I was searching the FarrFeed database to find something I’d written a while back about my first car (a ’57 BMW Isetta), among other things, and when I found it and reread the piece, I knew it wanted to bring it back to the head of the line.This dates from August, 2006, about a week and a half after my birthday. Read on to find out about the ’50s, my old man, West Texas, and two of the craziest cars I ever owned. There’s a duck blind story at the end, too.
* * *
Oh man, there’s so much material to mine.
I may be more done than starting out, but so what? I’ve had an incredibly rich and exciting life so far, one that few would find now in a fear-filled, choiceless world. We were lucky: everyday life was simpler but basically abundant, and progress was possible. You looked around and saw good things. (I want to say “flawed but solid” in a certain sense, with a hint of flexing muscles. Stay with me here.) My God, I remember wading in freshwater streams where you could catch crayfish and see the bottom. I was an Air Force brat in occupied Germany in the ’50s, when everyone was poor and drove itty bitty cars [see below]. I played Jerry Lee Lewis 45′s when they were current. Food was real and plastic was a wonder. I don’t think they’d invented carcinogens yet, but everybody smoked. All this doesn’t even take us to age 12. Buddy Holly, Dylan, LSD, “hell no we won’t go”, college teaching, and back-to-the-land in the Ozarks by my 25th year – not halfway to Taos yet.
There’s been a lot of bizarre stuff, good creative chaos. I used to weld giant metal insects out of steel rods and old tin cans and take them to “craft” fairs. One day I dropped a big blob of molten bronze inside one of the lace-up boots I was wearing (sockless) with my shorts: it didn’t smell all that bad, actually, and have you ever wondered? What amazes me in thinking about it is realizing that afterwards, I was glad I’d found out.
Never tried parachuting, though, and it always fascinated me as a kid. Went through my I-wanna-jump-off-the-roof-with-a-sheet phase and didn’t break a leg. I once asked my father the pilot whether he’d ever used his parachute, ever jumped just to see what it was like. Considerably vexed at my abject stupidity, he responded: “Now why the hell would I want to do that?! No goddamn reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane!” Perfectly sensible in an actuarial way, so I suppose this counts as one of the more important things he taught me, along with never backing up a car any farther than you have to (“because you can’t see a goddamned thing”) and which way to turn a screw, unless it goes the other way. If only he’d known how to grow money, or better yet, just told me more about himself, his life as a boy on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and all the things that made him happy before he learned to hide them. No such luck, the bastard up and died on me when he was six years older than I am now.
Hell, that isn’t funny. I don’t know if the following is either, but what we need around here is more Real Stuff That Isn’t Horrible. You know I’m right.
I have so many stories… Who knows what telling a few more can do to stir the quantum soup? This one — two, actually — is taken from a November 18, 2002 GRACK! column I wrote for Applelinks.com that I found while googling for “Isetta.” The theme concerns an enthusiam to seek out what’s free or nearly so (read: “cheap”), and where that sort of thing can lead, in this case with an automotive context. Read on, and please note that the cars in the photos are NOT mine…
I think I got this way from my father, who got it from growing up during the Depression. When I was coming of age in Texas, which meant growing old enough to drive, which meant 13 with a learner’s permit and a legal 14-year-old driver in the car, the old man’s freebie-sniffing antennae were at fever twitch. Not to get me an actual car, you understand, but maybe half of one, with something on the side. As it turned out, he did even better than that, securing for the sum of $50 what amounted to perhaps one fourth of one and two things on the side, namely a wretched pink and blue ’57 BMW Isetta 300 and a wooden crate that held the promised parts to two whole (?) 300cc, overhead-valve, single-cylinder motors. Junior high school was about to get a lot more interesting, all right.
The Isetta was pink and blue because of having once been blue and then having been pink, or mostly so: it looked like a dented bubbletoy that had marinated in a vat of Pepto-Bismol. For those of you who don’t know, the Isetta belonged to a class of post-war German mini-cars designed to get the Fatherland on wheels again, only not too big or strong, you understand. It consisted of a tiny passenger compartment with a single bench seat. The entire front of the thing was a door, hinged at the left, to which the instrument pod and steering column were attached. You reached over to the right to undo the latch, then pushed against the almost horizontal steering wheel until the front of the “car” swung open and you simply stepped right out onto the ground. Somewhere behind the single seat was what amounted to one-half of a smallish BMW motorcycle engine mounted vertically and driving a very short differential-deprived rear axle through a multi-link chain. The four-speed gearshift handle protruded from the cardboard passenger compartment paneling on the driver’s left. I don’t remember a heater, but there was a flap of canvas for a sunroof.
The way this worked was, my father put the engine together from the greasy puzzle-pieces in the wooden crate while I restored the ugly body to a semi-gleaming scarlet red. This required maybe a dozen cans of aerosol spray paint and a great deal of rubbing compound, but I was up to the job. Whether my father was, was questionable, judging from the cursing and tossed wrenches, but eventually it all came together and the damn thing worked. I doubt it ever ran for more than six days at a time, but my exploits were legend when it did.
When I grew up and became a man, I had another brush with automotive largesse. One day sitting in the Chuckwagon (cafeteria & hangout in the U.T. Student Union), I casually remarked a bit too loudly that I was looking for a car, and someone at the next table overheard. Before I knew it I had written someone I’d never met before a check for $100 for two, count ‘em, two ancient Volvo sedans. One was there in Austin, ready to be towed, and the other lived in Dallas in someone’s garage. Perhaps “lived” is an exaggeration, but the car was there at someone’s sister’s house and all I had to do was get the first one running, then drive it to Dallas and tow the other one down. Two whole semi-free Volvos! I was ecstatic.
The car I ended up with was not the squarish Swedish cars most of you are thinking of but rather an older model resembling nothing else so much as a ’46 Ford. Now that I think of it, it could have been a ’46 Ford, except there was no flathead in it. [Note: subsequent research shows this to have been a Volvo P544, above] The car was as solid as a block of granite and twice as heavy. It obviously hadn’t been on the road for several years and lacked a battery. For that matter, it lacked a muffler too, but I cobbled up a custom exhaust with a cheapo glasspack and about six feet of flexible tubing. I did get it to run and for a while it roared along quite nicely, though driving it up to Dallas to fetch its mate would take more courage than I yet possessed.
One day early in my one and only Volvo phase it stubbornly refused to turn over after I’d taken it on the longest outing yet. A short but painful examination revealed an all-but-empty crankcase — ah, youth — and that was that. For all I know it still sits underneath the live oak tree at 99 Red River, hulking in the weeds, and so you see the tangled trail of treads that goes with what is almost free but really not. With cars, at least, getting there is half the fun but only if you pay enough to make it out of town.
Oh, but we’re not done yet. There are three million stories about that BMW Isetta alone. One of them is that my old man bought the car and parts from a noncom in his squadron who’d bought several of them from a Texas entrepeneur who had bought up as many Isettas as he could to sell as portable duck blinds, I swear to God. The funny little German cars were cheap because a) they were horribly unreliable and didn’t run, and b) the would-be duck blind mogul went bust. (West Texas in the late ’50s, hoo boy.) I thought he had a good idea, though. See, you’d just pull it out to the lake behind your pickup — it’s got wheels, right — sit in it, and when you saw a duck, you’d fling open the door and blast ‘em!
Cool, huh? Cheney can’t do that from an Escalade without kicking out the windshield first.