Discover How Isabelle Rosa Taught Herself How to Restore Classic Cars During the Pandemic

Four cars…and counting.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Chelsee Lowe
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

Like so many of us, Isabelle Rosa was trying to keep calm and carry on during the COVID shutdown. But it wasn’t sourdough bread making or Zoom calls with friends that got her through; it was restoring classic cars.

You might say she came by it naturally. She grew up in the Valley and her father, chef Giovanni Bola (his company, Giovanni’s Tiramisu, was featured in the December 2019 issue of VB), exclusively drove vintage cars. When she was 16, he gave her an ’85 Mercedes. She recalls shuttling around her then-hometown of Reseda and liking it more than any modern car she ever drove. But the iconic Ford Mustang—beloved since its 1964 debut—was always the car of her dreams.

The dream became a reality in early 2020 when Isabelle spotted a 1967 Mustang for sale on Facebook. It had been sitting in a field near Rancho Cucamonga for years, but it didn’t have any rust on it, which was a good sign. Isabelle took the risk. She bought the car and towed it back to her house in Encino. Within a month, Isabelle had completely stripped down the body and was hard at work at getting the engine running.

It was her first go at a rebuild, and Isabelle admits that she often got frustrated. She taught herself as she went—fixing broken stem seals in the engine, for example—and leaning on others when necessary. Her husband, Roger, is into classic cars too—the two work together designing post-purchase hardware for electric cars—so he provided encouragement. And a buddy of his with more experience lent a hand. Isabelle also found online forums helpful, and she hunted down Valley repair shops with experts willing to share insights.

“I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard,” Isabelle says. “A lot of it was asking questions, and not being afraid to ask questions. And you have to mess up, do it again, mess up, then do it again.”

No matter the setback, Isabelle persisted, and within six months, the Mustang was up and running and looking snazzy, freshly painted in its original dark moss green factory color. As we admired the car on a summer morning, Isabelle explained that she made it look “meaner” by giving it fatter tires, a slightly lifted suspension and vented hood (the engine she built was larger than the original, so it needed a taller hood). When Ford marketed this car, women were the target audience. The Mustang was even called a “secretary’s car” by the famous high-performance modifier of Mustangs, Carroll Shelby. When I ask what a “boss’s car” would have been, she points down the block at a Mercury Cougar.

“Part of the allure is that indescribable feeling most Angelenos have at one point or another: when there’s no traffic, and you’re just driving, the sun is golden and beautiful, and your favorite song is playing. That inspires you to want to drive something you love.”

Isabelle’s Cougar, also from 1967, came her way by happenstance. She was at a gas station earlier this year in Leona Valley when she saw the vehicle and struck up a conversation with the owner. He had been its second and fourth owner, he said, driving it with his daughter, then selling it, only to buy it again after his daughter died. When he mentioned his plans to sell the Cougar once more—in a couple of weeks at the local cherry festival—Isabelle offered to take it sooner. She bought it four days later and has been working on it ever since.

These stories are part of the draw for Isabelle. She likes to drive, certainly—Mulholland, Laurel Canyon, and Sunset are among her favorite cruising routes—but she also finds satisfaction in just being part of the car’s life and journey. And she likes the sheer act of classic-car driving. They may not have AC, but as she sees it, it’s a happier experience.

“Part of the allure is that indescribable feeling most Angelenos have at one point or another: when there’s no traffic, and you’re just driving, the sun is golden and beautiful, and your favorite song is playing. That inspires you to want to drive something you love.”

Isabelle knows she’s not alone. Maintaining a classic car may be a dying craft, but there’s a thriving community of locals who continue to love and maintain their automobiles, and in-person meetups take place all over the Valley. There’s a monthly classic-car cruise that starts at Cupid’s Hot Dogs in Winnetka; the weekly Cars & Coffee event in Northridge; and Valley Cruise Night, which usually kicks off at Carneys in Studio City or Fosters Freeze in Burbank on Friday evenings. Isabelle was a regular for some time at the Classic Car Show at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. Every Friday, classic-car owners park in the diner parking lot, peruse the awesome collection of cars, and talk shop.

The couple’s car collection continues to grow. As we walk around their front yard, where car body parts are strewn about in what she affectionately calls the “car garden,” she shows me a baby blue 1973 Chevy K10 truck that Roger bought (and disassembled), plus a 1969 Dodge Charger that may be an actual stunt car from the TV show Dukes of Hazzard. If they had the space, they’d likely take on more.

“My dream is to have a wine garage,” she muses as we walk away from the cars. “We’ll find one of those old auto shops in the Valley, use it as an actual garage to fix our cars, and also have a cool wine and beer space. We’d do classic-car drive-ins and sell vinyl records and books. I would get to work on my cars for fun andhave something I love doing as work.”

Here’s to dreams coming true.

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