The show was planned for Sunday August 12, 2000, at a hotel in Park Ridge NJ, just an hour’s drive from my home in Morristown. I registered for the event, and on the appointed day, got the car on the trailer and the trailer attached to the tow vehicle. During the car’s restoration, I trailered the bare body to and from the body shop; I had also trailered the chassis to several different locales. But I had never trailered the completed car, or any car for that matter! At the Carlisle flea market several years prior, I purchased trailer tie-downs, each rated for 3,000 pounds (a complete Isetta weighs about 770 pounds). I wanted triple assurance that this car wasn’t going anywhere. The straps were wrapped around the chassis both front and rear, and secured to D-rings I had bolted to the trailer floor. With the trailer hooked to the Aerostar, and a final check of functioning trailer lights, we were off.
Shades of 1978! As I motored north on Route 287, staying in the right lane, cars and trucks approaching me in the center and left lanes would slow down and match my speed as they caught up to me. The passengers in these other cars would point, wave, smile, laugh, and in some cases, act completely bewildered. The worst was when a driver would become so distracted by the shiny red object that the driver’s vehicle would begin to drift into my lane. I stayed calm, and would acknowledge their attention with a slight smile or wave, but I felt so nervous about my cargo that it was the two-hand death grip and eyes straight ahead almost without exception during the drive.
I arrived at the hotel parking lot and got the car off the trailer. It seemed that I was a little late. Almost every spot dedicated to show cars was filled. The organizers put my car in an aisle along with a few others. I decided to walk the show and see what else was on the ground.
It had been a while since I last attended a microcar show, and I was overwhelmed at the large number of Isettas in attendance. Actually, Isettas looked like the normal cars there compared to the much more unusual microcars on display. There were Messerschmitts, Lloyds, Heinkels, and a couple of miniature woodie wagons. Everyone was very complimentary about my car, and perhaps I was a bit too apologetic about it, exclaiming that it was its first public outing. (A photo of my car made it to the club’s website with the caption “newly restored”.) We stayed for the banquet dinner, made some new friends, and headed home.
It was a rush to finally show my car in a public setting. It was the kind of event that made the efforts of the previous ten years worthwhile. I was interested in more, and had already taken care of that. Labor Day Weekend was approaching, and that meant the annual Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival. My car was registered for the Sunday show, and I couldn’t wait.
In Chapter 5, we counted down as the number of Isettas to be restored dwindled from three, to two, to one. Whew! That looks more manageable now.
In Chapter 6 below, we finally get our hands dirty, and perform the first work of any substance on what will some day be a driving automobile.
The Restoration Plan for what would eventually be ONE running and driving Isetta was coming more into focus. Some extraneous parts had been sold off, and remaining parts had been picked through and sorted, a more time-consuming process than first imagined. My gaze now turned to a rusty, crusty, but complete chassis, and the next course of action would be to remove everything from it, including its factory paint. But first, let’s shoot a roll of film!
The reasoning (which turned out to be quite correct) was that it could be a few years before I would be reassembling many of these components onto a restored frame. Previous automotive repair work had taught me that you can’t trust your memory, even if you think it’s sharp. (I had experienced instances when, after removing 4 bolts of different lengths from an assembly, I had forgotten the precise locations of those bolts by the next day!)
There was nothing to indicate that any major mechanical work had preceded my ownership of this fine German automobile, so the photographic evidence would provide documentation as to how the brake lines, suspension, foot controls, cables, etc. were installed by the factory. Once the photos were in hand, the chassis was stripped of all mechanical components, and all removed parts were labeled, bagged or boxed, and stored.
The only untouched parts were the front spindles. They were attached to the chassis via king pins. None of my Isetta parts catalogs showed replacement parts for them, and since I detected no freeplay, I let them be. They were a beautiful cast aluminum, and would not require painting. They would be masked for protection when the chassis was painted.
When stood on its end, the bare chassis was about as tall as I was, and weighed perhaps 40-50 pounds. It was a simple affair to lift and carry it into my basement shop, a more comfortable place to work compared to the garage. I set the chassis down onto an all-metal dolly that I found in a trash heap on a Brooklyn street corner while on a music gig. The dolly came home with me, jammed into the back of my wagon along with my drums.
I tackled the old paint and rust with a 3M abrasive wheel, chucked into my handy Black & Decker all-metal drill. A short time later, the chassis was devoid of paint. One could see welding splatter from the factory welds. There were no signs of collision damage, nor had rust permeated the structure in any way.
For paint, I settled on Bill Hirsch’s Miracle Paint, a product that was heavily advertised in collector car publications of the day. Compared to POR-15, Miracle Paint was promoted as not requiring a top coat (although one could paint on top of it if desired). Available in black, silver, and clear, I selected black, and when I saw how glossy it was, I decided that no top coat was needed.
I learned the hard way that if you removed the lid on a can of Miracle Paint, got some paint in the can’s lip, and reinstalled the lid, that lid was not coming off again. The “trick” was this: keep the lid on the can. Shake it well. Using an awl, punch two holes in the top (one slightly larger than the other). Pour out just enough paint as needed into a disposable cup (the 2nd hole allowed the paint to pour out more freely), and close both holes with duct tape. If the duct tape could not be removed, you only had to punch a hole through the tape, and into the existing hole. This worked like a charm.
Although Bill Hirsch sold Miracle Paint solvent, I found it much more efficient to paint with disposable foam brushes. They could be bought at Carlisle for 25 cents each, and the foam left a smooth surface without brush marks. The entire chassis, indeed much of this project, was painted with foam brushes.
By this time, we were halfway into 1992, and while progress was “steady”, it was also “slow”. In these days, prior to TV shows which glamorized auto restoration, I’d read the occasional article in Old Cars Weekly about someone who restored a ’57 Chevy in six months. Sure! First, you had dozens of parts suppliers who had everything you needed; second, you could attend any car show and find a reference car, should you need to examine one; and third, you were probably retired, and had 40-50 hours a week to devote to the hobby. My path forward offered to none of these advantages.
During the summer of 1992, I learned of a car show in eastern Ohio that was planning to feature BMW Isettas in a special class, so we went. Yes, it was a long ride to look at some Isettas, but the last time I had done something like this was ten years prior. My restoration had begun, and I was anxious for the inspiration.
We got to the show, and the turnout was better than expected. Looking much like dyed Easter eggs (and not much larger), the lineup of Isettas made for some striking photos. I chatted with a few owners, one of whom informed me of a new club, called the Microcar and Minicar Club. He provided me with an application, and encouraged me to join.
But the biggest shock of the show was provided by someone who did not have a car on display. I watched as a man set up several display tables, and proceeded to unload crates and boxes of …. new Isetta parts. His name was John Wetzel, and he operated a business that he called Isetta Johns (sic). He lived in Rutherford NJ, most convenient for me, and by all appearances, this was his full-time employment. While I did not purchase from him that day, I obtained his contact information, and assured him that I would be in touch.
My recollection of that show was that it left me feeling overwhelmed, and slightly depressed. I saw that I had a long way to go before my car would be up to the caliber of the cars in Ohio. This, combined with the discovery of someone like Isetta Johns, also altered my thinking about the project. Rather than just get the car to run, only to possibly take it apart again to fully restore it, it seemed the wiser decision to perform a complete restoration while it was all in pieces. I needed to step up my game.
The business world in the early 1990s was as much about organization and motivation as it was about making profits. This certainly was the case at Volvo, what with newly launched efforts on Vision Statements, Mission Statements, Total Quality Management, and so on. Taking a page from this approach, I decided that a motivating slogan would spur me to keep pushing forward. For the umpteenth time, I asked myself, “this car is so small! How long could it take?” The approximate answer to that was “three more years”, which would land me in 1995.
The slogan was born: “THE ISETTA WILL DRIVE IN ‘95”. I printed out multiple copies, and hung one in my workshop at home, and one in my office at work. Some of my Volvo colleagues took pity on me; others thought I had lost my mind.
In Chapter 7 of the Isetta Saga, you’ll learn how the twin discoveries of an Isetta Restoration Book and an “Isetta Dealership” in Pennsylvania provided the kick start to a rebuild of the 1-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine.
The word “chassis”(pronounced CHA-see) is actually French. Its etymology goes back to Latin, but in 13th century Old French, it was spelled “chassiz”, and defined as a “frame” or “framework”. By the 1660s, the spelling evolved to “chassis”, and more narrowly referred to a “window frame”. In 1869, the word was defined as a “sliding frame or carriage base for a large gun” (I’m picturing something more akin to a cannon, rather than a hand-held gun). In 1903, at the start of the automotive industry, it entered the English language as meaning “the base frame of an automobile”.
Although I could find no further explanation as to how the word switched from guns to cars, it seems logical that given the French dominance in the very early years of the horseless carriage, a French word for a car part would easily be adopted. After all, the word “automobile” also comes to us directly from the French.
Remember this the next time you’re eating French Fries.