the garage on four jack stands.
Five intrepid groomspeople (Chris Beyer, John Maggio, Dennis & Ann Marie Nash, and Don Dahringer) vaulted the body back into the daylight. Spotters were assigned to eyeball the body’s descent so that nothing was injured. It took a few moments to clear all the obstacles, but the (re)union was a success.
A video camera (thanks, John) was rolling to capture the event. You can view a 12-minute excerpt at this YouTube clip here:
Whew! My nervous excitement is palatable to me as I watch myself nervously pace back and forth and around the car. In all seriousness, having a group of friends around me helped alleviate my worries. Once I knew the body shell was resting on the chassis rails, we popped the champagne, ate some BBQ, and of course, shared dessert in the form of a wedding cake:
The end of the push to make “The Isetta Drive in ‘95” was close, really, truly close. The steering, pedals, wiring harness, ignition, and seat all needed to be installed and connected. The motivation was the knowledge that I was perhaps a few short weeks away from driving my Isetta for the first time since buying it as a disassembled heap in 1978.
(Special thanks to my Creative Team pals Cody, Eslam, and Greg for their video-editing assistance. You guys are the DUDES.)
Jody Fitzpatrick, proprietor of “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ, had my Isetta in his possession for one day shy of five weeks. His work was completed, done, finished. I breathed a huge sigh of relief if only for his ability to accurately predict his work timeline, originally estimated at “3 to 4 weeks”. This was close enough. There wouldn’t be any restoration shop horror stories in my future.
Chris Beyer, work colleague, neighbor, and friend, had accompanied me when I dropped off the Isetta body. When I told him that it was ready for pick-up, he was ready and willing to join me again.
The date was Friday July 28, 1995. Nothing in my notes or my memory explains how Chris and I both happened to be off from work that day; but we were. It was a sweltering humid day, hotter than the previous days had been during what was already an oppressive summer. Cranking the A/C in my Volvo 850 wagon did little help; nothing was going to cool me enough to dissipate my nervous excitement over seeing the painted shell.
At our arrival, Jody strolled out to greet us, looking and acting nonchalant. “How come HE’S so cool?” I asked no one. Perhaps because he does this every day, and, it’s not his car, and, he just wants to get paid, replied the voice in my head. The body shell, of course, looked perfect, almost too much so. I was afraid to touch it, but with Jody and Chris’s help, we got the same 2x4s bolted back to its underside, and then to the trailer floor.
Jody got his check, I got my receipt and my obligatory photos, and we were on our way. I must have glanced in the rear view mirror about every 12 seconds to make sure the body was still there. At a red light on the way home, several male teens yelled out “hey, it’s the Urkel-mobile!” Oh My God, I thought, am I going to be hearing this for the duration of my ownership of this thing? (The short answer to that question is “yes”.)
Leaving the 2x4s in place for now, we carried the body into the garage, and back onto my makeshift dolly. I posed it next to the completed chassis, fully aware that in a few days, five years of mechanical work would be covered forever (or at least until the car is re-restored in 2095).
What work was remaining before reuniting the body and chassis? The body’s hand-painted underside now had primer overspray on it, so that got yet another coat of gloss red. The headlight and tail light buckets were bolted on. The fuel tank, which had earlier been restored by coating it with Bill Hirsch’s GasTank Sealer, was secured in place. The 2x4s were finally removed, and the body was placed onto 4 jack stands.
In an auto assembly plant, the moment when the car’s body, on one conveyor, is lowered onto a complete chassis, arriving on another conveyor, is called “the marriage point”. The Isetta’s 17-year courtship was coming to an end. It was time to host a wedding party and consummate this marriage.
Jody Fitzpatrick, proprietor of “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ, was my choice to oversee the body restoration of the Isetta for many reasons: he was personally recommended, the business was nearby my residence, his pricing was fair, we had a mutual understanding of what “done” looked like, and his estimated timeframe was reasonable. Another reason is that Jody assured me that I could visit and observe the progress whenever I desired (sort of like conjugal visits for the incarcerated).
Having read more than one “restoration shop horror story” (the car gets pushed to the back, 6 months pass with no progress, the shop demands more upfront money, they lose your car keys, or worst, they close the business and lock the doors with your car inside), having visitation rights was refreshing.
So visit I did.
Three times during that hot July of 1995, I stopped in to have a peek and to snap a few snaps. Jody was always very accommodating and genuinely happy to see me, and gave me free rein to walk around my car and chat up the crew doing the actual labor.
During the first visit, employees were using homemade scrapers to remove the paint. They had decided against chemical dipping or media blasting, fearful of inflicting further damage. They also hammered out any dents and other rough spots, in preparation for some minor welding and an eventual skim coat of putty in spots. (From my own research, I had come to learn that any talk of body repair that doesn’t involve some small use of plastic filler is fantasy.)
THE SHELL IN THE PROCESS OF PAINT BEING REMOVED:
During this visit, Jody and I also finalized the choice of paint color. There was no known “official 1957 BMW Isetta paint code chart” we could refer to, so we did the next best thing. Sampling the unfaded paint we found under the BMW roundel on the door, we matched that to the closest shade among the modern paint code charts in Jody’s possession. We both agreed that the 1995 Ford Mustang shade of “Performance Red” was it. Jody stressed another advantage: should the car need touch-up or repair in the future, the correct paint would be readily available.
Just a week later, I saw the body with all the original paint gone, and the metal work beginning. I had given Jody a recommendation from John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration book for a method to reinforce the rearmost body panel at the tail lights and rear bumper. This section of the shell was not directly attached to the chassis, and was a known weak spot. Jody stated he would use the printed suggestion to add some additional metal in places.
HAND-SANDING THE FILLER AND THE GUIDE COAT:
During this 2nd visit, I pointed out a number of drilled holes which needed to be filled. These included where the dealer-installed mud flaps and luggage rack had been, neither of which were to be reinstalled. (I would later discover one which I missed, requiring the purchase of a somewhat pricey accessory in order to cover it!) Jody’s suggestion of grinding down the visible factory welds at the body panel joints was rejected by me, as I had every desire to keep to an original look.
Like a proud papa, I posed alongside the work-in-progress:
The third visit found the body in full primer. With the metal work done and its flanks as smooth as new, it was not difficult to visualize a freshly painted body shell. Jody had the door and all the other exterior pieces at The Shop, but he also generously offered to hang and align the door for me, something that was not part of our initial negotiation. I brought the freshly-plated door hinges with me so that he could do just that.
THE BODY IN FULL PRIMER, JUST PRIOR TO COLOR COAT:
Perhaps the most exciting aspect was that the work was closely adhering to the originally estimated timeframe. Jody said that it might take a week longer than he hoped, but everything looked to be on track for a final pick-up by the end of July. And there were no “pricing surprises” either. Jody had gotten a $2,000 down payment upon drop-off, and he said that all I owed him at completion was the $2,000 balance plus NJ state sales tax.
A few days later I got the call. “It’s ready whenever you are.” That Saturday, I hooked up the trailer to the car and grabbed my checkbook. We were on our way.
Happy New Year! The most recent posting of the Isetta Saga was Chapter 13, way back in May 2018 (it was a busy summer and fall). It’s time to resume the Saga, with intentions to post subsequent chapters more consistently through the winter months.
Chapter 13 ended on a high note: I had found a somewhat local body repair place in Maplewood NJ, “The Shop”, run by Jody Fitzpatrick, who agreed to take on the job. Jody and I had a verbal agreement that for $4,000 in materials and labor, he would perform all needed metal repair work, plus prime and paint the exterior and interior using a single stage paint. (He offered to clear coat it, but I declined, wanting to keep to the factory appearance.)
Notably, for that price he would NOT paint the underside, and his interior work would be limited to paint only. He would perform no metal prep to the interior (and it really didn’t need it), nor would he cut and buff the interior paint.
He suggested that my prep of the shell should include removing all glass, sunroof, and trim; removing the existing “tar paper” soundproofing; priming the interior panels; and painting the underside with whatever top coat color I chose.
Jody estimated that this body and paint work would take about three to four weeks. If I got the shell to him in June, I’d have it back sometime in July, giving me all of August and September to complete the reassembly of the car. In the grand scheme of things, I envisioned an “Isetta Party” for some time in the autumn. There was a lot to do, but it seemed within reach.
Stripping the body of its mechanical and trim pieces was straightforward. I had had practice with the two other body shells which got similar treatment through the years. Out came all the glass, followed by the bumpers, headlight and tail light buckets, and steering wheel & column. Then the wiring harness was removed as a complete assembly, taking care to tag as many of the terminal connections as possible.
The interior was tackled next. The heavy black tar paper lining the inside of the shell was certainly original. The 38-year-old glue gave me a fight, and I fought back using a heat gun, a putty knife, and lots of grunt work. The final bits were broken loose using a wire brush chucked into my trusty Black & Decker electric drill. Given the age of the car, I went so far as to remove the paint from the floor and wheel wells, so that fresh paint could be applied to bare metal.
The only rust-through in the entire body was a hole in the battery box (as the lowest part of the interior, any water which leaked in was going to settle there.) Since this wasn’t an appearance concern, and I’m no body man, the fix was a thick piece of sheet metal stock, bent to shape, glued and riveted into place from the inside. This was done as opposed to covering the hole from the outside in order to provide support for the battery.
Once the inside was stripped down to bare metal, the body was tipped up onto its door opening (door removed of course), which provided full access to the underside. I’m not sure how the factory finished off the bottom of the body (if they did at all), but I faced a floorpan completely covered with old paint and surface rust. Like the interior, the underside was brought down to bare metal with wire brushes mounted in an electric drill; tedious work, to state the obvious.
I decided on a multi-coat approach to provide maximum protection for the sheetmetal. Certainly the car was not going to be driven in inclement weather, but there would still be times when it would be outside in damp and humid conditions.
First coat: Bill Hirsch zinc paint prep/converter, to neutralize any remaining rust, and to help convert the surface to accept the paint:
The body (along with the door, headlight buckets, engine cover, and instrument panel, all to be painted the same red) was ready to head to “The Shop”. I bought two 2x4s, glued strips of carpet to them, and bolted them to the underside of the shell using existing mounting holes. I then bolted the 2x4s to the wooden floor of my trailer. It was secure. Photos document my dear departed friend Chris Beyer who so graciously and generously accompanied me that day.
My Isetta log book contains this entry for Saturday, June 24, 1995:
Took body to “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ for body restoration. Est. time to complete = 3 wks. Est. price = $4000.
Now it was up to Jody. I think I went home and had a stiff drink.
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….