To assert that the BMW Isetta was the saviour of the Bavarian Motor Company’s fortunes would be something of an over statement. Perhaps better to define it as being the creator of a stay of execution during the 1950s until a more robust solution could be found later.
Yet, BMW’s decision to buy the rights to manufacture this tiny saloon must surely be ranked as inspired judgement in view of the company’s precarious position at the start of the decade, while the hugely damaging Suez Crisis of 1956 created a major fuel shortage in Europe causing an exponential upturn in the demand for small fuel efficient vehicles like the tandem-seater Gogomobile and the Isetta Bubble car.
“Like so many classic car owners today, I bought my Isetta because I’d owned one when I first started to drive,” reflects Colin Marcham as we stand admiring his 1960 left-hand drive example. “It was 1970, I was 16 years old and I bought a Heinkel Bubble Car for £10. But it was in pretty poor condition. I only kept it for three months before selling if for £10 profit, which I put towards buying an Isetta. That was right-hand drive and I paid £35 for it. I used it as my every day transport. Then, a year later it was sold to buy a ‘proper’ car, a Ford Anglia 105E and I made a £15 profit. I was really pleased. It was 38 years later before I bought this car from a Land Rover dealer in the Leicester area. It was sold as a runner and was a great deal more than I paid for the righthand drive car in 1970. In the event it turned out to be in very poor condition and I spent the next 12 months restoring it with helpful advice and spares from the Bromley Bubble Company and the Isetta Owner’s Club.”
When the allies’ imposed 250cc limitation on the size of motor cycle engines was lifted in 1950, BMW seized the opportunity to develop the boxer type 500cc engine, which powered the R51/2 range of motor bikes. These quickly became a huge success, both at home and abroad. In sharp contrast was the BMW 501 luxury saloon introduced a year later. Tastefully appointed in 1954, a V8-engined version was launched. Alongside this was a sleekly elegant sports car… the 507. Showroom traffic stoppers all, they were significantly outside the financial compass of many who stopped to view and hardly in harmony with swingeing post-war austerity.
Critically, manufacturing costs for these high-end vehicles, together with markedly low sales volumes, was not lost on the BMW board and efforts began over finding a financially viable answer to keeping the company solvent. The solution was found in a very unlikely quarter.
Initially manufacturers of refrigerators, Isothermos was founded in Genoa in 1939. Three years later the company was bought by Renzo Rivolta (later of GT car fame), an engineer and industrialist heir. In 1942 he moved the business to Bresso in Milan, away from the damaging impact of the military conflict. With the war over, the company migrated to manufacturing low-end motor scooters and cheap three-wheel vehicles and was re-established as Autoveicoli S.p.A in 1953.
Rivolta’s view of the future was bound up in the design and manufacture of a basic car capable of transporting two people at minimal cost. To develop a suitable design, Rivolta contracted aircraft engineering company Ermenegildo Preti, Ing, who in turn hired Salvo and Pierluigi Raggi who had a similar background in aeronautics. Work began in developing the Iso Isetta (literally meaning little Iso) in 1953. The diminutive dimensions were just 7.5ft long and 4.5ft wide. Power was supplied by a twin cylinder 235cc engine driving a four-speed gearbox and linked to the rear wheels by a twin row morse chain. Suspension utilised coil springs with a swinging arm at the rear. Maximum speed was a modest 45mph, which was sufficient for the road conditions and customer demands of the time.
The curvy little car was launched at the Turin Motor Salon in April 1954. To gain further publicity that year the company entered five of these tiny vehicles in the gruelling 1000-mile Mille Miglia road race in which three of the cars finished an unexpected first, second and third in the economy class; a tribute to their engineering and longevity in such a tough event. More importantly was the rapturous applause accorded the Isettas en-route to the finalé by fans and the rally cognoscenti alike. Interestingly, when BMW entered the Mille Miglia itself the following year in the 750cc category with its own version they cut an astonishing two hours off the 22 hours taken by the Iso Isettas the previous year, averaging 50mph on an event in which only half of the 400-500 cars stayed the distance. Better yet, the Isettas outstripped other cars in their class such as Fiat 500s and 600s, and Citroen 2CVs.
The remarkable result of the Isettas in the 1954 Mille Miglia struck a strong cord with the BMW board, their performance outstripping any reservations they may have had over the company becoming associated with manufacturing such a tiny car. However, to put the Isetta into production BMW embarked on a lengthy and detailed re-engineering programme. To enhance reliability the twin cylinder Italian unit was replaced initially by a single cylinder BMW air-cooled 250cc engine (later increased to 297cc), similar to the R27 motor cycle unit from the same era, which produced 13hp. At the rear a single brake activated on both rear wheels while their close proximity precluded the need for a differential.
The structural and body redesign ensured that while the basic essence of the Iso’s shape was retained, little of the original car could be swapped for the German equivalent – it was to be a BMW throughout with production beginning the following year. Indeed, such was the impact of the original Isetta that manufacture was also established by Iso Isetta Automobiles of Brazil. The manufacturing rights were sold to VELAM who redesigned it for manufacture in France, while the original car was also made in Spain and Belgium. Among the rich and famous that succumbed to the little car’s attractions was pop star Elvis Presley and actor Cary Grant.
Significantly, despite its size and charismatic appearance the Isetta boasted cutting edge design criteria; a mid-engine powertrain location, a centremounted brake light, a combined starter and dynamo ‘Dynastart’ and minimal connections in the wiring loom; the body could be removed from the chassis frame in just 30 minutes. Its slippery shape resulted in an unusual degree of aerodynamics responsible for its impressive 60mpg fuel economy. As a safety feature all Isettas were fitted with a fold back sun roof, which provided an escape route were the car to be involved in an accident which prevented exit through opening the front door.
By 1957 the name and brand of BMW had already become established in the UK as manufacturers of luxury cars for discerning buyers. However, demand for cars focussed on the economy motoring market was growing, especially among those who had yet to own their first car. To satisfy demand Isetta of Great Britain was established under which the tiny BMW cars would be made under licence in a factory based in Brighton.
The headquarters for the new company was the now defunct railway locomotive works next to Brighton station. In March 1957 the last repair work was carried out on British Railways’ steam-powered giants before the contractors moved in, replacing mighty lifting and locomotive maintenance equipment with jigs, tools, electrical equipment and an assembly line established to manufacture the diminutive 350kg machine. Remarkably, production began the following month.
The layout design of this very unusual factory was done by BMW itself, which included plans for retaining the railway connections into the building, thereby enabling the delivery of parts and raw materials, and completed cars to be shipped in and out all by rail – it was a rather novel solution to a weighty problem. The factory would receive parts from Bavaria, such as bare body pressings, suspension and braking systems, and drivetrain components, as well as components from local UK-based suppliers, sufficient initially to produce some 250 cars each week.
Body assembly and welding was performed on one side of the factory, and then the welded shells were moved to the far end of the plant. Here, they were painted ready for movement in the reverse direction on the opposite side ready to receive the chassis and drivetrain before Pre-Delivery-Inspection. The cars were then loaded back on to wagons for dispatch. At the height of its production, the Brighton-based factory manufactured some 300 Isetta cars each week by a workforce of around 200 engineers. From 1955 to 1964 the company produced a significant 160,000 units.
In the UK sales of the four-wheel Isetta were hampered by motor vehicle taxation laws which placed it in the conventional car category making the annual road fund tax expensive for such a small car. This problem was resolved in 1959 with the introduction of the three-wheel Isetta, which moved the model into the motorcycle taxation class, attracting an increase in customers. However, Isetta Great Britain continued to manufacture the four-wheeled version for export to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Clearly, in creating the Isetta business BMW had moved quickly and shrewdly. For, in addition to grasping the need for an answer to the fuel crisis, by re-engineering its major components it swiftly became a BMW vehicle. Moreover, by selling the rights to foreign powers like Britain it would receive a commission on sales.
However, the revenue stream was insufficient to keep the Bavarian-based business healthy and at a board meeting held in December 1959, Deutsche Bank and many major shareholders were in favour of a quick and cheap sell-out to Daimler-Benz. The proposed take over was successfully fought off by Frankfurt lawyer, Dr Freidrich Mathern, acting on behalf of the smaller shareholders while vital financial support was provided by the Qaundt family and the dire situation was salvaged from the brink.
However, BMW desperately needed an injection of new cars to stimulate sales. Without doubt the situation was helped considerably by the launch of the little two-cylinder 700. This model would give BMW another stay of execution while the company went about re-establishing its position on the world automotive market with the introduction of the Neue Klasse of 1962.
When it came to restoring his BMW Isetta in 2010 Colin began by dismantling it completely in his garage. “The beauty of working on such a small car, even in a moderate sized garage, is that there is sufficient space to be able to separate the body from the chassis, laying them side by side and working on them simultaneously,” explains Colin as we look at his collection of photographs showing what was involved.
After the strip down Colin arranged for the bumpers to be rechromed and the wheel rims to be powdercoated; the only element of the project he farmed out to specialists. The rest, which included repairing and respraying the bodyshell, rebuilding the suspension and braking system, making good the wiring loom and electrical system, and restoring the drivetrain, he did himself.
“While the engine was in bits I doubled the size of the engine oil sump to help reduce engine temperature and improve lubrication,” adds Colin. “I also replaced the original mud flap arrangement over the rear wheel with a proper guard to reduce mud from being thrown up into the engine compartment.” I must confess to initially approaching the bright blue BMW three-wheeler with a degree of reservation and hesitation. At two and a half feet shorter than the two-box silhouette of Issigonis’ world famous Mini of 1959 the Isetta’s elliptical looks appear curiously curvy by the standards of the 21st century.
Significantly, this model was built in 1960, a year after the smallest of the Issigonis front-wheel drive range had hit the streets. The expectation of a bonnet ahead of the cabin compartment is clearly strongly etched into our psyche. In the event my caution had no grounds for concern.
Opening the front door the steering wheel and speedometer swing out and upwards, allowing easy access to the single bench seat. The approach is to climb in forwards before turning round and sitting down, reaching up to close the door. Surprisingly, once inside, you become acclimatised to the cabin. The layout seems remarkably spacious and airy, the large areas of glass letting in copious amounts of light. It’s a clever trick of design.
To cater for variations in height there is only limited adjustment in moving the bench seat while the steering position is fixed. Yet, remarkably, the angular sitting position seems able to accommodate most sizes of driver. The steering wheel falls easily to hand and the pedals are ideally angled for easy operation.
The handbrake is tucked down under your left leg while the gear change (the gear positions being mirror opposite to convention) falls easily to the left hand. The heater is basic yet extremely novel in operation. Air is passed across the exhaust manifold before being channelled into the cockpit emerging through a moveable flap arrangement, either directed at the windscreen or downwards to warm the cabin. Behind the seat is a useful parcel platform which doubles as the engine cover. In fact, there is so much space beneath that rumour has it that a refugee took to hiding here and would not have been found had it not been for her screams of anguish when she inadvertently touched the hot exhaust, which quickly drew the attention of the authorities.
The ignition switch is mounted on the pod that also holds the steering wheel and the tiny speedometer is easily visible through the steering wheel spokes. Twist the key and the tiny engine bursts into life. The clutch action proves to be delightfully easy in operation. Depress the pedal, engage first gear and drive take-up is surprisingly smooth and snatch-free. Move off and then select second; forward, across the gate and forward again. The action is notchy yet direct, the speed building up. Into third requires more concentration as the stick is moved back, left across the gate and back again.
Clearly familiarity creates confidence. Finally, shifting the stick forward and it’s into top. Ingeniously, the car also has reverse. “If you drive too close to the end of the garage and cannot open the front door you simply select reverse, back up, open the door and climb out,” grins Colin.
Around the lanes of Sussex, the little car quickly claims your affection, the acceleration seemingly to far outstrip what one might expect. Clearly, BMW chose the gear ratios to enable the car to attain reasonable cruising speeds without the need for the engine to be over revved. The downside is the need to change down as even the slightest gradient appears and speed is scrubbed off. Then it’s down to second for a more concentrated climb, when the speed ebbs away markedly.
With its limited cabin width and left-hand driving position there is a strong impression of the proximity of the curb, Sussex shrubs and bushes seemingly rushing past in an alarming blur, almost brushing your ear. Another feeling is the likelihood of the car rolling over at the slightest bend. In fact, the Isetta proves to be remarkably resilient to roll, cornering with uncanny aplomb. Within just a short journey the car quickly inspires a feeling of reassurance, added by the pinpoint steering and good performance from the hydraulic drum-type brakes acting on all three wheels. It has charm and charisma in abundance.
“Although the Isetta is a bit noisy and slow on main roads it is great fun to drive and puts a smile on the faces of all those who see it, kids are fascinated by its opening front door and three wheels,” concludes Colin with a chuckle. “Today, there’s an enthusiastic following for microcars such as Heinkels, Messerschmitts, Isettas, Bonds and so on. I’ve made a lot of friends, all of whom share a passion for these unusual cars. I cannot ever see myself wanting to sell my little Isetta. Also, I’ve just bought a 1956 Mark D Bond, which was dug out of a garden in Swanage. This should keep me occupied for a while.”
Overall, the Isetta BMW quickly asserts its magic, with passers-by and other motorists waving and grinning in acknowledgement, the friendly pop-pop sound from the single cylinder exhaust reverberating as we motor by. Fun, practical and economical, when will BMW launch its next generation of Isetta?
Thanks to: Colin Marcham and the staff of the Bluebell Railway at Kingscote Station for their all of their help with this article. See ‘Friends of Kingscote’ for more information.
“I’ve made a lot of friends, all of whom share a passion for these unusual cars. I cannot ever see myself wanting to sell my little Isetta”
“Although the Isetta is a bit noisy and slow on main roads it is great fun to drive and puts a smile on the faces of all those who see it”
“While the engine was in bits I doubled the size of the engine oil sump to help reduce engine temperature and improve lubrication”