The BMW Isetta, the Italian/German microcar from the 1950s, was beautifully odd and oddly beautiful.
If you count both the number of cylinders and the number of doors the BMW Isetta you will still only be counting to two. The post-war microcar is inarguably the oddest to ever carry a BMW badge. But that’s what makes the BMW Isetta, our Cool Car Find, so compelling. The pint-size Isetta was big on personality and proved popular with German car buyers. Its sales success played a pivotal role in saving the struggling German automaker from financial ruin.
If you look at the Isetta and think it’s got an odd look for a mid-century German car, there’s a good reason for that. The Isetta, if you haven’t guessed by the name, was originally an Italian car. The Isetta was designed and built by the Italian company Iso, a maker of refrigerators and motorcycles, and debuted in 1953.
The Isetta featured many notable design elements. Foremost among them was the single front door which hinged outward from the left side of the car. The steering wheel and column were also hinged and swung out with the door. The egg-shaped car was powered by a 236cc one-cylinder two-stroke motorcycle engine that produced a staggering 9.5 horsepower. That power was sent through a four-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels. It took the Isetta up to 30 seconds to achieve a cruising speed of 31 mph. It was the first car to achieve a 70-mpg rating.
To prove the car’s worth, Iso entered the Isetta in the Mille Miglia in 1954 where it placed first, second, and third in the endurance class with an average speed of 43 mph. Given the car’s diminutive dimensions, just 7 ½ feet long and 4 ½ feet in height, and forward control design (with only the front door between driver’s knees and the outside world), such speeds in an Isetta are terrifying to even contemplate.
The Isetta didn’t catch on in Italy and would have been a mere historical footnote had it not been for BMW. In the mid-1950s, BMW, like most of Germany’s automakers, was still reeling from WWII. On the brink of bankruptcy, BMW needed an economy car to boost sales while keeping R&D costs to a minimum. Enter the Iso Isetta.
BMW bought the design for the Isetta and started pushing out new versions of the car by 1955. BMW didn’t change the Isetta significantly. The Isetta 250 got a new 250cc four-stroke motorcycle engine making 12 horsepower, a heater was added, and the headlights were moved higher. For 1956, the Isetta received a slightly large engine and a new name to go with it, the Isetta 300. Its output topped 13 horsepower and just over 13 ½ lb-ft of torque. From 1957 through 1959, BMW also made the Isetta 600, a larger version with rear doors, four seats, and a 582cc flat-twin engine.
The Isetta’s stated top speed of 53 mph should be taken with a heap of salt. The Isetta was comically underpowered and obviously lacking in what we would, by modern standards, consider sane safety design. Though some cars can be praised for “feeling faster than they are,” the sensation of speed in an Isetta is less thrilling and more a keen reminder of one’s mortality (which is its own short of thrill I suppose). But when you’re getting 70 mpg, who can really complain about being slow?
The economical Isetta was a major sales success for BMW, moving some 160,000 units between 1955 and its cancellation in 1962. A few random facts about the Isetta: it had been offered in 45 distinct colors and was produced under license in Argentina, Brazil, France, and the United Kingdom.
This listing, a 1957 BMW Isetta 300, is about as clean an example as you’re likely to find. From paint to interior to undercarriage, this Isetta is in museum quality condition. Highlights include the BMW emblem gas cap, the cloth top, windshield defogger (you’ll notice it to the left of the steering wheel), and the Isetta’s three keys, one for the ignition, one for the door, and one for the hood to the engine. For those collector’s who adore the odd and unusual, your car collection isn’t complete without an Isetta.
Sure, the Isetta was slow and impractical. But if nothing else, the BMW Isetta raises some compelling philosophical questions about the ultimate nature and purpose of the automobile. Is the Isetta primarily a mode of conveyance or merely one of many forms of motorized amusement? (It’s unclear whether the amusement here is that of the Isetta driver or onlookers guffawing at said Isetta driver.) Isn’t it possible, nay, likely, that the automobile, and the Isetta by extension, transcends its functional purpose as motorized transport thanks to its status as a cultural signifier? If the Isetta is indeed a car, doesn’t its mere existence call for a thorough reevaluation of what constitutes a “car?” Who can answer such weighty questions … without having driven an Isetta for themselves?