1958 BMW Isetta
The BMW of today, with its tech-laden super-sedans, hybrid sports cars, and ultra-luxury SUVs would probably not exist if it weren’t for an Italian refrigeration company named Isothermos. This incongruous connection began in 1942 when Isothermos was purchased by a young engineer and heir to an industrial fortune, Renzo Rivolta. With a passion for motoring, Rivolta began to expand the company’s range, adding motorbikes to the portfolio and renaming the works Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. After World War II, Europeans were desperate to get back on wheels, but with raw materials and fuel at a premium, few could afford a conventional car. Motorbikes and scooters became hugely popular, but they were impractical in bad weather or for families. As a way to bridge the gap between bike and car, several manufacturers built motorbike-powered microcars that offered cheap, efficient, and practical transport for the masses.
Wanting to cash in on this new market, Renzo Rivolta began development of a 2-passenger microcar with a single front clamshell door, and a small capacity motorbike engine mounted amidships. Introduced in 1953, the Iso Isetta Turismo was the quintessential cheeky bubble car. It was adorable, it could transport two people and some groceries, and it was highly efficient, if not terribly quick thanks to having just 236 c.c. and 9 ½ horsepower. It turned out to be reasonably successful in the home market, with 20,000 built at the Iso works in Milan.
Iso recognized a viable market for the Isetta, but he lacked the manufacturing capacity to meet Europe-wide demand. Rivolta’s stroke of genius came in 1954 when he sold the rights to the design to a number of different companies in Europe and South America. Among those firms was BMW, who was struggling through the post-war recovery. Most of their factories were devastated by bombing, and their Eisenach works fell within Russian-controlled East Germany. BMW’s post-war product line consisted mainly of expensive six and eight-cylinder luxury cars that, while capable, had limited appeal in the post-war economy. Lacking the time and resources to develop a small car, the Isetta was the perfect opportunity to support the bottom line. Of course, they couldn’t help but to fettle with the design, modifying it to accept a 250 c.c. four-stroke engine shared with the R25/3 motorcycle and making minor styling changes. In 1956, BMW bumped the capacity to 298 c.c. which gave the new Isetta 300 nearly one-and-a-half times the power output over the 250. With a storming 13 horsepower on tap, not even hills could stop BMW’s mighty-mouse! The Isetta continues to delight today’s collectors, and even the most serious collections make room for the adorable – yet historically significant – German bubble car.
The 1958 Isetta 300 featured here is one of the finest of the type we have ever encountered. Recently out of the collection of a dedicated microcar enthusiast, it is meticulously restored and detailed to a very high standard, finished in the lovely period correct color scheme of Federweis over Azurblau, code 549. The attention to detail is remarkable, particularly the quality of the body and paintwork which has been restored to better-than-new standards. Outstanding brightwork accents the lovely blue and off-white color scheme. The front end features optional bumper “over riders” as well as the integrated front bumper finished in exquisite, show-quality chrome. Polished aluminum trim runs along the body sides, and more finely restored chrome surrounds the windows. The finishing touch is a set of wide whitewall tires on original steel wheels dressed with original BMW hubcaps. It is difficult not to smile in the presence of this cheerful little Isetta, which feels so fresh and new. This car’s impeccable presentation makes it easy to see why BMW sold more than 160,000 examples of “the egg.”
The cozy cockpit has been restored to the same exacting standard as the exterior. Simple heavy-grain vinyl panels provide a bit of insulation from the body, while a basic rubber mat lines the floor. Blue basketweave vinyl covers the simple bench seat, which is reasonably comfortable so long as the two occupants are on good terms. The Isetta’s party piece is the single, front-mounted clamshell door. The steering column and dash cleverly swing out of the way on a series of universal joints allowing for easy ingress. Once situated behind the wheel, the Isetta is surprisingly airy thanks to the panoramic windshield and generous greenhouse. The fabric sunroof (fitted to every Isetta built) also helps, which also serves as a secondary exit should the front door become blocked. Much like the body, the quality of the materials and detailing is first-rate. Original style labels and stickers are faithfully reproduced; particularly handy is the graphic showing the reverse layout for the four-speed shifter that sprouts from the body at the driver’s left hand. Factory-original switches and controls are restored to like-new condition.
It takes a short time to get used to driving an Isetta, but once comfortable; the experience is pure delight. The 298 c.c. engine is fizzy and full of character, providing enough power to buzz around town, while the ultra-short wheelbase allows it to be maneuvered just about anywhere. This example runs strong, and the previous owner took great care to ensure it operates just as it should. It was shown at the 2016 AACA National Fall Meet at Hershey, where it was awarded its First Junior, and it will certainly show extremely well in the future.
The Isetta is a significant vehicle in BMW’s illustrious history. It kept the company afloat during a difficult period, and it spawned the two-cylinder 700 series which is credited with saving BMW from a last-minute sale to Mercedes-Benz. The tiny car carried a bit weight on its shoulders. Overflowing with charm and character, this Isetta is one of the most iconic of the bubble cars. The stunning restoration makes this car an essential addition to virtually any diverse collection.