On a bright and beautiful Saturday morning last month, CC Editor Jim Klein and I were on our way to the Toyota Megaweb museum by way of an elevated train. He was keen to point out an Alfa Romeo he had spied in one of the surrounding building car parks when we rode past a gigantic BMW / Mini dealership. Amongst the many modern machines gathered there, I thought I saw a distinctly un-modern ovoid shape. Our stop was next, so I convinced Jim to walk in the opposite direction of our stated goal to investigate.
That’s how we happened upon this relatively rare British-made BMW Isetta 300. The tell-tale sign of its true origin – aside from the RHD steering – is its three wheels. All other Isettas, be they made by BMW or others, had four wheels. Some British-made ones had four wheels too, but those were made for export, mostly. The three-wheel tax loophole made the four-wheeled version quite superfluous in the UK. It couldn’t have been that good for the car’s stability, but some people will put up with anything to save a buck (or, in this case, a quid)…
The story of the Isetta is rooted in the inventiveness of an Italian firm and the desperation of a German one. In the late ‘40s, Isothermos CEO Renzo Rivolta got his firm involved in the latest automotive craze, which was scooters. He soon figured that a four-wheeled version might be an easy sell, provided he could make the product compact and modern enough. Rivolta hired aeronautic engineers Pierluigi Raggi and Ermenegildo Preti to design a completely novel concept, the Isetta.
The Italian Isetta was launched at the 1953 Turin Motor Show and made quite an impression. It did not, however, meet much success on its native market, where Fiat reigned supreme. Rivolta only managed to make a few thousand, including a pickup version, until Iso production stopped in 1956. He soon realized that recouping his investment would entail foreign licensing deals.
Enter beleaguered Bavarian bike-maker BMW, whose financial health was not at its peak by the mid-‘50s. BMW’s cars were too big for the times, so they were very keen on introducing an economy model, which could use a BMW motorcycle engine, to compete with the dozens of microcars that buzzed around German and European towns in the ‘50s.
The idea had merit and the Isetta fit the bill. Production of the 12hp BMW Isetta 250 started in 1955 and sales were quite satisfactory, though they improved even more once German legislation enabled BMW to raise the 1-cyl. engine’s displacement to 300cc in 1956, which edged the hp count to 13.
Later that year, BMW engineered a completely different shell for the Isetta that gave the car a sort of pseudo-hardtop appearance. This enabled the installation of sliding windows – a definite progress compared to the older design’s goldfish-bowl. Other Isetta licensees, such as Velam in France or Romi in Brazil, did not get the benefit of BMW’s superior design.
But the UK did, because the licensee, Isetta of Great Britain, Ltd., got their kits straight from Munich. The Southern Locomotive Works in Brighton made a deal with BMW to manufacture the Isetta under BMW’s name in Britain and provided factory space for this purpose in the English resort town. Production started in April 1957. BMW sent engines, transmissions and body panels to Brighton; tyres, electrical gear, brakes, suspension and other small bits and pieces were sourced in the UK.
The British Isetta lost a wheel in 1958 and sales finally took off. BMW were in danger of sinking without a trace, and but for their little bubble car to buoy up the company’s market presence, they would have. After the infamous Quandt buy-out in 1959, the Bavarian firm found its footing again and started getting rid of the many dead-end product lines it had accumulated throughout the ‘50s, such as the 600, a kind of stretched Isetta four-seater that went nowhere, commercially speaking.
The bubble hadn’t burst yet on the Isetta, though. It soldiered on until 1962 in West Germany and for about a year longer in Sussex, as the British side of the JV was bought out by BMW and production was moved to a different part of town. The Isetta egg-speriment had been a success: over 135,000 were made in Bavaria and another 25,000 were assembled in England. By comparison, none of the French, Italian, Spanish or Brazilian Isetta variants ever broke the 10,000 unit mark.
Some have claimed that this little “motorcoupé” saved BMW’s bacon. I have my doubts – the real saviours of the marque were the 700 and the Neue Klasse saloons, in my opinion. Financially, the Isetta certainly kept a trickle of cash flowing into Munich, but it was nowhere near sufficient.
On the domestic market, BMW sold these for the price of a motorbike, which is how they manage to sell so many. But I doubt they made a lot of profit from it – unlike Iso, which used the proceeds of their Isetta licensing deals to launch an ambitious V8-powered Bertone-styled coupé. A sort of BMW in reverse, which did not end well. All because of that little egg. The yolk’s on them.
CC History: The Silent Rise and Fall of Omerta, by Imperialist