The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance has a very strict rule: a vehicle can be shown at one of its events only every three years. As Bruce Wennerstrom himself told me, this ensured that repeat audiences would see different cars the following year. I had shown my 1957 BMW Isetta in 2001, 2004, and 2007, and when 2010 rolled around, I didn’t hesitate to apply again. The Wennerstroms welcomed me back for a fourth, and what would turn out to be, final time with the Isetta.
My dear friend Richard Sweeney, NJIT Library Head and non-car person extraordinaire, jumped at the chance to accompany me, which also meant that my long-suffering wife was off the hook this time, although I didn’t hear too many complaints from her about it. Richard was of great help from the get-go, and as we got the car positioned as instructed by the field organizers, Richard wanted to play an active role in standing near the car, chatting it up with attendees. I could tell he loved every minute of it.
To my eye, 2010 had significantly more spectators than I had noticed during my previous outings. Perhaps it was the beautiful weather; certainly, a major factor was the increasing recognition that Greenwich was getting, with some press calling it “The East Coast version of Pebble Beach” – high praise indeed. The caliber of vehicles, always high, seemed to create even more oohs and ahhs among show-goers.
At awards announcement time, the Bubble made the cut yet again, winning “Most Fun Car” for the Sunday Europa show. Well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad at all. I think Bruce had a soft spot for my little car, as we won in 2001 and 2007 too. Once we reached the awards table, Bruce presented my trophy and again asked me if my Isetta has the ‘big block’. Microphone in hand, I again told the assembly that European cars got 12hp, but we in the states got the 13hp version. Bruce again chuckled; he never tired of that story.
My friend Richard was overjoyed at the prospect of riding in the car past the viewing stand. He couldn’t stop talking about peoples’ reactions, because his interest was completely enveloped in the sociological and cultural impacts of this car on an audience. It wasn’t the car per se; it was how people reacted to the car, whether they were seeing an Isetta for the first time, or reliving memories of one from long ago. He never let go of his idea of making a documentary about the car and the public’s responses to it.
We got the car loaded onto the trailer and got back on the road just as a major late spring storm hit. We made it back safely, though, and I thanked Richard profusely for all his help. All he could say was that he’d gladly do it again.
It turned out to be an eventful year, 2009, which in retrospect was no surprise at all. It started with me (again) telling my bosses at Volvo that I had every intention of taking voluntary retirement in December, to which they continued to react with disbelief. My recent promotion to Manager of Technical Engineering kept me busy, and my own work ethic wanted to ensure that I would depart without leaving unfinished assignments for others to clean up. I was informed that there would be at least one more business trip to Sweden, likely my last. Finally, I would be turning 55 in March, not a major milestone in my mind, but one that still deserved some reckoning.
I still had the ’68 Mustang, and I still had the Isetta, both tucked safely away in the garage. I had toyed with the idea of selling the Isetta, and even ran a few print ads, which got zero response. Since participation in the New England 1000 classic car rally seemed to be on hiatus for now (we last drove in it in 2007, and wouldn’t again until 2013), I continued to search for new opportunities to show the Isetta. The first such opportunity of the year came about when I saw an ad for the Readington Township Memorial Day parade: the parade organizers were looking for “old cars”.
My entry was accepted, and we trailered the car to the assembly area, a local strip mall. (In fact, we live in Readington Township which is quite large. I considered driving the car there but it would have meant crossing several major thoroughfares.) The variety of vehicles in the parade confirmed for me that there were no limits to vehicle type, as long as the cars were “old”. Volunteers handed us the obligatory red, white & blue accoutrements, and we were off.
The challenge with driving an old car in a parade is maintaining an appropriate speed. Too fast, and you’ll zoom by spectators who’ll barely get to see their reflections in your shiny chrome. Too slow, and you might overheat, or, if you’re driving a stick, you may find yourself slipping the clutch. This parade was S-L-O-W. I had trouble maintaining a steady pace of, oh, about 2.5 mph. More than once I would pop it into neutral and coast, even if that meant leaving a greater distance between my car and the car in front of me. Nevertheless, it was a delightful parade, with Main Street lined with the cheering residents of Readington. The tortoise-like pace, though, bored me, until I got the bright idea to throw the door open while driving. The car can still be steered, however, the door opens both outward AND upward, which blocked my forward view. It was worth it, though, because the crowd (ok, just the kids) went wild with screams and laughter every time I did that.
Later that summer, I dragged the little red bubble to the Boonton Cruise Night, a Friday tradition in northern NJ. Boonton’s affair is possibly typical for a suburban cruise night, set in the large parking lot of a strip mall anchored by a WalMart, so there’s plenty of regular traffic along with that generated by the car nuts. A pizzeria kept us nourished with food and caffeine, and a few friends showed up. This September outing was the second and final one for the Isetta in 2009. In December, as promised, I retired from Volvo Cars of North America after 23 years of employment. I had no idea what I would do in 2010, but I certainly hoped to have more free time to play with cars.
At 7:10 a.m. on Sunday, September 6, 2020, I was in the parking lot of local bagel shop, buttered bagel and hot coffee in hand. Sitting in my Volvo V60, I used the car’s navigation system to find “Lime Rock Park”, amazed that I located it so quickly within that sometimes-quirky system. Estimated drive time was 2 hours, 30 minutes. With that, I pulled out of the lot, and was on my way to attending my first car show since the global pandemic shutdown began.
There are no words I can use which would add in any meaningful way to what so many have already expressed about the year 2020. I had resigned myself months ago that the entire year would be one huge write-off for participating in the car hobby, yet when I discovered that Lime Rock was planning to move ahead with its 38th annual “Sunday in the Park” concours, I reconsidered my rather conservative position. I knew the show well, and knew that even at its most crowded, the size of the track and the spacing of the show cars would allow for plenty of social distancing. Reading Lime Rock’s website, I learned that they planned to limit attendance by restricting the number of ticket sales, and they would also be enforcing a mask mandate. The final vote-in-favor was the weather forecast, which promised sunny skies, low humidity, and temperatures no higher than the low 80s.
Volvo’s navigation didn’t let me down, and I arrived at the track at 9:40. As soon as I drove onto the bridge over the track, I saw that indeed, this would be an experience different than almost every previous visit. Usually, the parking lot would be more than half-full by this time, and there would be rows and rows of trailers and tents visible in the distance. Instead, parking appeared to be about 25% full, and there was no camping this year – it had been removed as an option.
I parked and headed down the paved ramp toward the track, fearful that maybe there would be an equivalent lack of show cars on display. That wasn’t the case at all, even if the number of vehicles was less than the usual turnout. By my most unofficial calculation, I would guesstimate that both counts (cars and spectators) were about 50% of a typical Lime Rock Fall Vintage show. Almost everyone was masked, and track workers on foot and in golf carts were actually on patrol. If they spotted someone sans mask, the Lime Rock rep stopped that person and told them that masks were required. Good for them! It greatly added to my own comfort level as I walked the show.
The display cars did not disappoint: as always at Lime Rock, there were the pre-arranged “classes”, different every year, which allow for great variety within each class (for example, “Untouched and Preserved Originals and Barn Finds”). The show organizers also managed to squeeze in some fun at the expense of the coronavirus by naming one class “Distancing at a Distance – Vintage Travel Trailers & Campers”. The other major group of show vehicles is collectively known as the “Gathering of the Marques” – for these cars, there is no pre-registration. As one drives up to the gate, the driver makes it known that they intend to park their car with others from the same marque, and there is no model year cutoff. It does make for an eclectic gathering, and show goers have the option to linger or march past.
The spectator parking area itself can provide plenty of automotive entertainment too. New Englanders seems especially fond of motoring to this show in their ‘60s four-wheeled icons and parking them among all the other daily drivers. I suggest that the Lime Rock Park officials consider trophies to vehicles at least 50 years old found in the parking lot!
Awards were handed out between 1 and 2 p.m., at which point, show participants began to leave. I had covered the entire track by about 2 o’clock, so my time was up too. The drive home was hampered by a little more traffic than I encountered in the a.m., but I still managed it door-to-door without stopping in just under 2 hours and 45 minutes. I was really glad I went. It felt great to be outside and back at a show again, my first since attending Atlantic City in February. The Lime Rock Fall Vintage weekend has been a favorite of mine for 30 years, and I can only hope that the 2021 visit will feel like normal again.
This restoration was over-the-top, yet the accompanying signage claimed that the owners regularly tour in it, and that’s believable too. I loved the “outside” speedometer, and the likely-original worn clutch and brake pedals.
1928 Packard with 5th wheel trailer
I’ve seen this rig before, I think at Hershey. Its originality is impressive. I also overheard the owner say that the car is driven regularly. Take note of the 5th wheel, back when they really were wheels!
1964 Chevrolet Corvair
This Monza coupe was found in the barn-find class; the accompanying signage indicated an original 30,000 miles. The condition and colors made this a standout among 1st gen Corvairs.
This 400 model coupe was from the last year of “true” Packards. The signage indicated it was equipped with the optional torsion-leveling suspension.
This was my first in-person sighting of the mid-engined marvel from GM. It looked a bit underwhelming to me, an opinion I chalk up to its plain off-white exterior and interior.
1938 Lancia Aprilla
New England Rally friend Chuck Schoendorf showed this immaculate Lancia in the pre-war class. The car’s engineering was ahead of its time, with 4-wheel independent suspension and a narrow-angle V4 engine.
Renzo Rivolta’s ISO firm sold manufacturing rights for its Isetta to BMW, and used those profits to design and build this Italian-American hybrid, with a Corvette V8 under the hood.
1971 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe
Owners Dave and Cathy returned to Lime Rock with this gorgeous 124. I met them both last year and the car looked better than ever. Dave said that the oversize air cleaner is hiding two 2-barrel Webers, and stated that this is a high-horsepower European setup which was a dealer option.
1973 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe
These 124 coupes are rare, and it was very unusual to find two of them at the same show, when there were none of the more-common 124 Spiders.
1982 Ferrari 308GTSi
This “common” Ferrari model stood out for its unusual and attractive shade of verde medio, or medium green.
Ferrari Dino GTB coupes
I was struck by all 3 cars being GTB models, B for berlinetta, or coupe, compared to the more common S or spider models with a removable top center section.
Alfa Romeo coupe, spider, and sedan
Alfa Romeo Junior Z Zagato
This rare Alfa looked great in blue and I overheard the owner talk about having driven the car in Europe; I was envious.
3 Very Different Alfas
The Spider has a longitudinally-mounted engine in the front, driving the rear wheels. The 164 has a transversely-mounted engine in the front, driving the front wheels. The 4C has a mid-mounted engine driving the rear wheels.
1963 VW Karmann-Ghia convertible
1973 BMW 3.0CS
Porsche 911 Targa “long hood”
Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
This 300SL was in the barn-find class, and given the values of these icons, it’s incredible to see one which hasn’t been restored. Based on photos on display, the engine had been yanked for an overhaul. The car, as worn as it is, looked completely functional, and frankly, I really hope the owner does NOT restore it! They’re original only once.
1965 Volvo 544
This was also in the barn-find class, with signage claiming 34,000 original miles and all-original condition, including paint and upholstery. It could be the only such 544 out there.
1968 Volvo 1800S
Volvo station wagon display
Volvo, well-known globally for its 5-door estate cars, started to add performance to the mix. Here were a few examples.
Miatas are usually well-represented at Lime Rock. This year, the turnout was a bit smaller than usual.
My first blog post about “Carlisle”, as in the car shows at Carlisle Fairgrounds, was written in April of 2015, after I had attended the Spring Carlisle event. As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, Carlisle has been a mainstay of my adventures in the collectible automotive hobby going back to my first visit in 1978.
For the first 15 years or so of its existence, Carlisle Events consisted only of a Spring show in April and a Fall show in late September/early October. In their desire to expand, the show organizers branched out in several ways. One addition to the calendar was the Carlisle Import Show. Since the ‘big’ shows which bookmarked the year spent about 99% of their energy on domestic product, the Import Show provided an opportunity for enthusiasts of European and Asian cars to have something to call their own. I first attended the Import Show in 1990, and observed that it took up less than one half of the acreage of a normal show. We actually could park our daily driver cars on the field.
Fast forward to 2008: The Carlisle Import Show, held in May, was next in line for the Isetta. Instead of placing me with the Germans, my car was situated with a group of microcars, which was actually more fitting. I had the pleasure of parking my bubble between an NSU Wankel Spider and an East German Trabant(!). Another very cool microcar in attendance was the Mazda Chantez, a kei-class car, with a two-cylinder, two-stroke engine making 35 horsepower. I had never seen one before, and I haven’t seen one since.
One of the great things about the Import Show is the tremendous club support. Vehicles are arranged by marque, and the clubs are very proactive in setting up tents, tables, chairs, and displays. The entire atmosphere is much more cordial and familial compared to one of the huge spring or fall events.
The Volvo Club of America has always made a strong showing here, and of course, that spokesperson of spokespersons, Irv Gordon, was in attendance. As you can see on the map, the Swedish brands Volvo and Saab were assigned separate blocks, the only such division. Note that this show also embraced kit cars, although their numbers were but a small minority of total show participation. I have no idea how or why there is a section for “Fiero”, which of course is a domestic Pontiac! And like Spring and Fall Carlisles, there was a Car Corral and a Swap Meet area, but again, these were minuscule compared to the big events. At Carlisle Imports, the emphasis was definitely on the display cars.
The Ford Aerostar was gone, with my trusty 2003 Volvo V70 now assigned to Isetta trailer duty. We made it back and forth with no issues, and I was more than pleased to have had the opportunity to show my BMW Isetta on the same tract of land where I’ve been walking the aisles for the past 30 years.
The Romans knew it all too well: “Tempus fugit”, Latin for “time flies”. But I don’t think the Romans were thinking of the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance when uttering those words. I certainly was saying “time flies” to myself when I looked at the calendar, saw that it was 2007, and realized that the Isetta would again be eligible to be shown at this favorite car show of mine. So I sent in my registration form, got my acceptance letter, and off we went!
Compared to 2004, the weather was much more cooperative, if still a bit warm and muggy for early June. My wife Margaretanne, for the third and final time, accompanied me to the show. The show organizers, Bruce and Genia Wennerstrom, have always made it a point to recognize all the hard work and effort that goes into bringing a car to an event. As such, Greenwich is one of the few car shows where vehicle owners do NOT pay an entrance fee; instead, catered breakfast and lunch are provided, plus this year, we took advantage of a cruise boat ride into Long Island Sound, a non-automotive diversion which my wife appreciated.
As happened in 2004, the Isetta was wisely placed among other BMWs, with some Porsches on the other side of it. And in another echo of 2004, there was another Isetta, this time, a European-spec 300 which had been beautifully restored. I enjoyed my time chatting it up with attendees about my car, and Bruce most generously awarded me with a Concours Europa – Most Fun Car trophy. During the ceremonial drive-by, he chuckled once again when I told him about my US-spec car having the “larger and more powerful 13 horsepower engine”!
At the end of the show, we drove the Isetta back to the parking lot, about a half-mile away, and began the process of loading the car onto the trailer once again. Several yards from me, I noticed an elderly man, who looked to be at least 90, struggling to roll his own open trailer into position. He was a dapper dresser in his plaid sport coat and tweed cap. A woman who may have been his daughter was scolding him that he shouldn’t be pushing the trailer on his own, which didn’t phase him one bit. He looked familiar to me, so I took a chance and approached him.
The collector car hobby experienced tremendous growth during the latter part of the 20th and early years of the 21st centuries, a good part of which was fueled by small town “cruise nights”. The name is certainly a misnomer: participants aren’t cruising anywhere except into the town or lot where the evening show is being held. Each owner finds a parking spot while the general public wanders among the vehicles. It’s a nice way to spend a warm summer evening.
Compared to larger and more formal car shows, cruise nights have proven to be simpler to organize and run. Vehicles are usually not limited by make, model, or age; spectators do not pay a fee for the privilege of attending; weekday evening time slots makes it family-friendly and possible to sample while still arriving home at a reasonable time; and maybe best of all, local towns have benefited as restaurants, bars, and retail stores stay open during cruise night hours to service the increased foot traffic.
Sometime during the summer of 2006, my friend Richard Sweeney let me know that his hometown, Metuchen NJ, was hosting a monthly cruise night on the first Wednesday of each month, and he suggested that the Isetta would be a hit there. I had become friendly with Richard because his wife and my wife worked together for many years. Richard and I got along, but I would never describe him as a “car guy”. Yet, he knew about my Isetta, and from our conversations, I sensed that he was more interested in the public’s reactions to my car than he was interested in the car itself. Wednesday would be somewhat difficult, as Metuchen is 45 minutes from my house, and I didn’t relish getting home too late with work the next day, but I agreed, really for Richard’s sake, as he was genuinely excited at the prospect.
On the appointed night, my wife and I drove to Metuchen. Like the Friday night Somerville cruise night, Metuchen cordoned off its downtown Main St. and reserved street parking for show cars. After parking the tow rig and trailer and unloading the Isetta, I drove the Isetta along Main St., snagging one of the last available parking spaces.
Women practically lined up to pose with the car and me
This event was also the debut of a board game I created called Isetta Jeopardy. At every previous showing of this car, I was struck how show-goers repeatedly asked the same questions. I found myself reciting the same answers so often that I wondered if I should make up a sign with all the answers preprinted. This gave birth to the idea of a game whereby, when a question was asked, I would point to a board which would have a dozen different numbers on it. I would then challenge the questioner to guess which number correctly answered their question. The numbered “answer” would then be raised to reveal the “question”, a la the real Jeopardy game.
A few weeks before the cruise night, I revealed the Jeopardy game to Richard, and not only did he enjoy it, he committed all the answers to memory (a brilliant man, he was the Chief Librarian at NJIT, the New Jersey Institute of Technology), and, he volunteered to be the one to work the crowd that night! I made sure to pack a folding table so we had somewhere to place the game.
Of course, the crowd loved the Isetta, and the usual questions arose. “How much did this cost new?” “How many were sold in the U.S.?” “What does it weigh?” Although I had known Richard for years and had always observed him to be mild-mannered, he was a different animal that night. Overhearing the crowd’s questions, he practically pulled people over to the Isetta Jeopardy display and dared them to pick the right answer. I’m not sure which Richard was having more fun.
The cruise night continued well past sunset, and it was shortly after dark when a Corbin Sparrow pulled in behind me. The Corbin was a one-passenger all electric “commuter car”, and the owner, an enthusiastic young man, told me he was driving by when he saw the Isetta and had to stop. The Corbin was within 3 inches of the Isetta’s total length, and while the electric Corbin beat my little bubble for efficiency, I must point out that the Sparrow is strictly a one-passenger vehicle, while my Isetta, at least in a pinch, could fit three people (provided they really liked each other).
Some cruise nights have awards, and if they do, it’s “People’s Choice”. Well, the Isetta won. “We” got the proverbial blue ribbon, and I really wanted Richard to have it because of his relentless enthusiasm. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Richard Sweeney, the non-car guy, got full immersion into the sociological impact that a BMW microcar can have on the public. This was the first, but would not be the last time that Richard would join me and the Isetta at an automotive event.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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….
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.
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 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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.