My Father and the Isetta

Armen 001_2

by Karen Topakian

Every year, my father’s family business, General Plating, bought a new car for one of the owners: my uncle, my dad or my grandmother.

My parents also needed a second car. This one my parents bought used.

The best second car my father bought, the Isetta, arrived when I was very young, in the mid ‘50s.

This Italian designed, single cylinder, one door, two-seater, egg shaped car, painted fire engine red measured 7.5 feet long by 4.5 feet wide.

My father entered the car by swinging open the hinged door in the front, which housed the steering wheel and instrument panel. Climbing through the canvas roof provided the only emergency exit.

He proudly drove the car home to show my mother.


“It’s kind of small,” said my mother hesitatingly as she circumnavigated it in a few seconds.

“It looked bigger in the guy’s garage,” admitted my father.

My father enjoyed the attention he received when people commented on the car. He loved its uniqueness. But not its frustrations.

“Hey Alice, I need to take your car tomorrow,” said my father as he hung up his coat in the hall closet.

“What’s the matter with yours this time?” asked my mother while folding laundry in the den.

“Same thing. The transmission,” stated my father. “I’m still looking for a mechanic around here who can read Italian. Why the heck didn’t they translate the manual into English?”

Eventually my father found a mechanic literate in Italian. But the mechanic needed a part to fix the car. A part only available in Italy.

“Armen, sorry you’ll have to take the bus to work tomorrow,” apologized my mother when my father returned home from work. “I need the car to go grocery shopping.”

“Looks like I’ll be riding it a few more times,” groaned my father as he strode to the bedroom to change his clothes. “The mechanic said the part’s waiting on the dock in Italy. Some kind of labor strike.”

My mother shook her head as she tore lettuce into a salad bowl for dinner. She always thought the little “bubble car,” named for its bubble shaped windows, was dangerous and unreliable. Reliably however, it  wouldn’t start on cold dark winter mornings. Some days it would start, go less than a mile and conk out. Forcing my father to abandon it on the side of the road and take the bus.

On one such cold February morning, my father called on my mother to help.

“Hey Alice, can you give me a hand?” yelled my father while opening the breezeway door and letting in a blast of cold air. “I need you give me a tow.”

My mother stood at the kitchen sink shivered and grimaced.

“Now?” she asked looking at the clock marking 7:30. “I’m not dressed.” She pointed to her robe and slippers.

“Yes, now. Throw a coat on over your bathrobe. I’m going to be late.”

My mother pulled her big blanket-warm blue winter coat out of the living room closet; summoned my sister and I who weren’t school age yet into the living room and instructed us to sit on the two chairs facing the big window and not move till she returned. We climbed up on the chairs and kneeled to look out.

“Sit right here and don’t move so I can see you. I have to help your father with that crazy car of his,” she shook her head as she left the house.

My father managed to back the car out of the driveway, cross our narrow street, position it in the church parking lot facing our house.

She backed her car out of the driveway. Following his directions she pulled in front of his car. She blew on her hands to keep them warm. Her bare legs remained cold.

He yanked a grey rope from the back seat of the Isetta, removed his warm gloves, tied a bowline to his car’s front axle and tied the other end to the station wagon’s rear axle. He directed my mother who wasn’t familiar with the fine points of car towing.

“Rev up the engine. Go three miles and hour. Tap the gas. Don’t hit the brake,” yelled my father from the Isetta.

“Too many instructions,” she thought but she complied. The car didn’t start.

She could see him in the rearview mirror waving his arms frantically. His mouth moving but she couldn’t hear him. She knew she wasn’t doing anything right. And she knew he was mad. So she stopped looking in the rearview mirror.  But she kept driving hoping his engine would start and she could stop.

She muttered out loud, “When I said, ‘I do,’ I didn’t know towing a car would be a part of that.”

My sister and I watched transfixed as my parents slowly drove around in circles.


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