The Greenwich Concours d’Elegance has a very strict rule: a vehicle can be shown at one of its events only every three years. As Bruce Wennerstrom himself told me, this ensured that repeat audiences would see different cars the following year. I had shown my 1957 BMW Isetta in 2001, 2004, and 2007, and when 2010 rolled around, I didn’t hesitate to apply again. The Wennerstroms welcomed me back for a fourth, and what would turn out to be, final time with the Isetta.
My dear friend Richard Sweeney, NJIT Library Head and non-car person extraordinaire, jumped at the chance to accompany me, which also meant that my long-suffering wife was off the hook this time, although I didn’t hear too many complaints from her about it. Richard was of great help from the get-go, and as we got the car positioned as instructed by the field organizers, Richard wanted to play an active role in standing near the car, chatting it up with attendees. I could tell he loved every minute of it.
To my eye, 2010 had significantly more spectators than I had noticed during my previous outings. Perhaps it was the beautiful weather; certainly, a major factor was the increasing recognition that Greenwich was getting, with some press calling it “The East Coast version of Pebble Beach” – high praise indeed. The caliber of vehicles, always high, seemed to create even more oohs and ahhs among show-goers.
At awards announcement time, the Bubble made the cut yet again, winning “Most Fun Car” for the Sunday Europa show. Well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad at all. I think Bruce had a soft spot for my little car, as we won in 2001 and 2007 too. Once we reached the awards table, Bruce presented my trophy and again asked me if my Isetta has the ‘big block’. Microphone in hand, I again told the assembly that European cars got 12hp, but we in the states got the 13hp version. Bruce again chuckled; he never tired of that story.
My friend Richard was overjoyed at the prospect of riding in the car past the viewing stand. He couldn’t stop talking about peoples’ reactions, because his interest was completely enveloped in the sociological and cultural impacts of this car on an audience. It wasn’t the car per se; it was how people reacted to the car, whether they were seeing an Isetta for the first time, or reliving memories of one from long ago. He never let go of his idea of making a documentary about the car and the public’s responses to it.
We got the car loaded onto the trailer and got back on the road just as a major late spring storm hit. We made it back safely, though, and I thanked Richard profusely for all his help. All he could say was that he’d gladly do it again.
The Romans knew it all too well: “Tempus fugit”, Latin for “time flies”. But I don’t think the Romans were thinking of the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance when uttering those words. I certainly was saying “time flies” to myself when I looked at the calendar, saw that it was 2007, and realized that the Isetta would again be eligible to be shown at this favorite car show of mine. So I sent in my registration form, got my acceptance letter, and off we went!
Compared to 2004, the weather was much more cooperative, if still a bit warm and muggy for early June. My wife Margaretanne, for the third and final time, accompanied me to the show. The show organizers, Bruce and Genia Wennerstrom, have always made it a point to recognize all the hard work and effort that goes into bringing a car to an event. As such, Greenwich is one of the few car shows where vehicle owners do NOT pay an entrance fee; instead, catered breakfast and lunch are provided, plus this year, we took advantage of a cruise boat ride into Long Island Sound, a non-automotive diversion which my wife appreciated.
As happened in 2004, the Isetta was wisely placed among other BMWs, with some Porsches on the other side of it. And in another echo of 2004, there was another Isetta, this time, a European-spec 300 which had been beautifully restored. I enjoyed my time chatting it up with attendees about my car, and Bruce most generously awarded me with a Concours Europa – Most Fun Car trophy. During the ceremonial drive-by, he chuckled once again when I told him about my US-spec car having the “larger and more powerful 13 horsepower engine”!
At the end of the show, we drove the Isetta back to the parking lot, about a half-mile away, and began the process of loading the car onto the trailer once again. Several yards from me, I noticed an elderly man, who looked to be at least 90, struggling to roll his own open trailer into position. He was a dapper dresser in his plaid sport coat and tweed cap. A woman who may have been his daughter was scolding him that he shouldn’t be pushing the trailer on his own, which didn’t phase him one bit. He looked familiar to me, so I took a chance and approached him.
Before I knew it, it was 2004, and three years had passed since showing the little red car at Greenwich in 2001. Concours rules said “a vehicle displayed at Greenwich is eligible for showing every three years”, so I applied and was accepted.
This time, my BMW was correctly placed in the same display circle as the other BMWs. But that was about the only happy element of the event. It was a day of miserable weather, with a steady cool rain which kept spectators away. My wife and I were dressed for the occasion, and worked to make the best of it.
Parked directly next to my car was a BMW 600 (often incorrectly referred to as an “Isetta 600” –its officially name is “BMW 600 Limousine”). From the front, most people mistake it for an Isetta. It does share its front-hinged door and pivoting steering column with its little brother. Built on a slightly longer wheelbase, the 600 included a 2nd row of seats, one side door for access to that row, and most importantly, a two-cylinder boxer engine displacing about 600 cc.
The 600 is an interesting vehicle in BMW’s history. With the runaway success of the Isetta on a global scale (ultimately, 160,000 units produced, which made it BMW’s largest-volume model to date), company management wanted that success to be a springboard to a larger model, presumably to attract a bigger audience. Unlike the Isetta which was designed by the Italian firm Iso, the BMW 600 was designed in-house. Complaints that the Isetta was too small, underpowered, and lacked passenger room were all addressed in this larger model. Alas, the public did not respond in kind. Produced from 1957 to 1959, only 35,000 units were sold. The silver lining is that the 600 begat the “normal looking” BMW 700, which begat the Neue Klasse cars, and the rest, as several million people before me have said, is history.
Back to the car at the show: the young woman who piloted the 600 there was not the owner. She claimed that the car was owned by her boss, and he asked her to bring it to the show. Yet she seemed to be well-versed in its history. She had no issue with the idea that she would be driving her boss’s 600 back in the rain!
Awards were announced, and what’s this? No award for the Isetta this year? Hey Bruce, what gives? I was getting used to the accolades. Oh well, I told myself, I’m not here for the trophy, I’m here for the experience.
A few months later, I decided to bring the Isetta to the Somerville (NJ) Cruise Night, held every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day (and weather permitting, extended for as long as cars show up). This time, my stepson accompanied me, and assisted with trailer duties and photography. Like many cruise nights, there is no pre-registration, and parking on the street is on a first-come, first-served basis. We parked the trailer several blocks away, and got to drive the Isetta on some local streets through town. Luckily, as soon as I turned onto Main St., the show’s location, a parking spot appeared.
It’s one thing to look at the Isetta and say “that thing is small”. It’s another thing to park it adjacent to other vehicles and see how truly tiny it is.
As has been the trend, I spent much of the evening answering what seemed to be the same half-dozen questions:
Is this thing street-legal? (Sure, I drove it here)
How much horsepower does it have? (Thirteen, but a healthy 12-year-old boy on a bicycle can outdrag me)
What the top speed? (50 mph, downhill with a tailwind)
What kind of gas mileage does it get? (60 miles per gallon, so the 3-gallon tank gives me a cruising range of 180 miles)
How many people can you fit in there? (Two, but they really have to like each other)
The repetition was encouraging me to shoot back the same zany answers every time. By 9 p.m., it was time to get the Isetta back on the trailer. At least home was only eight miles away.
Later that year, while attending Hershey, I saw a beautiful yellow Isetta at the show. This was the germination of an idea: perhaps I could look into entering my Isetta at a future AACA event….
The Greenwich (CT) Concours d’Elegance, which began in 1996, was an almost immediate success. It is one of the few true classic concours held in the NY/NJ/CT metro area, and it has much more than that going for it. The show, traditionally held on the first weekend of June, is located in a small park bordering Long Island Sound. The park’s size limits the show’s size – visitors feel welcomed knowing that the entire show can be viewed in the course of a day with no need to rush. Clusters of trees provide shade when needed, and the grassy field is far superior to pavement. Vehicle manufacturers and dealers showcase new cars along the park’s perimeter. Perhaps best of all, each day’s lineup is unique: Saturday’s arrangement focuses on historic American vehicles, while Sunday’s participants arrive in European classics (this convention has changed somewhat in the last several years). Combined, these attributes make the Greenwich Concours one of the most unique and enjoyable car shows I’ve attended.
My relationship with the Concours, and more specifically with its chairperson Bruce Wennerstrom, began professionally. Volvo Cars of North America, my employer, was invited by Bruce to bring new cars to the show (and to monetarily contribute for the privilege of doing so), and my job was to provide the iron, which I did starting in 1997. As mentioned in Chapter 24 of the Isetta Saga, Bruce saw me and my Isetta at the 2000 Lime Rock Fall Vintage Festival, and invited me to bring my car to Greenwich in 2001, an invitation I immediately accepted.
We (Margaretanne and I) of course would be attending on Sunday, which at that time was referred to as “Concours Europa”. The date was June 3, 2001, and like every other participant, I could only hope for good weather. But Bruce’s luck had run out. After years of avoiding the wet stuff, it rained for the Saturday portion of the show. It wasn’t a total washout, though, as the skies cleared on Sunday; they just didn’t clear early enough to dry the grass.
Arriving with Isetta on trailer, I was directed to “trailer parking”, about a half mile away. I unloaded the car, we hopped in, and I drove to the park’s entrance. The routine went like this: each car and driver stopped at the registration table and was handed a packet. On the outside of the packet was a large letter indicating your ‘circle’. All the show cars were parked in circles, the cars perpendicular to the circle’s circumference, facing outward (got that, geometry majors?). Once cleared of check-in, the driver (me) held up the envelope so that volunteers could direct me to the appropriate circle, which as I understood it, was the BMW circle.
The first hundred feet or so within the park was paved. As soon as I turned right, as directed, and hit the wet and muddy grass, all forward motion ceased. I had no traction. Weighing under 1,000 pounds with passengers, I suspect that the Isetta’s 10-inch tires didn’t have enough mass pushing downward. Show workers tried to push the car, but it was slow going, not helped by their own struggles to keep their sneakers from slipping. We made it a few yards at a time when someone in a supervisory role spoke up and said to me “look, your circle is on the other side of the park. We’re not going to get there. We’re just going to put you in this circle near to us”. Who was I to argue? I said “sure”, and we entered the circle and parked. Climbing out, I saw that I had the only BMW in a circle of … Mercedes-Benzes.
The Benzes were beautiful –exactly what you’d expect, with most of them SL models, including one 300SL Gullwing. I cleaned my car the best I could (the tires and wheel wells were quite muddy), set up our lawn chairs, and tried to relax. This was to be a judged show again (and yes, I dusted the spare!).
In the collector car hobby, it is a fact that most car owners enjoy talking about their cars. I again bore first-hand witness to the incredible reactions show-goers had to a BMW Isetta, and all the questions which were directed at me. Attendees tended to fall into one of two general camps: those who had never seen an Isetta and didn’t know the first thing about it; and those who knew something about the model yet had not seen one in years. So the time passed quickly, because everyone wanted to talk to me about my car. I also noticed that people chatting it up with me spent little or no time at the other vehicles in my circle. A friend who was at the show let it be known that he overheard two Mercedes owners complaining about “that intruder BMW” in their midst.
Here’s another fun feature employed by the Greenwich staff: as class winners are announced, the winning vehicles line up and are driven at parade speed past a viewing stand. Each car stops, and the driver is handed a trophy and invited to say a few words. I had observed in previous years that Bruce and his wife Genia made it a point to have multiple classes in order to provide participants with as much recognition as possible. It was still a shock, though, when my name was called as winner of the Concours Europa “Best Special-Interest Car”. I honestly think mine was the ONLY special-interest car!
We got in the queue (with better traction on the now-dry grass) and motored up to Bruce. He stuck a microphone through the car’s open sliding window and asked me about my car. I mumbled something about it being a U.S.-spec Isetta. This seemed to catch him by surprise, and he asked me what the difference was. I replied “The European Isettas got a 12-horsepower engine, but here in the States, we were given the bigger engine, which made 13 horsepower”. This sent Bruce into a fit of laughter, but he managed to make sure the audience understood that my Isetta had “the big block”.
Another car show, another trophy! During the entire restoration, I repeatedly told myself that I was NOT doing this in order to collect what I derisively referred to as “dust-collectors”. But again, the recognition among my peers was humbling, and certainly rewarding. We loaded the Isetta back on the trailer and headed home, with no immediate plans for any future car shows for my little red cuddle-box.
The November 2001 issue of (now defunct) European Car magazine published a story on the most recent Greenwich Concours, and even included a cover blurb: “Rarities and wonders on the lawn at one of America’s best shows”. Lo and behold, the magazine, which titled the story “Rainwich” Concours, included a small story about my small car.
With spring just around the corner (the calendar says next Tuesday, even if I spent part of this morning clearing some residual snow from last week’s double-whammy storms), I realized that I had been remiss in updating my own “Calendar of Events”.
We car guys and gals patiently wait for those final traces of salt to be washed away so we can unhook the Battery Tenders, check fluid levels and tire pressures, and ease our old iron out into the early spring sunshine. It’s nice to be reminded that there will be plenty to do; here’s what’s on my calendar so far (and this is just the first two months of the season):
The 2017 edition of the Greenwich (CT) Concours d’Elegance marked the 22nd consecutive year for this prestigious event held every June in Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, situated along the harbor in Long Island Sound. As has been the custom, the two-day show features domestic makes on Saturday, and imports on Sunday. Compared to other shows in the Northeast, the Greenwich show stands out for its garden-like setting; its manageable size of about 120 cars; and its high standard of presenting top-notch automobiles.
A longstanding rule for the Wennerstroms, family chairpersons of the Concours, is that any car shown at Greenwich must wait four years for a repeat showing. Your scribe showed his 1967 Alfa Romeo here in 2013, so the car became eligible again this year. Still, one must “apply” in order to be accepted, and my vehicle was readily granted entry.
It was an easy 1.5 hour ride on Sunday morning to the park, with a brief stop along the way to pick up my friend Enzo, making his first foray to this Concours. Unlike almost every other show, where attendees pay an entry fee, Greenwich accepts entrants without charge, AND, provides each owner plus a guest with breakfast, lunch, wine, and a harbor boat ride. The gate fee (which I understood to be $40 this year) supplies the cash for the goodies, as well as a substantial donation for the Americares charity.
Another nicety: cars are arranged in circles, facing outwards, making for a unique and accessible way for attendees to view the wares. We were in Circle G, which I anointed the Etceterini Circle. We were kept company by Swedish, Czech, French, Japanese, German, and other Italian cars (in other words, “cars which did not otherwise easily fit into other circles”).
Other groupings were large enough to represent a single marque: Ferrari, Porsche, Bugatti. British cars (Jaguar, Aston Martin, MG) had their own circle, as did high-end Italians other than Ferrari (Maserati, Lamborghini, Iso). In fairness to the organizers, groupings depend so much on numbers and makes of vehicles, and only so many cars can fit into one “group”. The good news is, the show is small enough that you can walk around and see everything in a few hours.
Two other unique elements: first, new cars are on display. Vehicle manufacturers and local dealers lure the crowds with beautiful new machinery. This year, we were treated to the sights of BMW i8s, Alfa Romeo Stelvios, Maserati Levantes, plus Teslas, McLarens, Lincolns and Cadillacs.
Second, Bonhams held a classic car auction on-site on Sunday, about the sixth or seventh consecutive year for them to be at Greenwich. A large tent is erected at one corner of the park to hold all the auction vehicles. The trend toward barn-finds continues. We saw a Series I Jaguar E-Type roadster which, based on a windshield registration decal, was last on the road in 1975. The car appeared to have been stored top-down in a dusty barn since then. At the other extreme, there were some beautifully-restored vehicles which deserved top dollar. A limiting factor is that the tent precludes the possibility of driving cars across the block. Better do your homework before you raise that paddle.
While the day dawned sunny and dry, the forecast promised wetness by early afternoon, and unfortunately, said forecast was accurate. By 2pm, a gentle shower enveloped the field, and we headed out. While there was no award for the Alfa this year, the car continued to draw its fans, most of who cannot believe that they are looking at an unrestored 50-year-old car with original paint. Its owner will maintain that paint as best he can in hopes of returning to Greenwich in 2021.
The Bugatti Owner’s Club showed up in force, resulting in a significant number (a dozen or more) of these rare French cars on display together. Given their racing history, it is also not surprising to see a higher percentage of unrestored original cars.