A couple of years ago, Stefan sent me a short piece about a Cairo taxi ride, which made me remember my Borgward, and I sketched out this one. I never did anything with it. But now that everybody’s getting into Stefan’s car piece, and he referred to the Cairo Puegeot 504 trip, well . . . .

Nineteen Sixty-four. I was new in Cambridge, fresh from Portola Valley, California, where the mellow hippie thing was not really rock n rolling yet but was beginning and I was on its fringes.

The guy across the street from me and Ruth and Lykos the wolf had a 3-wheeled Morgan which from the front looked like a Harley-Davidson V-Twin engaging in a weird sex act with a MG-TC.

I was bringing Massachusetts my laid-back California set of expectations, and a red Borgward Isabella TS, which my father had gotten as a deal-sweetener when he bought a large amount of commercial laundry equipment in Hilo, Hawai’i.

He never liked the Borgward, so he put it on a boat and shipped it to me, and I never liked it too much either, but it was much better than the Fiat 600 it replaced, although the Fiat had a Stebro exhaust and a competition racing harness.

One time I drove that Fiat from Grand Island, Nebraska to Schenectady, NY thirty-eight hours nonstop, drafting semis, fueled by bad coffee, Lucky Strikes, and a small handful of Dexedrine spansules. Early in one morning I got lost in Warren, Ohio. That was exciting.

The Isabella was a better ride. It had a column-mounted four-speed shift, very unusual, and an overhead valve engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, a three-barrel carburetor, and independent rear suspension, which was a rarity in those days. The seats reclined. It seemed a very serious German car to me, something that should have flag holders on the front fenders.

I left the Borgward parked near Harvard Square and we took off in the rental agent’s Karmann-Ghia. I thought they were profoundly ugly vehicles and cripplingly gendered. If there ever was a girly car, the Karmann-Ghia was it.

True, it didn’t have a sissy name like “Isabella.”

Years later I tooled around Honolulu with an archaeologist in his Datsun Fairlady, another too-soft name for what was in fact an excellent sports car.

Americans love those fierce names like Mustang, Eagle, Charger, Hornet. OK, maybe not Skylark. But Isabella, Fairlady, and lately I’ve been noticing Hyundai Sonatas. Sonata? Ford Fugue coming up. Chevrolet Canon. Lexus Lullaby. Toyota Tenebrae.

The Borgward had a ribbon speedometer which broke on the way to Cambridge. I had it fixed in Buffalo, at a speedometer place that was still in business when I moved there 15 years later, having in the meantime completed graduate school and exchanged the red Borgward for a red BMW 1800TI, which had a pair of two-barrel Solex 40PHH carbs that generated awesome throaty intake noise. The TI cost me $3,300 new.

One car magazine review called the TI a Q ship. That was before I heard anybody talk about Q cars. It took me 42 years to work “Q ship” into something I wrote. The speedometer place disappeared, the TI broke a series of rings, so I traded it to a couple of Yemenites in Lackawanna for a pretty little red Injelas rug, which has lasted longer than it did.

I wasn’t especially mellow on that 1964 day in Cambridge because I was worried about finding an apartment quickly before I ran out of motel money, not to mention nervous about renting a place in a town I didn’t know at all. Were there any cool neighborhoods? How would I know?

The rental agent drove down Mass Avenue towards Central Square and cut off a driver so he could get to the curb and park. It didn’t seem so bad to me, but the guy driving the other car whipped up around us, blocking traffic, leaned over, rolled down his window and started screaming, Your fucking foreign cars! Your VWs!

I was startled but impressed. Evidently in Cambridge even the assholes knew that the Karmann-Ghia was built on a VW chassis.

I looked at my guy and said, “Is this what’s it’s like here?”

He said, “Yes, and it’s worse if you drive a foreign car.”

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d bet VW was the only foreign car name the asshole knew. He just got lucky.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

20 responses to “Isabella in the New World”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Don. I was so hoping to see a picture of my beloved 504. Classy beast.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Ah, we’ll let Stefan do that.

    Oh, well:


    Maybe not as classy as yours, though.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Oh that’s a station wagon Peug! Mine was a sedan. I still have her number plates and livery. I kept them before I sent her to her death.

  4. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Ah, what a joy to see these cars. The Isabella looks a bit like a Fiat, when Fiats were cool. The Karmann Ghia was cool too, as a kid is was one of my favorites. I know you hated it, but the 914, the joint-venture between Porsche and VW was the logical extension of it.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      True, and the 914 bombed — as it should have. But at least it had Porsche-designed parts, beyond the engine, which was pure VW. The 916, with the 911’s 6 cylinder engine, was a better machine, but even it didn’t do well. When the 914/916 came out, I was living in the rainforest. I saw a picture or two in magazines and thought they looked cool. When I actually saw them, I was shocked at how ugly they were. Misshapen things.

  5. Irene Zion says:


    If we had a three-wheeled Morgan, I’m pretty sure I could recognize it in a parking lot.

  6. kristen says:

    I love the orangie! Looks like a pickle.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      See? It must be girly car, then.

      I realize that’s offensive, Kristen. But I’m in a bad mood. They closed entries to the half-marathon today without warning, and I hadn’t bothered to get mine in, since there was no hint of a numeric cut-off.

      Displacement, anybody? Sorry.

      • kristen says:

        Ack! I’d be pissed, too, had I been hoping to run that one.

        That’s the Nike one, yes?

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Ah, no. It’s little one in Hilo — the Big Island Marathon, Half-Marathon, and 5k. This side of the island has about 4 or 5 road races per year, and they are all small loosely-organized events. So I wasn’t expecting any hidden quota. Oh well.

  7. Becky says:

    Hey. A Fugue could be kind of bad-ass.

    I suppose there is already a Forte. But it is not badass. It is a Kia.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I never noticed the Forte, but that’s good. Porsche Pianissimo?

      • Becky says:

        It has a nice ring to it, but a Porsche is just a little thing. I wouldn’t believe it. Maybe if Stefan’s Godzilla-fart exhausts came standard?

        “The Porsche Pianissimo. They can barely see you. But they will goddamned well hear you.”

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    “I was startled but impressed.”

    It’s very strange when those two emotions blend together – when you think ‘Alright. You took me to school. But, you know what? I’m sorta grudgingly impressed.’

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Yeah. It was a complex moment. And the apartment the guy showed me was terrible, too. I found one the next day, and interestingly enough, the gas station on the next corner had a mechanic who knew and loved Borgwards. Which was good, because there were no Borgward dealers.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    “…which from the front looked like a Harley-Davidson V-Twin engaging in a weird sex act with a MG-TC.”

    Hahaha. Yes, it does.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Well, it was Portola Valley, 1964, so weird sex acts would have been coming into vogue.

      And Ed McClanahan (whose self-interview should be up soon) might have had the same thoughts, had he looked across the street any of the times he was visiting. Now that must, ah, yes, it must mean something?

      It means I’m trying to whip up interest in Ed’s self-interview and his wonderful books, including “Famous People I Have Known,” which has a lot of famous people in it, but not me, and not the Morgan either.

      And . . . how many people know what was especially unusual about Morgan construction?

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