Small Time Big Shot
They say size doesn’t matter, but I can tell you that style does. For proof of that you need look no further than the Isetta. The diminutive little runabout shows that you don’t need acres of sheet metal to have beautiful style and clever engineering. This “bubble car” is a testament to thinking differently. It may be seen now as more of a historical oddity, but upon introduction the Isetta sold in huge numbers across the world.
The car was such a “blue sky” design that it still looks like nothing else on the road; the Isetta is truly a case of imposed limitations breeding and greatness. From the obvious lilliputian proportions to the unique hinged-front entry method, this is a vehicle like no other. At only 7.5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, the small size actually makes the car stand out more. While you could originally pick one up for about $1,000 when new, you can now expect to part with anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to park this micro machine in your own garage.
The Isetta’s history is one of multinational manufacturing and continual adjustment and refinement. BMW’s version of the car is the most famous and widespread, but the Isetta was built by manufacturers all over the world. Originally dreamt up by Iso (of Iso Grifo fame), the design and tooling was quickly licensed out to whoever was interested. It would eventually be available with three wheels or four, two doors or four, and a variety of engines all depending on year of production, country of sale, and manufacturer. As you can gather, there was an Isetta to suit just about any taste. All Isettas, regardless of manufacturer, came with a cloth sunroof. This was less a style decision as much as it was a safety precaution. While having the front of the car hinge forward as the door is a stroke of engineering and style genius, it doesn’t work out so well should the occupants find themselves involved in an accident. The cloth top was there not just for al fresco motoring but as a necessary escape route.
BMW was interested in the design as a way to compete with the VW Beetle. At the time what European customers were clamouring for was cheap, small, and economical inner-city transport (which is also why the Vespa was so popular), and BMW’s stable of large, expensive sedans were not doing well. The German marque’s gamble paid off as the Isetta went on to become the best selling single-cylinder car of all time. The BMW Isetta was powered by a 13hp 4 stroke engine brought over from the company’s R25 motorcycle. Other motorcycle-like features included a simplified dash (in this case just a speedometer), a tiny 3 gallon fuel tank, and a reserve tank—no instruments also means no fuel gauge. In fact, in many countries you could operate an Isetta with only a motorcycle license. Acceleration was a less motorcycle-like 11 seconds to 30mph, with a top speed of about 50mph. However, the car regularly achieved 50+ miles per gallon, which was highly attractive to European customers of the time.
Despite selling far and wide, and having such famous owners as Elvis Presley and Cary Grant, the Isetta eventually lost out to more traditional competition like the Fiat 500 and Mini. The Isetta was a product of and for its time, but as the market matured consumers wanted more space and refinement in their vehicles. Thankfully we still have a fair number of these special little runabouts cruising around our cities and neighborhoods to be reminded of that past. Any students of Italian can tell us that Isetta means “little Iso,” but no particular language is required to praise this small car’s appeal.
Coachwork Design: BMW
Years Built: 1955-1962
Total Produced: 161,728
Engine: 250cc – 300cc BMW 4 stroke
Power Produced: 12hp -13hp
Torque Produced: 13.6lb-ft
Curb Weight: 1,100lbs
Price When New: $1,000
Price Today: $10,000 – $25,000
Photography by Josh Clason