Traverse City: Small auto business -- really small; Restored microcars can get 60 mpg and cost $35,000

By Marta Hepler Drahos

Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Go ahead, laugh. Then consider that those funny-looking microcars that once filled the motorways of post-World War II Europe get 60 mpg.

Still laughing? "With the cost of gas, these little cars are ratcheting up" in cost and popularity, said Jack Koch, who restores the bubble- and egg-shaped vehicles with his son, Jeff. "We sell every one we get."

The Grand Traverse Auto Service Center owners and their mechanics began to restore vintage motorcycles and cars several years ago as a way to offset the slow times.

"They ended up being fillers in the winter when we weren't busy," said Koch, 65, who lives in Elk Rapids. "We'd spend two months working on one and then sell it for a little cash flow."

Now the team turns out four or five cars a year, plus a motorcycle or two.

"Every time we sell one, we buy another," Koch said. The Frankfort native always loved cars but learned the restoration business as a high schooler working for Wimpy's Body Shop. In his spare time he scoured the Traverse City Chevy yard for cars to restore and then sold them to earn money for clothes. Eventually he passed his enthusiasm on to Jeff, 40.

"We started restoring American domestics, then early Porsches, then microcars," said Jack Koch, who is gaining a reputation as an authority on the diminutive cars. "Now we're sticking to these little ones because they're easy to work on." Made famous in the Pixar movie, "Cars," microcars are very compact small-engine cars. Their size and no-frills sensibility made them cheap to own and suitable for navigating narrow streets. Best of all, they gave shattered European industries something to build after the war.

The cars weigh in at about 1,200 pounds -- about half the weight of a classic VW Beetle -- and top out at about 50 mph. Most lack heat, radio and soundproofing.

"They're really bikes with a car body," Koch said, of the three- and four-wheeled vehicles with cardboard interior panels and bar-like steering "wheels." Indeed, Jeff's interest in the cars stemmed from his passion for their forerunners: vintage European motorcycles.

The Kochs buy the cars on eBay in original unrestored condition. Then they have them shipped to Traverse City, where they stash them in one of their garages or storage buildings until they're ready to work on them.

"We take it apart, clean it, paint it, then put it together," Jack Koch said, adding that they turn to local companies like Stuff It Upholstery and Ultimate Touch Auto Body Center for help. "We do high quality driver restoration. We don't do show cars."

He said the goal is to keep the cars original while catering to collectors, with luxury additions like padded interior panels and custom paint jobs. A restored car can fetch $35,000 or $40,000 on eBay, he added.

Currently the team is working on a red-and-cream-colored BMW Isetta, one of the most identifiable of microcars. Waiting in the wings are several other vehicles including their first Messerschmitt Cabriolet, a classic German microcar of the postwar era. Designed by the German aircraft manufacturer of the same name, the cars are notable for their missing reverse gear. Drivers simply turned the car off, then turned the key the other direction to start the engine in reverse.

"They're super rare," said Koch, who won a bidding war for the unrestored car from California. "It's the first one I ever saw on eBay, and I watch it religiously."

The Kochs promote their cars online, at car shows and occasionally in the Hagerty Insurance showroom.

"They're more of a niche. They're different," said Jeff Koch. "They're definitely smile cars."

Published: Wed, May 25, 2011