Tuesday, June 11, 2013

1958 BMW Isetta

Trip miles - none

I apologize, my photographer is on vacation so there are no new pictures today.  I'll suppliment with some "file photos"

Yesterday Joan and I helped my good buddy Mark put metal roof and sides on his previously cloth covered carport structure.  Mark works 5 AM to 12:30 PM so Joan and I got an early start moving the big items out of the structure and removing and folding the roof and sidewall tarps.  Mark already had the metal siding salvaged from a construction remodel that Jeff arranged a year or more ago, so all we had to do is clean it up and install.  Joan and I had about 3 panels installed by the time Mark got home, and it only took about 3 hours for the 3 of us to finish the project.  By 3:30 we were sipping cold beverages and admiring our handiwork.
Part of the reason for all this activity is so we could re-arrange Mark's garage and get our BMW Isetta out of it's covered trailer and into the garage for some maintenace.

We thought we had the car sold last year, before we left for our trip in November, but the deal fell through at the last minute and Mark offered to store it for us.

The stated reason for the buyer changing his mind was that he was convinced there was a serious problem with the engine.  Our fault, we were so busy we didn't make time to get the carburator jets cleaned, and the engine really did run rough- but the buyer said he knew all about the Bing carb and he'd clean it himself.

After all that, I was now fretting a little bit, thinking he maybe he was right.  Well Mark helped me clean the carb today, and the car runs like a top!  We had time so I got Mark to help me flush the brake fluid with some new, and bleed the brakes.  Tomorrow we'll wax and buff it up.   Saturday we will put it on display and hopefully find a new buyer at the Medford Cruise Show and Shine for classic cars this weekend in Hawthorne park.

I bought the Isetta used in 1968, from a professor at OSU where I was a student.  The car was sitting in a farmers field near Lewisburg just north of Corvallis.  I would see it everytime I would take the crew bus to forestry labs in OSU's McDonald Forest.  Finally I rode out there on my bicycle and knocked on the door of the farmhouse.  The elderly lady that answered the door told me they didn't own the car, they were just storing it for friends.  She said several mechanics had been out to see if they could get it running and had given up- so it just sits there.  I got the prof's name and went to visit him in the OSU School of Pharmacy.  After several days of negotiating, I bought the car for $100 and my promise never to cut the car up or "make a go-cart out of it".  I think in the last 45 years I have fulfilled that promise.

What was wrong with the car?  First off, someone had tried to patch the carburetor float and it was so heavy with brass and solder that it sank instead of floating, and secondly the hydraulic brakes were in need of a rebuild.  I fixed the carb with a cork float I made out of a thermos cork (remember those?)   The local Studebaker dealer in Corvallis (remember those?) ordered in new hydraulic brake slave cyllinder for me.  I don't remember why I ended up there- I think that I found a sympathetic ear, and he took pity on me.

I had the car running down the streets of Corvallis in about a weeks time.  I was very lucky that the previous owner (who bought it new in Spokane) took good care of it and everything was intact.

During one of my National Guard annual trainings in the Seattle area I discovered Fred Terbeck's (not sure of the spelling?) Aurora Motors- a used car lot sporting a fleet of Isetta's!  I ran into the sales office a asked "where can I get parts for an Isetta?"  "Why- right here young man!"  he answered.
I bought drive couplings and a shiny new brass carburetor float- the only two things I really needed at the time.

Several years later, I discovered the HMI Club started by Marilyn Felling. ( HMI stood for Heinkel, Messerschmidt, Isetta - 3 tiny German cars she was interested in) Car and Driver or Road and Track- I don't remember which, did an article on her.  Marilyn was a visionary, who crossed the US buying up new Isetta parts from BMW dealers who were getting rid of them when BMW dropped the Isetta line.  She stored massive amounts of parts, and sold them at reasonable prices to those of us restoring cars.

The Isetta is credited with saving BMW from going bankrupt right after WWII.  The factories were heavily damaged, raw materials were scarce, and the German people needed a very inexpensive car that they could afford to buy.  BMW liscensed the design from ISO of Italy who was already making  Isettas for Italians.
BMW tweaked the design and used one of their sturdy motorcycle engines in their version of the car, giving it a 13 hp four cycle engine that would run for 50 miles on one gallon of regular gas. (gas in Germany was VERY expensive at this time).  The BMW version of the car became THE Isetta to have, and they were imported to the US starting in 1957.  The US in 1957 was not into small cars, and the Isettas did not sell well.  Towards the end of their run, at some dealerships, Isettas were being offered free to purchasers of new Cadillacs.  Isettas found a small cult following and just over 8,500 were sold here in the US. before BMW pulled the plug on that line.

By 1962 Germany had recovered to the point that citizens could afford more car, and the demand was for a full sized car once more.  BMW dropped the Isetta like a hot rock, and within a couple of years, they had washed their hands of everything Isetta.  Dealers sold (or dumped) their parts inventory for pennies on the dollar, which is where Marilyn (the "Isetta Lady") came in.

Our car has changed hands in the family a couple times, and in 1984 when I was transferred to Dallas, TX my dad took the car and made it a restoration project.  Dad did a body-off restoration, lovingly cleaning and rebuilding all the major parts, including adding hand-applied undercoat to the frame and under-body areas.  The only part we have never touched is the engine.  With only 22,000 miles on it the engine is still running great.

Joan and I, along with Dad while he was alive, took the car to nearly every Medford Cruise, and more often than not, we won a recognition prize for our efforts.  What Fun!  There were only 2 years out of the 25 years we've been showing that there was another Isetta entered in the Cruise, and that was a beautiful Red Isetta owned by Jim Boice.  Sadly, Jim's car was sold to someone out of the area, and never returned.

Although the Isetta has been with me ( or a family member) for 45 years, I am now ready to let it go to another enthusiast, who will cherish it as much as I have loved having it.  Since Joan and I have started traveling, we have seen the wisdom in de-cluttering our lives.  While we are traveling the open road in our RV, we have everything we need to live and love life to the fullest.  The rest of the things we own, are becoming a burden of extra weight that must be stored and maintained.  We are in a new chapter, and a minimialist way of life.

If you love microcars and have a spare $23,000 we should talk a deal on this very sweet ride...

Your Traveling Friends,

Jeff and Joan


  1. Awsum damn car!

    I have a 1980 124 Fiat Sport Spider (my 3rd 124) that my husband bought me for our first Valentine Day and he has a 1965 Alpha he bought in Italy new.

  2. The car seems very cute i think that the car belongs to famous Hollywood character Mr. Bean . As it is small in size and would be effective to spying any one .

    Bruce Hammerson

    Hydraulic Hammers