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For one day a year, Pacific Grove, California, becomes the happiest place on earth for classic car people as the Little Car Show brings together pint-size vehicles for a delightful gathering of the diminutive, the oddball and the downright cute.
And unlike some of the other car shows held during Monterey Car Week, the only snobbery here regards who brought the smallest and funkiest car to the show.
One of the littlest minicars at the show, as well as the most familiar, was a 1956 BMW Isetta, the famous “bubble car” with the front end that swings open as its only door. With just 300c displacement for its one-cylinder engine, it also was among those with the smallest powerplants.
John Darland and his son, Tucker, of Eugene, Oregon, brought the bright-red bubble car, which the dad said is a family heirloom.
“It’s been in the family for, gosh, about 40 years,” Darland said. “My father sold it once, it was gone for eight to 10 years, and he got it back. He passed away about seven years ago, and I restored it three years ago.
“It’s just a beautiful little car, kind of a sentimental piece now.”
The Isetta was more than a hobby car for his dad, John Darland noted. That was his business, fixing up these collector’s items. His business went by the name of Isetta Bill.
“My father restored these for people all over the country,” he said. “It’s kind of just in my blood.”
He laughed when asked whether he had driven the Isetta from Eugene to Monterey. “No, I had it shipped, but I did drive it from (nearby) Seaside, from the airport. “
So, what’s it like to pilot this tiny vehicle, with its scant power and narrow rear track?
“It can be scary,” he said. “But it’s fun. It’s a blast to drive.”
The Little Car Show encapsulated an amazing array of little vehicles, some of them going back to the 1930s. British cars were out in force: MGs, Triumphs, Minis, Austins and the lovely little Morris Minors in a variety of forms, from sedans to wee pickup trucks.
The long-distance driving record was undoubtedly earned by a classic British sports car, a 1930 Frazier Nash Interceptor that not only was brought over from England, but since July, it has been driven from the docks in New Jersey across the U.S., through Montana, South Dakota, and down through Oregon to California.
“It was a lovely trip,” owner Richard Parsons of Derbyshire, England, said in his bright British accent. “To bring it over to the States is great fun. We love traveling through the States.”
Parsons even knows the exact mileage of the trek: 4,923.
Not bad for an open antique sports car. But that’s just the half of it. As Parsons spoke to people gathering around, he provided a tour of the car’s chain-drive transmission. That’s right, a collection of heavy drive chains that shift around to provide gear ratios. Parsons had a rear panel lifted that clearly showed the strange propulsion system.
“It was a unique solution and it’s the only car that we know of that has this configuration of a chain drive,” he said. “It has an open clutch. No other manufactures in the UK took this route with the transmission.”
Back in England, he added, his club calls itself The Chain Gang.
“It has a very big following in the UK; there were only about 350 cars made,” Parsons said. “And it’s a very competitive club. Most people buy their Frazier Nashes to compete in circuit racing, hillclimbs, those sorts of things.”
But on this day, he was basking in the attention at the Little Car Show, as passersby came up, peered in at the odd assemblage of chains and peppered him with questions.
Among the weird Frazier Nash facts from Parsons: “It has a solid rear axle, no differential. Both rear wheels turn at the same speed. So you get quite a lot of oversteer, and a lot of tire wear.”
Fun stuff, British style.
The Germans and Italians were also well-represented with their takes on mini motoring, such as Fiat 500s and, of course, various examples of Volkswagens. So were the French, primarily with examples of the innovative Citroen 2CV, aka the garden shed on wheels, and a picturesque 1952 Panhard truckette that originally was used by a French bakery to deliver fresh bread.
A rare example of German/Italian collaboration was the small but attractive 1967 BMW 1600GT, a two-door hatchback with a sleek design by famed Italian coachbuilder Frua and powered by a sprightly 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, the largest size allowed for the show.
Norm Walters, who drove the BMW down from his home in Sacramento, noted that the 1600GT was never imported to the US because it could not pass the new 1968 smog restrictions. His car is registered in California, but only after he was able to convince regulators that his car, built in December 1967, should be rebranded as a ’67 model, thus bypassing the requirement.
“I lucked out,” he said.
Walter’s car came to him by a circuitous route that covered three continents.
“It was originally sold to the Congo in Africa, then it went to Portugal, then from Portugal to Sacramento,” he said.
The BMW is as quick as it looks, he said, the twin-carb engine providing plenty of power for the small, lightweight hatchback coupe.
“It’s really fast for a 1600, really light, really nimble,” Walters said. “It sounds great, and it’s something different.”
American cars were not so abundant at the Little Car Show, although there were some nice Crosley passenger cars and sports cars parked with the other small craft along Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove’s main street. A few Nash Metropolitans, too.
Really, this could be the most fun and most unpretentious car show during all of Monterey Car Week. Everybody was smiling, and even the kids were having a good time.