When Germans think of the 1950s, some of the most iconic images that spring to their minds are women wearing voluminous petticoats, living rooms with kidney-shaped tables and BMW’s Isetta bubble car traversing – among others – the streets of post-war Germany and beyond.
Today, the BMW Isetta is a highly coveted vintage car (➜ Isetta buyer's guide) that would probably be classified as a micro mobility vehicle now. But back in its day, the Isetta was a complete car. The little car from Munich combines a clever concept with understated charm. How it came to be is an interesting story that proves the old adage that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
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The Isetta: from stopgap to icon
BMW was on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1950s. Motorcycle production was declining. Luxury vehicles like the 503 and the 507 were so expensive to produce that BMW suffered losses on these models. “So the number one priority was to put a car into production that would make us money right away,” explains Axel Klinger-Köhnlein, an expert at BMW Group Classic.
BMW needed a new model – one that would not require a lot of development costs. BMW found its solution at the 1954 Turin Car Show. At the Iso Rivolta booth, an Italian maker of refrigerators and mini cars, there was a three-wheeled car with a huge door (which looked surprisingly similar to a refrigerator door) in the front. It was called the Iso Isetta. The BMW delegation acquired the licensing rights for the Isetta and for the production equipment as well.
What is a BMW Isetta?
The BMW Isetta is a microcar that was produced under license by the Bayerische Motorenwerke between 1955 and 1962. The “Motocoupé” is based on a design from the Italian manufacturer Iso Rivolta and is known as a bubble car. Isettas typically had a door in the front and a single cylinder four-stroke engine in the back.
The German bubble car has Italian roots
First, BMW had to “refine” the motor and the chassis of the Italian bubble car, as Klinger-Köhnlein puts it. Even after it was modified by the BMW developers who were used to designing performance cars, the technical specifications seemed rather modest. At the start of production in 1955, the BMW Isetta 250 was redesigned to take a modified version of the 250 cc four-stroke engine from the R25 motorcycle. The single cylinder generated exactly 12 hp.
BMW kept the bubble car’s original Italian name: Isetta is the diminutive form of Iso. Contrary to what the name change might suggest, they actually added another tyre so that the German car had four tires compared to the Italian’s three. In 1956, the Bavarian factory put out a version with higher performance - the BMW Isetta 300 with a 300 cc engine and 13 hp. Both versions could reach speeds of up to 53 mph (85 km/h).
The bubble car as a cult car
The BMW marketing department came up with the term “motocoupé” for the bubble car. In Germany, the Isetta was affectionately known as a “Knutschkugel” (cuddle coach). There was no better car for zipping around in a city or for short distances. Because it was 7.5 feet (2.28 m) long and weighed a mere 770 pounds (350 kg), it was more manoeuvrable than almost any other car. And two adult passengers could sit next to one another just like in a “regular” car. The Isetta was the only microcar where that was possible.
Since the door opens to the front and the steering wheel and steering column swing with it, it’s easy to get in and out. Luggage goes on the outside on a luggage rack that mounts onto the back. Buyers knew what they were getting: the Isetta was no mini sedan – it was a new kind of car. It was the right kind of car for the 1950s.
Not many changes were made to the Isetta while it was in production. The first series had a larger back window than the second, and the window that opened to the side was replaced by a sliding window. All Isettas had a canvas roof, similar to today’s sunroof. Not because of customer demand, adds BMW Group Classic Expert Klinger-Köhnlein, but because an emergency exit was mandatory since you entered the car through a front door.
The Isetta was a top seller
The motocoupé became a much-needed best seller. At only 2,550 German marks (about 1,450 US-dollars or 1,300 euros today), the Isetta was a car most people could afford. And Isetta drivers didn’t need an expensive car licence, all they needed was a motorcycle licence.
With 10,000 cars sold in the first year, the Isetta was found all over Germany and then later in other countries. Over the eight years it was in production, 161,728 Isettas were sold. Today, it remains one of the most successful one-cylinder cars in the world. When production stopped in 1962, the era of the bubble car came to an end. By that time, the standard of living had improved and people wanted full-size cars.
Vintage BMWs: the legend lives on
The BMW Isetta would look more at home on the narrow and ancient streets of some Italian city than on a German autobahn. But it was actually more successful in its adopted country of Germany than in its Italian homeland, although many did find their way back to Italy when Germans went on holidays there. They drove their little Isettas over the Alps to spend time soaking up the sun and enjoying the dolce vita.
Even today, the BMW Isetta has lost none of its fascination and still stands for a certain lifestyle. “At the BMW Welt in Munich, the Isetta is the most popular exhibit” says Klinger-Köhnlein. Quite a few visitors even take it for a spin to get the full 50s nostalgia experience.