This car has undergone a complete nut-and-bolt restoration. Powered by a 298-cc 1-cylinder, 4-stroke motor with 13 horsepower. The car has a 4-speed manual transmission with reverse, rack and pinion steering, coil springs in the front and leaf springs in the rear. Has a 12-volt electrical system and weighs approximately 780 pounds with a top speed of 53 mph and 50 mpg. Titled as a 1957 Isetta.
|Vehicle:||1957 BMW Isetta 300 Convertible|
|Original List Price:||$1,000|
|Tune Up Cost:||$60 to $80|
|Chassis Number Location:||Stamped on firewall as well as on chassis plate|
|Engine Number Location:||Stamped on cylinder block, distributor side on boss|
|Club Info:||Vintage Microcar Club|
|Alternatives:||1957 Messerschmitt KR 200, 1957 Heinkel Kabine, 1957 Velorex, 1957 Zundapp Janus 250|
This car sold for $40,700, including buyer’s premium, at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale, AZ, auction on Saturday, January 23, 2011.
What fast and beautiful Italian sports car shares a creator with a very slow and funny-looking German super economy car? If your answers were “Iso Grifo” and “BMW Isetta,” give yourself full marks. In fact, those who admire the powerful and stylish Grifo have the Isetta to thank for it. In Europe, during the long days of rebuilding after World War II, there was an urgent need for very economical transportation. Fuel was still scarce—money scarcer still—and for a populace which placed the pressing issues of survival and recovery above comfort and fashion, motorcycle-based minicars were the perfect alternative to bicycles and carts.
Coolers to cars
In the pre-war period, Renzo Rivolta’s Isothermos company manufactured refrigerators. After the war, he moved his firm’s focus to transport, building scooters and motorcycles, among them the Isoscooter and Isomoto. A logical extension was to add a line of small, roomy and well-made cycle-powered cars named Isetta. While they sold reasonably well in Italy, the competition was about to heat up with imminent arrival of Fiat’s Topolino successor, the Nuova 500.
Meanwhile, in Germany BMW was reeling; having completely misread the market with its fabulous but expensive V8 sedans and luxury GTs, it had to make a quick move to offer something that the impecunious Burghers could actually buy. The answer turned out to be a license from Rivolta to manufacture the Isetta, one he sold as well as to other firms in France, Spain, the U.K. and Brazil. Contrary to popular belief, only the very first Italian development cars were three-wheelers—all the rest had four wheels, with a very narrow rear track. By the time the BMW Isetta 300 was introduced, the rear track had been widened considerably, adding massive levels of stability. Or not.
The start of a tiny trend
Microcars burst onto center stage of the classic scene in 1997, when pioneering tiny car collector Bruce Weiner decided to sell most of his first collection at a Christie’s auction in London. The 43 cars offered blasted through their high estimates, an example being the $33,391 realized for a 1957 BMW Isetta 300—which had been estimated at $6,452 to $9,679. They had arrived as the gôut du jour. Even our Publisher Martin succumbed to the discrete charm of the buzzing bubble and owned an Isetta. I have no doubt that his lovely daughter Alex is still working through issues from the times she was dropped off at school in that character-rich conveyance (Editor’s note: Publisher Martin put another Isetta into the SCM fleet last summer).
The fortunes of micros waned a bit in the decade following the London sale, as it became clear that it took a superb example to match those record prices. In recent years, with the rise of Fiat Jolly mania, microcars, especially the most commonly seen Isettas and Messerschmitts, have made a comeback.
Sales in Scottsdale
Let’s take a look at Isetta sales in a single venue: Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale. Over the past four years they have sold Isettas at prices ranging from $24,000 to $47,000. Our subject car had previously sold at B-J in January 2010 for $31,900. Once the seller’s commission is deducted from the January 2011 sale, the car made approximately a 27% return, of course not accounting for transport, entry fees, insurance and maintenance. Still, it wasn’t bad for an “investment” in the current environment.
Although Isettas are fairly simple, they are not particularly inexpensive to restore correctly, and many can be seen with various fudges for missing trim—and with mechanical solutions which can be imaginative at the very least.
Übercollector Weiner, who went on to build a second, larger microcar collection— which is housed in his Microcar Museum in Georgia—has said in print that it was not unusual for him to spend up to $40,000 restoring a micro.
When considering a purchase, be sure to check with knowledgeable club members or a few of the respected microcar authorities. The restorer of this particular Isetta is a marque specialist, who has for a number of years prepared at least one car for sale in Scottsdale. All have been done to a very high level—many quite over the top. That he has as good a reputation as he does considering his very visible market presence says something.
Small, easily garaged artifacts
What remains is the “why?” Most collectors want to buy a car they can use in some social setting, be it rallies, tours or shows. While the Isetta is Mille Miglia eligible, you’d probably need at least two additional days to complete the route.
There are a number of tours for microcars in the U.K., and in the flatter parts of the U.S. it would be fun to commune with fellow under 700-cc—not to mention the under 400-cc—owners. At every show for which they are eligible, you are guaranteed to get the cute factor prize, so please don’t succumb to the temptation to put those ridiculous, oversized wind-up keys on the back.
While I have to admit I find it strange that an Isetta would sell for more than an Iso Rivolta GT, there’s no question that as historic artifacts, they are an important reminder of ingenuity in difficult times. They’re also easier to garage. So, was this car well sold or well bought? Let’s say this deal was a tiny bit of both.