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.
In Chapter 8, the front half of the chassis got back on its feet, er, wheels, while patiently waiting for some engine machine work to be completed. In Chapter 9 below, we make serious progress on one engine, while also making serious progress on the gearbox and rear axle.
We last visited our engine progress in Chapter 7, which concluded with me leaving one crankshaft / connecting rod assembly in the hopefully-capable hands of Isetta restorer Ron Krause in PA. Ron said that he would take “a few weeks” to rebuild my crankshaft. I wasn’t exactly sitting around waiting for the phone to ring; I resumed work on the chassis, and as we saw in Chapter 8, got it up onto its two front tires again.
Sure enough, after a few weeks, Ron Krause called. My rebuilt crank/conrod was ready. I asked him if I could drop off a second one. He said he wasn’t one to turn down business. I drove to Emmaus once more, to pick up one assembly, and drop off another. I was becoming a regular. After a few days, Ron got back to me, stating that there was a problem. It seemed that BMW used both aluminum and steel connecting rods. The aluminum rods were notoriously weak. My second assembly used an aluminum rod, and it wasn’t rebuildable. Ron said that he could offer me an exchange unit for the same price. It wouldn’t be original to my car, but for such an internal part, it didn’t matter. I told him that I would go that route. He said he would have it ready for me in a few weeks.
With one rebuilt crankshaft in hand, I could begin reassembly of an engine. Of course, as the repair guides love to state, “installation is the reverse of removal”, so the crankcase needed to be cooked again. But first, the bare case was cleaned as best as possible using solvents, was given an abrasive cleaning with a wire wheel in an electric drill, and was then painted with high-temperature aluminum paint out of a rattle can (as the store-bought spray paints are derisively called). In today’s world of high-end, no-expense-spared restorations, this kind of approach would be looked at as amateurish at best, and below-standard at worst. However, this was what I could afford while still keeping to a DIY standard. My Isetta was SUPPOSED to be a hobbyist restoration.
Allowing the paint to dry, I waited for an evening when my wife was not home, and turned on the kitchen oven to 400F. I put the crankcase in the oven and waited for 20 minutes. Oven mitts at the ready, I pulled out the superhot case, ran downstairs, picked up the crank/conrod assembly, and reinserted it. It went in like the book said it would. It was one of those moments in the journey where the progress felt profound.
With the crankshaft back in place, the front of the engine could be reassembled. New timing chain, tensioner, and bearings were fitted. The camshaft was reinstalled, and new seals were used on the front of both crank and cam. The oil pump was reinstalled, and the oil pan was bolted in place, but not before hand-cutting an extra-thick cork gasket. John Jensen pointed out that when full, the engine oil is at a level ABOVE the oil pan gasket. I did not want this thing to leak if I could help it, so the cork gasket got silicone sealer on both sides, making for a nice sandwich between the crankcase and oil pan.
The cylinder barrels, surprisingly, did not show signs of broken fins. The two barrels were measured and were not out of spec. I bought a “small engine hone”, one designed for lawn mowers, and gave each barrel a light honing. These were cast iron and were painted with the appropriate paint. Pistons were reused (again, after measurements determined they were OK), and were fitted with new rings. Next in line: the cylinder head(s). I needed a good machine shop for that.
While waiting for crank #2, and while researching machine shops, I grabbed the next part in line: the four-speed manual transmission. Of course, I had two, and from the outside, they looked identical. I chose one and ran with it. The other would be saved for my step-son. The transmission could be mounted to the same wooden engine stand as was used for the engine, once a few extra mounting holes were drilled (into the stand, not the tranny).
(It has long been folklore in Isetta circles that their transmissions lack a reverse gear. I believe this bit of “fake news” came about because of the drivetrain’s motorcycle origins. However this falsehood began, it is simply not true. All Isetta manual transmissions were four-speed, fully synchronized on all forward speeds, with a reverse gear. A very, very, small number of Isettas were equipped with the Saxomat semi-automatic transmission.)
I had never rebuilt any kind of transmission before, manual or automatic. As a tech, I had replaced clutches and shifter mechanisms, and had serviced valve bodies, so it wasn’t something I feared. Here again, the John Jensen Isetta Restoration book was the go-to publication. The tranny, like much of the drivetrain, relied on roller bearings. Provided that no gears were broken, a rebuild consisted of replacing the bearings, seals and gaskets.
Once the front cover was off, the contrast with the innards compared to the engines’ was striking. Of course, transmissions do not normally circulate combustion by-products among their moving parts. The initial inspection showed clean and intact gears riding in rather clean oil.
This gearbox was conventional in using three shafts: input, counter, and output. Each shaft was labeled as it was removed (they looked awfully similar outside the case). Roller bearings were standard metric sizes. The Jensen book provided the dimensions, and I was able to procure SKF bearings locally. (More about SKF and its connection to a certain Swedish car company is below under ‘FUN FACT OF THE WEEK’.)
As was done with the crankcase, the transmission case and cover were cleaned, abraded, and painted. The three shafts were reinstalled into the freshly painted case. I made my own gaskets for the covers, and all seams that needed to seal against oil were slathered with copper goop. Jensen warned that the Isetta drivetrain, with its aluminum mating surfaces, could be a real leaker.
Motivated by my success with the transmission, I continued to the rear axle assembly. Let’s again dispense with a so-called fact spewed by the know-it-alls: “Isettas have only three wheels, with two in the front and one in the back”. Some have stretched this yarn to include the outrageous idea that it was the rear wheel that did the steering.
Here’s the truth: ALL U.S. spec Isettas had four wheels and tires (as did the original design). When viewing the car from the rear, it could appear that there was only one rear wheel, as the two rear wheels were only 20 inches apart. They rode on a solid axle, without a differential. This meant that there was no “differential action” on turns. (In a turn, the inner wheels travel a shorter distance than the outer wheels. A differential allows each rear wheel to rotate at a different speed to account for this.) In an Isetta, this lack of differential action meant that there was some tire scrub in turns, hardly noticeable to the driver when 13 horsepower are providing motive power.
Unlike the transmission rumor, though, there was a nugget of truth regarding the 3-wheelers. In Great Britain, Isettas were built locally under license (as they were in France, Brazil, and other countries). The UK had a motor-vehicle structure that labeled 3-wheeled vehicles as motorcycles. Such vehicles only required a motorcycle license to operate on public roads, and were taxed at a lower rate. The Brits took advantage of these loopholes and created a 3-wheeled version of the Isetta. I’ve never seen one in the metal, but in photos, it looks like the thing is about to tip over. And you thought the versions with two rear tires only 20 inches apart looked unstable….
The Isetta drivetrain included the following: a one-cylinder engine, with a four-speed transmission bolted directly to it; an extremely short driveshaft, with a Giubo joint at each end to allow for flex, connecting the gearbox to the rear axle; and a rear axle assembly with a chain drive enclosed in an aluminum housing. The chain drove a solid rear axle, with a 10-inch wheel & tire assembly at each end. The solid axle meant that only one brake drum was needed at the rear. Overall, this drivetrain was light, took up little room, and easily fit into the rear of the chassis.
My chaincase was opened, disassembled, and cleaned. Roller bearings were replaced, and the bare case was sprayed with the same high-temp aluminum paint as was used on the engine and gearbox. The chain showed no sign of wear, so I reused it. The case was reassembled, with the freshly painted black brake backing plate making a nice contrast to the silver. The quarter-elliptic leaf springs were treated to the same routine: disassemble, clean, paint, and reassemble. I became aware that except for complex assemblies like the engine, much of the remainder of my car was undamaged, and suffered only from disuse and poor storage.
Depending on the state of my garage (which housed my ’67 Dodge Dart convertible, and also was used for various house projects), the Isetta bodies would occasionally need to be moved out of the garage, then back into the garage. The bodyshell with glass can easily be lifted by three people. It became an inside joke among my neighbors when I came knocking, asking for their help to relocate a body.
All of this drivetrain work took place throughout 1993 and 1994. What was left? As mentioned earlier, I was on the hunt for a qualified machine shop for the cylinder heads. The finished rear axle meant that the chassis was close to rolling on its own four wheels, after which, there were still brake lines and pedal connections to contend with. Even though I didn’t plan to perform my own body and paint work, I thought that I could restore the driver’s controls (steering wheel & column, pedal assembly, and other interior components) myself.
The year 1993 also afforded me the chance to attend two different car shows featuring Isettas. One show was the now-famous Bubble Car Show in Laurel MD, where I had been in attendance in the early ‘80s. I got reacquainted with my microcar buddy John Malcolm there, and followed up my visit by placing a parts order with him.
Later that year, and a bit closer to home, the annual TVR car show, held in western NJ, included a special class for microcars (what connection they have to TVRs is lost on me, but it was nice to find Isettas within a 45-minute drive). Both shows provided further motivation to keep pushing myself.
The goal hadn’t changed: “The Isetta will drive in ‘95”. The unanswered question remained: “While I’m making progress, is the progress moving fast enough?”
Next time in the Isetta Saga: further engine progress is made, and we host the first of what will be several parties, to celebrate a certain milestone. It’s kind of corny, but hey, any excuse to pop open a bottle of champagne.
SKF, a leading manufacturer of ball bearings, was founded in Sweden in 1907. According to Wikipedia, they are the largest bearing manufacturer in the world. In the 1920s, SKF decided to begin automobile manufacturing. For the car’s name, the company used a word for which they already held the trademark. The word is Latin for “I roll” (as in, roller bearings). That Latin word is “Volvo”.
In Chapter 7, after figuring out how to take an Isetta engine apart, I did exactly that. With the help of my new Isetta buddy Ron Krause, it was hoped that someday I’d figure out how to get it all back together too.
This chapter of the Isetta Saga quite literally ties together all the pieces that make up the front end of the chassis. We get our first glimpse of something that looks like it might drive down the road (you’ll need to squint).
We had seen in Chapter 6 that the restoration work really began with stripping, cleaning, and repainting the bare chassis. Part of that process included removing all ancillary components from it: springs, shocks, brakes, and cabling. However, moving onto engine work didn’t mean that progress had ceased on the chassis. Parallel progress was being made which would get the chassis back on its four wheels again.
As a way to keep the project moving forward, I would work on several sub-sections of the car at a time. While I was waiting for the paint to dry on Part A, I was disassembling Part B. And while searching for replacements for the broken bits for Part C, Part D was soaking in Liquid Wrench because its bolts wouldn’t bust loose. And so on. Keeping this from disintegrating into a disorganized mess was helped by my infatuations with labeling and photographing everything. Hence, we have the photos I can share with you some 25 years later.
The Isetta’s suspension was somewhat conventional, employing coil springs over tube shocks encased in housings (a crude coilover) in the front, and quarter-elliptic leaf springs in the rear. In disassembling the front end, I noted that the springs and shocks seemed to be in good shape. The fact that there were no available replacements may have played a small role in my determination that these parts were “serviceable” and could be reused.
The springs had a 1957 date code on them, which meant they were factory original. They looked good, and I would guess that a 770 lb. car wouldn’t exert that much wear and tear on them.
One tricky part to the front end were the knuckles, which were designed to hold a small quantity of high-viscosity oil in them. The moveable parts of the suspension, which were the spindle and the swing arm, were lubricated by this oil. The fluid was held in place via metric-sized o-rings. Since I found ZERO trace of existing o-rings upon disassembly, I knew replacements were needed, and I was able to source the correct-size o-rings from one of my suppliers.
Most (but not all) Isettas made use of two-piece split rims, with the wheel halves held together with simple nuts and bolts. This arrangement required the use of inner tubes. One of my parts sources had the correct 10” tubes with the correct 90 degree valve stem. Although I had planned to let a professional body shop paint the wheels, I thought I could save some costs by sand-blasting them myself. Jorgen Carlsson, a Swedish engineer I met at work, happened to have his own sand-blasting cabinet, and lived not far from the office. How convenient. I loaded up the wheel pieces and headed over at the end of the work day.
Having never used a sand-blaster before, I imagined the process as similar to painting: aim the nozzle, squeeze the trigger, and viola, old paint and rust are wiped away. Well, not quite as simple as spraying on a new coat.
While the blast of sand does bring the part down to bare metal, it is a very slow process. The gun must linger on the spot for several moments, after which, there is only a small area cleaned. You then aim for the adjacent spot, as you clean off an area maybe the size of a quarter every few minutes.
There were 10 wheel halves (including the spare), and each piece needed to have both sides worked. I thought I’d be there for an hour or two; my recollection is that it was a very late night for me. Once I started, I felt I needed to finish it, and in actuality, the whole job probably took 4 or 5 hours. Jorgen was extremely patient with me, letting me stay until my work was done.
The newly-blasted wheels were taken to a body shop local to the office, with my instructions to “paint them white”. They did, and I picked them up later that week.
Next came a very controversial decision among my friends: were the wheel bolts supposed to show the BOLT HEAD or the NUT to the outside of the wheel? Remember that I had two chassis, and two sets of wheels. As I had received them, ALL the wheel hardware showed the NUT on the outside. There was no proof that the factory assembled them that way; but I had a hard time believing that all these wheels had had the hardware reversed. That’s how I reassembled the wheels, in spite of the razzing I got from more than one friendly “expert”.
When BMW sold new Isettas in the mid-to-late ‘50s, they left the factory with 4.80 x 10 bias-ply tires. Radial tires were around in the 1950s, but very few cars were so equipped. While I certainly had taken a strong turn toward originality for my restoration, I also intended to drive this car, and based on that, I was wanted to install radial tires, for safety, handling, and comfort, judges be damned. The equivalent size was a 145SR-10, and Michelin manufactured a ZX tire in that size. A contact inside Volvo was able to get me a set of 5 Michelins at a very favorable price (my handwritten notes say that I paid $26.67 per tire). The split rims meant that I could mount the tires myself.
IT STARTS TO COME TOGETHER
The front suspension was easy to put back together (I made my own coil spring compressor from some threaded rod and steel strapping), and once that was assembled, two of the completed wheel-and-tire assemblies bolted right up to the chassis.
The grin on my face says it all: with about two years of somewhat sporadic work behind me, THIS moment felt like a giant leap: the chassis was again rolling, if only on its front wheels. The back half of the car was still a challenge, as that is where the drivetrain sat: even with the engine work coming along, I still had to get to the gearbox, rear axle, and rear suspension. But progress is progress, and as I gaze at this photo again, I’m reminded how this milestone pushed me to keep at it.
In our next installment (what am I up to, Chapter 54?), two engines get built up courtesy of the rebuilt cranks of Ron Krause; and the rest of the drivetrain is tackled, as the man with the toolbox rebuilds his first-ever manual transmission. Hey, it’s just a box full of gears.
The Michelin Tire Company, founded by brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin, is responsible for two major tire innovations: the invention of the removable pneumatic tire in 1891 (prior to this, pneumatic tires were glued to the rims and were difficult or impossible to repair); and the invention of the radial tire in 1946.
The radial tire gained almost immediate widespread adoption in Europe. But the U.S. car makers stubbornly stuck with bias-ply tires (U.S. market share of bias-ply tires in 1967 was 87%). That changed when in 1968, Michelin opened its first U.S. sales office, and Consumer Reports magazine reported on the superiority of the radial tire.
In Chapter 6, we saw in pictures and words how the chassis was the first component to be transformed from rusty hulk to freshly painted beauty (if an Isetta chassis can be beautiful).
In Chapter 7, we discover the secrets to taking apart what is essentially an air-cooled BMW motorcycle engine. Then we do it two more times.
You cannot embark on a project of this magnitude and expect to do it alone. This is especially true for tasks you’re performing for the first time. At some point, there will be the need to rely on, and to seek expertise from, those who have done these things before you. This is the theme for this Chapter, and this concept will certainly be revisited again.
I’ve related in earlier Chapters how glad I was to discover other hobbyists who were Isetta restorers and collectors. There was some knowledge-sharing, and just as important to me, there was satisfaction in knowing that parts availability could be fulfilled through some of my fellow Isetta fanatics. Now, as I was about to start a mechanical teardown and rebuild, I really needed some assistance from others.
Two gentlemen who were serving the Isetta community, John Jensen and Ron Krause, were both huge factors in the success I had with my engines. Simply put, this restoration would have faced a far rockier road without them.
With the cleaning and painting of the bare chassis done, I had to decide which mechanical sub-system to work on next: engine, gearbox, rear axle, electrical, suspension, or brakes. Bodywork, which I would not be doing myself, would be postponed until most or all of the mechanicals were completed.
The decision was made to begin with the engine, as that would potentially take the most time. Also, from staring at these engines over the last few years, I still did not know how to take the one-cylinder Isetta engine apart. To be specific, I saw no way to remove the crankshaft & connecting rod from the crankcase. The case was one piece; it was not “split” the way an air-cooled VW or Porsche crankcase is. And as near as I could tell, the bottom of the connecting rod was not split either. At least I couldn’t see or feel any bolts which would hold an end cap in place. Whatever the trick, this was nothing like any other automotive engine I had worked on.
I was now subscribing to Minutia, the quarterly publication of the Microcar & Minicar Club. In a recent issue was an ad from a fellow named John Jensen (I recognized his name from the old HMI Club). He was advertising a book he had authored and self-published (come on, you think Random House was interested?) entitled “Isetta Restoration”. He claimed that the book was a detailed account of the restoration of his own Isetta. It seemed expensive at $42 in 1992 dollars, but I purchased it.
The memory of getting the book in the mail and opening it is vivid. The first thing I looked up was “engine disassembly”. I’ll paraphrase what was in the book:
“The Isetta crankshaft is a two-piece affair, with the two halves pressed together through the bottom of the one-piece connecting rod, which rides on a roller bearing. To remove the crankshaft/con rod assembly from the case, you must heat up the case to a temperature of around 400 degrees F. Doing so expands the aluminum just enough so that you can wiggle the crank/conrod out of the front opening. Be sure to use oven mitts!”
For me, this was as good as “X” marks the spot on a treasure map. I couldn’t wait to try this. But first I needed to make a decision: WHICH of the three engines would I rebuild?
Yes, I was in possession of three engines, all in various states of disassembly. Taking an approach I had already used with the bodies, carburetors, and other systems, I decided to disassemble all three engines, and take stock of what I had. I cleverly labeled the engines A, B, and C. Three cardboard boxes were also labeled A, B, and C, and were positioned under my workbench. As parts came off, they went into their respective box.
At first glance, all the engines looked questionable, as they had been open to the elements for many years. With front covers and oil pans removed, the picture became clearer: the ones which kept oil in them looked better, if a bit black. And one looked like it had been lifted from the deck of the Titanic (not really, but it certainly had been in water).
Based on this visual inspection, I decided to rebuild two engines, one for my car, and one for my step-son’s. The third engine would be sold for parts, which would help fund the project.
A colleague at Volvo, Steve Kraitz, was also a part-time carpenter, I showed him a page from Jensen’s book which detailed the construction of a wooden engine stand that could be bolted or clamped to a workbench. Steve gladly agreed to build this for me, charging only for the cost of the wood. That stand was a major help with the engine rebuilds. Because the engines are so small, it was a simple matter for one person (me) to bolt the engine to the wooden stand, and then lift and bolt the stand to my workbench.
As engine parts were removed, they were cleaned, labeled, and returned to the appropriate box. I now had three engine crankcases, with everything removed except crankshafts and connecting rods.
Time to fire up the blue torch.
My trusty Bernz-o-Matic was pressed into action. I selected Engine A. With the exterior of the crankcase as clean as possible (I didn’t need to add to the drama by igniting any errant sludge), I moved the flame around the front of the case. The crankcase, of course, was bolted to the plywood engine stand, so I couldn’t get too close to that either! It felt like an eternity, but after about 15 minutes or so of heating, I guessed that the aluminum had absorbed as much heat from a propane torch as it was going to.
I grabbed the oven mitt which I had thoughtfully brought down from the kitchen, grabbed the nose of the crankshaft, and worked it forward. I had to experiment with tilting the shaft to get the connecting rod to clear the opening. It looked like it wasn’t going to come out. Moments passed. The crankcase was cooling off.
POP – I must have blinked, because in the next moment, I was holding onto a crankshaft/conrod assembly OUTISDE the crankcase. Yahoo! I exclaimed (before that was a search engine).
I stopped for now. This was too much excitement for one night. I worked on the next two engines on subsequent nights, with the same success. But the next step was still a problem in search of a solution: how was I going to separate the crank halves so that a new bearing could be installed?
In the early 1990s, Old Cars Weekly was a viable publication in the hobby, and I subscribed to it. The classifieds in the back could be helpful, and it was here where I noticed a vague ad from someone who offered Isetta restoration services. His name was Ron Krause, and he was in Emmaus, PA, only an hour from my house. But first I decided to give him a ring:
RR: Hi, I’m calling to find out if you can rebuild Isetta engine crankshafts.
RK: Sure, just bring me the engine so I can remove the crankshaft and examine it.
RR: Oh, the crank is already out of the case.
RK: Who did that?
RR: I did.
RK: YOU are a genius.
I tried to remain humble at this inference of my intelligence level (really, I was just a tech with a blowtorch). But Ron was OK with me bringing the crank/conrod assembly to him. We agreed that I could drive out on a Saturday morning to drop it off.
The following weekend, I arrived in Emmaus in front of what looked like an Isetta new car dealership. Out front, there was a glass-walled showroom with several restored Isettas. Inside was a service area with cars-in-progress, along with several chassis. Ron himself was behind a parts counter, assisting a customer ahead of me. It was 1957 all over again.
Ron Krause had been a successful Honda dealer principal. As I understood it, he got into Hondas very early in the game, sometime in the early ‘70s. He prospered through all the boom years, and then decided to retire. He sold the franchise, and the new owners had to relocate when he retained ownership of the property. He kept the building where his Honda dealer was, and turned his hobby into an Isetta business. Here was yet another “character”, as seemed to be the trend among people who liked Isettas (not sure what that said about me).
I had time to wander around while waiting for him to finish with his customer, and I couldn’t help but observe that as nice as his restorations were, they were not done to 100% original standards. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want, but many of these restorations were not my preference. He especially favored inauthentic colors. A rare bubble-window convertible was a quality job except for its metallic turquoise paint. Not quite as bad was the white sliding-window convertible with blue body accents.
When Ron finally came out from behind the counter to greet me, he also went back to work on one of the chassis. While we talked, he cut an intake manifold in half so that the two halves could be re-welded with one end rotated 90 degrees. Ron made no secret of the fact that he “hated” the factory Bing carburetors. No doubt driven by his long-term Japanese car experience, he said he converted ALL his Isettas to run on Hitachi carbs. The reconfiguring of the intake manifolds was all it took for the Hitachis to bolt right up, at least according to Ron.
He agreed to rebuild the crankshaft and con rod assembly for me, so I left it with him, but not before inquiring about other parts he might have. It felt like quite the stroke of good luck to have several sources of Isetta parts (first Isetta Johns in Rutherford NJ, and now Ron Krause) within an hour’s drive of me. Things were looking up in my quest to get this project on the road by 1995.
Chapter 8 of the Isetta Saga will detail progress on suspension, wheels, and tires happening while we patiently wait for the Krause crank creations (moan).
Today we take for granted that the Japanese “Big 3” in the automotive world are Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. Toyota built its first passenger vehicle in 1935; Nissan was building cars under the Datsun name around the same time. But Honda started much later: its first vehicles went on sale in 1963.
While it entered the U.S. market in the late ‘60s with some quirky small cars, its first mainstream success was the introduction of the Civic in 1973, which stood out as one of the few front wheel drive vehicles available in any segment. The Accord was introduced in 1976. Both the Civic and Accord have been in continuous production since their introductions in the ‘70s.
In Chapter 5, we counted down as the number of Isettas to be restored dwindled from three, to two, to one. Whew! That looks more manageable now.
In Chapter 6 below, we finally get our hands dirty, and perform the first work of any substance on what will some day be a driving automobile.
The Restoration Plan for what would eventually be ONE running and driving Isetta was coming more into focus. Some extraneous parts had been sold off, and remaining parts had been picked through and sorted, a more time-consuming process than first imagined. My gaze now turned to a rusty, crusty, but complete chassis, and the next course of action would be to remove everything from it, including its factory paint. But first, let’s shoot a roll of film!
The reasoning (which turned out to be quite correct) was that it could be a few years before I would be reassembling many of these components onto a restored frame. Previous automotive repair work had taught me that you can’t trust your memory, even if you think it’s sharp. (I had experienced instances when, after removing 4 bolts of different lengths from an assembly, I had forgotten the precise locations of those bolts by the next day!)
There was nothing to indicate that any major mechanical work had preceded my ownership of this fine German automobile, so the photographic evidence would provide documentation as to how the brake lines, suspension, foot controls, cables, etc. were installed by the factory. Once the photos were in hand, the chassis was stripped of all mechanical components, and all removed parts were labeled, bagged or boxed, and stored.
The only untouched parts were the front spindles. They were attached to the chassis via king pins. None of my Isetta parts catalogs showed replacement parts for them, and since I detected no freeplay, I let them be. They were a beautiful cast aluminum, and would not require painting. They would be masked for protection when the chassis was painted.
When stood on its end, the bare chassis was about as tall as I was, and weighed perhaps 40-50 pounds. It was a simple affair to lift and carry it into my basement shop, a more comfortable place to work compared to the garage. I set the chassis down onto an all-metal dolly that I found in a trash heap on a Brooklyn street corner while on a music gig. The dolly came home with me, jammed into the back of my wagon along with my drums.
I tackled the old paint and rust with a 3M abrasive wheel, chucked into my handy Black & Decker all-metal drill. A short time later, the chassis was devoid of paint. One could see welding splatter from the factory welds. There were no signs of collision damage, nor had rust permeated the structure in any way.
For paint, I settled on Bill Hirsch’s Miracle Paint, a product that was heavily advertised in collector car publications of the day. Compared to POR-15, Miracle Paint was promoted as not requiring a top coat (although one could paint on top of it if desired). Available in black, silver, and clear, I selected black, and when I saw how glossy it was, I decided that no top coat was needed.
I learned the hard way that if you removed the lid on a can of Miracle Paint, got some paint in the can’s lip, and reinstalled the lid, that lid was not coming off again. The “trick” was this: keep the lid on the can. Shake it well. Using an awl, punch two holes in the top (one slightly larger than the other). Pour out just enough paint as needed into a disposable cup (the 2nd hole allowed the paint to pour out more freely), and close both holes with duct tape. If the duct tape could not be removed, you only had to punch a hole through the tape, and into the existing hole. This worked like a charm.
Although Bill Hirsch sold Miracle Paint solvent, I found it much more efficient to paint with disposable foam brushes. They could be bought at Carlisle for 25 cents each, and the foam left a smooth surface without brush marks. The entire chassis, indeed much of this project, was painted with foam brushes.
By this time, we were halfway into 1992, and while progress was “steady”, it was also “slow”. In these days, prior to TV shows which glamorized auto restoration, I’d read the occasional article in Old Cars Weekly about someone who restored a ’57 Chevy in six months. Sure! First, you had dozens of parts suppliers who had everything you needed; second, you could attend any car show and find a reference car, should you need to examine one; and third, you were probably retired, and had 40-50 hours a week to devote to the hobby. My path forward offered to none of these advantages.
During the summer of 1992, I learned of a car show in eastern Ohio that was planning to feature BMW Isettas in a special class, so we went. Yes, it was a long ride to look at some Isettas, but the last time I had done something like this was ten years prior. My restoration had begun, and I was anxious for the inspiration.
We got to the show, and the turnout was better than expected. Looking much like dyed Easter eggs (and not much larger), the lineup of Isettas made for some striking photos. I chatted with a few owners, one of whom informed me of a new club, called the Microcar and Minicar Club. He provided me with an application, and encouraged me to join.
But the biggest shock of the show was provided by someone who did not have a car on display. I watched as a man set up several display tables, and proceeded to unload crates and boxes of …. new Isetta parts. His name was John Wetzel, and he operated a business that he called Isetta Johns (sic). He lived in Rutherford NJ, most convenient for me, and by all appearances, this was his full-time employment. While I did not purchase from him that day, I obtained his contact information, and assured him that I would be in touch.
My recollection of that show was that it left me feeling overwhelmed, and slightly depressed. I saw that I had a long way to go before my car would be up to the caliber of the cars in Ohio. This, combined with the discovery of someone like Isetta Johns, also altered my thinking about the project. Rather than just get the car to run, only to possibly take it apart again to fully restore it, it seemed the wiser decision to perform a complete restoration while it was all in pieces. I needed to step up my game.
The business world in the early 1990s was as much about organization and motivation as it was about making profits. This certainly was the case at Volvo, what with newly launched efforts on Vision Statements, Mission Statements, Total Quality Management, and so on. Taking a page from this approach, I decided that a motivating slogan would spur me to keep pushing forward. For the umpteenth time, I asked myself, “this car is so small! How long could it take?” The approximate answer to that was “three more years”, which would land me in 1995.
The slogan was born: “THE ISETTA WILL DRIVE IN ‘95”. I printed out multiple copies, and hung one in my workshop at home, and one in my office at work. Some of my Volvo colleagues took pity on me; others thought I had lost my mind.
In Chapter 7 of the Isetta Saga, you’ll learn how the twin discoveries of an Isetta Restoration Book and an “Isetta Dealership” in Pennsylvania provided the kick start to a rebuild of the 1-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine.
The word “chassis”(pronounced CHA-see) is actually French. Its etymology goes back to Latin, but in 13th century Old French, it was spelled “chassiz”, and defined as a “frame” or “framework”. By the 1660s, the spelling evolved to “chassis”, and more narrowly referred to a “window frame”. In 1869, the word was defined as a “sliding frame or carriage base for a large gun” (I’m picturing something more akin to a cannon, rather than a hand-held gun). In 1903, at the start of the automotive industry, it entered the English language as meaning “the base frame of an automobile”.
Although I could find no further explanation as to how the word switched from guns to cars, it seems logical that given the French dominance in the very early years of the horseless carriage, a French word for a car part would easily be adopted. After all, the word “automobile” also comes to us directly from the French.
Remember this the next time you’re eating French Fries.