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The other day, I talked about the new gas mileage law, which will require car manufacturers to increase the fuel economy their fleets obtain by 2016. For the environment, this is a step forward, leading to decreased overall carbon emissions and better mpg’s in cars. Naturally, this will also increase new car costs as car makers dump resources in R and D to create more efficient vehicles. But this bill might provide an unexpected injury to another part of the auto market: the luxury car industry.
Remember that car manufacturers must have a fleet average of about 35.5 miles per gallon. For large companies like GM and Ford, this is pretty feasible, considering the high number of models these firms produce. Even lower-end luxury brands like BMW should be all right meeting these standards, especially considering the high mileage makes already coming out. But what about the really high-end performance cars like Porsches and Aston Martins?
If the makers of the fast cars are large manufacturers, these regulations should be pretty easy to overcome. Consider Ferrari, which just released the fastest road car in the company’s history, the 599 GTO. Ferrari is owned by Fiat SpA, which luckily is already selling fuel efficient vehicles in the US. But brands that don’t sell cars besides luxury autos in the US are scrambling for ways to meet this regulation, like developing smaller, more fuel efficient cars (both Aston Martin and Jaguar are trying that route). Tiny (fewer than 5,000 vehicles sold per year) manufacturers are hoping that the EPA makes special allowances for them since the government agency has said these companies will get their own rules. Larger car makers (50-400k cars) are allowed to have 25,000 cars per year exceed mileage targets without being penalized.
And let’s not forget that fuel efficiency and carbon emissions regulations are not unique to America. Most developed countries in the world have to adhere to standards which get more strict all the time. In fact, the US is lagging behind in the regulations game.
So what exactly does this mean? Will our favorite high performance car makers be able to punch out a few efficient models to keep the sportiest vehicles on the road? I’ve said this before – I love fast cars, even if I may never own one. But can they remain on our highways indefinitely? Or will there come a time when they’re chained to closed tracks?
Maybe others agonized over a similar decision decades ago when horses were replaced by horsepower. Maybe carriage drivers were sad to put their high-stepping ponies in the barn and resigned themselves to riding and driving them for sport instead of transportation. Will luxury cars as we know it be kept merely for hobby instead of a way of getting around? I know that most Aston Martin drivers aren’t slogging through their daily commutes like James Bond, but these new regulations may dramatically change the fast cars we all love. The divide between transportation and sport might keep growing.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
So I’m having a bit of a conflict of interest. I’m going to try to be as honest as possible with you, and there’s something you have to know about me.
I love fast cars. I don’t personally own one (90 mph is way faster than my car should ever be traveling), but I think fast cars are pretty fun. Some of my favorite car memories were in a zippy little silver BMW Z3.
I’m not the most aggressive driver, but I still think cruising around in a sporty car is a great time. I don’t even mind riding with wild drivers, so long as they keep me (somewhat) safe. I can understand the allure of speed, that thrill of flying on land.
Unfortunately, that kind of driving is not really helpful to the environment. It’s inefficient, costly, and carbon-emitting. In the end, it doesn’t save a ton of time and the actual costs probably outweigh the benefits.
But it’s a damn good time.
So where do we draw the line? Is it still okay to buy and drive beautiful, speedy cars, even if they’re not so great for the rest of the world? Or should we save them for special occasions? Have we gotten to the point where the car you drive shouldn’t really be a status symbol anymore? Is there a happy medium where driving can still be enjoyed without completely sacrificing environmental-friendliness?
Obviously, I have questions, not answers. Maybe you can help me out. I know what I should do, mostly because it’s the only thing I can do – keep driving my nonathletic old jalopy.
I guess that conclusion’s not overly useful to anyone.
Just something to think about…