In the 50s, post-war Europe was a dark place. There was much to recover from. But people were still people and they always found themselves at A when the really wanted to be at B.
Cars were an expensive commodity and, despite all the rebuilding, space on the roads was at a premium. The first motorway in Britain, the M1, wasn’t built in 1959. Before then a journey would wind through every town, city and village on the route. Consequently, mass produced cars aimed for practicality in that environment – small, low cost, low speed vehicles. The sort of thing you could park in the tiny car park of every tea shop en-route. The perfect time for the Isetta.
The vehicle was designed by an Italian company, Iso SpA and unveiled at the Turin motor show in 1953. Not bad for a company that previously built refrigerators, eh?
It didn’t take long for the term “bubble car” to enter the vocabulary, and you can see why. It’s touched with madness but its cute, you really get the feeling it was assembled by hand in someone’s garage, the best they could do.
Its radical departure from the norm caused a stir. The 3-wheeler had its single door at the front. The steering wheel and instruments were attached to the door and swung out with it, giving the driver and a (slim) passenger easy access to a bench seat.
There was a cloth sunroof, and luggage room came in the form of a parcel shelf over the rear mounted 14 cu.in motorcycle engine. Before you ask, no, I didn’t miss a digit out there, fourteen cubic inches, about the same size as the smallest Starbucks coffee. The weight though was equally amazing, 750lbs (the car, not the coffee).
The low weight and small engine contributed to Iso’s success in the famous Mille Miglia. Yes, the Mille Miglia. I know this is usually thought of as an event for high powered sports cars, but the Isetta came in the economy category. It covered the 1,000 miles of winding Italian roads at an average 43mph. Pretty darn good when you think its top speed was only 52mph. Even better when compared to the pathetic 27mph that I average driving round DFW with its wide roads and freeways. Makes me wonder what we’re doing wrong … but I digress.
Iso developed a four wheeled version, with the rear wheels close together to avoid the expense and complexity of a differential. It was practical and it didn’t roll over as much (yes, they did that), but the cute seems to have gone.
In the end Iso wasn’t really interested in their creation, they wanted to make larger, faster cars. In order to finance their other aspirations, Iso licensed its products. Several companies started manufacture of the Isetta, but the most well known name was BMW.
BMW re-engineered the car in various ways, but kept the basic principle of small size, power and mass. One of the changes they made was to use a different engine and drivetrain. The Isetta was noisy because you were sat in the same box as the engine. BMW’s drivetrain was an improvement, but nobody could call the BMW variant a haven of peace, just less loud.
If you have ever heard of, or seen one of these cars, then you’ll know the joke with which they been saddled. If you drive it into your garage and park it against the far wall (which would be natural), you can’t open the door. What the joke then says is that you were stuck, because the car had no reverse gear, so you couldn’t back away from the wall. It’s kind of funny, and I’m sure Mr Bean could make a good skit from it, but it’s only partly true. You see, for dodgy tax reasons the BMW version did only have forward gears, but the other companies? No, they had no accountants making their decisions or their cars, they installed reverse gears with a wanton disregard for the pennies that could be saved from tax loopholes.
So, the Isetta. It’s seems hard to believe, but it’s a clear case of the Italians out-engineering the Germans. Probably the only example, unless you know differently … and I’m betting you do!