The Bubble Party was intended to serve as a grand celebration of a singular automobile. The Bubble Party was meant to be a culmination of many years’ effort. The Bubble Party was an excuse to smile, and laugh, and cheer, and have fun. The Bubble Party was a (gentle) poke in the eye to those who thought that the concept of restoring a 13 horsepower car was a silly exercise. The Bubble Party was an excuse to have a party.
The Bubble Party was all this and more.
For once, it wasn’t about the car; well, of course it was about the car, but really it was about the human endeavor. Sometimes I thought that a celebration centered on reaching the finish line was selfish, and egotistical, and boastful, and perhaps there were elements of that. There was honest effort, though, to take the focus away from me, and away from the fact that “the Isetta did drive in ‘95”.
What I knew then, and what I know more than ever now, is that this could not be accomplished by one person. There were so many people, individuals who were already friends, and those who became friends through my dealings with them, who needed to be counted among the co-achievers. And not all of them necessarily touched the car. My father, to name one significant example, had been a lifelong inspiration to me, and helped me in uncountable ways with my technical knowledge and understanding.
So we spent most of September in planning mode. The house was cleaned; the yard was trimmed. Food and drink aplenty were brought in. Bubble Party invitations were sent. We invited everyone: neighbors, co-workers, relatives, friends. We made a point of ensuring that children were included. The town agreed to close the street for the afternoon. The car was set on the front lawn, and covered with a red cloth.
We asked for a beautiful day, and we were given that too. The car was unveiled, and it was the children, more than the adults, who oohed and aahed (after all, it’s sized like a kid’s plaything). I was more than happy to let the parents watch while I offered rides to every child in attendance. I can only hope that some of them remember, and perhaps some of them grew to appreciate old machinery.
This 3-minute video highlights the moment the Isetta was revealed to the crowd:
Then it was over. And autumn arrived, and I was exhausted from the mental effort of getting the Isetta to this point. It wasn’t finished, but it certainly was close. By the end of 1995, I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
After the Bubble Party, the car was not touched for four years. Final restoration work began anew in 1999, and the car was entered into its first shows in 2000. We will resume the Isetta Saga later this year.
In the meantime, with spring literally a few days away, Richard’s Car Blog will turn its attention to what promises to be a very busy 2019 show season. The next blog post will be a technical treatise on the Alfa Romeo valve adjustment procedure. Stay tuned!
The time span between October 21, 1978 and September 4, 1995 is quite long. Very long. It is 16 years, 10 months, and 14 days. The former date represents the day I purchased my BMW Isetta. The latter date represents the day I first drove it.
When I bought the car, I did not think that it would take just shy of 17 years to get to this point. But it did. As I promised myself, the Isetta did drive in ’95.
The video of the first drive was recently unearthed after being hidden away in a closet for many years. Along with the videosposted earlier, I had forgotten I had this, and it has been fun to rediscover it. No further words are necessary. Click on the YouTube link below and enjoy the clip taken on what was a beautiful late summer day.
It had been some wedding! The body and chassis were reunited. Now the party was over. The guests had departed. It was time to get back to work and make the reunion more permanent. The upcoming week was a vacation week for me so that I could fully apply myself. It felt as though I were days away from actually driving the creature.
First item on the to-do list: install new sound-deadening material to the interior. The commercially-available products seen in every old car magazine were one choice (Dynamat is one well-known brand). However, they are pricey, even for a car as small as an Isetta. Another issue was my desire to adhere as closely as possible to the original treatment, which resembled tar paper. (The new-fangled stuff is thick and shiny and more appropriate for a drafty ‘50s British roadster or a noisy ‘60s muscle car.)
When conveying my indecision to my neighbor, he gave me a great suggestion: a visit to Home Depot would likely yield a roll of black roofing material which could be purchased for a reasonable number. For $9.97, I bought a roll which could have completed multiple Isettas! The measuring and the cutting began.
The wiring harnesses were next. The Isetta has two: a front main harness, and a rear harness. I had earlier disassembled, cleaned, and re-sheathed them, and they were ready to be put back into place. This was a clear case of my earlier photography coming to the rescue, as it was the photos taken during disassembly which portrayed the exact locations and connections for the wiring.
The electrical system of the vehicle is as simple as it gets: front and rear exterior lights, dashboard warning lights, and the starting/charging system. No power seats, no climate control. The test-firing of the engine way back in March of that year meant that I had the battery, Dynastart, and voltage regulator connections down, so with the body resting on top of the chassis, I only needed to bring those wires to their permanent spots.
The ignition switch was a trouble spot. I had an original one, but no key for it. There was a key code on the outside of the cylinder, but efforts to find someone who could create a working key for it were futile. One gent at the local auto parts store was very patient with me as I sought solutions to a car for which he had no listings. We tried several aftermarket ignition switches, but the first few were physically too large to fit within the minuscule dash pod. Finally, he found a switch that fit. He got to know me, and came to be of great assistance on several other small universal parts I needed.
The seat had been sent out to a local upholstery shop. Here, I purposely deviated from original, as American-market Isettas used a patterned vinyl upholstery, and I did not want to sit on vinyl. Instead, I chose a beige corduroy with off-white piping. The beige seat came close to matching the beige fabric sunroof, and since I always like red & beige on Ferraris, I thought “why not?”
The steering wheel, column, dashboard, and pedals are a major subassembly unto themselves, and these were bolted into place, with pedals connected to the undercar linkages. To the left of the steering wheel, the shifter was joined to the rear-mounted transmission. Once I readjusted the clutch, I was able to shift into all four forward gears and reverse gear.
All the work recounted here took two weeks, bringing me to Labor Day weekend. That Sunday night, September 3, 1995, I discovered that the car’s battery was flat from sitting. I put it on trickle charge overnight. The next day was Labor Day. In the morning, I would attempt to start the Isetta, put it into gear, and be behind the wheel when it would move under its own power for the first time under my 17 years of ownership.
During the restoration of the Isetta, a frequent question presented to me was “what motivates you to keep going?” Of course, I wanted to see the project reach a successful conclusion, but setbacks, and there were a few, can be demotivating. There were times I questioned my own sanity, as in, “why am I spending so much time, money and effort to restore a 13-horsepower bubble car from the 1950s that most people have never heard of?” With everyday life (job, family, house) swirling around me, I was occasionally tempted to quit the whole deal.
One of my mantras during this 5+ year stretch was “celebrate your successes”. Reaching certain milestones not only feels great, but the achievement can be shared with others, which then inspires you to keep moving forward.
In August of 1995, I was ready for such a celebration: the Isetta body shell, freshly painted and just back from “The Shop”, was about to be reunited with the mechanically-restored chassis. In a traditional automobile assembly plant, the moment of “marrying” the up-until-then separate body and chassis is called the marriage point. So, in honor of that event’s facsimile, we decided to host a wedding. Before, um, consummating this union, since the shiny and clean chassis was about to be covered up again, a final set of photographs was taken to document its return to as-new glory.
The wedding was scheduled for Sunday, August 20, 1995, and since a wedding must have guests, a small ensemble was invited. (Memory doesn’t recall whether any of the invitees were tipped off that there was work to be done before food and beverages would be served.) The chassis was staged in the driveway just beyond the garage doors, with the body patiently hanging out in the garage on four jack stands.
Five intrepid groomspeople (Chris Beyer, John Maggio, Dennis & Ann Marie Nash, and Don Dahringer) vaulted the body back into the daylight. Spotters were assigned to eyeball the body’s descent so that nothing was injured. It took a few moments to clear all the obstacles, but the (re)union was a success.
A video camera (thanks, John) was rolling to capture the event. You can view a 12-minute excerpt at this YouTube clip here:
Whew! My nervous excitement is palatable to me as I watch myself nervously pace back and forth and around the car. In all seriousness, having a group of friends around me helped alleviate my worries. Once I knew the body shell was resting on the chassis rails, we popped the champagne, ate some BBQ, and of course, shared dessert in the form of a wedding cake:
The end of the push to make “The Isetta Drive in ‘95” was close, really, truly close. The steering, pedals, wiring harness, ignition, and seat all needed to be installed and connected. The motivation was the knowledge that I was perhaps a few short weeks away from driving my Isetta for the first time since buying it as a disassembled heap in 1978.
(Special thanks to my Creative Team pals Cody, Eslam, and Greg for their video-editing assistance. You guys are the DUDES.)
Jody Fitzpatrick, proprietor of “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ, had my Isetta in his possession for one day shy of five weeks. His work was completed, done, finished. I breathed a huge sigh of relief if only for his ability to accurately predict his work timeline, originally estimated at “3 to 4 weeks”. This was close enough. There wouldn’t be any restoration shop horror stories in my future.
Chris Beyer, work colleague, neighbor, and friend, had accompanied me when I dropped off the Isetta body. When I told him that it was ready for pick-up, he was ready and willing to join me again.
The date was Friday July 28, 1995. Nothing in my notes or my memory explains how Chris and I both happened to be off from work that day; but we were. It was a sweltering humid day, hotter than the previous days had been during what was already an oppressive summer. Cranking the A/C in my Volvo 850 wagon did little help; nothing was going to cool me enough to dissipate my nervous excitement over seeing the painted shell.
At our arrival, Jody strolled out to greet us, looking and acting nonchalant. “How come HE’S so cool?” I asked no one. Perhaps because he does this every day, and, it’s not his car, and, he just wants to get paid, replied the voice in my head. The body shell, of course, looked perfect, almost too much so. I was afraid to touch it, but with Jody and Chris’s help, we got the same 2x4s bolted back to its underside, and then to the trailer floor.
Jody got his check, I got my receipt and my obligatory photos, and we were on our way. I must have glanced in the rear view mirror about every 12 seconds to make sure the body was still there. At a red light on the way home, several male teens yelled out “hey, it’s the Urkel-mobile!” Oh My God, I thought, am I going to be hearing this for the duration of my ownership of this thing? (The short answer to that question is “yes”.)
Leaving the 2x4s in place for now, we carried the body into the garage, and back onto my makeshift dolly. I posed it next to the completed chassis, fully aware that in a few days, five years of mechanical work would be covered forever (or at least until the car is re-restored in 2095).
What work was remaining before reuniting the body and chassis? The body’s hand-painted underside now had primer overspray on it, so that got yet another coat of gloss red. The headlight and tail light buckets were bolted on. The fuel tank, which had earlier been restored by coating it with Bill Hirsch’s GasTank Sealer, was secured in place. The 2x4s were finally removed, and the body was placed onto 4 jack stands.
In an auto assembly plant, the moment when the car’s body, on one conveyor, is lowered onto a complete chassis, arriving on another conveyor, is called “the marriage point”. The Isetta’s 17-year courtship was coming to an end. It was time to host a wedding party and consummate this marriage.
Jody Fitzpatrick, proprietor of “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ, was my choice to oversee the body restoration of the Isetta for many reasons: he was personally recommended, the business was nearby my residence, his pricing was fair, we had a mutual understanding of what “done” looked like, and his estimated timeframe was reasonable. Another reason is that Jody assured me that I could visit and observe the progress whenever I desired (sort of like conjugal visits for the incarcerated).
Having read more than one “restoration shop horror story” (the car gets pushed to the back, 6 months pass with no progress, the shop demands more upfront money, they lose your car keys, or worst, they close the business and lock the doors with your car inside), having visitation rights was refreshing.
So visit I did.
Three times during that hot July of 1995, I stopped in to have a peek and to snap a few snaps. Jody was always very accommodating and genuinely happy to see me, and gave me free rein to walk around my car and chat up the crew doing the actual labor.
During the first visit, employees were using homemade scrapers to remove the paint. They had decided against chemical dipping or media blasting, fearful of inflicting further damage. They also hammered out any dents and other rough spots, in preparation for some minor welding and an eventual skim coat of putty in spots. (From my own research, I had come to learn that any talk of body repair that doesn’t involve some small use of plastic filler is fantasy.)
THE SHELL IN THE PROCESS OF PAINT BEING REMOVED:
During this visit, Jody and I also finalized the choice of paint color. There was no known “official 1957 BMW Isetta paint code chart” we could refer to, so we did the next best thing. Sampling the unfaded paint we found under the BMW roundel on the door, we matched that to the closest shade among the modern paint code charts in Jody’s possession. We both agreed that the 1995 Ford Mustang shade of “Performance Red” was it. Jody stressed another advantage: should the car need touch-up or repair in the future, the correct paint would be readily available.
Just a week later, I saw the body with all the original paint gone, and the metal work beginning. I had given Jody a recommendation from John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration book for a method to reinforce the rearmost body panel at the tail lights and rear bumper. This section of the shell was not directly attached to the chassis, and was a known weak spot. Jody stated he would use the printed suggestion to add some additional metal in places.
HAND-SANDING THE FILLER AND THE GUIDE COAT:
During this 2nd visit, I pointed out a number of drilled holes which needed to be filled. These included where the dealer-installed mud flaps and luggage rack had been, neither of which were to be reinstalled. (I would later discover one which I missed, requiring the purchase of a somewhat pricey accessory in order to cover it!) Jody’s suggestion of grinding down the visible factory welds at the body panel joints was rejected by me, as I had every desire to keep to an original look.
Like a proud papa, I posed alongside the work-in-progress:
The third visit found the body in full primer. With the metal work done and its flanks as smooth as new, it was not difficult to visualize a freshly painted body shell. Jody had the door and all the other exterior pieces at The Shop, but he also generously offered to hang and align the door for me, something that was not part of our initial negotiation. I brought the freshly-plated door hinges with me so that he could do just that.
THE BODY IN FULL PRIMER, JUST PRIOR TO COLOR COAT:
Perhaps the most exciting aspect was that the work was closely adhering to the originally estimated timeframe. Jody said that it might take a week longer than he hoped, but everything looked to be on track for a final pick-up by the end of July. And there were no “pricing surprises” either. Jody had gotten a $2,000 down payment upon drop-off, and he said that all I owed him at completion was the $2,000 balance plus NJ state sales tax.
A few days later I got the call. “It’s ready whenever you are.” That Saturday, I hooked up the trailer to the car and grabbed my checkbook. We were on our way.
In Chapter 12, it was early spring 1995, and the blog post contained video evidence which proved that the “thumper”, as one-cylinder engines are sometimes called, would start and run. You could say that this completed the mechanical portion of the restoration. Of course, there were “mechanical” elements to be addressed once the body and chassis were reunited, such as pedal and shifter linkages, gauges, lights, and so on, but, the running chassis was essentially done.
Now it was crunch time. Now, a fear crept into me because I was about to embark on a path over which I would have much less control. I am a technician, an automotive repairman, by trade. The nuts and bolts were, if not easy, at least resolvable by me. As I looked at the forlorn Isetta body, I was reminded of how little I knew about body and paint work. There was also an element of procrastination in play here. I could have sought out body estimates in 1994. However, it was easier to tell myself to push forward with the chassis work, and allow the bodywork to wait until it was absolutely necessary to move on it. That time was now.
As had been my habit for this entire project, I grabbed my trusty Nikon EM, loaded it with a fresh roll of Kodak ISO 100 (or 200) film, and photographed all the details of the red body in its “before” state. This was done both to document its current condition as well as to provide a guide during reassembly. The body was still complete, with door, glass, sunroof, lights, wiring harness, and interior panels in place. There was no sense in disassembling any of it until I understood the next steps, which would only happen after speaking with several body shops.
The body was loaded onto my landscape trailer, and the trailer was hooked to the back of my Volvo wagon. Off I went to visit two different restoration facilities in northern New Jersey. As both these shops are still in business, and as I have nothing to gain by presenting potentially disparaging remarks about them in this public forum, I shall refer to them as “Shop A” and “Shop B”.
Shop A is a first-class enterprise with a stellar reputation in the hobby. They are known for their award-winning vehicles, and even market their own line of automotive paint. The patriarch of the business greeted me personally, and invited me to sit with him so we could discuss my progress and my intentions.
I told him that I had essentially completed the drivetrain, and wanted a shop to take on only the body shell. “You have done an excellent job managing your own restoration”, he said to me, and I wasn’t sure if the comment was a compliment, or if he regretted that I hadn’t handed over the whole stinkin’ pile of parts for him to sort out. He continued: “We can restore this body, certainly can. Our process will be, you leave it with us while we do our research and preliminary work, and we will send you an itemized bill on a monthly basis”.
My next question was obvious, or so I thought: “What will be the total cost of the body and paint work?” He replied “Oh, we have no way of knowing that. Besides, that’s not how we work. As I said, we will perform a certain amount of work every month and bill you accordingly. You are also welcome to stop by and see the progress first-hand”. I told him that I would think about it. The walk back to my car wasn’t complete before I had concluded my thinking about it. This was the traditional model of automotive restoration. The owner trusts the restoration shop to proceed at a fair pace, and pays the bills with no clear end date in sight. This shop was not getting my business.
Shop B was introduced to me when its proprietor visited my office for an evening’s “hobbyists’ gathering”. He was fairly new to the business, and wanted to introduce himself to a wider audience. He spoke in a friendly and down-to-earth manner, and explained that his shop was the restoration place of choice for the common man. At the end of his presentation, I approached him and asked about paying a visit. A short time later, I trailered the red body out to him for his inspection, and he promised to get back to me ASAP.
This was 1995, so we used fax as a speedy means of communication. The first page of the fax was a cover sheet, and the second page had a detailed line-by-line estimate for metal work, fabrication, priming, sanding, and painting. I knew I was in trouble reading the first line of his cover page: “Dear Rich, I hope you’re sitting down!” His estimate for total parts and labor? $11,150. That only meant I needed to keep looking.
A work colleague, friend, and all-around great fellow hobbyist Dennis Nash was someone I sought out for advice. Dennis said that he knew someone through the Rolls-Royce Owners Club who ran a collision shop but also fit in a fair amount of restoration work. He was in Maplewood, about a 20 minute drive from my house, and much closer than either Shop A or Shop B. The person’s name was Jody Fitzgerald, and the name of this business was The Shop.
I called. Jody answered, “This is …. The Shop”. (This is how he always answered the phone, with a purposeful delay between “this is” and “The Shop”.) We had a pleasant initial conversation, and he invited me to visit with body in tow. It didn’t take him long to look it over and for him to tell me that this was something he could handle. He made himself very clear that there were certain things he would, and would not, do. He said that he would:
Expect me to deliver the body with glass and soundproofing removed.
Paint the body in a single-stage urethane, and color-sand and polish the exterior.
Paint the interior to match, but not color-sand or polish it.
NOT paint the underside of the body. (He suggested that I paint it before bringing it back to him.)
Complete all the body and paint work in an approximate 3-4 week time period.
Jody said that the total cost in material and labor would be $4,000. That was a very acceptable number to me. Before we signed any papers, Jody said he had one more item of importance to discuss with me:
“I will take on this job, which will cost you $4,000, only if you verbally assure me that you understand this cost exceeds the total value of the car.”
In retrospect, I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to ensure that I understood the price/value relationship. We both knew that good, but not perfect, running and driving Isettas were available for around $3,500 in 1995. There was too much emotional attachment in this project for me, so I was more than willing to spend what I believed was a fair price for the body shell restoration. Jody simply didn’t want to start this job and have me remorsefully abandon the car with him.
I rushed home to begin the disassembly so that I could deliver the shell to Jody. It was June of 1995. There was no time to waste.
Those of you who have followed this Isetta Saga have endured 11 chapters of a story that has covered parts of three decades. You’ve read about the initial discovery of these tiny cars, first in a magazine ad, then in a Vermont barn. You learned that I’m very good at letting a few years (like, ten) go by without any work transpiring. You saw that getting my own garage gave me the work space I longed for. My pictures illustrated progress with dismantling and restoring major components such as the chassis, engine, and rear axle.
At what point, dear readers, did you ask yourselves:
WHEN IS THIS THING GOING TO RESEMBLE A CAR?
Can’t say as I blame you. If you didn’t know better (and I have yet to prove that you will), you might conclude that the freshly-painted engine is destined for a museum display cabinet. And “rolling chassis”? Please. The cynics out there (I know who you are) are thinking “just throw a sheet of plywood on it and use it as a garden cart”.
But are we any closer to actually taking it for a drive? Let’s recap the two most recent chapters. Chapter 10 included the story of the combo starter-generator known as the Dynastart. Its renewed wiring was complete, even if it was yet to be reinstalled onto the crank nose. And Chapter 11 displayed photos of a Dynastart-less engine bolted to the chassis, with a complete transmission and final drive axle right behind it. The next steps were to install the Dynastart, obtain a voltage regulator and battery, and pick up a quart of fuel at the local gas station. Oh, and then try to start it.
Any book about the internal combustion engine will tell you that provided your internals are mechanically sound, only three things are needed to start an engine: air, fuel, and spark.
I made a checklist.
Air: check. (My backyard had an abundance of it, and there were no obstructions in front of the carb.)
Fuel: check. (The Isetta has no fuel pump. Someone just needed to hold a funnel higher than the carb, and pour fuel into it while a hose ran to the carb.)
Spark: check. (If I was correctly reading John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration, touching certain wires from the Dynastart and the voltage regulator to a 12 volt source would crank the engine and deliver spark to the plug.)
On Sunday, March 26, 1995, I rolled the chassis out of the garage and into the backyard. Enlisting the help of my friend John M and his 10-year-old son Nick, we poured fuel into the funnel, and touched wires to the battery.
John not only lent the services of his son, perched as he was on a step stool for this grand experiment; John also had a video camera set up, ready to record the scene live as it happened.
This long-hidden VHS tape was recently rediscovered and transferred to DVD. Please click on the YouTube link below so that you may verify the results with your own eyes:
I assure you that these moments were not rehearsed. Once I remembered to supply sufficient fuel to the carburetor, the engine actually started on the first try. The fist-pumping at the end was a spontaneous display of exuberance, a reflexive reaction to the sheer joy of the moment. The feeling was indescribable; it certainly energized me to keep pushing myself to complete the car in the few short months I had remaining to meet my own self-imposed deadline.
In Chapter 10, the rolling chassis debuted to the world. In Chapter 11, that chassis gets the rest of its drivetrain reunited with it, but not before a very long drive turns fruitless.
The year 1995 had dawned. Staring me in the face was the sign I created and hung in my workshop: “The Isetta Will Drive in ’95”. Could this be possible? Theoretically, I had until 11:59 p.m. on December 31, but practically, I knew that it needed to happen before winter set in.
Never mind the still-unanswered dilemma about body and paint. There were two more immediate challenges:
The restoration had reached the point of discovering that many small pieces were completely missing. I had no ignition switch, headlight switches (on/off and low/high beam), turn signal switch, motor mount brackets, or hub caps. Some of the pieces I did have were in such poor repair that it would help if I could find other used ones in better condition.
My completed engine and transmission were not yet installed in the restored chassis. This was a priority because once installed, I needed to prove that the engine would start and run. Should there be a failure there, I wanted enough time to correct whatever needed correcting.
The solution to Challenge #1 came to me via interoffice mail. A fellow-fanatic colleague, Bob McCown, sent me a clipping from Old Cars Weekly magazine. Either I no longer subscribed, or I had missed the ad. Someone in Pennsylvania had a “complete, solid” Isetta PLUS a rolling parts car, for $1,000. I called the number, and the conversation went something like this:
ME: Hi. About the complete car you’re selling, what would it take for it to run?
SELLER: A battery.
ME: And the rolling parts car, is it complete?
SELLER: It has no drivetrain, but the rest of it is there.
This sounded like a deal to me. The plan was already decided: I’d buy both cars, strip them, keep what I needed, and sell off what I didn’t. What the heck, I’d been doing exactly that for the past 5 years!
I called my good friend Steve M, who was always up for an adventure. Checking a map (no, not Google Maps, that hadn’t been invented yet), I found the town outside Pittsburgh, about a 6 hour drive one-way. Steve and I agreed to a Saturday 6 a.m. departure from my house. I hooked up the open landscape trailer (a recent purchase made for express purpose of moving Isetta bodies) to my Volvo 850 wagon, and we were off.
Steve said: “You know, showing up with an empty trailer is bad. He’ll conclude that you’re buying his cars no matter what. I suggest that you find a spot about a mile from his house and park the trailer.” I would have none of it. I retorted “Look, as excited as I am about these cars, if I don’t want them, I’m not buying them.”
We arrived at the seller’s house around noon. The property was a large farm, with numerous outbuildings. About 50 yards away I spotted a canvas cover draped over the unmistakable silhouette of an Isetta. We didn’t see a soul, so we headed toward it. Peeking under the cover, the Isetta was quite rough. “This must be the rolling parts car” I told myself.
“John” the seller emerged from one of the buildings. Spotting the NJ plate, he correctly presumed that I was the guy who called.
ME: So this must be the rolling parts car.
JOHN: No, that’s the better of the two.
We peeled the cover completely back. The sunroof was missing. The interior was gutted. The engine was on the floor of the car.
ME: You told me on the phone that the better car only needed a battery to run.
JOHN: Well, that engine would run once it’s reinstalled. At least it’s there.
ME: Oh boy. Since we’re here, let’s look at the rolling parts car.
We followed him to another part of the farm. The roller was inside. The roller had been in a fire. Everything consumable was gone: paint, glass, plastic. There was sheetmetal, but it was impossible to tell what color the car had been. The roller was worth more as scrap metal.
I was too disappointed to be angry. There was no way I was purchasing these two Isettas from him. If he had offered them for free I would have declined, as neither car had the parts I needed. In a situation like this, the best way to get even is to walk away. I said to John, “I’m not buying these”, shook his hand, and we got back into my car. Steve and I had a nice dinner somewhere in PA. So much for that idea.
Challenge #2 was more within my control. Bolting major mechanical subassemblies to the chassis with the body removed was quite straightforward, except for the missing components. I had no motor mount brackets, and they weren’t being reproduced, so one of my local suppliers was able to fulfill an order for a pre-owned set. The engine, complete with cylinder head, carburetor, and clutch, went in first. Next, the transmission was installed.
The world’s shortest driveshaft, freshly painted and with a Giubo at each end, was positioned between the trans output and rear axle input. Two issues here required focus:
One, the Giubo bolts were special items with very thin heads. The clearance between the bolt head and gearbox case was so small that standard-sized bolts would rub against the case, gouging it. This was written about repeatedly in the club newsletters.
Two, the flanges on either side of the driveshaft were not aligned, and again, newsletter articles warned novices NOT to align them. Something about the way the entire drivetrain moved required the flanges to be ever-so-slightly offset, with the flexible Giubos correcting the difference.
The drivetrain was installed. I resigned myself to being “nickel-and-dimed” from local suppliers for any further missing parts. Spring was on its way. Next, I would attempt to start the engine, then really get serious about finding a body shop.
Did I mention that I didn’t have a title to the car?
Next time in the Isetta Saga: As taught in class, an engine only needs 3 things to run: air, fuel, and spark. Is that still true if you only have one cylinder?
Giubo joints have their own Wikipedia page. The name “Giubo” (pronounced JOO-boh) is derived from the first three letters of “giunto” (Italian for “joint”) and the first two letters of the inventor’s last name, Antonio Boschi. “Giubo” is frequently misspelled as “guibo”, and then mispronounced as “guEE-bo”. The coupling was first used on the Alfa Romeo 1900 of the early 1950s, and was used on many BMW cars throughout the second half of the 20th century.
In Chapter 9, the transmission and final drive got overhauled, and the chain-driven axle was ready to be reattached to the chassis. In Chapter 10, the restored rolling chassis finally sees the light of day.
Smack in the middle of calendar year 1994, elbow-deep in my restoration of this fine German bubble car, I was at a “good news / bad news” crossroads. The good news: much mechanical progress had been made. One engine, minus a cylinder head, was complete. With the transmission and enclosed-chain rear axle both restored, the drivetrain was essentially done. The chassis, currently on its front tires only, was very close to rolling on all four wheels and tires.
But the bad news, like a devil on my shoulder, would lean into my ear and whisper: “You’re not going to get this done”. I still had parts procurement issues. In spite of my dealing with multiple parts suppliers, no one vendor had everything I needed, and there were still some parts which no one seemed to have. My commitment to the rebuild of a 2nd engine was detracting me from progress on my own car. Work to be sent out, in this case the cylinder head rebuild, left me stymied, as I was having difficulty finding a machine shop willing to take on an Isetta valve job. I continued to discover that I was missing parts (remember that I did not disassemble these cars), which had me on the hunt for good used ones. I had not even begun looking into a shop for the body and paint work. Yet I continued to brag how “the Isetta will drive in ‘95”, and 1995 was next year.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect back, with 25 years of hindsight. Why was I doing this? What were the motivating factors? The truth is that there was nothing rational about the time, money, and effort being expended to restore this microcar which most people never heard of, and which had little monetary value in the collector car market. This was a labor of love, driven by these factors:
Having failed once at an attempt to sell the car, there was little choice but to make something out of the pile of parts.
Fifteen years after purchasing the car, I felt an obligation to do something with it.
It was a pipe dream to prove that I could take a non-running car and restore it.
Having heard horror stories about stalled projects, I was determined to show that it was possible to finish one.
I had the tools, the space, and the mechanical knowledge, giving me the confidence to tackle the work.
This is not to say my time was otherwise not occupied. My career with Volvo was in full swing, and it included regular domestic and international travel. My home and family life were full of commitments. I continued to perform on the drum kit in various bands, although not to the extent I had during the previous decade.
Primarily, the Isetta restoration was my way of immersing myself in the old car hobby. Both the ’57 Ford and ’67 Dart were gone. Aside from the Isetta, my only other car was my daily driver, a company-leased Volvo. There was no room, financially or physically, for another collector car. What drove me? The drive came from the knowledge that a finished, drivable Isetta was my ticket into the world of collector car events.
In an earlier post on the Isetta Saga, I mentioned that one cannot embark on these kinds of journeys alone. Working for an automobile company as I did meant that I was surrounded by fellow enthusiasts. In countless ways, they provided advice, assistance, and direction. One of my colleagues, Galen Royer, was a motorcycle guy, which I was not. Speaking to him one day, he mentioned a BMW motorcycle shop near his home. C & S BMW was in Chester NY, in Orange County. Although I had contacted other BMW bike shops (the one-cylinder Isetta engine is motorcycle-based), no one had been willing to take on the head work. From C & S I finally got a positive response. I dropped off one cylinder head with them, and they performed a complete overhaul, including installation of new valve guides, and cutting of valve seats. Finally, I could complete the reassembly of one engine.
Turning my attention back to the chassis, the restoration of the rear axle along with its various attachment points brought me that much closer to a very important goal: the completion of a chassis rolling on its own four wheels. That goal was reached early in 1994, and I celebrated that accomplishment by throwing a party. Why not?
The gathering of friends to raise a glass in toast to a milestone was not intended as an egotistical, “look what I did” exercise in chest-beating. I thought of it as quite the opposite, actually. The small cadre of friends who were invited to the Rolling Chassis Debut all had been playing supporting roles in the restoration. Chris, Steve H, and Linda were of great assistance in procuring parts. Steve M and John had both been to the house multiple times when I needed an extra pair of hands.
It was also important that I not take myself too seriously, as serious as I was about doing the highest quality work I could, and getting it done in a timely fashion. It was still “just a car”, and this was supposed to be fun. By having a party, I was letting you in on the secret: this was a lark, an Isetta for heaven’s sake! I wanted you to laugh with me. If that also meant laughing AT me, well, that was OK too. Celebrating a turning point held the promise of future celebrations at future turning points. Let’s pop a few corks, tell a few stories, and hope that you’ll keep helping me as I keep pushing myself to finish the darn thing.
The next big turning point looked like it would be the installation of the engine and transmission onto the chassis. But we were not quite there yet. There were a few subassemblies for the engine, chassis, and interior which needed work:
Like almost all cars from the 1950s, the Isetta used drum brakes front and rear. Compared to normal cars, there was a difference: the lack of a differential meant that the two rear wheels, mounted on a solid axle, were not free to spin independently of each other. In execution, only one rear brake was needed, so viola, the Isetta had a total of three drum brakes.
The brake rebuild process was not without its challenge. All the wheel cylinders were frozen solid, and dislodging the pistons meant days of soaking in coffee cans full of Liquid Wrench. Even then, the pistons were still removed via destruction. The cylinders themselves were salvageable, and pistons and shoes were available from several of my local suppliers.
Brake lines, on the other hand, were not. The only solution was to purchase metric brake lines, which I cut to length and bent to form using a tubing bender. The flaring of the ends required borrowing an ISO bubble flare tool. (It was a huge advantage to complete with work on the body-less chassis. I cannot imagine doing this with the body in place.) Various articles recommended using VW brake hoses for the front, and that’s exactly what I did.
Finally, the hunt was on for a new master cylinder, as the ones I had looked like they had been stored in New York Harbor. Mr. Krause in Emmaus delivered on that front, and it was a case of “pay whatever the asking price is”, as at that time, no one else had new Isetta master cylinders for sale.
Steering wheel & column
My steering wheel had minimal cracks, and based on some discussions I had with steering wheel restoration companies at Carlisle, I wasn’t about to pay what they wanted to restore a wheel. It looked to me that a complete sanding and recoating of the wheel would get me to where I wanted to be with it.
I had read that store-bought epoxy appliance paint, intended to refinish your kitchen fridge or oven, worked quite well on automotive interior items which are subject to handling and wear. Popping into my local Home Depot, I found spray paint in a nice almond shade, and committed to using it on the steering wheel as well as items like the light switch, shift knob, and interior door handle.
The steering wheel was hand-sanded to remove all traces of existing paint, then given a good cleaning. With the rattle can, the intention was to apply multiple coats as lightly as possible. If I could get the wheel to rotate while spraying it, there would be no chance of runs. Using an old piece of outdoor furniture and a drumstick, I mounted the wheel so that I could spin it and spray it. It probably got four or five coats of paint this way, and to me it looked as good as new.
I was unsure if the steering column from the factory was painted silver or the same off-white as the steering wheel. In the end, I decided that the almond color would look better, so that‘s what it got. The u-joint at the bottom of the column was made of brass, and it polished up so brightly that it would have been a shame to paint it, so I didn’t. Instead, I sprayed it with a clear lacquer for protection.
The Isetta pedal setup is conventional: from left to right, there are the clutch, brake, and gas pedals. The steering column is located directly between the clutch and brake pedals, though, so any thought of left-foot braking, much less heel-and-toeing, must be dismissed. What do you think, this is a race car?
The assembly came apart easily enough, and the metal pedals were cleaned and painted, just like so many other parts. Knowing that the pedal surfaces would eventually show some wear, I applied extra coats of paint to them, and decided that if I drove the car enough to create evidence of use on the pedals, I’d just call it “patina”.
Instead of a separate starter and generator, the Isetta (and other contemporaneous small cars) used a combined starter/generator called a Dynastart. The combo unit mounted directly on the nose of the crankshaft. A heavy B+ lead went from the battery, to the voltage regulator, then to the starter post on the Dynastart. Turning the ignition key to “start” energized the unit to spin the armature. Once the engine started, it switched to charging mode, and along with regulator, fed DC voltage to the battery.
Mine looked like some sparrows had spent several seasons nesting in its confines. The internal magnets, wrapped in electrical tape, showed signs of fraying. Thankfully, John Jensen in his Isetta Restorationbook provided explicit instructions for rebuilding the Dynastart. I took on the task, but not until I purchased supplies of various color wiring and cloth-covered tape.
The trickiest part of the job was removing the magnets, and Jensen warned about that. The only way they could be removed was by using a hammer-driven impact tool. Compounding the difficulty, the magnets were held in place with slotted screws, which could be easily stripped. Eventually, it all came apart. All the magnets were retaped, all the wires were replaced, and it all looked visually pleasing. Whether it would start and charge remained to be seen.
The completed Dynastart meant that I could almost hear that thump-thump-thump of that one-cylinder vertical at idle. That moment would need to wait. With 1994 drawing to a close, the year gave me a final chance to take my car, as it was, to a show:
My employer, Volvo Cars of North America, had an irregular annual tradition called Toy Day. It was a chance for employees who were auto buffs to display their toys at work. A Toy Day was held in October of 1994, and I was determined to make a presentation, even if I were the only one who wasn’t going to drive his toy to work.
Measuring the back of my Volvo 245, I saw that the rolling chassis would indeed fit in the rear of Sweden’s finest wagon (2nd row seats folded, of course). I maneuvered the chassis in there, and included a folding card table so that I could display my photo album and some Isetta literature. I managed to procure a parking spot between two other fine German automobiles, a Beetle convertible and a Porsche 911. (Re-read above about “willingness to allow others to laugh at you”.) My good friend John felt it was his obligation to effect his best salesperson pose for this photograph:
Events like this only motivated me to keep going. Next, I would prove that the engine would run. Then, I could turn my attention to the body. Not for the first time, I asked myself, “how difficult could this be?”
Next time in the Isetta Saga: 1995 arrives. I said that “The Isetta Will Drive in ’95”. But will it? The year starts auspiciously, as I explore a risky way to purchase all the parts I’m still missing.