The two things you probably know about Isetta bubble cars is that they have three wheels, and if you park too close to the garage end wall you’ll get trapped because the single door is at the front and there’s no reverse gear. Well, you’re wrong on both counts. Only some of the British-made cars had three wheels and a disconnected reverse gear so that they could evade automobile legislation and taxation and be classed as a three-wheeled motorcycle. The rest had a conventional gearbox and four wheels, albeit with a narrow track at the rear.
The Isetta was the brainchild of Renzo Rivolta, head of the Italian engineering company Iso SpA that made, among other things, motorcycles and refrigerators.
Rivolta visualized the need for a cheap and compact town car and introduced the Isetta (“little Iso”) in 1953 with a 237-cc twin-cylinder two-stroke engine. Sales were good and within a few years the design was franchised out to BMW in Germany (which wanted to bolster slow sales of their luxury cars) and Velam in France. BMW first fitted their 247-cc single cylinder motorbike engine, and later an out-sourced 297-cc single.
For a time, the Isetta was a popular mode of cheap and cheerful transport. Stiff competition from the Mini effectively killed the car by 1964, though.
The Isetta 300 pictured here benefits from a recent repaint in a two-tone scheme that complements the lines of the bodywork, and is in period style. It is to correct specification in all major respects including chrome trim and front fenders, and retains the original odometer and gas gauge. The interior is in white and gray vinyl, with the sunroof top in matching gray. Condition throughout is fair, though the chrome brightwork shows some blemishing.
This presentable example of the ubiquitous Isetta bubble car is in good running condition. While not the fastest car on the road, it will definitely elicit attention and smiles wherever it is seen.
This car sold at Christie’s Pebble Beach auction on August 20, 2000, for $11,750, including buyer’s premium. The price was slightly above the SCM Price Guide listing of $10,000. It was purchased by a California SCM subscriber who told us he plans on chauffeuring his daughter to school in it, and then parking it between his pair of Ferrari 512 TRs in the garage.
The post-World War II history of Bavarian Motor Works is intertwined with as many odd twists and turns as a good spy novel. With a lineup of luxury models ill-suited to a devastated economy, BMW teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Suitors such as the British Rootes Group and US-based American Motors were talking shotgun marriage.
Enter Renzo Rivolta, owner of the Italian firm Iso SpA; creator of the Rivolta, Grifo and Lele; producer of refrigerators and motorcycles; and the accepted father of the Isetta. With the introduction of the “little Iso” in Italy in 1953, it did not take long for the wags to notice it was an almost perfect amalgam of motorcycle (with its 237-cc motorcycle-based engine), car (enclosed, with full bench seating for two, four wheels and a windshield wiper) and refrigerator (the front opening door is an obvious styling homage). In 1955 BMW signed on as a franchised licensee builder of the Isetta.
A contemporary road test from the British magazine Motor shows its top speed to be 54 mph, with fuel consumption a thrifty 50 to 60 miles per US gallon. The 0 to 40 mph time could be recorded by an egg timer, with a recent report measuring it at 1 minute flat. An original brochure for the British version promoted the car by stating “Since its length is no more than average car width, it can be placed nose-on to the kerb, and is therefore the easiest car in the world to park.”
The Isetta 300 weighs in at around 770 pounds fully equipped (with heater and defroster). With your kneecaps acting as a safety bumper and your lungs as airbags, it is not exactly a paragon of crash-worthiness.
A few years ago, 1950s and ’60s micro cars doubled and tripled in value—a run-up in pricing that made Internet stocks look tame. But like all bubble markets, the “bubble-car bubble” burst and rational thinking has largely returned.
Excellent cars sell in the $12,000-$15,000 range. Unless you are going the do-it-yourself restoration route, don’t try to save a few bucks by buying a car with needs. These cars are plagued by rust, and many have been rolled (check for a lumpy roof and an ill-fitting front door). Repairing either can be prohibitively expensive. Like so many cult cars, a good way to find a decent car is through the marque club (www.microcar.org).
If you do find yourself behind the wheel (and door) of an Isetta, you’ll find that everyone who sees you go by will wave, perhaps thinking that you’ve escaped from a Ringling Brothers Circus act and that ten clowns are waiting to stream out at the next stoplight. In fact, they are highly entertaining ways to run around-town errands, so long as you don’t become too confrontational with a multi-ton SUV.—Dave Kinney.
Additional information courtesy of Mark Perkins, http://home pages.tesco.net/~markperkins/microcars/index.html, whose site provides a wealth of Isetta information.