Bidding at RM/Sotheby’s “Shift/Monterey” Online Auction

Enough digital “ink” has been spilled regarding our current global pandemic’s effect on the collector car hobby that I don’t need to rehash it here. (The more serious human toll certainly puts our hobby into some perspective.) So why am I mentioning it at all? I bring it up only because there have been some rays of hope for those of us still looking for ways to enjoy it. Classic car auction companies, at least some of them, have found a path forward by switching from live events to online formats.

One cannot discuss web-based car auctions without first acknowledging the success of Bring a Trailer (www.bringatrailer.com, aka BaT). The website, which started as nothing more than a place to repost links for interesting cars found elsewhere online, began to auction vehicles several years ago. Fed by a mostly-positive and very enthusiastic comments section, they have changed the rules of engagement. One element of their business which is now blatantly copied is their two-minute anti-sniping provision. A classic complaint about eBay has been bidders with sharp reflexes (or clever computer programs) placing bids with one second remaining on the clock. Bidding would close, the so-called “sniper” would win the item, and anyone who had been willing to bid higher was shut out.

BaT, wanting to level the playing field, was I believe the first online auction company to change the game: any bid placed with two minutes or less on the clock resets the countdown clock to two minutes, giving others a chance to still bid.

Another surprise element was BaT’s move into the premium segment of the hobby. When their auctions started, naysayers claimed that “this is fine for $12,000 Alfa Spiders and $20,000 BMW 3-series sedans, but the big money buying 6-figure exotics will only do that at a live auction”. Wrong. Just this year, BaT sold a 1960 Ferrari 250GT for $585,000; a 1913 Rolls Royce for $657,913; and a 1968 Lamborghini Miura for $990,000. If you think that Bonhams, Gooding, and RM haven’t noticed, I’d think you’re mistaken.

Of course, when the year started, none of the major auction houses were expecting the shutdown. The pandemic’s message was: either find a new way forward, or spin your wheels while waiting out the crisis. As 2020 unfolded, with news only getting worse, one auction company in particular led the pack in switching from in-person to online, and that was RM Sotheby’s.

I’ve attended many live auctions. Whether it’s the boisterous volume of Mecum, or the understated elegance of Bonhams, there’s excitement in the air. You can touch the cars, watch them drive across the block, and feel the tension in the room as the auctioneer implores the audience to bid higher. The crowd may be milling around the block (Mecum) or may be patiently parked in their seats ready to raise paddles (Bonhams). Emotions are running high, causing some bidders to bid with their hearts and not their heads. Consigners are counting on that! Yet all that is lost in the online setting. Still, RM Sotheby’s knew they had to try, and motivated in part I would guess by BaT, they embraced this new business model by doing things they’ve never done before.

On RM’s website, the number of photographs of each vehicle has expanded, with photographers emphasizing flaws (paint chips, upholstery tears, oil stains) to avoid any post-sale surprises. Any available repair or restoration receipts are scanned and posted as PDF files. Finally, for almost every car, RM provides a condition report which lists the condition of the paint, engine, upholstery, and undercarriage using the traditional 1-to-5 scale. I’ve read a few of them, and while they’re brief, they’re also refreshingly honest. RM’s online auctions also use the two-minute extension a la BaT.

August has always been Monterey’s month: the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the multiple car auctions, and myriad number of special car shows. This week-long event in northern California is one of the biggest car-centric extravaganzas in the world, and like almost everything else this year, it’s been cancelled. RM Sotheby’s, though, is holding its “Shift/Monterey” online auction this week. Bidding opened on Monday August 10, with lots scheduled to close either on Friday the 14th or Saturday the 15th. I’ve been anxious to test the waters with RM, as I have my sights set on a future auction, so I took the plunge: I registered to bid at “Monterey”, and actually placed a bid!

The registration process was too easy: I scanned my driver’s license and a recent bank statement, provided a credit card to be used for a hold, and submitted those docs. About 15 minutes later I got an email message: “Congratulations! You’re registered to bid.” Unlike some previous auctions I’ve watched, there was no bidder’s registration fee.

RM website clearly indicates if lot is no reserve

There are 109 vehicles (107 cars, 2 motorcycles) and some automobilia online at Shift/Monterey. (Note that despite its name, vehicles are physically scattered around the country, an advantage for sellers who avoid transport costs; the website indicates the vehicle’s location by city and state). By RM standards, it’s not a big auction. Since I don’t intend to actually purchase a car but want to experience the process, I sought out something with a high pre-sale estimate and with a very low current bid. I found a 1947 Chrysler Town & Country sedan, listed at no reserve, with a pre-sale estimate range of $90,000-$120,000. The current bid was $3,600.

I’m high bidder!

In spite of the numbers, I was still nervous. What if I won? (Sure, I’m going to get a woody Chrysler for under $5,000.) RM provides the minimum bidding increment, in this case, $100. I keyed in “$3,700”, clicked on the green “place bid” bar, and the screen changed: “Your high bid!” I got a confirmation email informing me that, for now, I was high bidder on the Chrysler. Did I mention this is a no-reserve auction? That means if NO ONE ELSE BIDS, THE CAR IS MINE. The euphoria lasted for four minutes. A new email popped in: “You Have Been Outbid”. I was further informed that the “new asking bid is $3,900”. At least I knew where I stood. As tempted as I was, I stopped.

I know where I stand

Everything considered, the RM online bidding experience is perhaps the best it can be when you can’t be there in person. I’m frequently asked “do people really buy cars sight unseen?” Yes they do. RM’s online closing ratio is around 60-65%, which is very respectable, if not as high as it’s been at live shows. Still, I think that RM has set a fine example for conducting honest and transparent business in an online format under particularly difficult circumstances. I’ll have more to say about RM Auctions in future posts.

All website screen shots courtesy of RM Sotheby’s

 

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 26: A Return to Form in 2004

After two consecutive years of successfully showing the Isetta at several shows, two of which involved a lengthy drive to Connecticut, I was ready to take some time off from the circuit. A glance through my photo archives reveals little participation in automotive events of any kind for the years 2002 and 2003. In the autumn of ’03, I purchased the 1968 Mustang California Special, which made me feel like I was cheating on the Isetta. Now I had to divide my attention between two cars, and the Mustang beckoned, not only because it was newer, but also because a trailer was not required. The medium-term plan was to drive the Mustang in an upcoming New England 1000 rally, a task that the Isetta was sadly not up to.

Before I knew it, it was 2004, and three years had passed since showing the little red car at Greenwich in 2001. Concours rules said “a vehicle displayed at Greenwich is eligible for showing every three years”, so I applied and was accepted.

Rain or shine, it was car show time

 

My Isetta with its BMW brethren

This time, my BMW was correctly placed in the same display circle as the other BMWs. But that was about the only happy element of the event. It was a day of miserable weather, with a steady cool rain which kept spectators away. My wife and I were dressed for the occasion, and worked to make the best of it.

My wife Margaretanne was a trooper for tolerating the weather

Parked directly next to my car was a BMW 600 (often incorrectly referred to as an “Isetta 600” –its officially name is “BMW 600 Limousine”). From the front, most people mistake it for an Isetta. It does share its front-hinged door and pivoting steering column with its little brother. Built on a slightly longer wheelbase, the 600 included a 2nd row of seats, one side door for access to that row, and most importantly, a two-cylinder boxer engine displacing about 600 cc.

The differences between the 600 (L) and 300 (R) are obvious here

The 600 is an interesting vehicle in BMW’s history. With the runaway success of the Isetta on a global scale (ultimately, 160,000 units produced, which made it BMW’s largest-volume model to date), company management wanted that success to be a springboard to a larger model, presumably to attract a bigger audience. Unlike the Isetta which was designed by the Italian firm Iso, the BMW 600 was designed in-house. Complaints that the Isetta was too small, underpowered, and lacked passenger room were all addressed in this larger model. Alas, the public did not respond in kind. Produced from 1957 to 1959, only 35,000 units were sold. The silver lining is that the 600 begat the “normal looking” BMW 700, which begat the Neue Klasse cars, and the rest, as several million people before me have said, is history.

The BMW 600, which some feel is less cute than the 300

Back to the car at the show: the young woman who piloted the 600 there was not the owner. She claimed that the car was owned by her boss, and he asked her to bring it to the show. Yet she seemed to be well-versed in its history. She had no issue with the idea that she would be driving her boss’s 600 back in the rain!

She was more than happy to display her boss’s 600

Awards were announced, and what’s this? No award for the Isetta this year? Hey Bruce, what gives? I was getting used to the accolades. Oh well, I told myself, I’m not here for the trophy, I’m here for the experience.

A few months later, I decided to bring the Isetta to the Somerville (NJ) Cruise Night, held every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day (and weather permitting, extended for as long as cars show up). This time, my stepson accompanied me, and assisted with trailer duties and photography. Like many cruise nights, there is no pre-registration, and parking on the street is on a first-come, first-served basis. We parked the trailer several blocks away, and got to drive the Isetta on some local streets through town. Luckily, as soon as I turned onto Main St., the show’s location, a parking spot appeared.

Stepson John takes first known photo from inside my moving Isetta

 

Just another red car out for a cruise

 

Managing to avoid Dodge Durango while turning onto Main St.

 

Blowby from tractor-trailer threatened to flip Isetta

It’s one thing to look at the Isetta and say “that thing is small”. It’s another thing to park it adjacent to other vehicles and see how truly tiny it is.

Isetta’s length matches hood of Torino behind it

As has been the trend, I spent much of the evening answering what seemed to be the same half-dozen questions:

  • Is this thing street-legal? (Sure, I drove it here)
  • How much horsepower does it have? (Thirteen, but a healthy 12-year-old boy on a bicycle can outdrag me)
  • What the top speed? (50 mph, downhill with a tailwind)
  • What kind of gas mileage does it get? (60 miles per gallon, so the 3-gallon tank gives me a cruising range of 180 miles)
  • How many people can you fit in there? (Two, but they really have to like each other)

 

The Isetta was proving to be a consistent attraction

The repetition was encouraging me to shoot back the same zany answers every time. By 9 p.m., it was time to get the Isetta back on the trailer. At least home was only eight miles away.

Later that year, while attending Hershey, I saw a beautiful yellow Isetta at the show. This was the germination of an idea: perhaps I could look into entering my Isetta at a future AACA event….

Taken at AACA Hershey 2004

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 25: the 2001 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance

The Greenwich (CT) Concours d’Elegance, which began in 1996, was an almost immediate success. It is one of the few true classic concours held in the NY/NJ/CT metro area, and it has much more than that going for it. The show, traditionally held on the first weekend of June, is located in a small park bordering Long Island Sound. The park’s size limits the show’s size – visitors feel welcomed knowing that the entire show can be viewed in the course of a day with no need to rush. Clusters of trees provide shade when needed, and the grassy field is far superior to pavement. Vehicle manufacturers and dealers showcase new cars along the park’s perimeter. Perhaps best of all, each day’s lineup is unique: Saturday’s arrangement focuses on historic American vehicles, while Sunday’s participants arrive in European classics (this convention has changed somewhat in the last several years). Combined, these attributes make the Greenwich Concours one of the most unique and enjoyable car shows I’ve attended.

My relationship with the Concours, and more specifically with its chairperson Bruce Wennerstrom, began professionally. Volvo Cars of North America, my employer, was invited by Bruce to bring new cars to the show (and to monetarily contribute for the privilege of doing so), and my job was to provide the iron, which I did starting in 1997. As mentioned in Chapter 24 of the Isetta Saga, Bruce saw me and my Isetta at the 2000 Lime Rock Fall Vintage Festival, and invited me to bring my car to Greenwich in 2001, an invitation I immediately accepted.

We (Margaretanne and I) of course would be attending on Sunday, which at that time was referred to as “Concours Europa”. The date was June 3, 2001, and like every other participant, I could only hope for good weather. But Bruce’s luck had run out. After years of avoiding the wet stuff, it rained for the Saturday portion of the show. It wasn’t a total washout, though, as the skies cleared on Sunday; they just didn’t clear early enough to dry the grass.

Arriving with Isetta on trailer, I was directed to “trailer parking”, about a half mile away. I unloaded the car, we hopped in, and I drove to the park’s entrance. The routine went like this: each car and driver stopped at the registration table and was handed a packet. On the outside of the packet was a large letter indicating your ‘circle’. All the show cars were parked in circles, the cars perpendicular to the circle’s circumference, facing outward (got that, geometry majors?). Once cleared of check-in, the driver (me) held up the envelope so that volunteers could direct me to the appropriate circle, which as I understood it, was the BMW circle.

This shot gives you an idea of the field’s wet condition

The first hundred feet or so within the park was paved. As soon as I turned right, as directed, and hit the wet and muddy grass, all forward motion ceased. I had no traction. Weighing under 1,000 pounds with passengers, I suspect that the Isetta’s 10-inch tires didn’t have enough mass pushing downward. Show workers tried to push the car, but it was slow going, not helped by their own struggles to keep their sneakers from slipping. We made it a few yards at a time when someone in a supervisory role spoke up and said to me “look, your circle is on the other side of the park. We’re not going to get there. We’re just going to put you in this circle near to us”. Who was I to argue? I said “sure”, and we entered the circle and parked. Climbing out, I saw that I had the only BMW in a circle of … Mercedes-Benzes.

The lone Bimmer among the Benzes. At least they’re all German.

The Benzes were beautiful –exactly what you’d expect, with most of them SL models, including one 300SL Gullwing. I cleaned my car the best I could (the tires and wheel wells were quite muddy), set up our lawn chairs, and tried to relax. This was to be a judged show again (and yes, I dusted the spare!).

In the collector car hobby, it is a fact that most car owners enjoy talking about their cars. I again bore first-hand witness to the incredible reactions show-goers had to a BMW Isetta, and all the questions which were directed at me. Attendees tended to fall into one of two general camps: those who had never seen an Isetta and didn’t know the first thing about it; and those who knew something about the model yet had not seen one in years. So the time passed quickly, because everyone wanted to talk to me about my car. I also noticed that people chatting it up with me spent little or no time at the other vehicles in my circle. A friend who was at the show let it be known that he overheard two Mercedes owners complaining about “that intruder BMW” in their midst.

Taking a break from non-stop gabbing

Here’s another fun feature employed by the Greenwich staff: as class winners are announced, the winning vehicles line up and are driven at parade speed past a viewing stand. Each car stops, and the driver is handed a trophy and invited to say a few words. I had observed in previous years that Bruce and his wife Genia made it a point to have multiple classes in order to provide participants with as much recognition as possible. It was still a shock, though, when my name was called as winner of the Concours Europa “Best Special-Interest Car”. I honestly think mine was the ONLY special-interest car!

We pose by the car (photo courtesy Dennis & Ann Marie Nash)

We got in the queue (with better traction on the now-dry grass) and motored up to Bruce. He stuck a microphone through the car’s open sliding window and asked me about my car. I mumbled something about it being a U.S.-spec Isetta. This seemed to catch him by surprise, and he asked me what the difference was. I replied “The European Isettas got a 12-horsepower engine, but here in the States, we were given the bigger engine, which made 13 horsepower”. This sent Bruce into a fit of laughter, but he managed to make sure the audience understood that my Isetta had “the big block”.

Bruce Wennerstrom and his wife Genia hand me the goodies (photo courtesy Dennis & Ann Marie Nash)

Another car show, another trophy! During the entire restoration, I repeatedly told myself that I was NOT doing this in order to collect what I derisively referred to as “dust-collectors”. But again, the recognition among my peers was humbling, and certainly rewarding. We loaded the Isetta back on the trailer and headed home, with no immediate plans for any future car shows for my little red cuddle-box.

EPILOGUE

The November 2001 issue of (now defunct) European Car magazine published a story on the most recent Greenwich Concours, and even included a cover blurb: “Rarities and wonders on the lawn at one of America’s best shows”. Lo and behold, the magazine, which titled the story “Rainwich” Concours, included a small story about my small car.

 

 

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 24: The 2000 Lime Rock Fall Vintage Festival

Feeling optimistic after successfully trailering the Isetta in August of 2000 to its first public show, I was ready to repeat the process. Labor Day weekend at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut has long been known to me for its Fall Vintage Festival (the event itself has gone through several name changes while staying true to its mission). Saturday and Monday of the weekend are devoted to vintage car racing, and on Sunday, when local ordinances prohibit racing, the track is given over to a static car show.

I’ve attended Lime Rock on Labor Day weekend at least as far back as 1991, when I purchased my ’67 Dodge Dart after spotting it on the field with a For Sale sign on it. During the summer of 2000, I made use of this new-fangled thing called the Internet, and found an online application form to register the Isetta for the show. It was only a matter of days when I received an email response in the affirmative.

Lime Rock CT, nestled in the Berkshires, is a little further from home than Park Ridge NJ. In a modern car, sans trailer, the trip from central Jersey is 2.5–3 hours. In an Aerostar van, pulling a trailer loaded with precious cargo, it’s a bit longer. Margaretanne and I left the house before sunrise; the communique from the Lime Rock officials requested that the car be on the field by 9 a.m.

Posing with the car. Lime Rock’s lush greenery is on full display in the background.

On arrival, we were greeted by a trio of track workers who were in a tizzy. Apparently, they did not know into which class they should place this microcar. Eventually, I was told “you’re in Class 18 – postwar European two-doors”. Instead of protesting the incorrect door count (what was I going to say? “Oh no, you want to place me in the postwar European ONE-door class”), I motored on, found the class, unloaded the car, and drove it into its display position. As had happened in Park Ridge, a small crowd gathered in amazement to watch this egg move under its own power.

The Isetta among its (class) peers

We set up the folding lawn chairs, and I got to work with the detail bucket. It was hot and humid, and while morning clouds threatened, they were gone by midday, and took some of the humidity with them. Cleaning my car gave me the opportunity to take in my competition. On one side of me was a large Jaguar drophead coupe; on the other side, an Austin/Morris Mini (the original one; the successor had not been born yet). Other vehicles in my class included a VW Bug and a Mercedes-Benz 280SE cabriolet. This was as eclectic a group of vehicles as I could have imagined.

There wasn’t much detailing to do and soon after I settled into my folding chair, the judging team arrived. This was my first exposure to “show judging”, and my slight nervousness caused me at one point to yell out to the judges “what’s taking you so long? It’s a pretty small car!”. This verbal jab resulted in an elbow jab from Margaretanne, admonishing me to behave. One of the judges asked “where’s the spare?” and with that, I folded the seat back forward (the spare is in a recess behind the seat). The judge made a comment about dust on the spare wheel/tire assembly, and this time I kept my mouth shut, making a mental note to clean the spare when I got home.

A spectator ponders if he could fit (probably could)

The judges moved on, and I tried to relax while the show attendees stopped to inspect my Isetta and ask the occasional question. I heard a female voice from a few yards away say “oh, I know that car! I helped procure a bunch of parts for it!” It was Linda Gronlund, whom I knew from her days at Volvo Corporate. She had left Volvo to work at BMW USA, and was still employed there. She had indeed played a role in helping me obtain some genuine BMW parts as long as I was able to provide her with genuine BMW part numbers. It was nice to see her, and most tragically, it was the last time I ever saw Linda. Almost exactly one year later, she was a passenger on United flight #93 which crashed in PA on 9/11/2001.

Sometime later in the day at Lime Rock, another voice, this time a male one, called my name out loud after reading it from the windshield entry card. It was Bruce Wennerstrom, who chaired the prestigious Greenwich (CT) Concours d’Elegance. I knew Bruce because Volvo had been a corporate sponsor of his event, and part of my job responsibilities included chauffeuring new Volvos to be put on display at Greenwich. Bruce and I exchanged pleasantries, and then he utterly shocked me by asking “would you like to display your Isetta at the Greenwich show next year?” I was flattered, and flabbergasted. I stammered a “yes” and told Bruce that I was honored.

By 3 p.m., Margaretanne and I were talking about getting an early start to our long trip back home. The award ceremony had just begun, and I didn’t feel it necessary to stick around for it, that is, until I heard “Isetta” over the PA system. I walked up to the awards table and, in a day full of surprises, had my biggest surprise when I learned that my car had won 1st in its class (dusty spare and all). While I am not in this hobby for trophy-collecting, it is nice to be recognized.

Margaretanne is quite proud of the award

 

As is the car’s owner

 

The Isetta was done with car shows for the year 2000. There was already something to look forward to in 2001, and that would be Greenwich in June. I had all winter to detail that spare.

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 23: The Isetta Enters Its First Public Car Show

As mentioned in the Isetta Saga Chapter 6, it was at a car show in Ohio in 1992 when I was introduced to the national Microcar & Minicar Club. I became a member, and greatly enjoyed their club newsletter, “Minutia”. The club held an annual convention every year, and the summer of 2000 was the first time since I had joined the club that the convention would be convenient to home.

 

Official show poster. It’s melancholic to see Twin Towers.

The show was planned for Sunday August 12, 2000, at a hotel in Park Ridge NJ, just an hour’s drive from my home in Morristown. I registered for the event, and on the appointed day, got the car on the trailer and the trailer attached to the tow vehicle. During the car’s restoration, I trailered the bare body to and from the body shop; I had also trailered the chassis to several different locales. But I had never trailered the completed car, or any car for that matter! At the Carlisle flea market several years prior, I purchased trailer tie-downs, each rated for 3,000 pounds (a complete Isetta weighs about 770 pounds). I wanted triple assurance that this car wasn’t going anywhere. The straps were wrapped around the chassis both front and rear, and secured to D-rings I had bolted to the trailer floor. With the trailer hooked to the Aerostar, and a final check of functioning trailer lights, we were off.

Newly acquired tow vehicle and trailer

Shades of 1978! As I motored north on Route 287, staying in the right lane, cars and trucks approaching me in the center and left lanes would slow down and match my speed as they caught up to me. The passengers in these other cars would point, wave, smile, laugh, and in some cases, act completely bewildered. The worst was when a driver would become so distracted by the shiny red object that the driver’s vehicle would begin to drift into my lane. I stayed calm, and would acknowledge their attention with a slight smile or wave, but I felt so nervous about my cargo that it was the two-hand death grip and eyes straight ahead almost without exception during the drive.

Looking for a parking spot (photo courtesy of Carol Ladd Hansen)

 

Piloting the machine (photo courtesy of Carol Ladd Hansen)

 

I arrived at the hotel parking lot and got the car off the trailer. It seemed that I was a little late. Almost every spot dedicated to show cars was filled. The organizers put my car in an aisle along with a few others. I decided to walk the show and see what else was on the ground.

Margaretanne and I demonstrate the ample interior room for the crowd

It had been a while since I last attended a microcar show, and I was overwhelmed at the large number of Isettas in attendance. Actually, Isettas looked like the normal cars there compared to the much more unusual microcars on display. There were Messerschmitts, Lloyds, Heinkels, and a couple of miniature woodie wagons. Everyone was very complimentary about my car, and perhaps I was a bit too apologetic about it, exclaiming that it was its first public outing. (A photo of my car made it to the club’s website with the caption “newly restored”.) We stayed for the banquet dinner, made some new friends, and headed home.

 

It’s not an Isetta; it’s a Heinkel Trojan

 

 

Velorex (fabric covered body)

 

 

Lloyd Alexander

 

Morris woody wagon

 

Austin 7 woody wagon (my car directly in front of it)

 

 

Messerschmitt (when your car is barely bigger than your baby stroller)

 

It was a rush to finally show my car in a public setting. It was the kind of event that made the efforts of the previous ten years worthwhile. I was interested in more, and had already taken care of that. Labor Day Weekend was approaching, and that meant the annual Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival. My car was registered for the Sunday show, and I couldn’t wait.

Flanked by my mom (L) and Aunt Rita (R). Yes, we’re all standing on the same level ground.

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 22: It’s Almost Showtime

The Isetta Saga is back! You didn’t think it was done, did you? In honor of chassis number 509090 returning to the auction stage later this year, the story picks up where it left off. The new owner (and there will be a new owner, as this car is being sold at No Reserve) deserves to have the complete story at hand, so here we go!

With the over-the-top Bubble Party behind me in October of 1995, I was exhausted. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the majority of my free time during the five preceding years was spent on this car’s restoration. Having achieved the mission (“The Isetta Will Drive in ‘95”), I needed to step back for a while. Little did I realize that a while would be A WHILE.

My personal life suffered a momentous setback: I got divorced. This blog is not about sharing those details, but I must acknowledge that it happened. My wife and I separated, we both moved elsewhere, the house we shared was sold, and the Isetta was put into storage. I had no physical or emotional energy to resume work on it, which is a shame because there was so little left to do!

During this time, I continued my membership in the Microcar & Minicar Club, the national organization which supported all small cars with engines of less than 1,000cc (one could fuse together 3 Isetta engines and still be a member). The Club published a great newsletter, full of technical articles and other interesting features, and there still was an annual National Meet, each year held in a different part of the country, but never in the Northeast.

Until 2000.

Sometime in 1999, the M&M Club announced that the “2000 North American International Microcar Rally” would be held in August 2000 in Park Ridge NJ. The town of Park Ridge was less than an hour’s ride from my then-domicile in Morristown NJ. This was the kick in the pants I needed. I would finish the Isetta’s restoration and bring it to its first public show.

Front & rear glass installed, waiting on side glass, sunroof, & bumpers

What was left to do? The Bubble Party video shows a car missing all its glass, its fabric sunroof, and the front bumper horns. With about nine months’ time before the August show, the remaining work didn’t seem overwhelming. The first items to tackle were the front bumpers. One bumper had a tiny dent in an inconspicuous spot, but both bumpers had weak chrome. I dropped them off at a replating service facility in Hillside NJ, which charged $130 to rechrome the pair. They looked great.

Margaretanne washes the egg. Still no sunroof, so be careful with that hose! Note peeking Sunbeam Tiger.

The windshield and rear glass were designed to fit into the rubber seals the old-fashioned way: the glass sat in a groove in the rubber, and the ‘rope trick’ was employed to get them back into place. Using lots of detergent as a lubricant, a rope was placed inside the rubber seal. With the glass placed against the outside of the seal and a second person pushing in on the glass, the rope was gently pulled outward, which lifted the seal’s outer lip up and over the edge of the glass. It was tricky, and it took time and effort, but both glass pieces were reinstalled without breakage.

Proudly I pose as we prep the car for showtime

The side glass was another matter altogether. My Isetta body style is called the sliding-window model specifically because of the way the side windows operate. There are two pieces of glass on each side: the rearmost piece is fixed in place; the front piece slides horizontally. When pushed fully rearward, the front and rear pieces overlap by about 50%. It’s crude in practice, but on a hot day, you need all the ventilation you can get. The entire assembly is held in place by a metal trim piece along the bottom, riveted to the body. The trick, like the front and rear glass, is to enlist another set of hands or two, as the glass, the rubber weatherstripping, the metal trim, and the rivets all need to be aligned and held in place before the first rivet is driven home.

For the sunroof, professional help was again sought. A local convertible top installer was given the original but very worn black vinyl sunroof to use as a pattern. In one of the few deviations from stock, I requested beige Haartz cloth material. They returned the completed sunroof assembly to me, and I installed it on the car, again using the rivet gun to fasten to rear edge to the existing holes in the roof.

The sunroof in the process of being reinstalled

The hubcaps I owned were problematic. They were dented, dull, and I only had three! A set of new reproduction hubcaps was purchased from a domestic Isetta parts supplier, but they didn’t fit my rims. While a set of hubcaps would finish the exterior look, the lack of them wasn’t going to be a dealbreaker for the show.

Finally, I needed a tow vehicle and a trailer. (I had sold the previous trailer when I moved in 1996.)  An Isetta weighs about 770 lbs. if its 3-gallon fuel tank is full, and a 10-ft. open landscape trailer comes in around 300 lbs., so I didn’t need or want a full-size body-on-frame truck for towing duty. At the time, the only other car I owned was the Miata; my daily driver was a Volvo company car, and I usually had little choice of body style. I reasoned that something with some carrying capacity would be handy to have, even when I wasn’t towing anything. An ad in the classified section of the Newark Star-Ledger caught my eye (online ads weren’t a big thing yet): “For sale: 1992 Ford Aerostar van. Original owner. 92,000 miles. $3,900.” I saw it, I test drove it, and I bought it, rationalizing that its RWD powertrain would make it more capable of pulling a trailer (which also made it impossible to drive in the snow). Next, a 5×10 open deck landscape trailer was purchased. A local repair shop installed a hitch on the Aerostar, and I was ready. The Isetta would soon be in attendance at its first car show.

OMG! Someone parked an Isetta on top of a gargantuan statue of one!

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Abarth Obsessed

Does the name Abarth ring a bell? If you’ve been around automobiles a while, you may recall a line of performance mufflers and exhaust systems sold under the Abarth name. For much of the ‘50s through ‘70s, it was one of the hot setups. Relatively affordable compared to more extensive modifications, an Abarth exhaust system bolted on easily, provided at least a few additional ponies, and sounded like you added more than just a few.

 

This Abarth exhaust ad is from the Oct. 1960 issue of Sports Cars Illustrated magazine

Fast forward a bunch of decades, 2012 to be exact, and remind yourself that this was the year Fiat reentered the U.S. market, offering new Fiat automobiles to Americans for the first time in about 30 years. To start, there was one model, the 500, available in several trim levels. Top of the heap was the Abarth, utilizing a turbocharged engine which gave it a 59-horsepower advantage over its lesser brethren. A few years after that, when the 124 convertible was reintroduced, there was an Abarth version too.

Of course, there’s more to the story. The Abarth company was started by and named after its founder, Carlo Abarth (born Karl Abarth in Austria), who moved to Italy, amended his first name to sound Italian, and began to build performance engines. From there he progressed to modifying Fiats, and eventually manufactured his own cars. The Abarth company was at its peak during a 15-year run from about 1956 to 1971, at which time the company was purchased outright by Fiat. His Astrological sign, Scorpio, inspired the Scorpion image which adorns the Abarth badge.

The March 1962 issue of Car & Driver magazine included this blurb on Carol Abarth

I’ve long been obsessed by Abarth cars. First, they’re Italian. Second, their diminutive size is something I’ve always found attractive (this coming from a former Isetta owner). Third, their status as the “David” versus the “Goliaths” of the day always had me rooting for them. Amazingly, in spite of a sometimes tremendous horsepower disadvantage, they racked up a series of impressive racing wins. Not a lot of Abarth cars were built, more than a few were wrecked, and even fewer were preserved, so spotting one today is a treat.

I’ve photographed Abarths at Hershey, at Lime Rock, and at the New England 1000 rallies, yet I realized that I knew very little about the cars. Poring through my automotive library in search of historical information on the brand, I was surprised how little I found. Most of my general-interest books on European cars do not mention Abarth, and I would venture to guess that they were thought to be similar to a ‘tuner’ like Dinan for BMW or AMG for Mercedes-Benz. The Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-1990 has the most extensive Abarth coverage of any of my books, with good technical specs yet few photos.

 

This page is from Tad Burness’ scrapbook-like Imported Car Spotter’s Guide

 

This Abarth was seen at Hershey in 2015

 

This Abarth joined us during the 2014 New England 1000

 

Found on display at Lime Rock in 2014

 

 

Searching online, I discovered a book by Peter Vack: Abarth Buyer’s Guide, published in 2003 by Veloce Press. I bought it and have begun reading it. It’s not easy keeping track of models with such similar names as Fiat Abarth 750 Berlina, Fiat Abarth 750 GT Zagato, and Fiat Abarth 750 Allemano. Then we move to Fiat Abarth OT 850 Series, Fiat Abarth OT Coupes, and Fiat Abarth OT Sports Racers. Some have stock Fiat sheetmetal, some are externally modified, and some have bespoke bodies. All of them have rear-mounted Fiat-based engines, modified modestly or aggressively. For some models, the book notes that “no two cars were alike”.

There will be more to say about Abarth cars in the coming weeks.  Actually, this post will be tied into another recent post, and will become an ongoing storyline through the summer and fall. In the meantime, if you come across an Abarth on the street, please snap a pic and send it to me. Thanks.

 

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

My Old Isetta is Going Back on the Block

In the almost seven years since I sold my Isetta at an RM auction in October of 2013, I occasionally scan the automotive classifieds, both in print and online, wondering if I will come across my former car for sale. Up until a few weeks ago, that search had turned up blank.

My Isetta at the Oct. ’13 RM auction in Hershey PA. Note suitcase on package shelf.

Checking out an email I received for an upcoming RM Sotheby’s auction, I was drawn to what appeared to be an outstanding collection of Italian cars: the expected Ferraris and Alfas but also Autobianchis, Isos, and some rarely-seen Fiats. That’s when I saw it.

An all-red BMW Isetta was part of the sale. Clicking on the photos, I looked for tell-tale signs, the kinds of things that I, having owned the beast for 35 years, would recognize. (I’m fond of an expression picked up from a hobbyist friend, who says of his own car: “I know where the bodies are buried”.) Checking the chassis number was the final proof. I called my wife into the room and showed her the photos.

Wife: “How do you know it’s yours?”

Me: “509090.”

Wife: “Huh?”

Me: “It’s the chassis number. I have it memorized.” (Oh, and still on the package shelf is the ‘50s-era suitcase covered in travel decals which I picked up in an antique store for $10.)

The auction, billed by RM Sotheby’s as “The Elkhart Collection”, is scheduled to take place on October 23 & 24 of 2020. Those are the rescheduled dates; initially the auction was supposed to run in May, and it’s presumed that the coronavirus was the proximate cause of the postponement. At this writing, it’s listed as a “live” auction, however, all RM Sotheby auctions since the global shutdown have been online only. While I’m long out of the business of predicting the future, I would venture to guess without too much risk that this one will revert to the online-only format soon enough.

Here’s how the RM Sotheby’s website describes the collection:

OVER 240 CARS AND WIDE SELECTION OF COLLECTIBLES OFFERED ALMOST ENTIRELY WITHOUT RESERVE

The result of decades of judicious and targeted collecting, The Elkhart Collection – Offered Almost Entirely Without Reserve comprises the most exceptional marques and models in automotive history. The focus is at once broad but highly selective from sporting British and Italian cars to microcars, classics, supercars, modern sports cars, ‘50s convertibles and coachbuilt icons. Stay tuned for the digital catalogue coming soon. To view lot listing, click here

It didn’t take much snooping to get the rest of the story. This is from AutoWeek:

Damn, This Accused Fraudster Has Excellent Taste in Cars

There’s something for everyone in the RM Sotheby’s Elkhart Collection catalog—and with the sale moved to October, you’ve got plenty of time to browse it.

The gist of the AutoWeek story is that this 240+ car collection was amassed by one person, an Indiana businessman named Najeeb Khan, who has now been accused of fraud, although the author is also quick to note that he has not been charged with a crime. But his collection is being liquidated so that he can pay back his creditors.

Personally, I don’t really care about this guy’s personal problems. He has excellent taste in cars, especially of the Italian variety, although the remainder of the collection is also worth a gander. I’ve asked myself if Mr. Khan is the person who purchased my car at the 2013 Hershey auction. While it’s impossible to make that determination from the auction company’s website, I checked the mileage on my car on the date that I sold it, and the mileage shown in the current listing. The Isetta has been driven exactly one mile in the previous 6.5 years. Which is a shame, really, because the car runs well and it’s a blast to drive!

To the new owner, whoever you are: get some new tires. I bought those Michelins in the early ‘90s.

There’s more to discuss about the Elkart Collection Auction in future posts. The discovery of my old car will also spur me to resume the Isetta Saga. There’s lots more to share, and I want all those bidders to have the entire story!

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

 

Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 8

With the Alfa’s hydraulic brake replacement essentially finished, there was one more related task to complete. As the previous owner had suggested to me, the battery B+ cable could stand to be replaced. Not only had he indicated that it was undersized, he also wasn’t sure that its attachment points had stood up over time. (My car was born with its battery in the engine compartment, but Pete had relocated it to the trunk, where it still is.)

Conveniently, the cable almost completely followed the routing of the brake line from rear to front. There was no extra work to dropping the battery cable when removing the brake lines. The old cable looked to be possibly 2 gauge; I had purchased a “Battery Relocation Kit” which included 20 feet of zero gauge cable (the smaller the number, the larger the cross-section). I only needed about 16 feet.

The old cable had been secured in place with metal hose clamps; thankfully, there were no signs of potential incendiary damage. The new cable followed the same routing as the old, and instead of clamps, I used about two dozen high-temp plastic cable ties. (Cable, or “zip” ties, are available in different quality levels. In the past, I had some which snapped upon tightening. For this job, I researched and purchased higher quality cables.) I was quite happy with the appearance of the end result; the new cable is tucked far enough up into the underside that at no point is it the lowest object under the car.

New battery cable securely in place under the car

To gain access to the starter solenoid, I had removed the intake plenum. (Alfas and some other Italian cars do not have a traditional intake manifold. Instead, the air filter feeds air to the plenum, mounted to the outside of the side-draft carburetors. The carbs in turn are mounted to small tubes which themselves are bolted directly to the cylinder head.) I gave the plenum a cleaning, ran a 6mm x 1.0 tap on all the studs, used new washers and nuts, and with new gaskets at the ready between plenum and carbs, bolted it all back together. The thread chasing and new nuts helped immensely given that 4 of these attachments are completely blind and are in tight quarters.

Dirty plenum, old gaskets
Clean plenum, new gaskets

Saturday was going to be the big day; there always are the dozen final details (spark plug wires and various other small connections underhood), and I triple checked all around the car, which was still on jackstands, still with tires off. The battery had been on trickle charge. Nervously, I completed the final connections at the battery. Nothing caught fire. Climbing up into the driver’s seat, I turned the key on, pumped the pedal about a half-dozen times, and cranked. The crank was strong, but the engine made no attempt to run on its own. Key off, pump the pedal some more, try again. And again. I smelled fuel, got out, and peered underneath. Raw fuel was pouring out from under the front right corner. Key off, battery safety switch turned to off. Time to stop, take a breath, and think.

Was this related to what I had been working on the last 11 months, or was this complete coincidence? Grabbing a flashlight, I looked into the right front corner, where the mechanical fuel pump and fuel filter are. Feeling with my hands, the wettest area was the rubber fuel line for the pump’s outlet. It took about 2 minutes to loosen the clamps and remove the hose.

Old hose looks quite bad

The hose was completely dry-rotted. First, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was ‘just’ a hose. I also immediately realized that, like the brake system I had just overhauled, I really didn’t know how old these hoses were. A quick car ride (with mask) to Advance Auto Parts, and I was back with 3 feet of 5/16” fuel hose.

Old hose looks worse close up

Sunday morning, all 4 fuel hoses, each only about 8-10 inches long, came off and were replaced with fresh rubber. Time to try again. This time, after about 7 to 8 pumps of the pedal (and no leaks), the engine started. Hooray! I bolted the tires back into place, removed the jackstands, and my Alfa was back on the ground for the first time since July of last year.

New fuel hose is CARB-compliant

Gingerly, I moved the car outside under its own power. The brakes worked well, even if the pedal still felt a little soft. One more round of bleeding is in order. I’m also going to try to adjust the ‘throw’ at the master cylinder, as the brake pedal is not quite lined up with the clutch pedal. These are mere details, and I will get to them in the coming days. For now, I’m happy, satisfied, and truly pleased to be able to say that this project is done.

My Alfa sees sunshine for the first time in 11 months

 

Here, nicely framed by garage door; can’t wait to put some miles on it.

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 7

I’ve always likened working on an old car, when there’s little or nothing in the way of published instruction, to dancing the tango. It’s two steps forward, and one step back. Two forward, one back. And repeat….

In the last post about the Alfa’s brakes, two weeks ago, I wrote about the awkward position of the brake master cylinder. Like so many cars with pedals coming up from the floor (what Alfisti call “standing pedals”), the master is underneath, bolted to the pedal box. When I removed the master cylinder last fall, there were no written instructions to follow. I loosened the pedal box just enough to lower it and access the two bolts holding the master in place. The removal was such a chore that frankly I had been dreading the reinstallation.

Re-reading my words in that last post, I see that I was unintentionally vague. The sentence that now bothers me reads “Once the lines to the master cylinder are done, I need to reinstall the pedal box in the driver’s footwell, as all three pedals had to be loosened/removed to gain access to the master.” My sentence leaves it completely unclear whether I had removed the entire pedal box, or had merely loosened it, when in fact it was the latter.

Why am I harping on this? Because I found myself doing the tango. In the process of attempting to reinstall the new master, I ended up completely removing the pedal box from the car. If only I had done this during the initial disassembly! The hang-up was a bracket which I had mistakenly identified as part of the transmission cross member, but is a bracket for the front exhaust pipe. Laying on my back, on the garage floor, holding a flashlight, and trying to focus through my progressive lenses made its correct identification difficult. Once I realized that it could be safely removed, I undid 5 bolts and it was off. Suddenly, the entire pedal box was in my hands. Eureka!

Pedal box on my workbench. New master is in front.

Since the exhaust bracket was off, I replaced the two rubber bushings inside it, cleaned it up, and repainted it with Eastwood Chassis Black. When friends ask why this brake job isn’t finished yet, it’s these “might as well as” side jobs which eat up time, but are important to complete.

 

With paint open, I dipped the bolt heads and nuts in it. Drilled wood holds them while they dry.

With the new master cylinder bolted in place, I reinstalled the pedal box, sealing it against the unibody with fresh dum-dum (I have a box of 3M dum-dum that’s probably 25 years old, and that stuff stays pliable!). The two final brake lines were bent to line up with the threaded inserts on the master, and I was happily surprised that I got the threads to “bite” after just a few minutes of trying.

Brake lines at master, ready to be bent to shape

The time had come to add fresh brake fluid to the system. I filled the reservoir, attached the little magnetic one-man bleeder bottle from Eastwood to the right rear caliper bleed screw (always start with the brake furthest from the master), and began to pump the brake pedal by hand. Forum posts on the Alfa Bulletin Board (AlfaBB) recited tales of horror about the difficulties in bleeding Alfa hydraulic brakes. I believe that later cars with dual circuits AND dual servos can be a challenge to bleed. I was happily shocked that I had fresh fluid coming through the hose on the bleeder screw on the second or third try.

This item, under $10, makes one-person bleeding a breeze

I was less happily shocked to also see that I had some leaks. There were two leaks at flare fittings that still weren’t tight enough. An eighth of a turn with the 7/16” flare nut wrench solved that. I continued to add fluid and pump the pedal, moving from right rear to left rear to right front to left front. But then a larger fluid leak sprung, from a lousy location: the master cylinder. I got under the car, but both lines at the master were as tight as I dared to make them. My heart sank. Could the new master cylinder be defective?

When you’re doing the tango, and your feet start to go in a direction that could make you trip and fall, it’s sometimes best to get off the dance floor. I put down all the tools, exited the garage, went for a walk, and came back to have lunch. (I learned during the Isetta restoration that before anxiety drives you to act hastily and BREAK something, walk away, think about it, then go back to it.)

An hour later, I believed I had diagnosed the problem, without even touching the car. The leaking line ran from the exit port on the master up to the brass four-way junction block on the firewall. I remembered that when I had formed that line, I told myself that it was “symmetrical”, that is, the same flares and the same flare nuts on each end. While the flare NUTS were the same, the flare at the master needed to be an ISO bubble flare, and I had formed a 45 degree double flare. It took about two minutes to pop that line out of the master to confirm my diagnosis. Yup – I formed the wrong flare fitting.

Oops. Old line at left is bubble flare; new line with double flare doesn’t match.

Back to the two steps forward and one back routine. It was a complete pain to remove that line, cut off the wrong flare, make a new flare, and fit the line back in place. However, the rapid diagnosis made up for it. The fixed line was back on the car, bleeding resumed, and there were no leaks. In a short while, I had a pedal! I’ll bleed the entire system one more time, then the hydraulic work will be done.

 

This is better.

 

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.