Forty-four years ago, George Regalo of Merced was smitten by the little car that belonged to a neighbor of the girl he was dating. After pestering the man for several years, he was finally able to buy the 1957 BMW Isetta Bubble Window Coupe.
It has been his prized possession ever since.
Regalo, 61, is the fleet maintenance manager for Foster Farms in Livingston and a lifelong fancier of old cars. At a 1997 concours d'elegance in Pebble Beach, famed comedian and car collector Jay Leno tried to buy the Isetta, but Regalo resisted the offer.
The tiny Italian-designed Isetta, which you enter from the front and can possibly seat two slim individuals, weighs just 760 pounds and has a top speed of 53 mph. It has a 13-horsepower motorcycle engine and a four-speed transmission. The fuel tank only holds 3.4 gallons, but it gets 65 miles per gallon.
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"I have restored four Isettas, but this is my first one and holds too much sentimental value to ever part with it," Regalo said. "I have too many memories with this car. I used to take it to the drive-in theater in the late 1960s. My son learned to drive in this car and later took it to his high school prom. Turned more heads than the limos."
Oh, the stories the Isetta could tell: Like in 1969 when Regalo drove into the Trail's End bar on West Main Street. Several patrons moved tables for Regalo and even handed him a beer while he remained seated in the car.
Then, while growing up on a dairy, Regalo would use the Isetta while hunting jackrabbits. Just push the front door open and start firing.
"It has lots of memories," Regalo said. "The car has been totally dependable and has never run out of gas. It is really quality-built." He drove it to work last week and has put 2,000 miles on it over four decades.
Regalo estimates that the bright-red car is worth $55,000 to $60,000 today; BMW built about 150,000 Isettas, of which 8,500 were sent to the United States.
Only about 1,000 survive today, and less than 100 are the Bubble Window Coupe; a more common sliding-window coupe recently sold for $47,500, Regalo said. The bubble term comes from all the glass being curved.
Regalo's girlfriend, Connie McKelvey, went on a first date with Regalo in the Isetta. She likes it quite a bit, too.
"When I opened the door and stared at it, I said, 'Oh my God! What is that?' " McKelvey said. "I had never seen a car like that. It's a fun little car; it's an attraction. Children want a ride in it, and everywhere we went, people stopped and stared."
After collecting parts for years, Regalo completed a frame-off restoration of the Isetta in 1982 in 11 months' time. With the Internet, such a restoration would be much easier now.
"Unlike restoring a Model A or a great classic, where parts are readily available, the restoration was quite a challenge because parts had to be gathered from Europe, Australia and South America," Regalo said. He did all the work except the paint.
"This all took place before the computer age, so I had to write a lot of letters. The BMW Museum of Munich, Germany, cast a brand-new carburetor for me and also supplied some NOS parts. I had the seat cover woven in Southern California to match the original material. The 3M company helped with the vinyl covering on the side panels, and a glass company in Ohio made the windshield," Regalo said.
When he first approached the Isetta's owner in 1967, he wanted $750 for it. The price subsequently dropped to $500 and then $300; finally, as grass was growing around it and the owner thought its motor had blown up, the owner sold it for $100 to get it out of the way.
Regalo said the motor had not seized up; the ignition points had merely shut. With that remedied, Regalo drove the car for 15 years while gathering the necessary parts to restore it.
"The car will be passed on to my son, Trey, and then to my grandson, Cash," Regalo said. "He's not quite 2 years old, but I'm tickled that his favorite movie is 'Cars.' The uniqueness was what turned me onto it."
Regalo's first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang and his second was a 1969 Camaro Z-28 hardtop. Both were beautiful cars, he said, but sadly, he sold them. He also has owned two 1963 Corvettes and a 1984 Corvette, but no longer has them, either.
"The Mustang was a very fast car," Regalo said. "The Z-28 was a brand-new car and I wish I had kept it."
When he retires in about three years, Regalo hopes to restore another Isetta. He sold an Isetta convertible 12 years ago to a private museum in Thousand Oaks.
Trey Regalo of Modesto said his son Cash and 4-year-old daughter, Quinn, will have to share the car. When it becomes his, Trey said he has no intention of selling it.
"I plan on keeping it forever," Trey Regalo said. "It's a fun little car and we have shown it all over the state."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.