The Isetta Saga, Chapter 10: The Rolling Chassis Debut

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.

A Polaroid of the heads prior to the machine work


The bill from C&S; a large expense compared to what I had been spending


One last shot of piston before head covers it

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?

With rope power, the rolling chassis awaits its debut


It’s not a party without champagne

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.


Great friends raise a glass…. Judie, Chris, and Linda have passed on….

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 chassis finally is returned to rolling on 4 wheels


As a reminder, this is how it looked in 1990


From this angle, rear chain drive assembly is shown; no engine or trans yet


Front shock towers were black, now red; front and rear tread difference obvious here

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 line formation; new master cylinder is in place

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.

My “before” photos came in very handy for the forming of new brake lines

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.

Front brake shoes and wheel cylinder shown with drum removed


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.

Steering wheel as found, with worn factory coating

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.

After sanding; wheel was overall in decent shape

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.

Restorations drive you to be creative and make your own tools

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 polished brass steering column u-joint; note BMW roundel stamped into surface



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 pedal assembly before cleaning; note tube for steering column

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”.

Clean pedals, ready for paint



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.

The Dynastart in “as found” condition

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 Restoration book 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 bare shell, to be cleaned and reassembled


Done, and awaiting mounting to engine. Note tags on wiring.

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:

First “public display”. Along with John, two Swedish engineers steal ideas for future Volvos

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.  

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



What’s old is new again: Dynastart, technology now owned by German drivetrain manufacturer ZF, is being marketed by them as a practical, space-and weight-saving solution for hybrids.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 9: Overhauling the Car’s Compact Drivetrain

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.

Engine case was cleaned using simple wire brush chucked into drill

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.

Case is painted, crank ready to go back in

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.


Two cylinder barrels, one unpainted, one cleaned and paintted


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.

Lower end is essentially back together

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).

Two transmissions, identical except one on right has driveshaft attached (top)

(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.)

With cover off, it was a relief to see no broken gears; note roller bearings and shims


Transmission mounted to same wooden stand as used for engines

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’.)

Transmission case and covers, ready for paint

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.

Transmission almost done except for cover

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….


Chain reinstalled into painted case

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.

Body on its way back into the garage

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. 

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



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”.


The Isetta Saga, Chapter 8: Focus on the Front End

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.

Date code looks like 21.10.57 – late ’57 production car?

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.

Dirty wheel halves in the back of my Volvo 245

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.

Ola Paulsson and Jorgen Carlsson

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.

Preblasted wheels on left; blasted wheels on right

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.

Took 5 hours, but all wheels are cleaned down to bare steel

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.

Freshly painted wheels are bright white

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.

Brand new Michelin ZX, 145SR10, label still attached


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.

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



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.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 7: The Art & Science of Isetta Engine Disassembly

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.

A postcard advertising John Jensen’s “Isetta Restoration” book

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.

Engine B’s oil pickup had been in more water than oil

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.


Engine A on plywood stand, about to be disassembled (stand is bolted to workbench)


Coked black, here are engine A’s chains and sprockets pre-cleanup


Snap-On puller used to pull cam sprocket; wrench stands in for leverage

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).


A very filthy Engine C assumes the position


Armature off, engine C shows a lot of rust behind the front cover


Engine C’s crankshaft and crankcase separated

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?

The 3 bare crankcases. None showed any sign of wear or damage.

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 front of Ron Krause’s Isetta “dealership” (note Honda 600 at end of row)

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.

Restored chassis in front, Ron Krause in rear (wearing Honda smock)

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.

My signed receipt from Ron Krause, proof that he had my crank


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).

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



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.



The Isetta Saga, Chapter 6: Strip That Chassis!

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!

A rolling chassis, about to have all its parts removed



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.

Removed of its parts, but still covered in rust and grime; note as-found dolly

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.

Cast aluminum spindle in the process of getting spiffed up

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.

Stripped to bare metal

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.

Cleaned chassis painted with Miracle Paint

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 stern look means “get back to work!”

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.

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



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.




THE ISETTA SAGA, CHAPTER 5: Three Little, Two Little, One Little Isetta

Chapter 4 recounted how a stealth mission reunited the 3 MIA Isettas with their owner after a lost decade of neglected storage. The initial cleanup of the pile of parts was barely the beginning of the restoration process to come.  

In Chapter 5, the first Big Restoration Decision is made: shall we restore one, two, or all three cars? After all, they’re so small – how difficult could it be?

My newly-acquired home had the advantage of an attached garage, with a walk-through door leading to a basement room equipped with a workbench and my full tool set. It was also heated, courtesy of the gas burner with which it shared space. A disadvantage was that the garage was single-car sized. Isettas are small, but three of them (plus parts) managed to rather completely fill that space. This also left precious little room for wrenching on them.

The first of what would be many consequential decisions was about to be made. I needed to ask myself “what exactly is my plan? What do I hope to accomplish?” The answer to those questions was this: perform enough mechanical restoration work to ONE Isetta to make it drivable. This was the goal at the start; nothing more, nothing less.

In surveying the cars, bodies, chassis, and crates full of loose items, I realized that that a complete inventory would not only be necessary; it would serve as a road map for a logical progression with the mechanical work. Allow me to remind my readers, most of who were not there, that these cars had been taken apart, and not by me. To put it in a Rumsfeldian way: I didn’t know what I had, and more importantly, I didn’t know what I didn’t have.

Much of the next two years was consumed with A) disassembling everything; B) arranging all parts, including multiples, in marked bags and boxes; and C) keeping the “best one” of each, while selling off the duplicates. This otherwise-boring job was greatly aided by the Isetta parts diagrams that Wes had given us (and which a cleaner copy was later obtained from the HMI Club).


Parts cleaning was done with various solvents for the grease and grime; a 3M plastic “stripping” wheel was chucked into a drill to strip rust, old paint and other hard coatings.

Shoeboxes, milk crates, cookie tins, and plastic produce bags were all pressed into service as parts organizers, at little or no cost. Everything was sealed shut with masking tape, and a big black Sharpie identified the contents.  Once cleaned, parts were placed on a set of shelves I built from scrap wood for the sole purpose of storage and organization.


Isetta Number One (car on left) was solid red, with twin wipers and door vents, making it a “DeLuxe” model. The body on this car was the most rusty of the four. I never recorded its chassis number.

Isetta Number Two (car in center) was also solid red, without door vents, and with a single wiper. Its chassis number was 509090. This was the car that I restored and kept.

Isetta Number Three (car on right) was just a body, without a chassis. Its chassis number was 509516. While currently red, signs of the original pastel yellow were very obvious on both the outside and inside.

Isetta Number Four was two-tone blue grey (two-tones are very common on Isettas). Its chassis number was 511502. (Note the proximity of the three chassis numbers.) This was the vehicle which Don kept, and it is the one vehicle of which I have no photographs.

While this was going on, I more closely examined the three car bodies. The casual observer would have seen little difference among them, but each was different. All three were red, but only two were born that way.

One had left the factory in a pastel yellow, and had received a rather crude hand-brushed repaint in red (maybe Wes wanted all of them to match). The yellow car was also the one with the missing chassis, not that we couldn’t mount it to another one.

The second car was a “DeLuxe” edition, with fresh air vents in the door, and, luxury of luxuries, TWO wiper blades!  While these were positives, a rather large negative was the body’s condition: of the three, it had the greatest amount of rust and sheet metal damage. The roof was dented, and some hack had cut a rectangular opening in the shelf above the engine.

This view shows the poor shape of the body. Before selling, it would be stripped of all its parts.


Note left-hand shifter, sunroof (standard), door vents, and dealer-installed ashtray

The third car was a “standard” body, as most Isettas were, lacking door vents and a 2nd wiper blade, but aside from a 2-inch rust hole in its battery tray, its body was in the best shape.

I decided to sell the DeLuxe body. From what I had seen among Isetta parts suppliers, the door grilles and internal air vents were not available as spare parts, and I feared that this would prove to be an obstacle down the road. (Only much later did replacement parts become available, and I would later regret selling that door, as “DeLuxe” Isettas were rarer and potentially more valuable.)

The bare body shell as offered for sale

I unbolted the body from the chassis, removed all the glass and trim, and began to advertise it. While attending Imports at Carlisle, I created a wearable sign, hoping to garner some attention and a possible buyer. While I can’t speak to the attention I may have gotten, no one was waving dollar bills in my face (I sadly underestimated the on-site market demand for Isetta bodies).

I walked the field at Carlisle wearing this sign. No one talked to me.

Back home, I placed an ad in Old Cars Weekly, asking $100, and I got it! A dentist from Long Island drove out to my house with a flatbed (overkill; the body would have fit in the bed of a Ford F-150). He claimed that he was going to turn it into a race car. And I thought my dreams were ambitious! Before it left my possession, I posed for a final picture:

Parting company, and now down to two.

This left me with two rather complete cars, plus a spare engine, as I had three crankcases. The next decision was easy: the yellow car would go, and I’d keep the remaining red car, as its body was the best. Since my initial intention was to just get a car running, it looked like the red body might not need much of anything, other than to be bolted to a completed chassis.

My step-son, who in his young age already had several automotive projects under his belt, wanted to buy the yellow car from me. At first, I was completely against the idea. He lived in Colorado and expected me to store it for him “for the time being”. Recalling the patience my parents displayed when I unceremoniously dumped three Isettas in THEIR backyard, I relented. He offered me $500 for the yellow car, and I told him that I’d keep the car in NJ until he could make plans for it.

The red body came off the chassis so that I could remove the suspension, brakes, and remaining drivetrain pieces. The body, sitting on wood, was back to hibernating in a garage until I would get to it.

509090 waits for its wedding day

As tempting as it was to peruse the numerous (both) Isetta parts catalogs so that parts purchasing could commence, I held off. For now, I stayed focused on the short-term goal to complete the cleaning and cataloging. Only when that was done would I start literally at the bottom, by bringing one chassis back to like-new condition.

Light bedtime reading


In Chapter 6 of the Isetta Saga, we see lots of stripping action, as the chassis is first stripped of all its components, and then stripped of its factory paint, as the mechanical work begins in earnest.

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


The August 1990 issue of Car & Driver magazine (released around the time the above work was going on) featured a preview of the soon-to-be-available BMW 850i. Complete with 12-cylinder engine, it carried a base price of $73,600 (a far cry from the $1,098 starting price of a ’57 BMW Isetta). The 5-liter engine produced 296 horsepower and 332 ft. lb. of torque. Today’s electronically-controlled turbocharged and supercharged engines easily top those numbers with way fewer cylinders.


The Isetta Saga, Chapter 4: A Garage of My Own for the Isettas

In Chapter Three, we empathized with our wanna-be restorer who uncovered copious sources of Isetta parts and technical information, but who was still unable to accomplish any restoration work of significance.

Chapter Four ends happily when a clandestine mission brings all the Isettas to the same home as the author for the first time in a decade.


As the decade of the 1980s progressed, my dreams of restoring my Ford and BMWs were constantly beyond my reach. That’s not to say that I wasn’t spending my time productively. Much effort went into advancing my automotive career, as I progressed from Service Writer to Service Manager to a position with Volvo Corporate; I also embraced every opportunity to indulge in the drummer-as-alternate-career role, an activity which consumed a tremendous amount of time and energy.

In 1983, my girlfriend and I took a week’s vacation, traveling to Germany to be with her sister and brother-in-law. The BIL was in the service, stationed in Frankfurt. I insisted that we find our way to Munich so that we could visit the BMW Museum. (This was the same trip during which we visited the Schlumpf Collection in Mulhouse France.) The museum had an Isetta on display, alongside its contemporary 507. The 507 was graced  with a statue of Elvis alongside it, who owned one. The Isetta featured a life-size likeness of Marilyn Monroe alighting from its front door. This is what the Germans thought of ‘50s American culture.

The BMW Museum brochure, 1983


Difficult to believe that these two cars were in BMW showrooms at the same time

Aside from this visit, I paid little heed to anything Isetta-related, as my tiny car collection remained tucked away in its Maplewood garage. I continued to mail garage rental payments to Ms. Stetson, but otherwise had no contact with her. Mike Adams, who was sharing the garage with me to store his Volvo 544, left his employment at Smythe Volvo, and I subsequently lost contact with him.

The HMI Club still published newsletters, but I eventually stopped my subscription. An odd side-effect of having my name and number in the Club Directory was that, about once a year, my phone would ring and I would immediately face a barrage of questions: “I’m calling about the Isettas. Do you still own them? Can I ask you some questions about your Isettas?” These conversations, easily lasting an hour or more, would be pleasant, but did nothing to further any progress with the cars.

After the Ford Retractable burned to the ground in 1984, I was so disgusted with myself that I wanted out of the car hobby altogether. I ran an ad in the Want Ad Press, a weekly classified rag that was published in two editions: Automotive, and Everything Else. The ad read:

“Three BMW Isettas for sale, disassembled. Need complete restoration. Take everything for $500.”

One person responded, someone who drove out from Brooklyn. He met me at the garage. I opened the garage door. He took one look, said “have a nice day”, and headed back to his car. Soon after this, I stopped making rent payments. My secret hope was that Sue Stetson would sell her house and the new owner would take possession of the pile in which I had lost all interest.

A very toasty ’57 Ford Skyliner

As the decade was about to end, about three years into my employment at Volvo Cars of North America, my fiancée and I bought a house with a one-car attached garage. She was very supportive of my desire to be in the car hobby, and it was her son who helped hatch The Recovery Plan. He urged that we should drive to Maplewood under cover of darkness, and without alerting anyone, ascertain if the cars were even still there.

One night in the summer of 1989, we drove to Sue Stetson’s house. I barely remembered the way. We arrived close to 10 p.m. The entire block was eerily quiet. Sneaking down her driveway with flashlight in hand, we reached the detached garage behind the house. On tippy toes, I peered through the garage door window. Turning on the flashlight, and prepared for the reality that the garage might be empty, I saw them for the first time in years: three mournful Isettas stared back at me, seemingly untouched all this time. We did nothing more that night than sneak back to my car and drive home.

The decision was mine, and it was resolute: I would contact Sue Stetson, own up to my obligations to her, drag my bounty back to my garage, and begin the restoration process in earnest. I called Sue. She didn’t seem surprised to hear from me. As soon as I offered to pay her 100% of the back rent (about $1,200), she said that wouldn’t be necessary. I insisted. We compromised: I wrote her a check for $600, and we verbally agreed that this would fulfill all back-owed rent.

On Saturday, October 21, 1989 (eleven years to the day from when Don and I made our first trip to Moscow VT), I rented a box truck from U-Haul which could fit everything in one trip. At the end of a very long day, and for the first time in almost ten years, the Isettas and I again lived at the same address.

The 3 Isettas, in their new garage, about to get baths

The following weekend brought glorious weather, what we usually refer to as Indian summer. Taking advantage of the warmth, I dragged all three cars and all the accumulated parts out of the garage and into the driveway to begin an initial cleaning and sorting. The only tools I needed that day were the garden hose and the garbage can.

The 3 car bodies, getting washed for the first time since who knows when

First, the three bodies: I was happy to learn that my fine German automobiles served as home to many cats and mice during the last ten years: there were dozens of mouse skeletons, and more than a few shovelfuls of cat excrement to be scraped out of all the interiors. The only positive note regarding the clean-up was that much of the smell had dissipated. Using nothing more than car wash soap and water, I hosed down all three cars.

Then there were the mechanical bits. As you may recall, none of these Isettas were assembled in the traditional sense at time of purchase. Nothing had changed from 1978 to 1989: the various engines, transmissions, brakes, body pieces, etc., were still loosely collected in boxes and crates. On Cleanup Day, the best I could manage was to pose the pile on the ground for a picture.

An engine, carb, tires, exhaust, and body parts are some of what’s recognizable


This is what I started with: this is the car that I eventually completely restored



One chassis stayed in garage. Note Volvo 544 door which belonged to Mike Adams


With cleanup done, everything went back into the garage. For once, time was on my side as I plotted a course of action which would bring me into the decade of the 1990s, about to embark on a full-scale restoration of an Isetta.

In Chapter 5 of the Isetta Saga, we begin to disassemble all 3 cars, after which all loose parts are thrown into a pile, and the best of the bunch is selected while wearing blindfolds.

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


After World War II, the Bavarian Motors Works (BMW) was struggling to survive. Showroom offerings ranged from the $1,098 Isetta microcar, to the $8,988 507, of which only 253 were ever built. (To put that price in relative terms, a ’57 Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing was $7,295, and a ’57 Porsche 356 Cabriolet was $5,915.) Collector car values for the 507 languished for years. According to Sports Car Market magazine’s price guide, ten years ago, in 2008, the value of a 507 ranged between $300,000 and $500,000. Today, that same price guide pins its value at $2,077,500. Not a bad ROI.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 3: Discovering You Are Not Alone Among the Bubble Cars

In Chapter Two, we voyaged with our intrepid travelers as they braved all manner of hardships to secure safe passage of their beloved bubble cars back to NJ.

Chapter Three brings us the exciting discovery that there are others who own and collect Isettas, and can even provide much-needed parts and technical knowledge. However, none of that solves the challenges of the need for time, space, and money.


We came back from Vermont with more than just cars and parts.  Wes Turner had also given us a small pile of papers: a spare parts list, exploded diagrams, and other print material. Although we visually scanned the documents before heading home, the significance of what we had took some time to sink in.

The spare parts price list was from the Ludwig Motor Corp., “imported spare parts specialists”. It was also dated June 1962, making it 17 years old. We surmised that it was more than likely that Herr Ludwig und Co. were no longer in operation.


The Ludwig Motor Corp. Isetta Spare Parts Price List


The exploded parts diagrams were fascinating in their detailed precision. (We didn’t know it at the time, but these drawings were from the factory BMW Isetta parts catalog.) In red, at the top of the page was an ink stamp: “Felling Enterprises” of Topanga, CA. We contacted said Enterprises to learn that it consisted of the husband & wife team of Carl and Marilyn Felling. Not only did they have Isetta spare parts to sell; they headed an organization called the HMI Club.


BMW’s official Isetta exploded parts diagrams. These would come in very handy down the road.


HMI stood for “Heinkel / Messerschmitt / Isetta”, the 3 most popular microcars at that time. (The Heinkel was conceptually similar to the Isetta. The ‘schmitt, with its tandem seating, yoke steering, 8″ wheels, 2-stroke engine, and side-hinged canopy, made an Isetta look normal.)

The club was for members interested in restoring, collecting, and showing their bubble cars (so called due to their rounded bubble-like shape). From their home in Topanga, the Fellings published a quarterly magazine, sold replacement parts, restored their own Isettas, and generally made themselves available to fellow bubble-nuts.


Marilyn sent out this letter in response to a recent Motor Trend article about her


It was almost too much for me to take in that right here in the U.S. were others who were equally interested in Isettas, and were available with resources to support my vision of a restored final product. I signed up for HMI Club membership immediately.

My HMI Club membership card

If one looked hard enough, there were other sources to be found. At Carlisle in 1979 (a primarily domestic automotive flea market), I found a literature vendor with four pieces of BMW Isetta sales literature, in both English and German. I bought everything he had, and paid close to $50 for it. When I showed my dad, he thought I had really lost it.

While occupied with research on the Isetta, I still needed to remind myself that I also owned a 1957 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop. My daily driver continued to be my 1977 VW Rabbit. At the age of 24, I owned 5 cars, never mind that three of them were disassembled microcars which were an unknown oddity to the automotive world at large. Given that the Ford ran and the BMWs didn’t, the Skyliner got some priority.

During the summer of ’79, I committed to rebuilding the very tired and worn Y-block V8 in the Ford. It had 140,000 miles on it, and pulling the valve covers revealed sludge so thick that I couldn’t see the head bolts. Having never rebuilt an engine before, I rented a cherry picker, borrowed an engine stand, disassembled the entire engine, had machine work done to the heads and block, and put it all back together. At one point, I even had the bare block in the back of the Rabbit.


Summer of ’79: engineless Ford, Rabbit, and Isettas all crowd into my folks’ backyard


Later that summer, with a trip to the Washington DC area in the making, I took advantage of the HMI Club directory. I looked up a club member named John Malcolm who lived in Maryland, and invited myself to his house. John was more into Messerschmitts and Subaru 360s than he was Isettas, but he was technically brilliant (he had written several how-to articles for the club newsletter), so I picked his brain as much as possible. In addition to his various project cars strewn across his parents’ yard, he also showed me his ‘modern’ Bond Bug microcar.

The cars of John Malcolm:

As 1979 drew to a close, the Skyliner was running but still needed significant body and interior work. There was no real progress to speak of with the Isettas. I had bought some carburetor parts from the Fellings (and even found some Volvo o-rings that would work), but the main stumbling block was that there was no plan. Access to my cars was about to get worse.


Any Volvo parts guys recognize those part numbers?


On January 1, 1980, I moved from my parents’ house on Staten Island to an apartment sans garage in Somerville NJ, which put me about a mile away from my job at Autosport. All the collector cars stayed with my folks, meaning, there was no regular opportunity to work on them.

In 1981, my father retired, and my parents decided to sell their Staten Island home and move to a retirement village in southern New Jersey. This meant that I could no longer rely on free storage for my rolling pipe dreams. My mechanic’s career was not exactly making me rich, and rather than selling off the collection, which would have been the mature decision, I spent what little extra funds I had on rental storage for all the cars.

The Isettas were moved into one half of a two-car detached garage in Maplewood NJ. Mike Adams, a salesman at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, where I went to work in August of 1980, had a Volvo PV 544. He was storing the Volvo in one half of a garage he was renting from a friend of his, Sue Stetson. He told me that the other half was available for $20/month. So I rented a truck, moved the 3 Isettas into this dirt floor garage, and told myself that at least they had a roof over their heads. As noted in greater detail here, the Skyliner was moved to Van’s Storage in western Jersey.

The decade of the 1980s began with me owning four collector cars, none of them stored anywhere within the proximity of my living quarters. Nine long years would pass before any further progress would transpire for my “rolling eggs”, as the Germans called the Isettas.


Stay tuned for Chapter Four, when we’ll discover how a clandestine rescue mission brought the Isettas home to a garage to call their own. 

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



Ford’s flip-top Skyliner was not the world’s first retractable hardtop/convertible brought to market, but was certainly the first mass-produced one. The engineering was initially intended for the Continental Mark II, but when the bean-counters realized that the projected low volume of the Continental would never amortize the costs, the entire project was moved over to the full-size Ford platform. First introduced in 1957, Skyliner sales reached 20,000. But in 1958, volume dropped to 14,000, and for its third and final year, 1959 sales only hit 12,000 units. While Ford gave up on the retractable hardtop, the decklid and package shelf mechanisms lived on in the soft-top Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental convertibles of the 1960s.






The Isetta Saga, Chapter 2: Fetching Your Isettas in Several Easy 16-Hour Round Trips

Chapter One recounted the genesis of the Isetta Saga: Richard and Don, almost on a whim, answered an ad in Road & Track magazine by making a 16-hour round trip to northern Vermont, where they left a $100 down payment on the purchase of 3 or 4 (they really weren’t sure) BMW Isettas.
 In Chapter Two, we will see how our two intrepid automobile-restorers-to-be would go about bringing home their spoils.



It was mid-November, 1978. As we promised Wes Turner, we did return, about three weeks later. In the interim, we plotted a low-cost method for obtaining the equipment we needed to move our non-running vehicles: we would borrow it.

My younger brother Karl happened to own a Chevy C-10 Suburban (the model with one door on the driver’s side, and two doors on the passenger side). It was equipped with a trailer hitch, and my bro had no problem lending it to us for a weekend.

For our next loan, we turned to Jerry Lustig, the dealer principal at Autosport, our employer. Jerry was a part-timer race car driver (his primary weapon in 1978 being a track-ready Fiat 124 Spider), and he owned an open-deck trailer. We asked him if we could borrow it (racing season was over), and he generously said yes.

As if this trip were to be all fun and games, we decided to invite our girlfriends along for the ride.

Instead of the bonsai back-n-forth-in-under-24-hours jaunt we pulled off last month, we decided to make a weekend of it. The plan was to leave New Jersey on Friday night after work, stay in a hotel halfway along, arrive in Moscow on Saturday, load the cars, stay in Moscow on Saturday, and drive home on Sunday.

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as our first trip.

Trouble started about two hours after departure. Somewhere on the Connecticut Turnpike, we heard a booming/crashing sound behind us. Pulling onto the shoulder (and keep in mind it was dark by this time), we discovered that the trailer’s wooden ramps, which were not secured, had flown off and were lying on the highway.

We gave brief thought to the idea of dashing out to retrieve them, but other vehicles kept driving over them, reducing the ramps to splinters. We had no choice but to continue without them.

Saturday morning, we arrived at Wes’s and surveyed the situation. Our borrowed trailer was not going to fit more than 2 Isettas. There would be one more round-trip in the future. For now, it seemed most prudent to load the two vehicles which would most likely to roll on their own: the two-tone blue/grey car (the most complete of them), and one of the red cars (the one without the door vents).

With the girlfriends’ assistance (and maybe Les), we pushed and grunted the cars onto the trailer (remember, we had no ramps). To secure them, we used nylon rope we brought with us. We knew nothing of tie-down ratcheting straps, and I did my Boy-Scout best to make good knots. This loading and lashing took Saturday afternoon AND Sunday morning, so by the time we left Vermont, it was early Sunday afternoon. We had 8+ hours of driving in front of us, and we all had to work Monday morning.

Sunday’s drive was uneventful for the first six hours or so. Actually, we were a bit taken aback by our fellow motorists, hooting, hollering, honking, pointing, and acting generally hysterical at the sight of these forlorn Isettas.

Soon after entering New Jersey, we began to hear a clicking/clunking sound coming from the back of my brother’s truck. It quickly grew in volume and frequency. Checking around the truck with a flashlight (of course, it was dark outside), I noticed that one of the rear wheels was held on with only 4 of its 8 lug nuts. Four of the lugs had snapped off. We slowly motored to the nearest service station, left the truck/trailer/Isetta combination there, and called a family friend for a ride back to the dealership where we again had left our cars. It was very late on Sunday night when I finally made it back to my house, and I was deflated.

Monday after work, Don and I headed back to the service station (we had spoken to them during the day, and the Chevy was fixed), and I drove the truck, following Don to his house in Pittstown.

At some point during all this time together, we had come to a gentlemen’s agreement: Don wanted the two-tone blue/grey car. It was the most complete of the four, and based on appearances alone, it seemed to be the one car that would most easily respond to attempts at resuscitation. If I agreed to that, Don said, then I could have “the other three”. I agreed.

Arriving at Don’s house, we got what was now his car off the trailer. With the car sitting at the top of a gentle hill, Don suggested that I climb in, and he’d give it a push. I did, and he did. The gravity-fed ride was probably 30 feet and lasted 10 seconds. I had just had my first ride in an Isetta. I wouldn’t be in the driver’s seat of a moving Isetta for another seventeen years.

Returning to my parents’ house, I unloaded the one remaining Isetta, drove the rig back to the dealership, and unhooked the trailer. I don’t think either one of us said anything to Mr. Lustig about the ramps!

With winter about to start, we would wait until spring for what would be our third and final round-trip to Moscow VT.

By March of ’79, Don now owned a Dodge van, with hitch (how convenient). We again borrowed a (different) trailer from Mr. Lustig, who generously agreed even though we had lost his ramps.

Similar to our November trip, we decided to use the entire weekend for the adventure. Unlike November, the girlfriends stayed home, and I brought a camera. Wes, learning of our plans, offered to let us stay in a spare room on his property, which we gladly accepted.

Mar. 31, 1979: my first-ever photo of our Isettas. Don lashes the chassis to the trailer.

The two remaining cars were the red car with deluxe door vents, and the body sans chassis (plus boxes of loose parts presumably belonging to Isettas and not to Borgward Isabellas). We loaded the cars onto the trailer, tied them down the best we could, and prepared for the long ride home.

The door vents identify this car as a deluxe model (note Wes’s Celica Liftback in background)

This was the weekend of March 31-April 1, 1979. While in Vermont, we heard the news that there had been a nuclear plant accident at a site called Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. We had our own mini-crisis (again) when we spotted a fuel leak from a small hole in the gas tank. We took care of it the best way we knew how: we drove faster.

At a service stop, I tried adding air to this tire. It held. Note professional rope-lashing job. 

With both cars coming back to Staten Island, we drove straight to my house, and dumped these two next to the one we fetched in November. My parents were thrilled.

Summer ’79: “my” 2.5 Isettas in my parents’ backyard (body on right is lacking chassis)


Another view: note 1965 VT plate


With engine cover missing, gaping hole reveals that engine is missing too

So here it was, the spring of 1979, and what had we accomplished? Don and I had completed three round trips to Moscow VT, totaling around 50 hours behind the wheel. Each trip was made in a different vehicle. We never kept track of the money spent on gasoline, tolls, hotels, meals, and unexpected repairs.

We each had laid out $325 to Wes Turner for the purchase. We would never have contact with Wes again.  I had no titles, no bills of sale, nothing to legally show that these cars were mine.

I was working as an automobile mechanic, and my thinking was “these cars are so small! What could be so difficult about getting one to run?” The truth was, I didn’t know where to start.

Of the 4 cars, I never photographed Don’s. This car, spotted years later, is the same color combo as his (but not in this condition).

Stay tuned for Chapter Three, when your humble Isetta restorer discovers that there are others in the U.S. who are as crazy about Isettas as he is (actually, crazier).

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



BMW began production of its version of the Isetta after several BMW executives spotted the Iso Isetta at a European car show. BMW signed a contract with Iso which allowed the company to install their own (motorcycle-based) drivetrain, but they were prohibited from making other changes. The BMW Isetta turned out to be a huge commercial success for the Bavarian Motor Works, with final production numbers exceeding 160,000. It was the largest-volume BMW automobile model produced to date.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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



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