The BMW Isetta Saga, Chapter 1: Finding your car in the Road & Track ads

Happy New Year! January 2018 brings us near the completion of three years of Richard’s Car Blog. Post #1 was February 2015, and we’ve managed to publish 144 more since then. Thanks to all of you for your readership, and your comments, whether sent to the site, to my email, or delivered to me in person. The support is greatly appreciated.
All my blog posts relate to either my automotive career, or my immersion in the car hobby (which really started as an obsessed two-year-old). I’ve gone back to reflect on my dad’s cars, and I’ve posted rally and auction results within days of participation.
There is one vehicle, a car that I owned for 30 years, which has yet to be the subject of a blog post (although it has been mentioned in passing). Many of you know that I owned and restored a 1957 BMW Isetta. Unlike what you see on TV, the restoration didn’t take 60 minutes. In my case, 17 years elapsed between purchase and my first drive.
So we’ll kick off 2018 by launching the Isetta Saga. Memory-triggering is helped by my photo collection (plus the fact that I’m, like, really smart). Chapter 1 will be followed by umpteen more, taking us through much of this winter, as we patiently await for Spring Carlisle in April. Thanks again for reading along.

In October of 1978, I was 24 years old, living at home with my parents, and was all of two months into my job as an apprentice mechanic at Autosport, a Volvo/Honda/Alfa Romeo dealership in Somerville, NJ. I had become fast friends with a parts counterperson named Don Krech, whom I met when I started working there in August. Don and I were the same age, and shared similar interests in cars and music.

One day that month, the November issue of Road & Track magazine, to which I subscribed, arrived in the mail. I noticed an ad in MARKET PLACE, their classified ad section:

R&T, Nov. ’78. Look in the 2nd column, 3rd ad.

I brought the magazine to work and showed it to Don. The ad had neither a phone number nor street address (only a PO Box), yet we almost immediately decided to make the 8-hour one-way drive together, on the presumption that we would figure it out when we got there. Our plan was to depart late that Friday in order to arrive in Moscow VT early on Saturday morning.

Don played guitar in a band, and he had a gig that Friday. After the gig, I met Don at the dealership and, leaving my VW Rabbit there, climbed into his yellow Toyota Corolla SR-5 Liftback. We departed central New Jersey around 1 a.m. on the morning of Saturday October 21, 1978, headed for Moscow Vermont. We had paper maps, a bunch of music cassettes, some money, and precious little else with us.

Don did most of the driving. Even though I had caught a few hours shut-eye after getting home from work, I was tired, and I typically don’t do well when challenged to stay awake all night. We kept each other going by blasting The Cars’ first album on the Toyota’s stereo.

We arrived in the hamlet of Moscow, just outside the better-known ski resort of Stowe, around 9 a.m., groggy from lack of sleep, and convinced that we should have no trouble finding a Mr. “W. Turner” in a town so tiny. But first we found coffee.

We stopped several people on the street and inquired “do you know a W. Turner?” By the time we asked the fifth person, we got a semi-intelligent answer: “oh yeah, he lives in that corner house with the Honda on the front lawn”. Sure enough, on our way into town, we had driven past a Honda 600 up on jack stands, and joked that this must be his place. It was.

We knocked. An older gentleman answered the door, and responded in the affirmative to the question “Are you W. Turner?” When we told him that we were there in response to the Isetta ad, he was shocked. But he shrugged his shoulders, told us the cars were in a barn a mile away, and instructed that we should follow him in his Toyota pickup truck.

Wes Turner emerging from his Toyota. We are about to see the Isettas for the first time.

The barn door yawned wide, allowing daylight to hit its inner surfaces for the first time in who knows how long. What little light there was revealed a number of Isettas scattered about on the dirt floor, none of which was completely assembled. Some had all their glass, some did not. Various Isetta-ish-looking parts were on the cars’ floors. We sort of made out an engine or two. One Isetta had a Vermont license plate. From 1965.

What we saw in that barn should have sent us scurrying back to New Jersey.

But it did not. As two naïve 24-year-olds, all we saw was potential: here were three BMW Isettas, plus an extra body without a chassis, as the ad described. We weren’t horrified! We were delighted. They were small; they were cute; and they certainly gave the impression of being easy to restore.

We didn’t ask if he had titles (he didn’t); we didn’t ask if there was any wiggle room on the $650 asking price; we forked over a deposit of $100 (amazed in retrospect that we had that much cash between us), and told Wesley D. Turner that we’d be back up “in a few weeks” to drag our new treasures home.

This signed deposit receipt was the only proof we had that we bought Wes’ Isettas

 

 

Wes was always an enigma to us; he gave us this card, but we still didn’t have his number

We departed Moscow around 12 noon to head home. At no point during the 8-hour return trip did Don and I A) talk about exactly how we would “divide” the spoils among us; or B) try to figure out exactly how we would drag these admittedly tiny vehicles back south.

Here’s the entirety of what we knew: it was already late October, and if we were going to bring any of it home in 1978, it had better be before winter weather hit.

Don got me back to the dealership and my car around 8pm. I made the 45-minute drive home and went straight to bed, knowing I’d see Don at work on Monday, when we would resume our plans.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK

The Isetta was not a BMW design, but originated in Italy, brought to market by a company called Iso. The original Iso Isetta was a commercial flop. (The name Isetta is Italian for “Little Iso”.) Iso had better success in the 1960s with the Iso Rivolta and Iso Griffo, hybrids with Italian design and American V8 muscle.

Working in the Retail Automotive Business, Part 1: Autosport

In August of 1978, bored silly after 11 months in my office job, I answered an ad in a local newspaper. A car dealership was looking for apprentice mechanics – “willing to train”, it said.

My one and only interview was with the dealer’s service manager. Jerry Miller told me that he was an engineer, but preferred working around automobiles. He seemed impressed that I had a Bachelor’s degree, and inferred that he and I would be the only college-educated people there. Assuring me that my pay would be “x” dollars per hour, he hired me. I gave two weeks’ notice to the Department of Labor, and, shocking my family and friends, announced that I was entering the car business to work as a mechanic (the term “technician” was not yet in vogue).

The dealership was Autosport, in Somerville, NJ. The store sold and serviced Volvos, Hondas, Alfa Romeos, and Holiday Rambler motor homes.

I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number, is Bridgewater Volvo.
I used the fob on the left for years. Today, at the same location and same phone number (different area code), is Bridgewater Volvo. “Autosport” continues as a stand-alone Honda store across the street.

My first day on the job, Jerry said that there were ten mechanics, in two teams of five. One team primarily worked on Volvos, the other on Hondas, with the Alfa and motor home work shared between the two. He looked at me and said “I will put you on the….Volvo team”. Funny how one seemingly simple decision, made by another, can cast your fate.

I walked over to the Volvo side of the shop, and waited for the Volvo shop foreman to arrive. About 30 minutes later, a clapped-out Mercedes-Benz sedan with faded blue paint bounded into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was a dark-haired man, about 10 years older than I was, somehow holding both a cigarette and a cup of coffee while driving. He meandered into the building, and being the amicable Irish chap he was, stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Andy Finnegan. Welcome”.

 

Misunderstanding #1: I’d be supplied tools and a toolbox by the dealership.

As I recall, I asked few questions during the interview, and made many assumptions, some of which turned out to be false. For example, this naïve 24-year-old thought that dealerships supplied tools.

Andy: “Where’s your tool box?” Me: “You guys give me one, right?” Andy: “Nope”.

After work, I drove to the local Ace hardware store and bought their house-brand tool box. Just an upper chest, I likely paid around $75 for it. My dad, none too happy about this career change as it was, gave me a small supply of tools to augment the only ones I did own, which was a set of Craftsman ½” drive metric sockets. (Thinking I was set with the metric stuff, I soon found out that most Volvos used SAE-size hardware.) Andy kindly let me use a rolling cart to serve as a place to put my tool chest.

I was ribbed about the "Master Mechanic" label. This box resides today in my garage, 38 years after buying it.
The “Master Mechanic” label forced me to endure much ribbing. The missing red paint was caused by bench-bleeding a master cylinder and shooting a spray of brake fluid against it.

 

Misunderstanding #2: I’d be working only on cars.

About two weeks into the job, I was handed a Repair Order (RO): “Customer states that shower leaks”.

Huh?

Oh, right, this must be one of those Holiday Ramblers. At least it would be easy to find in the lot. Entering the motor home, I was greeted with piles of dirty dishes and dirty laundry. The shower looked like it had not been cleaned in several months. I got Andy, who said “I’ll take care of this”. He complained to the Service Manager that “car mechanics” were not going to service someone’s unkempt mobile residence. I was never again given an RO for a Holiday Rambler.

Other unexpected jobs included spraying undercoating onto the underside of new Hondas (without a mask), and painting the service shop floor.

 

Misunderstanding #3: I’d be making my hourly pay rate times 40 hours per week. 

Two months into the job, I considered quitting. The work was much more difficult than I had imagined. Under the flat-rate system, I was supposed to find the car, diagnose the problem, procure the parts, complete the repair, and perform a road test, all within a published book time. That rarely happened for me. My preferred approach was to grab the Volvo service literature and page through it, looking for possible solutions. This was not how to make money.

My hourly rate, had I been able to earn 40 hours’ worth of it, would have been roughly equivalent to my previous job’s pay. In reality, I was earning about 25-30 hours a week. Without Andy there, I would have earned even less. Then, six months into my employment, Andy quit.

He told me he had gotten a job as a “Field Technical Specialist”, or FTS, at Volvo Cars of North America. I was devastated, and had no choice but to latch on to the new Volvo team leader, who, while also helpful, was no Andy. However, Andy’s career change gave me the idea that down the road, such a move could be possible for me.

At least the dealership gave me formal training. Six times in 1979, I attended Volvo service training at the Rockleigh headquarters. Many of my service training instructors later became colleagues.

The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.
The Volvo Service Training Passport. Earning a sticker was a badge of honor.

As time went on, my skills did improve. I got a loan from the Snap-On tool guy, bought a roller cabinet, and soon had just about all the tools I needed. I even started to enjoy the work, although I was no Class A mechanic. Some of my mishaps were quite humorous.

My favorite story concerns the Alfa Romeo Alfetta I brought in for recall work. Alfa had announced a recall on its catalytic converters, which at that time were filled with coated pellets. The recall was necessary because the converters had not been completely filled at the factory. The repair was simple enough: unbolt the converter, remove the plug at one end, get the box of pellets from the parts counter, fill up the converter, and put everything back together.

My job complete, I let the car idle in my stall while I wrote up the repair on the back of the RO. Suddenly, the guys across the aisle started to yell. “Hey, Reina, your car is shooting at us!” What? I walked around and saw small white objects leaving the car’s tailpipe. Back at the workbench, I found the plug which I had forgotten to reinstall – the car was shooting its catalytic pellets like a BB gun. I needed to do the job all over again, and, bear the wrath of the Parts Manager (“this box of pellets costs us $1,000!”). Talk about not making flat-rate….

A year into the job, the Sales Department was abuzz because Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal, was going to add a nameplate to the showroom: Autosport had signed up to become a DeLorean dealer. In anticipation, the Sales Manager printed business cards with his name. Alas, it never happened, and whether that was due to Jerry L. or John Z., I wasn’t there long enough to find out.

Two years after starting at Autosport, it was time to find the next opportunity. Andy had told me about a Volvo dealer where, he had heard, service was run more smoothly. Walking in cold off the street, I applied for a job as a B tech at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, and was hired. When I left Autosport, my take home pay was not much more than when I started. As a tech at Smythe, I would be paid hourly; their technicians did not work flat rate. That was fine by me.

A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.
A portrait of the mechanic as a young man. Note the hipster pocket protector.

My first two years wrenching on cars were like a college education all over again. I learned as much on this job as I had learned in four years at the university. Best of all, the skills I acquired have stayed with me and have been put to good use working on my personal and hobby cars.

Thank God for my time with Andy Finnegan. He was late every day, smoked like a chimney, and regularly mouthed off to the boss. But he patiently helped me every day he was there, and taught me everything he knew about Volvos and car repair in general.

Years later at Volvo corporate, Andy and I became colleagues, and although we did not work directly together, we kept in touch. About ten years ago, he became quite ill and passed away. Before he left us, I visited him and told him how much I appreciated what he did for me. To this day, when working on any of my cars, he’ll cross my mind. I feel that I owe my career to him.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.