The happy mobile

This Birch Green Isetta 300 had been making people smile since 1957, foremost among them its current owner, David Raab.

April 6, 2012
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Take this mint-green Isetta. With its minuscule dimensions and playful, almost cartoonish appearance, it has the most overwhelmingly positive vibe of any car I’ve ever known. Everywhere it goes, it elicits not just thumbs-up but smiles of amazement, and every red light becomes an occasion to chat with the person in the next lane, no matter who they are or what they’re driving. Everyone, it seems, just loves this little car.

First among fans is the Isetta’s owner, David Raab. It’s the newest addition to his growing collection of microcars, but it already has a prominent place in his heart thanks to its well-documented and deeply personal history.

A mortgage broker from Tustin, California who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Reich, Raab got the car in early 2010, buying it from Gary Daniels in Colorado. In 2001, Daniels had gotten it from a broker who had bought it from Sonya Lyons McBride, the daughter of its original owner, George H. Lyons of Waterville, Maine. George had died in 1981, but it took Sonya 20 years to sell his prized Isetta, the one he’d bought new in 1957.

It was (and still is) an eccentric choice, to say the least. In the exuberant automotive universe of postwar America, even the compact Nash Metropolitan was considered absurdly small, and that car was 149.5 inches long. At 117.1 inches, the Isetta would have fit easily between the axles of most American cars built in 1957, and it was dwarfed by the tail-finned Cadillacs and Buick Electras that ruled the roads in that era. One wonders what possessed Max Hoffman’s Fadex Commercial Corp. to import it in the first place, yet the Isetta sold in respectable numbers on these shores: Somewhere around 8,000, or roughly 5%, of the 161,360 Isettas produced by BMW from 1956 to 1962 were sold in the U.S.

For those with eccentric taste

One of those cars went to George H. Lyons. In a letter to Raab, George’s daughter Sonya wrote that Lyons was born on a farm in Mars Hill, Maine in 1909. When he was just nine, his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and two years later he left school to help his father and seven siblings on the farm. He enjoyed working on farm equipment, and when he was in his 30s he became one of Maine’s earliest licensed master plumbers and electricians. He ran his business out of the basement of the home in Waterville he shared with his wife, Charlotte, and five daughters, prospering to such an extent that he was able to buy four rental houses and a vacation property on nearby Salmon Lake.

He also bought the Isetta, which his daughter Sonya says was prompted by both eccentric taste and a knack for advertising.

Also from Issue 107

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  • M Brand Manager speaks about future
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  • Supercharged: E36 M3 street & track hot rod
  • Stumbling upon a 1982 Hartge H3
  • Like-new 1974 2002
  • 3.0 CS & CSi: carburetion vs. fuel injection
  • 1956 Avia-BMW: BMW-powered racer
  • Paddock Pass: News about BMW Motorsports
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