Collectible Classic: 1956-1962 BMW Isetta 300
A great alternative to Zoloft, if you don’t mind channeling Steve Urkel
If you're the self-conscious type, a BMW Isetta 300 might not be the best personal transportation choice because it is, in essence, a motorized fishbowl. The fact that you enter through the front, not to mention how the steering wheel articulates out with the car's only door, is something of a sideshow unto itself. Motoring in an Isetta is, of course, the main event, and it's lots of fun. Driving an egg-shaped car, for better or worse, certainly attracts attention, as we found on the sunny streets of Palm Springs, California. Even the mayor greeted us!
Fortunately for BMW, its management in the early 1950s couldn't afford the luxury of self-consciousness. The company was floundering, its product line consisting mostly of warmed-over prewar relics that were far from competitive at a time when Germany struggled with economic adversity. BMW took the bold step of licensing the right to build a car not of its own conception—and a very silly looking car at that. It was a product of Renzo Rivolta's Milan-based Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A, a former refrigerator maker that had branched into scooters, motorcycles, and light delivery vehicles. It was tiny, so the diminutive of Iso, Isetta, seemed an appropriate name. And doesn't that front door have something in common with a refrigerator? Just thinking out loud here.
BMW improved Iso's original in many ways, not the least of which was the installation of a tried and true motorcycle engine. Its efforts yielded a hit, with production running for eight model years, and there was even a successor. The single-cylinder 300 evolved into the twin-cylinder Isetta 600, and that served as the underpinning of the BMW 700, formatted more like a normal car. Soon came the 1600/2002 series of BMW compact cars linking us to the present, when the acquisition of Rolls-Royce was the equivalent of rounding up an accounting error. Speaking of the British, bubble cars of Isetta's ilk found favor in the U.K. at the time, prompting the development of the original Mini as a domestic response to the latest German invasion. Mini is now a BMW division, so the company has its own Isetta to thank for that circular circumstance.
We recently encountered this delightful 1957 Isetta 300, finished in Tuerkisweiss (turquoise) and Weissblau (white/blue), owned by Wick and Allison Zimmerman for the past six years. When they bought the car it was far from cute: just a paintless body shell and most of the parts in plastic bins and Ziploc bags. "We were told it was 98 percent complete," Wick says, "but we were dubious." There was really no way to tell what was missing until they tried to put their automotive Humpty Dumpty back together. "We had no idea what we were doing," Allison remembers. "And we found out that a lot of people get Isettas and start restoring them but ultimately give up. The body had been stripped, but it didn't look like much else had been done."
Allison recalls the circumstances of the car's purchase on eBay. "Beverages were involved. And we never saw the car in person, so it was something of a blind date." Drunk blind date? What could possibly go wrong? Ultimately, they farmed out the restoration and found another Isetta, a rusty barn find but intact, and snapped it up to serve as a template for the restoration of the one seen on these pages. Beverages were involved in that impulse buy as well.
The car is absolutely lovely, crafted beautifully, and it's very much a jewel. The fit and finish are top flight. It doesn't scream cheap car, and it's not; Isetta prices, especially for restored ones, are on the uptick these days. Virtually every detail has been researched to a fare-thee-well, and Allison is justifiably proud of the perfect paint job. The colors were specially mixed to replicate the originals.
Driving an Isetta is a singular experience, once you get the hang of the upside-down shift pattern — first gear is to the right and down — and shifting with the left hand. You don't so much enter the car as put it on like a shiny two-tone jump suit. Close the door, and the proportionally large steering wheel presents itself to you. The driving position is a bit Ralph Kramden-esque. The comfy front bench seat offers unparalleled visibility, both for the occupants looking out and for the world looking in. Invariably, the faces from that world are smiling because the sight of an Isetta is a guaranteed joy bringer. Wiggle into one of these and tear up your Zoloft prescription.
Instrumentation is minimal, and there's no gas gauge, but there is a lever to open a reserve tank should you run out of fuel. That would be a rare occurrence as a full, 3.4-gallon tank will get you almost 200 miles, and trust us, you're not going to want to go that far in a love seat on wheels, charming though it is.
Because the Isetta is so light, the little motor doesn't strain much to propel it to adequate speed, but you do feel a bit intimidated sharing the road with larger vehicles — make that any vehicle. Wick says he's gotten this one up to 45 mph and calls the experience frightening, which might well be an understatement. Truth be told, it feels not unlike an original Volkswagen Beetle but sounds, perhaps, a tad more like a lawn mower. The car corners fairly well at moderate speeds. You have the most fun making U-turns; it just begs to be driven in circles. There's not a whole lot of suspension travel. Where could it go? This means that enhanced road feel is part of the Isetta package.
Although it's actually competent from a 1950s microcar perspective, the Isetta simply can't be taken seriously, and that sense of mirth is what makes it so appealing. As Wick puts it, "There are a lot of cool cars out there but not that many with hinged front doors."
|Engine||0.3L single cylinder/13 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 14 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|Front Suspension||Swing arm|
|Rear Suspension||Leaf springs|
There's no rational reason to buy an Isetta. But if you're interested in having fun and seeing others smile, laugh, or guffaw often with but sometimes at you, this might be your car. An Isetta attracts more attention than a Lamborghini, and you'll meet a lot of nice people who will take photos. So you'll have no anonymity, but who does these days? Although most will have no idea what it is — "Huh? This thing a BMW?" — some might remember Steve Urkel drove one in the 1990s TV series "Family Matters." If you're comfortable being associated with the top nerd of all time, the Isetta is a great choice. It's like a Smart Fortwo but smarter and smaller in every dimension. It appreciates in value as the seconds tick by, and you can actually use it to go places if you're brave and outgoing.