For a company usually associated with performance engineering, the Isetta may come as something of a shock. A successful manufacturer of motorbikes and automobiles prior to WWII, BMW found itself in dire straits after hostilities had ceased. Of the five production facilities the company owned, four were lost behind the iron curtain, while the remaining factory, in Munich, had been bombed heavily. Punitive sanctions by the allies prevented the company from producing cars for a further three years, and it wasn't until 1951 that BMW released their first post-war motor, the 501. The 501, and its V8-powered successor, the 502, were fine cars, but at more than three times the average annual wage, they were not what the market wanted. From 1951 to 1964, fewer than 20,000 were sold. BMW was in danger of a buyout from arch-rivals Mercedes-Benz. By 1955, BMW badly needed a money-spinner.
Meanwhile, in Italy, scooter manufacturer Iso were busily producing the Isetta (literally, "little Iso"). The Isetta was determinedly unconventional. Small and egg-shaped, the entire front end of the car hinged outwards to allow entry, and in the event of a crash, the driver and passenger were expected to escape through the canvas sunroof. With a pair of closely-spaced rear wheels driven by a tiny 9.5hp motorcycle engine, the Isetta took over 30 seconds to reach 30mph from rest - although in 1955, one managed to finish 267th out of 281 in the punishing Mille Miglia 1,000-mile endurance race.
The peculiar bubble-shaped city car had only been a minor hit since its introduction in 1953, and its days were numbered. Iso wanted to concentrate on mainstream sports cars, and required funding for the forthcoming Rivolta sports coupe. Thus, Iso decided to sell the rights and machinery to produce the Isetta. Along with manufacturers in France and Brazil, BMW acquired a licence, and was to prove most successful in selling the car.
Post-war rationing had been phased out by the time BMW launched the Isetta in 1955, but the European economy was considerably more austere than that of the USA, and the Isetta's 60mpg thirst went down well. BMW had upped the power to 13hp, shaving the 0-30 time to 11 seconds, and giving the car a top speed of 50mph, for the bravest of drivers. With space for two and their luggage, the Isetta was perfect for Britain's urban and rural roads. The first motorway, the M1, did not open until 1959, and more conventional cars such as the Morris Minor could barely top 60mph.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 led to gasoline shortages, and for a time micro-cars looked to be the future. Heinkel-Trojan produced an Isetta-like machine with rear seats, while Messerschmitt's KR200 was perhaps the most extreme, looking more like a WWII fighter plane than a car. One factor hampering the Isetta in Great Britain was that it had four wheels, and was thus classified as a car, with all the tax and license requirements that implied. Although BMW was content with European sales, the British arm of Iso swiftly produced a three-wheel version which, like subsequent machines from Reliant, could be driven with a motorcycle license.
BMW produced 160,000 of the machines until 1964, by which time the bubble-car craze was in decline. The introduction of the Mini in 1959 - a car expressly designed to sweep the bubble-cars from British roads - was the first blow, and, like the Austin A35 and Fiat 500, it was a proper car for little more than the cost of an Isetta. By the mid-1960s the age of austerity was over, and Europe was ready for medium-sized small cars, such as the Renault R16 and the new Ford Anglia. Nonetheless, BMW was happy. As far as BMW was concerned, the Isetta had performed admirably. The car had shored up the company's finances during the development of a new range which, with the launch of the 1500 in 1961, went on to secure the company's future. Although the Isetta was an unusual side-alley in BMW's development, without it, the company might well no longer exist today.
Despite a production life of eight years, there were essentially only two different models of BMW Isetta - one with a 247cc engine, and a slightly more powerful version with a 297cc engine (the Isetta 250 and 300 respectively). Mechanically, the car was very reliable - the only weakness being rust, and a "disposable" image which means that examples are quite rare nowadays.
Prices range from $3,000 for a very tatty example up to $15,000 or more for a pristine vehicle. Three-wheel British versions are more rare, but their value is offset by the fact that they're more prone to rolling-over than the four-wheeled examples. There was a rare cabriolet version and an even more rare truck.
By the 1970s, the "supermini"-sized car, such as the Renault 5, meant that there was no real need or demand for a micro-car revival. Nonetheless, periodic recessions and fuel crises, coupled with a growing environmental movement, provided impetus for a few notable successors to the Isetta, many of which were "utility vehicles" such as the Mini-Moke. Apart from Reliant's Robin and Regal, the strikingly angular, bright orange 1972 Bond Bug was the most popular example, and although they are rarely seen today, Bugs are quite popular with collectors.
During the 1980s, computer manufacturer Sinclair attempted to revolutionize the world with the battery-powered C5 - a cross between a small car and a bicycle - and failed, while Formula One team Ligier released a variety of box-shaped vehicles more suited for golf courses than the open road. By the 1990s, Japan had become a haven for the micro-car, or "K-car," with examples such as the Daihatsu Move, Mazda Demio and Suzuki Cappucino being exported to Europe, with only limited success. Nowadays, the most popular micro-car is the Isetta-esque MCC Smart. With seating for two and a rear-mounted engine, the Smart is larger than the Isetta, has four evenly-spaced wheels, and an electronic stability system. But the concept is much the same: urban transport for two people and a minimum of luggage, in style, and with great economy.
Built in Germany. 160,000 cars built between 1955 and 1962. 4 wheels, but most people think it has only three (they did make some three-wheel versions, but they were much less reliable).
One-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine (298cc, 18.61 cubic inch, 13 hp).
Top speed: 53 mph.
63 miles per gallon.
3.4 gallon gas tank, (no gas gauge, has a "reserve" tank when needed).
Tire size: 10 inches (4 tires).
770 lbs empty; 1,200 lbs (maximum) with two passengers (they should be friends).
1958 sticker price was $1,093
(photos by Bob Nelson)
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