Revisting the BMW Isetta

The BMW Isetta sits proudly amongst the 1936 328, legendary 1955 507 roadster and visionary 2008 ‘Gina’ in the Munich based-firm’s museum. That the diminutive Isetta is included among the exhibits is warranted, but it doesn’t quite have the same lineage.

Initially conceived by Iso, a small Italian refrigerator and motorcycle manufacturer with a reputation for quality, the Isetta was a response to increasing competition from scooter manufacturers Vespa and Lambretta as well as the popularity of the Fiat 500C.

Iso’s owner, Renzo Rivolta, began dabbling in the idea of producing a covered vehicle and had tasked engineers Ermenegildo Preti and Pierluigi Raggi with creating a product to appeal to post-war Europeans.

As the story goes, the ‘bubble car’ – as it has affectionately become coined – was the brainchild of Preti, a young aeronautical engineer who envisioned the overall egg-shaped package and tubular frame, while the body and chassis design was the work of Raggi.

1955 BMW Isetta with the 1999 BMW Z8

The Isetta was extremely compact, measuring just 2290mm long and 1370mm wide. It was powered by a two-stroke 198cc engine and weighed just 330kg.

Early prototypes were three-wheelers, with the engine and single drive wheel at the rear. It was a simple layout and, as the rear parts were interchangeable with Iso motorcycles, it also made financial sense. On later production versions, two wheels were fitted on a narrow (482mm) track at the rear to improve stability.

The two-passenger car featured a single front door, which lifted the entire steering column and wheel out of place when opened – an idea born from Raggi’s innovative mind. As long as its opening wasn’t impeded, the large door facilitated ingress and egress into and out of the tiny, austere cabin’s single bench seat. In the event of an accident, however, owners were advised to climb out of the canvas roof.

1953 ISO Isetta (Darin Schnabel ©2012 Courtesy of RM Auctions)

Interestingly, designer Giovanni Michelotti — who would later work with BMW on other projects — was called in to devise a solution for the greenhouse. With their bubble-like curvatures, which ultimately gave the car it’s nickname, the windows provided an enormous amount of outward visibility but restricted ventilation for passengers in inclement weather as they didn’t open.

The Isetta was seen as a futuristic and cutting edge vehicle when it made its debut at the 1953 Turin motor show, but it wasn’t overly popular with buyers in Italy. Within a few months Rivolta had begun entertaining license deals in France and Brazil as well as other countries.

BMW’s later revisions to the Isetta included sliding windows

Meanwhile, over in Germany, BMW had been building a similar reputation for quality cars but had never managed to achieve the commercial success of rivals Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. The company had been deeply reliant on its motorcycle business, which was buoyant post-war. By the mid-1950s, however, living standards had increased and interest in motorcycles had begun to wane. BMW was in dire need of a lifeboat.

Fortunately for BMW, microcars were an increasingly appealing mode of transport in Germany. Champion and Fend Flitzer (precursor to the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller) were testament to that. In October 1954 BMW acquired a license to build the two-seat Isetta as well as the tooling it required to manufacture the car itself.

1955 BMW Isetta (Darin Schnabel ©2012 Courtesy of RM Auctions)

BMW refined many of the Isetta’s details, changing the headlamps to larger units with separate repeaters and mounting them higher along the side fender. The German company also disposed of the flush fitting door handle, the ‘gilled’ engine vent, rear cover and the engine itself – BMW versions used the company’s own engines. Later, BMW devised more powerful 247cc and 298cc four-stroke engines, fitted sliding window mechanisms to supplement ventilation and also revised the Isetta’s front suspension.

Over the Isetta’s seven-year production run, BMW left much of the original Iso design intact. The company sold 161,728 models — including three-wheeled versions manufactured in Austria, Britain and Sweden to bypass conventional car license fees and take advantage of cheaper motorcycle and tricycle license fees — before production officially ceased in 1962.

BMW Isetta brochure (1956)

1956 BMW Isetta brochure

The Isetta became the stopgap that helped BMW stay afloat while it reevaluated its future and developed its next generation mainstream product with the help of another Italian – designer Michelotti. That car was the BMW 700, which also has a place in the Munich-based firm’s museum.


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