My wife Maire Anne and I are remarkably compatible. We love one another. and throughout our 41-year relationship and 35-year marriage, we have supported each other’s passions, odd though some of them may have been.
And yet, a danger looms. It’s the storm on the horizon that threatens to rend our marital harmony.
It’s Isettas and those stupid baskets.
Although Maire Anne doesn’t accompany me on my long-haul trips to the Vintage or Oktoberfest (fourteen-hour stretches in uncomfortable, loud, and fragrant vintage cars of questionable reliability to get to three days of non-stop car-related events are not her cup of tea), she does see my photos. Through those, as well as decades of hanging around me and exposure to Roundel magazine, she has been made aware of Isettas. It was this photo of a fellow driving an Isetta convertible, taken at my first trip to the Vintage in 2010, that made her realize how little they actually are. She later saw Isettas in the flesh at nearby events such as Vintage at Saratoga.
Now, if you don’t know, I should tell you that my wife owns a business called Bugworks that does educational programs involving live insects, so on the second floor of our house we have “the bug room,” which houses dozens of terrariums with tarantulas, scorpions, praying mantises, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, rhinoceros beetles, and other crawling creatures substantial enough that they’d cause many people of either gender to reach for a brick, an iron skillet, or other similar object with that special flatness-inducing combination of heft and surface area. The point here is that, clearly, the gender-stereotyped image of a woman standing shrieking on a chair when there’s a spider in the room doesn’t remotely apply to Maire Anne.
And yet, we are complex creatures, full of contradictions, so her insect-embracing role-model-for-science-interested-girls professional persona stands in stark contrast with the fact that she thinks Isettas are “sooooo cute!”
Gag me with a giubo.
I, on the other hand, am a resolutely rational and practical human being. Cars need to be for something. Mine are for (a) ownership enjoyment, (b) driving enjoyment, and (c) road-tripping thousands of miles to far-flung events in order to hang out with other like-minded gearheads. I can see how an Isetta could satisfy the first point, but it would fail miserably at the others, at least for me. Crowded interstates would be out of the question. You certainly can’t use one do the banzai run from Boston to Asheville; if you tried, it’d take two weeks, and the drive would literally be a banzai kamikaze run, since with the trucks on the I-81 to I-78 route, it would border on suicide.
Plus, these days, Isettas cost serious coin. Long gone are the days when you could pick them up for 2002 money. Of course, these days “2002 money” is substantial. E30 money? No; still too high. E36 money? Too low. Driver-quality E36 M3 money? Yeah, that’s probably about right. That’s a more lengthy nostalgia-BMW-value-based quantification than was probably required. A quick look on Bring a Trailer shows that the low outlier is a disassembled rusty project Isetta sold in 2017 for $3,850. The left edge of the curve is a complete but non-running car that sold a year ago for just under ten grand, and a running car with non-stock seats and dash that BMW CCA’s own Terry Sayther fashioned sold for $15,000. The fat part of the bell curve is in the $18,000 to $40,000 range. Two cars traded hands in the mid-50s. That’s real money for a clown car that you can’t actually do anything with.
Okay, I’m intentionally being glib and provocative. Put down the pitchforks—I get it. My ragging on my darling wife notwithstanding, Isettas are, well, cute. And they’re cool historical artifacts of what BMW was doing to save its bacon and pull itself from the ashes ten years after the end of World War II. And if you’re a collector, with other vintage BMWs, space to store lots of cars, and a trailer to haul them around (and maybe a big parking lot to drive them in), why wouldn’t you want an Isetta? But let’s just all agree that that’s (collecting) what’s going on here, that no 22-year-old kid, fresh out of college, is saving the money from that dream job working at Applebee’s so he can buy a freaking Isetta as his first BMW, or that someone’s dad had one, loaned it to him on his prom night, he had his first sexual experience in it, and now, as a fifty-something, is looking to relive a little of that magic. Hey, prove me I’m wrong. There’s a beer in it for you.
And then, over and above the car itself is the issue of that frou-frou trunk basket.
Maire Anne ooooohs and aaaaahs over baskets the way I do at rosewood-bodied Hoboken-built Guild 12-string guitars and vintage Recaro seats. One year when we were on vacation, she went into a thrift store and came out with a wicker laundry basket so large that it was challenging to fit it in the Suburban. We have baskets lined up on top of the cabinets in our kitchen. She will often leave the house with a pocketbook and a basket. She especially loves purpose-designed picnic baskets where things unfold and unstack like Matryoshka dolls. When I bought her a nicer bicycle last spring, with a more upright seating position than her old one and shock absorbers on both the fork and the seat post, her first question was, “Can you transfer the wicker basket off the handlebars of my old bike?” Don’t get me started on baskets.
So when I was at Oktoberfest this year, and texted her the photo below of an Isetta with a picnic basket mounted on the trunk rack, she went gaga, cooing like grandparents do at babies.
This particular car was lined up to participate in the Isetta race at the BMW Performance Center, a video of which can be seen here. People who were trackside joked that the baskets were actually 60-year-old trunk spoilers whose aerodynamics had not yet been fully characterized. Being at Ground Zero, I can say that the Isetta race was about the funniest car-related thing I’ve ever seen, short of Jeff Barrow driving his roached-out E23 7 Series wagon last year at the Vintage while wearing a full Level B hazmat moonsuit complete with the full-face respirator and gloves.
Now, I’ve long observed that almost any hobby involves three things: a physical object, an activity involving that object, and a social circle. You could be an amateur astronomer into telescopes, using them to gaze at the night sky, and getting together on clear nights with other people doing the same thing. So sometimes you see a physical object, discover a cool activity involving that object, and a welcoming social circle that performs that activity, neither of which you were aware of, and it all makes sense.
However, as funny as that Isetta race was to witness, it certainly wasn’t an event that made me want to sell three of my other cars to get the money, buy an Isetta with a basket, and do Isetta-and-basket-related things with Isetta-and-basket-related people. (And I say that with nothing but love for you Isetta-owning nutballs.) So, yeah, if one showed up a few miles from my house, and it was whole and intact and not a rotted basket-case, and it was short money, I might do something stupid, but the odds of my swapping out real cars, real money, and real garage space for a toy with a basket are less than zero.
So, sorry, Maire Anne. No Isetta and basket for Christmas for you this year. I’m sticking with my vintage cars that are capable of real drives on real roads. If it’s really important to you, I bet I could fit that giant wicker laundry basket on the back of the Lotus.
Plus, the Lotus is, you know, cute.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, is available on Amazon here. His other books, including his recent Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally-inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.