Auto Clip # 1


Restored ‘50s minicar gets great smileage


By Rob Hoffman 
News Staff Reporter

Ann Arbor News
June 27, 2000

    You won’t find Reid Hollowell in a rage over the price at the pump these days.
    Recently, when local gasoline prices began their meteoric climb, the 15-year-old paid just $4 to fill up his tank at Meijer.
    Of course, it’s a very, very small tank.
    In a very, very small car.
    Hollowell and his father John, own a 1957 BMW Isetta, one of the true oddities in the history of automobile manufacturing. Resembling a VW bug that’s been chopped off at the windshield, the 4-foot tall, 770-pound vehicle features one door that opens in front like a refrigerator, a map pocket that doubles as a trunk and apple-pie-sized tires.
    Oh, and the contraption gets 83 miles per gallon at 30 mph. Or about 282 miles on a single 3.4 gallon tank.
    Thing is, those miles go by pretty slowly. Equipped with a 13-horsepower engine, the Isetta’s top speed is 53 mph “downhill with a tailwind,” some owners joke. Hollowell himself has never gone faster than 45, fearful of pushing the air-cooled, one-cylinder engine too hard.
Few motorists drive fast when they come across the purplish-red Isetta, which draws long stares and giggles from rubberneckers whenever Reid and father drive from their home in Lodi Township to downtown Ann Arbor.
    “I have not see any road rage in this car,” said John, 52, a landscape architect unable to resist the temptation of the $2,000 Isetta at a garage sale last August. “Nobody tailgates you. They all point, laugh and wave… Very few people pass you.”
    Parking is also not a problem for a car barely 4 feet wide and 7 feet long, small enough to parallel park in a pull-in space. As the Hollowells did when they attended “Taste of Ann Arbor” on Main Street this month.
    Stationary, the car gets as much attention. The Hollowells are constantly stopped by people who think their slickly repainted car is the latest newfangled gadget from Detroit – not an economical ride sold by BMW to cash-poor Germans who could barely afford the 2,700-mark sticker price ($1,400 at the time).
    “Some people ask while it’s running, is it electric?” Reid said, rolling his eyes. “Putt, putt, putt. No, it’s gas.”
    What is it like to ride in an Isetta? Don’t expect anything resembling the status machines that BMW now produces. It rumbles along the road like a golf cart, lurching with every turn. The front seat – in fact, the two-passenger car’s only seat – is nearly cushionless. And did we mention there are no seat belts in a car that would probably fail nearly every modern safety standard?
    “If you hit a hole, you feel it,” John said.
    Still, the car is a lot better than when the Hollowells bought it 10 months ago. It didn’t run, the seat was the interior’s only salvageable feature and an exterior facelift was needed. Reid did much of the painstaking restoration work himself, helped by thousands of dollars of Isetta parts that his father bought from a salesman in Georgia.
    “Everyone should have one of these,” said Reid, who just finished his freshman year at Pioneer High School and recently received his learner’s permit. “I like it. I think it’s cool.”
    So do many other people. With fewer than 2,00 Isettas left in the U.S. and 300 in running order, according to the Georgia salesman, they’ve developed somewhat of a cult following. One sold at a Christie’s Auction for $33,000 three years ago, although a vintage one in excellent condition usually fetches $6,000-$14,000.
    Car and Driver Editor-in-chief Csaba Csere estimates a more modest $5,000-$7,000 for a pristine Isetta, which he said BMW stopped producing in 1962 to concentrate on its high-end models.
    “These Isettas embodied a period that will probably never happen again,” Csere said.
    The Hollowells plan to keep their car for a while, using it for the occasional short excursion. The car has racked up just 183 miles since they bought it, never exceeding a 20-mile round-trip (in fact, the recent fill-up was only the second time the Hollowells’ had pumped gas into it). Next up for the Isetta: a trailer trip to the Hollowell’s northern Michigan vacation home, so it can appear in a nearby Fourth of July parade.
    “It’s just kind of tongue-in-cheek,” John said. “You can’t take it seriously.”

Reporter Rob Hoffman can be reached at 734-994-6864; email at