(Rick DeBruhl managed to turn the wasted hours reading car magazines and hanging out in auto shop into a career. He works for ABC and ESPN covering IndyCars and NASCAR Nationwide. He also is part of the Fox Sports team covering the Barrett-Jackson auctions. Rick writes automotive reviews for the Arizona Republic and kidneycars.org. You can read more of his work at www.rickdebruhl.com, where this article first appeared.)
I didn’t mean to buy a BMW Isetta.
After all, I like cars for two main reasons: speed and beauty. The Isetta has neither of those two things.
It has no speed because the Isetta has a one cylinder engine that pumps out a whopping 13 horsepower. On a good day, with a tail wind, you might hit 50 mph.
It has no beauty because, well, it’s doesn’t. Oh sure, I’ll hear the word “cute” a lot. “Funny looking” will be close behind. As I climb in the single door that is the front of the bubble-shaped body, the words “odd” and “downright ugly” will be uttered after I hopefully can’t hear.
So why did I buy an Isetta? Because I had to.
It all started at Canoga Park High School back in the early 1970s. Our principal, Hugh Hodgens owned an Isetta. He’d bring it to football games on Friday nights. Every time our team would score a touchdown, he’d pop a cheerleader out the sunroof and drive around the track.
Ever since then I’ve had a fascination for the tiny cars. I remember regularly seeing one parked close to Highway 101 near Anderson’s Pea Soup in Buellton, California (just north of Santa Barbara). As I’d drive back and forth to college I’d ponder how it would be fun to own an Isetta.
Fortunately, it was not an obsession. My automotive tastes are a lot more mainstream. Mustangs and Corvettes are more my style. The smallest car I owned was a 1959 Bugeye Sprite. But while it was small, it was sporty and a lot of fun.
Over the past five years I’ve seen the Isettas become a popular fixture at the Barrett- Jackson auctions. There’s always one or two and they bring impressive money. Apparently cute sells.
Of course, not even that was enough to make me want to buy one.
Until I found it. “It” was a 1958 Isetta sitting just outside of Sacramento. It was restored about six years ago and has less than 100 miles on the odometer since the work was done. Nicely finished with red paint and a red and white interior, the frame was in great shape and the engine started right up.
But that’s not what made this Isetta special. It was special because of its owner: Hugh Hodgens. That’s right, the principal. It was the same car I’d seen him drive around the track at football games.
The path to my purchase started one day when an email was forwarded to me from a family friend who used to work at the high school. I happened to notice that Mr. Hodgen’s (I can’t call him anything else) email was included. Having plenty of happy high school memories (after all, that’s where I met my wife), I decided to send him a message, and mentioned that I had a fondness for Isettas. His return message included the nugget that he still owned the car. My next email concluded with one of those brash statements, “If you ever decide to sell the Isetta, let me know.”
Turns out that Mr. Hodgens, after owning the car for 46 years, was ready to sell. It was always a novelty, but also a part of his family. Still, it had reached the point that he wasn’t using the Isetta much. It was garaged at some property he owned near Sacramento. My offer came at just the right moment. More importantly, it wasn’t from a stranger. It was from a member of the Canoga Park High School family.
Suffice to say that one thing led to another and before long we had a deal. Mr. Hodgen’s son brought the car down to Los Angeles where I picked it up and trailered it back to Phoenix.
So now I own an Isetta.
What am I going to do with it? Well, it’s hardly transportation, at least not the way we think of it today. Back in the 50s, it was designed to be a step up from a motor scooter, if not quite a full car. It’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy, but it’s also a rolling death trap. I pity anyone who was hit in one of these back in its day. And then there’s the speed, or lack of it.
My wife and I will putter around the neighborhood. We’ll take it to church, although I’m a little worried about driving it to the grocery store. I’m not concerned about someone trying to steal it (first they’d have to figure out the backward shift pattern), rather some pranksters might try to pick it up and move it for fun (just like kids did back in its high school days). We’ll definitely hit some car shows where we stand a great chance of winning the “People’s Choice” award.
One thing we will do is make people smile. The few times I’ve driven it, people stop and point. They wave and tell their kids to come take a look. They desperately try to whip out their camera phone and take a picture.
Maybe that will be the legacy of this car. It made me smile in high school, and now I get to pass those smiles on to a new generation. How many cars can make that claim?
And that’s why I had to buy it.