Isabella in the New WorldBy Don Mitchell
March 03, 2010
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.