It was one of the most successful microcars ever made.  It was made in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, although it originated in Italy.  This car was the original “bubble car.”  Yup, I’m talking about none other than the Isetta.

Isetta

The BMW Isetta.

The Isetta started with the now-bankrupt company Iso Rivolta, which was then known as Iso SpA and owned by an Italian named Renzo Rivolta.  Iso SPA made the logical predecessor to the microcar: the refrigerator.  Well, to be fair, they also made scooters and three-wheeled trucks, and it’s been said that an Isetta is basically a couple of scooters with a fridge plopped in between them.

Iso SpA brought their Isetta prototype to Turin in 1953 and people were enthralled.  Even then, an Isetta was something to behold.  It stood 7.5 feet long, 4.5 feet wide on 10-inch wheels placed 19 inches apart in back.  The first Isettas had one lone back wheel, but Iso thought these cars were too unstable, hence the fourth wheel.  The engine was a 236cc motorbike two stroke engine that could go from zero to thirty mph in a blazing 36 seconds and reached a top speed of 47 mph.  Naturally, the Isetta’s gas mileage was stellar, with an average mpg of 50 to 70 depending on the driving.  The car had four gears (plus reverse!) and a unique body design, with a front-opening door, a canvas top, and space for two and a half people, or a couple and a suitcase.

The diminutive auto became popular throughout Europe and other countries began to assemble Isettas using parts from Italy.  Meanwhile, Iso began experimenting with different models, including a flat bed and a fire truck.

Iso entered some of his cars in the Economy class of the Mille Miglia in 1954 (which is soon to be run with electric vehicles!), where the Isettas took the top three spots and averaged 43 mph over the thousand-mile race.  Despite this success, Iso was on to other things.  Rivolto sold the entire Isetta to BMW this same year.  And so the Isetta came of age.

Isetta

Hey there gorgeous...hop in on. After all, insanity isn't the only thing that gallops in my family.

BMW gave the micro a new engine (13hp, 247cc, four stroke) and a whole body full of new parts.  BMW started with the Isetta 250, which featured headlights affixed to the sides of the car, aluminum cylinder head, cast iron crankcase and cylinder, and an elaborate power train that involved two Hardy cases, an oil bath, and some shafts of various, mysterious kinds.  Germans loved the bubble car; Isettas proved to be an affordable mode of transportation that could even be operated on motorcycle licenses.

Isetta

Could life get any better than this? Well, maybe if I were allowed to actually drive the car.

In 1956 the Isetta 300 was introduced, which had a nifty sliding window and a larger 298cc engine.  BMW also produced the Isetta 600 from 1957 to 1959, which was more similar to normal cars than other Isetta models.  On this car, BMW brought out its semi-trailing arm independent suspension system.  They would use that suspension for the next forty years.  Although the 600 had a 582cc motor, it wasn’t one of the more popular models.  Its lack of appeal was partly due to the competing VW Beetle and partly due to the fact that you couldn’t tell the front of the car from the back.  Or at least that’s my explanation.

BMW stopped producing Isettas in 1962 after putting out over 160,000 microcars.  Some people say that the Isetta microcar made BMW into what it is today.

Of course, the Isetta’s story doesn’t end there.  It is still one of the more popular microcars for collectors worldwide.  And it made a frequent appearance (along with trusty navigator Steve Urkel) on the show Family Matters.  So the next time you’re out driving on a nice summer day, keep an eye out for the original bubble car, shaped like a “teardrop in the wind.”

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