For a company best known for its high-end sports and luxury cars, the little Isetta seems remarkably out of place. But the story as to why BMW took over Isetta production in the 1950s is a fascinating one that's based on one thing: cash flow.
Different doesn't really begin to describe the tiny 7.5-foot-long Isetta. It lacked conventional side doors, instead sporting a hinged opening in the front that swung open -- windshield and all -- to reveal a single bench seat. In the event of front-end damage, passengers could escape through a large canvas-covered opening in the roof. The car's air-cooled 13-horsepower single-cylinder engine could propel the 770-pound car to a top speed of 53 mph and deliver a 63 mpg average fuel economy. A 3.4-gallon gas tank limited cruising range to about 200 miles between fills.
Although the Isetta was a relatively obscure automobile, BMW, the company that produced it for nearly eight years, is well-known for making premium motorcycles and automobiles.
BMW, however, didn't actually create this oddly constructed machine. Two engineers who worked for the Bresso, Italy-based Iso company developed this small, light and fuel-efficient two-passenger alternative to its motorbike and scooter business. Their initial Isetta (Italian for "little Iso") prototype was unveiled in 1953.
Iso manufactured the Isetta for a couple of years before selling the production rights to BMW as well as smaller companies in Belgium, France, Spain and Brazil. But it was BMW that ultimately made the most of the newly adopted miniature. At the time, the company was making high-priced sports cars and was looking for an inexpensive vehicle that it could mass produce. BMW also badly needed the cash flow that would accrue from sales of the Isetta.
The automaker's engineers modified the body and replaced the Iso's 0.25-liter two-stroke engine with a similarly sized four-stroke unit adapted from one of its motorcycles. Also installed was a BMW-designed four-speed manual transmission, with the shifter positioned on the left side of the steering wheel.
Launched in April 1955, the reconfigured Isetta was an immediate hit with German drivers in search of low-cost transportation in what was a nation still recovering from the ravages of World War II. A year later, engine displacement was increased to 298 cubic centimeters (0.3 liters) giving the car a zero-to-30-mph time of about 11 seconds.
Buoyed by its popularity, BMW licensed the car for production in England. In that country, the two rear-drive wheels, which were only 20 inches apart to begin with, were replaced with a single 10-inch-wide wheel-and-tire combination. This change allowed the Isetta to be registered as a motorcycle, saving buyers even more money. The only down side was the three-wheeler's tendency to tip over if not driven with some care.
BMW's introduction of its Italian-based two-seater coincided with the 1956 Suez crisis, when Egypt's closure of the Suez Canal disrupted supplies of crude oil to Europe. With gasoline at a premium, many new-car buyers went shopping for micromisers such as the Isetta and sales rapidly increased.
For about $1,000, the 1955 Isetta came with just the basics, such as a speedometer, chrome bumpers, turn signals and a heater and defroster. Sliding side windows became standard a year later. For about $100 more, the deluxe model added fresh-air grilles, sun visors and an ash tray. Additional options included inside and outside luggage racks, radio, a grab handle and mud flaps. A fuel gauge was not available but drivers could switch to a small reserve gas tank when the Isetta began to sputter, indicating it was time to top up.
Entering the Isetta was a simple process of swinging open the front hatch and stepping backward into the seat. The steering column was attached to the door and hinged near the floorboards to help entry and exit. Despite its diminutive size, leg and knee room was actually ample for tall adults. A storage area behind the seat provided very limited space for small items.
BMW made more than 160,000 Isettas until finally ending its manufacture in 1962. The total includes 30,000 British three-wheel variants and about 8,000 cars that were exported to North America and largely sold through motorcycle dealers. Very few survive today since these inexpensive runabouts were treated as disposable items.
Today, perfectly restored examples regularly sell in the $15,000-$20,000 range and are much sought-after by collectors attracted to their cute-as-a-button styling and double-take eye appeal.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.