Chris Beebe’s automotive resume is storied.
For more than 45 years he founded, owned and operated Foreign Car Specialists in Madison, has raced a wide range of vehicles, worked as a racing instructor, written for automotive publications and developed hybrid vehicles, including the prototype for the Chevy Volt. From 2008 to 2011, he and a team even competed for the Automotive X-Prize.
Beebe’s latest effort is testing all of his skills, patience and his 73-year-old knees and back.
Since late August, Beebe has been self-sequestered in a storage shed on a farm north of Middleton and just west of Ashton where he is working to dry out, repair and restart 15 cars and 13 motorcycles from the Midwest Microcar Museum in Mazomanie that were damaged in late August when torrential rains flooded the village.
Water reached the bottom of the windows of the museum’s historic buildings and filled not only the passenger compartments of the cars but also the engines, lights and any other cavity below the waterline. And the water was far from clean. It contained not only mud, debris and likely sewage, but also oil from the vehicles. So when the water receded, every German Messerschmidt and Heinkel Bubblecar, East German Trabant and English Bond were not only soaked but left covered in a film of oil.
Even the Amphicar, a car that doubles as a boat, was damaged. It failed to float and the seals on its doors were compromised, which flooded the interior.
“I’ve seen everything here but I haven’t seen the internals of many of these so it’s been a real eye-opening experience,” Beebe told the Wisconsin State Journal as he took a break from cleaning the starter for a French-made Renault 4CV. “You just have to be sensitive as to what water got into what. It’s really ugly, but at least it’s not salt water, which is much more corrosive.”
The water quickly receded and the vehicles were pulled from the six inches of sludge that covered the museum floors before they were hauled in multiple trips by trailer 22 miles to the farm shed. But the restoration efforts are complicated by the design of the vehicles.
The motorcycles are fairly straight forward but the microcars have limited access to the engine compartments so Beebe wears knee pads and a head lamp. In some cases he has to crawl through interiors to reach small openings in the back of a vehicle to where the engine is located.
And the engines themselves, in many cases, are glorified lawnmower engines. That means there are no drain plugs so motors need to be tilted to drain, which really isn’t an option since they’re installed in a car body. Putting the vehicles on a lift doesn’t work because of their odd designs, although Beebe thought about lifting the cars and then attaching straps and inverting the vehicles. But because of the logistics, he has instead chosen to drill into the engines small drain holes that are then threaded and plugged once the water is removed.
Humidifiers and fans have been constantly running in the shop and at the museum buildings, while the seats and other interior coverings have been removed and are now laid out on the floor of the shed until they can be repaired and put back into the vehicles by Vic’s Auto Upholstery in DeForest. Tags with detailed notes have been attached to each car and motorcycle indicating what has been done so far in the restoration process.
“He’s a gift from God,” Carlo Krause, a longtime car collector who opened the museum in 2015, said of Beebe. “You’d never find another guy around here that even comes close to what this guy is doing. I nearly kiss the guy every time I see him.”
Krause, 78, bolstered his car-collecting hobby after health problems forced him to retire about 20 years ago from his business designing and selling components for automated processing machinery. His father, who also was an electrical engineer, started the business in the basement of his home in Lake Geneva. Krause, who lives just outside of Middleton, and his son, Sven, got the idea for the museum after some of their microcars were showcased at a three-day car show at Discovery World in Milwaukee about five years ago. The exhibit drew more than 4,000 people.
The first museum building was purchased by Krause in 2015 and is located in the former blacksmith shop of John Parman, who built the facility across the street from his 1864 brick home that still stands across the street. All of the vehicles on the ground floor of the building were damaged but 10 microcars on the second floor remain in place and were unscathed. The remainder of the collection is about 25 yards to the west in the Mazomanie’s town hall, constructed in 1878 but now owned by the village. Krause began leasing space in the building in 2017, made improvements to the structure and had cars and motorcycles on the ground floor and about 15 motorcycles on the second floor.
Most of the 30 microcars in Krause’s free museum are from the 1950s and 1960s. He even has a few bicycles with motors built into their rear wheels. The museum, where damages are estimated at more than $300,000, likely won’t reopen until next spring. Meanwhile, dumpsters and construction trailers dot the village where dozens of homes and commercial properties sustained flood damage.
“If you don’t have anything running and you ever want to sell it, they’re worthless,” Ingrid Krause, Carlo Krause’s wife, said during a walk through the damaged buildings in Mazomanie. “What’s sad is that everything was basically in original condition.”
Microcars became popular modes of cheap transportation after World War II and were built by manufacturers across Europe, including by companies that had been making military equipment during the war. Most of the early microcars traveled no faster than 50 mph with 200cc to 250cc, one-cylinder engines, while later models sported slightly larger motors that increased speeds to more than 70 mph.
Beebe had visited the Microcar Museum just a week prior to the flood and reached out to Carlo Krause shortly after learning of the museum’s plight. Just days later he was at Krause’s farm shed, which holds other cars in Krause’s collection. Only now it resembles a working museum of repair. Doors and small hoods to the vehicles are propped open and even two months after the flood, dehumidifiers and fans are constantly running in an effort to draw out moisture from the vehicles.
Beebe and his assistant, Doug Heideman, who worked at Foreign Car Specialists prior to its closing in 2014, have been using rags and cleaning solutions to remove mud and oil but have also flushed engine compartments and chain cases with a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and WD-40. Wiring has been repaired and generators, carburetors and anything else that holds water have been removed (if possible) and dried.
“There was water in everything,” Beebe said. “It’s taken a lot to get mechanical stuff back working again.”
But the effort to make the microcars whole again has involved some sleuthing by Beebe, since there are few resources in the U.S. for repairing the tiny vehicles. So when Beebe had a question about how much oil was held in the chain case of a Messerschmidt, he went to a mud-stained membership publication of a Messerschmidt club that was salvaged from the flood waters. Beebe was able to find phone numbers for two of the four people in the U.S. listed in the 1978 booklet. One of them, from Florida, called back.
“He was so nice. It was really great,” Beebe said. “There are no manuals for this stuff.”
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