- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

Karl Lewis was introduced to BMW’s Isetta before he entered his teenage years. His father was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base and he recalled his mother driving him across the base when their Chrysler broke down. A neighbor driving by in an Isetta stopped and came to their rescue. The boy was amazed and intrigued by the little car with a door in the front.

Ever since that notable event in 1970, Mr. Lewis has admired the Isetta. An admitted automobile aficionado, Mr. Lewis took his family in August to view the outstanding antique cars on display at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’elegance in California.

Many beautiful cars were being sold at various auctions near the event. That is where he saw a red and white 1957 Isetta 300 that was about to go on the auction block.

Regarding the 0.3-liter, one-cylinder air-cooled rear engine, Mr. Lewis said, “It’s half of a motorcycle engine, that’s what it is.”

How could he not bid on the little car?

When the auctioneer’s hammer fell, Mr. Lewis became the proud owner of a 1957 Isetta 300. He arranged to have it trucked to his Great Falls home and then rushed back to Virginia so he would be there when his prize was delivered.

Once the Isetta arrived, Mr. Lewis gave it a thorough examination. He made certain the engine had 1.8 quarts of oil and that the 3.2-gallon gasoline tank was full.

He discovered that when new, the diminutive car sold for about $1,100. He noted his car has windows that slide open and he describes the heater output as something akin to “warm breath.”

Optional equipment on his Isetta includes:

- Sunroof.

- Ash tray.

- Front vent.

- Side mirrors.

- Luggage rack.

“There are no performance options,” Mr. Lewis said with a smile.

The car left the factory rolling on 4.80 x 10-inch bias-play tires but Mr. Lewis replaced them with 145/80/R10 radial tires. The distance between the two front tires is 47.2 inches while the rear wheels are only 20.4 inches apart. Mr. Lewis explained there is no differential. In lieu of that customary part on most cars, the rear wheels are mounted on a solid axle and the power that turns them is delivered via chain drive, much like a motorcycle. The 860-pound, two-passenger car rides on a 61-inch wheelbase.

With the 18.1-cubic-inch engine cranking out 13 horsepower, the suggested shift point of the four-speed transmission is no more than 15 mph in first gear, 28 mph in second gear, 41 mph in third gear and go for broke in fourth gear. The gear-shift lever, beside the driver’s left knee, is described by Mr. Lewis as having a reverse “H” pattern, with reverse to the far right and back.

“I’ve had it over 60,” Mr. Lewis said. “The engine really winds and is pretty torquey.”

Acceleration figures boast of a 0-to-50 mph time of 52 seconds.

Mr. Lewis reported that not only does his Isetta go 60 mph it also delivers gasoline mileage of 60 mpg. So while some motorists may laugh and point as he drives by, he gets the last laugh at the gasoline pump.

Because of all the glass the inside of the car can be very hot. That’s when Mr. Lewis opens the optional vents in the front door which allows air into the car, and with the optional sunroof open he creates flow-through ventilation.

Entering the Isetta is an unusual exercise because the entire front of the car swings open on hinges on the driver’s side. The driver enters first and settles on the left side of the bench seat and after the passenger is seated the door can be closed with the three-spoke steering wheel snapping into place.

In case of rain, the car is equipped with a windshield wiper.

Mr. Lewis, CEO of Gridpoint, has yet to drive his little car to work through commuter traffic.

He is content to take short trips in his neighborhood with his most pressing problem being which daughter to take with him - Sabrina, 6; Isabela, 8; and Sofia, 10, are all willing and anxious passengers.

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