The go-to guy for Goggomobils learns to sew before he goes

Learning to sew has pushed John Hollowell beyond his customarily narrow and low limits. As a collector of microcars, which enjoyed their first full flowering in Europe and the United States in the two decades after World War Two, Hollowell has undertaken all sorts of mechanical projects.

Upholstery stuffing and stitching techniques are something else.

But his 1959 Glas Goggomobil TS400 coupe needs new interior trim. The sleek red fastback made its debut on July 9 at the Rolling Sculpture car show, enjoying pride of place with three other microcars from Hollowell’s collection. He also brought along Isetta bubble cars in pink and green, and a tiny little Japanese pickup of obscure origins that looked like an overambitious golf cart.

The simplest definition of a microcar is “a small, fuel-efficient automobile.” But the discerning observer always recognizes one upon first sight. They’re ridiculously small automotive tea cups. One is lacking in length, the next lacking in height. Most are lacking overall. Drivers and intrepid passengers tuck themselves in and hope they’re not broadsided by a wayward, uninsured Yorkie.

Located in Dingolfing, Germany, the Glas company built motor scooters and then nerved up in order to produce cars. Over the years, prodded along by the Italian design house Frua, these cars went from darling to daring. Goggomobil production was fairly impressive, with more than 66,000 of the coupes made.

John Hollowell on July 9, 2010, with his Goggomobil. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Hollowell picked up his Goggomobil three years ago in a rough section of Cleveland. He had employed what he calls his “standard method” of placing the photo of an Isetta in Auto Trader with the tag line: “Wanted: Microcars.”

The Goggo of his dreams sat at the back of an auto body shop where music burped annoyingly from a boosted sound system. After some haggling, he paid $2700.

“The lower body was in rough shape.”

 The coupe is powered, so to speak, by a rear-mounted, 400-cubic-centimeter engine of two cylinders. This air-cooled, two-stroke unit has a technically advanced premix injection system that squirts oil into the combustion chambers, obviating the need for a prepared gas-oil mixture. (A two-stroke engine burns oil with gas to lubricate the cylinders.)

Another somewhat advanced feature—many American cars of this era offered fully automatic transmissions—is the electronic-preselect gear-changing system. Hollowell describes it as “a kind of joystick” that’s integrated with the dashboard. “You’ve got to think while you’re doing it.” Use of the clutch pedal is required on takeoffs but not during gear changes.

And the Goggo has other not-to-be-wheezed at features, such as the fully independent suspension, which helped to entice BMW to buy out their burgeoning rival in 1966, before Goggomobils became going-going-gone.

The restoration of Hollowell’s coupe has progressed to the upholstery stage despite interruptions from new acquisitions for the collection. And there was the hardly trifling fact of sometimes insurmountable frustration. He said he thought about using heavy equipment from his landscape architecture business to flatten the coupe (even further).

The lack of upholstery needles Hollowell. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

But he persevered. Parts came from Uwe Staufenberg, a specialist in Germany. “He’s a Goggo guy. He’s all about Goggomobils.”

This question about Hollowell: Why microcars? Growing up on Beechwood Drive, with the sound of M-14 traffic well within earshot, he often watched a neighbor frolic with two Isettas. Seeing one offered for sale at a repair garage many years later, he went for it.

As the collection builds, he rents out microcars for weddings, commercials and photography props. (Narrow-angle lenses are suitable for the latter.) But personal use usually entails complications.

“When you drive that thing,” he said of the Isetta, “you’ve got to give rides.” And giving rides can be hazardous to the ego. At one party on Revena Boulevard, he agreed to take a girl along in an Isetta. Climbing out afterward, she said, “Mister, it sounds like your car is cutting grass.”

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