The happy mobile

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

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April 6, 2012


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.

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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.

“Dad liked different things, and if something caught his eye he got it,” she told Raab. “He wanted it for an advertisement piece and it was the best thing he did. He was an early adopter of advertising on pencils and rulers, but the Isetta topped the cake.”

Lyons purchased Isetta number 571049 from the Joseph Motor Company in Waterville, Maine. The car had been manufactured by BMW in Munich in November 1957 and painted in Birch Green (Birkengrün), then delivered to U.S. importer Fadex on November 22 of that year. Upon taking delivery, Lyons immediately had the sides of the car painted with his company logo, “Geo. H. Lyons, Plumbing and Heating, Dial 2-6014, Waterville, Maine.” Every Friday night, he’d drive the Isetta down Waterville’s Main Street to pay his hardware bill. It also became his vehicle of choice for trips to Salmon Lake, where he’d take kids for rides in his diminutive BMW, attracting plenty of attention along the way.

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“George really enjoyed the Isetta,” Sonya wrote. “It was really something to see in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. People would point and stare. It was different, and a great advertisement!”

It still is. Though the Geo. H. Lyons Plumbing and Heating business is long gone, the script that once advertised it is still in bright, perfect condition on the Isetta’s flanks. The whole car is still perfect, in fact; having lived through the Depression, George Lyons was well aware of the value of things, and he took immaculate care of his Isetta.

It was still in great condition when Raab got it in 2010. Its sheet metal was still like new, undented and rust-free. Daniels had replaced the interior rack with a replica of the original, rechromed a few trim pieces and had its seat recovered in new vinyl; the rack and the plating were fine but Raab wasn’t satisfied with the vinyl, so he had what remained of the original material replicated for use on the seat and lower door panel.

(Some Isetta parts are still available from BMW Classic, and those that aren’t have been recreated by enthusiasts. Raab makes his own taillight lenses, for example, casting them in plastic after making urethane molds of the originals, and he’s also made wiring harnesses and rubber seals for doors and sunroofs.)

Otherwise, the car is stunningly original, from the ignition keys to the Metzler spare tire that nestles behind the seat. “No one molested it over the years,” Raab says.

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Even its printed cardboard interior is close to perfect, undamaged by sun or water. “It’s pretty rare for those interior panels to be in such good shape,” Raab tells me.

A 1957 time capsule

Poring over the Isetta in Raab’s driveway, the car seems a perfect time capsule of 1957 German-Italian engineering. It’s an ingenious piece of packaging, one that utilizes every cubic inch of space for maximum functionality and passenger comfort. There’s space just for two, of course, and only a small space for luggage behind the seat, but more can be fastened to the rack outside, another original part.

By the standards of 2012, of course, the thought of taking such a small car on anything longer than a trip to the hardware store would seem an absurd hardship. People did, however, and not just in war-ravaged Europe: Every summer, George Lyons would drive the Isetta from Waterville to the house on Salmon Lake, a distance of some nine miles that seems about right in this tiny car.

That’s about how far we’ll take it today, leaving Raab’s garage for a photo shoot and a short drive through the hills outside Tustin. The only Isetta I’ve driven prior to this was Bernhard Knöchlein’s terrifying three-wheeler, and I’m hoping the additional (fourth) wheel on Raab’s car will make for a more stable ride.

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On the road, the response to this car is simply amazing. People point and stare, just like they did in Maine back in the 1950s, and everyone wants to know what the heck it is. When Raab tells them it’s a BMW, few seem to believe it.

The cool thing, though, is how the car’s friendly face and absurd dimensions—it looks as out of place among today’s full-sized trucks and SUVs as it must have amid the battleship-sized cars of the ‘50s—seem to soften the demeanor of even the toughest-looking characters, from the guys in the dub-rollin’ purple metalflake Oldsmobile to the bicycle-riding meth head who asks me if I feel safe in “that thing” while we’re stopped at a red light.

“Not at all,” I answer. But neither do I feel safe in any car built in 1957, armed as I am with NHTSA crash-test data and decades surrounded by crush zones and airbags.

For all its perils, however, this Isetta is actually pretty good to drive. It handles well enough to encourage a spirited pace, or at least what passes for such in a car with just 13 horsepower. That’s enough to keep up with city traffic, surprisingly enough, thanks to the Isetta’s feathery curb weight of just 770 lbs. Both myself and Raab are fairly small people, not much heavier than the average European of 1957, and the equation might be different if we were more like the average American of 2012. In that case, only one of us would fit, the Isetta’s bench seat being just 44 inches wide.

Less delicate than it seems

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The Isetta is more than just small, of course. It’s also fairly delicate, or so it seems at first touch of its pencil-thin shifter and slender steering wheel. Surprisingly, both require a firm hand. The steering has no power assist, and even though the tires are narrow it still takes a fair amount of effort to guide the Isetta through a turn. The clutch is light but the shifter, too, wants to be manipulated with a certain amount of force; move it too gingerly and the gearbox refuses to shift, though it does so just fine with a deliberate movement.

The brakes are unboosted, as well, and slowing the car means pressing hard against the pedal. It also requires a bit of countersteering to correct a pull to the right, caused by an imbalance between the brake cylinders. ”They always need some tinkering,” Raab says.

Like all car owners, Raab has grown used to this Isetta’s quirks, which are probably far fewer than those of the other microcars in his collection. With two Isettas, a ‘58 Goggomobil, a ‘58 Vespa 400, a ‘59 Lloyd, a truly ugly Villiers-powered 1965 Bond and a 1959 Fiat Multipla, he’s got a lot of quirkiness to deal with.

“I get bored by Porsches and Corvettes!” Raab smiles. He isn’t a BMW guy, either, beyond his passion for Isettas. He landed on the marque more than a decade ago, after he saw a Subaru 360 on the freeway and became obsessed with ‘50s microcars. After much research, he decided that its relative parts availability made the Isetta a good choice, but he didn’t buy one right away.

“And then one day in 2004 I got a ticket for failing to wear my seatbelt,” Raab says. “I called my insurance agent to find out whether I’d be better off paying the ticket or going to traffic school, and at the same time I asked if they could insure an Isetta.”

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Indeed they could, and the agent stated he thought one of his clients had one for sale.

“It cost me $1,500, plus $81 for the ticket!” he laughs.

While restoring that car, he got to thinking about the ideal Isetta color and settled on Coral Red and Sand Dune. Raab also liked Birch Green, a minty, iconically 1950s shade, but he wanted a two-tone combination for his first Isetta. (Ironically, his Coral Red car had been painted Birch Green at the factory, as Raab discovered when his restoration revealed Birch as the lowermost among six layers of paint, and which was confirmed as original by BMW Classic in 2005.)

Some four years after restoring the Coral Red Isetta, Raab met fellow collector Gary Daniels in Colorado, but he didn’t find out that Daniels owned a Birch Green Isetta until he saw one offered for sale on the internet and recognized the web address as Daniels’. A little upset that he hadn’t gotten to see the car while he was in Colorado, Raab e-mailed Daniels to inquire about it.

Daniels replied that the Isetta was indeed his, and that he wanted to sell it packaged with a Goggomobil and a Lloyd. A deal was struck, and all three cars made their way westward to Raab’s garage in California.

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Happy BMW owners, indeed!

The Isetta still has most of its original paperwork, from the warranty and import documents to a typewritten maintenance schedule. There’s even a flyer for a dealer-sponsored promotion offering “BIG CASH PRIZES!” Dated April 12, 1960, Fadex’ “Contest for Happy BMW Owners” (or at least those east of the Mississippi) offered $70 in Isetta accessories, $50 worth of BMW 600 accessories or $25 cash for each car an owner helped the dealer sell.

“Just tell your friends about the BMW—its charm, its performance and savings and its economy.” That $70 in accessory money went quite a long way, too, when rubber pads for the clutch and brake pedals were only $1.95, a chrome-finished ashtray cost $3.95 and even a luggage rack was just $22.95.

Thanks to those original documents, Raab was able to trace the Isetta’s provenance to its original owner, George Lyons, and he soon made contact with Lyons’ daughter. Knowing how much the car had meant to her father, Sonya was delighted to share George’s story with Raab, who was equally pleased to learn the history of the hand-painted logo on its flanks.

“I’m always thinking about Lyons Plumbing and Heating when I’m driving the Isetta, and I’m pretty sure most people assume it is something that was painted on more recently or that I’m advertising my business,” Raab says. “When talking to people, I always tell them this logo was put on by the person who owned the car over 50 years ago.”

Along with sharing the story, Sonya also sent Raab some old letterhead, a copy of George’s plumbing license and a photo of George and Charlotte.

“When I first saw a picture of George and Charlotte Lyons…I can’t think of the right word for the feeling it gave me,” Raab says. “It was eerie, but in a really good way, almost like it brought the car full circle to its roots and everything made sense. I kind of wanted to look at the picture and thank him and let him know the car is in good hands. I truly believe that if George is looking down, he is happy I have this car because I truly love all the microcars but have a special place for this one.”

So did George Lyons, whose careful ownership of this lovely Isetta made sure that it would still be on the road more than 60 years after he first took delivery, still bringing smiles to all who see and drive it.

“If there were a fire, this is the one I’d save,” Raab says. “You can’t replace this car.”

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  • Like-new 1974 2002
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  • 1956 Avia-BMW: BMW-powered racer
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