Curbside Classic: 1959 BMW 600 – The Isetta Stretch

photos posted at the Cohort by robadr

Desperation is the mother of invention. In the late fifties, BMW was desperate for something a bit bigger than their two-passenger Isetta; their inventive result was to stretch the Isetta so that could accommodate four adults in a car that was six inches shorter than the legendary Mini, commonly held up as the most space-efficient small car. And unlike the Mini, it even had a (single) rear door, making this just about the only two-door car that offered direct access to both rows of seats.

That’s not all: it had a trailing arm independent rear suspension instead of swing axles, similar to what BMW ended up using until well into the nineties. And of course the legendary BMW motorcycle boxer twin in its bobbed tail. But it was all for (mostly) naught, as the BMW 600 was a flop. But not in my book; I’ve wanted one of these since I first saw one in Innsbruck in 1960. And I still want one.

It’s hard to imagine what a precarious situation BMW was in during the late ’50s and early ’60s.  They had bet the (small) farm on their extravagant, expensive and large six and V8 sedans and coupes in the early ’50s, and they were not panning out. In a desperate move, they bought the rights to manufacture the Italian Isetta bubblecar, as that market segment seemed to have some possibilities, and BMW had a single cylinder motorcycle engine and transmission to power it.

The Isetta (barely) kept BMW alive, but the microcar market was already in decline by the late ’50s, as Germans’ incomes were rising rapidly, and of course they were having kids. BMW desperately needed a four passenger car, so the idea came up to stretch the Isetta into a four seater. Keep the front end with its front-opening door, add a rear compartment with a single side door, and drop in the larger BMW two-cylinder motorcycle engine. A winning formula? Not exactly.

Tatra87 has told the story of the little egg-mobile Isetta 300, which has of course become a cult classic. It sold reasonably well, some 135k were built in Germany and more assembled in the UK.

It’s such an iconic shape that it’s being revived in the form of the electric Microlino. It’s currently heading into production, but don’t hold your breath here in America. Unlike the Isetta, it’s not coming stateside.

As is rather obvious, the (opening) front end of the Isetta and its suspension were carried over.The body was stretched, resulting in a rear compartment with a full-sized rear seat, accessible with a single curbside door. And it was quite roomy. The 600’s space efficiency is pretty much unparalleled, better than the Mini’s, for seating four.

Strictly speaking, the Zündapp Janus had the 600 beat in terms of space efficiency, since it was two inches shorter. But its seating configuration, with the rear passengers facing the rear, was not as palatable, and only 6,902 were ever sold. The Janus preceded the 600 by two years, so one rather suspects that BMW was influenced by it. It would have been tempting to just weld two Isettas back-to-back, but BMW apparently thought the wiser of that.

The 600 was relatively much more successful, with some 35k built, but that still was not enough to keep it going past 1959, making its total production run some three years.

It was given a new perimeter frame, and the fan-cooled 582 cc boxer twin (as used in the R67 motorcycle) was hung out back, driving through a four speed transmission.

The rear suspension was relatively more ambitious than the typical German swing axles, with trailing arms. BMW would use a modified (semi-trailing arms) version of this basic design for their rear suspensions on all subsequent models (except the limited production M1) until the 1990’s. There’s a bit of the 600 in millions of BMWs.


The fan-cooled boxer was rated at 19.5 hp @4500 rpm. And if you didn’t want to clutch, there was an optional Saxomat automatic clutch.

The seating in these was really quite decent, as it was a bit taller than the Mini, and one could sit up properly, not hunched over the wheel like seemingly all Mini drivers.

The speedometer tops out at 90 mph (this is a NA import version). Actual top speed was right around 100 km/h (61 mph). Not bad; not great.

The rear seat was reasonably sized. Adequate for two adults; more than so for kids; even three would fit.

The “600 “2-door” was sold in the US, along with the Isetta 300 and the expensive coupes and sedans. Quite a price spread: from $1,048 to $11,900. The 600 was priced at $1,398; therein lay its huge problem: the VW Beetle was priced at $1,545, and was a bigger and more powerful car, in a whole different class. This was the overwhelming problem for all of the German small-car builders: with its vast volumes, VW could build the Beetle very profitably at prices none of the smaller makers could match. It seriously crimped 600 sales, both in Germany and the US.

The 600 was called “Isetta 600” in some marketing materials, but technically, it was the BMW 600. “Full 4-5 seat”? Three kids in the back, sure.

Its variable interior space utilization, by folding down the rear seat or removing it completely. The microvan.

Its vital stats are here, if your eyes are young enough.

Not surprisingly, some owners hopped these up, since it was easy to use high performance BMW motorcycle parts.

Let’s not talk about crumple zones; the Isetta makes the Beetle look downright safe.

Sales of the 600, which arrived in 1959, were very modest. Wolfgang Denzel, the distributor of BMW cars in Austria, hired Giovanni Michelotti to draw up some concept sketches based on a lengthened BMW 600 chassis. Denzel presented the results, a two-door coupe with a semi-fastback roof, to BMW’s management. The concept was generally well received, but objections were raised about the limited rear passenger space.

So BMW decided to produce two versions, the coupe and a 2-door sedan with a taller, longer roof. They became a key factor in BMW’s survival long enough to develop and build their brilliant “Neue Klasse” cars. But the 700 is a story for another day.

This BMW 600 resides in the Isetta Cafe Bistro in the Vancouver area. As noted earlier, it was technically not an Isetta, but that’s how the NA importer (Max Hoffman) chose to market it, so there’s no need for them to rename it the BMW 600 Cafe Bistro. Now if only they’d let you sit in it to drink your coffee.


Related reading:

Automotive History: German Deadly Sins (The Bayern Cycle, Part 1) – BMW’s Brush With Death: The V8 Cars

Curbside Classic: 1961 BMW Isetta 300 – BMW Lays An Egg

Curbside Classic: 1964 BMW 1800 Neue Klasse – The Car That Saved And Made BMW