Think Isetta, and you think BMW. It may be a far cry from the ultimate driving machines on which the Bavarian brand built its reputation, but in the minds of many the two are as inextricably linked as the 2002, M3, or CSL. In reality, however, this is far from the case.
Meaning 'Little Iso' in Italian, the Isetta was first designed and produced as a car of the people by Italian company Iso - then a manufacturer of fridges and scooters, but soon to be the progenitor of sports cars like the Grifo and Lele. It was powered by the engine from the Iso Moto 200 and stood at just 2.3m long and 1.4m wide (making it almost half a metre shorter than a modern Smart FourTwo).
By 1954, with over 1,000 examples sold, Iso owner Renzo Rivolta decided the time had come to train his sights on the luxury market. He licenced production of the Isetta out to companies in several countries, including France, Brazil and Argentina, but most notably to Germany, and BMW.
In similar fashion to the Reliant Robin in the UK, the Isetta was attractive to German buyers thanks to a loophole in the law which allowed it to be driven with just a motorcycle license. The Isetta was not a three-wheeler, though, instead featuring two separate wheels mounted close together under the rear of the car.
BMW set about completely re-engineering the Isetta to its more stringent standards, using its own engine and suspension, and redesigning nearly every panel. In 1957 it even produced a right-hand drive version, with the steering wheel on the correct side and the door hinged from the right as well. This, however, created the issue of having both driver and engine on the same side of the car, and so a 27 kg counterweight was built into the left-hand side of the car to compensate.
Despite the effort gone to by BMW, the Isettas produced in the UK proved unpopular with buyers, their four-wheeled design making them ineligible to be driven by motorcycle licence holders. Thus it came to be that a three-wheeled version was introduced, and that is what we have here today, beautifully restored and with just 36,000 miles on the clock.
As you may have gleaned from its appearance, the Isetta has one or two interesting design features. Each car came with three seperate keys, one to open the door, one to start the motor, and one to access the engine bay. Its five gallon fuel tank (no range anxiety here, though, the Isetta being capable of up to 50mpg) is filled via a cap emblazoned with the BMW logo, which takes the place of the rear badge. And despite the lack of storage space, you'll still find a full-size spare tyre behind the single bench seat - a feature which most modern hatchbacks can't find room for despite their significantly more spacious dimensions.
The canvas sunroof may add to the Isetta's charm, but with just the single door it was in fact added to act as an escape hatch in the event of an accident. Although with such diminutive proportions and a 1950s approach to safety, you may doubt the occupant's likelihood of surviving any impact to begin with. Then again, with just a single 250cc cylinder and 12hp on tap (300cc and a mighty 15hp in later models) they weren't likely to be going fast enough to do a lot of damage in the first place. Top speed was a respectable 52mph, though whether an owner could find enough time and space to reach it was another matter.
With its forward-opening door, bubble car styling and motorbike engine, the BMW Isetta is about as quirky an offering from a mainstream German manufacturer as it's possible to find. Nonetheless, over 160,000 examples were built during its seven-year production run, a testament to its popularity. It's an instantly recognisable and universally appreciated classic which, despite its lack of performance and its Lilliputian stature, is more than deserving of a place among BMWs all-time greats.
SPECIFICATION: BMW ISETTA
Engine: 300cc, single cylinder
Transmission: 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 15
Torque (lb ft): 10
First registered: 1960
Recorded mileage: 36,000
Price new: £415
Yours for: £17,995
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