The endearingly quirky Isetta breathed new life into the BMW brand in 1955, becoming one of the world’s most popular micro-cars, and catching the eye of rock stars and Formula One champions alike.
- Jan Wilms
A picture-postcard summer somewhere in Italy: exotic foods and aromatic wines, sparkling blue seas, a pervasive sense of optimism. The Mediterranean world of the 1950s offered a new lightness of being. This was strongly felt in Bavaria, where balmy southern dreams lay just a stone’s throw away across the Alps. This trend was also picked up at BMW headquarters in Munich’s Milbertshofen district – although few there at the time gave much thought to la dolce vita.
Not that they had anything against fun in the sun; the fact was, in the mid-1950s, BMW was facing the threat of collapse. Motorcycle production was in decline, while the BMW 501 and 502 luxury sedans were too expensive for the German market. The company was in desperate need of a new model – and one that required minimal development costs, since the coffers were essentially empty. Interestingly, enlightenment also came courtesy of a trip across the Alps: while visiting the Turin Auto Show, a BMW delegation noticed Iso Rivolta - a small Italian manufacturer specializing in refrigerators and subcompact cars - promoting an egg-shaped three-wheeler with an oversized, forward-opening door. The BMW delegation immediately recognized the potential of this chance encounter. They purchased the licensing rights for the quirky Isetta, and snapped up the production facilities in the bargain.
The Isetta was not some downsized sedan, but an entirely new automotive concept that hit the market at just the right time.
A single-cylinder “motocoupe” delivering 12 hp
The first task for the performance-oriented BMW developers was to improve the Italian runabout’s drive and chassis. But even after these modifications, the car’s technical specifications sounded modest at best: refined for smoother running, the car’s single-cylinder four-stroke motorcycle engine had a displacement of 250 cc, developing just 12 hp. Now, however, the power was transferred to the pavement through four wheels (as opposed to the original Isetta’s three). In late 1955, the company launched the more torque-laden Isetta 300, which boasted a displacement of 300 cc and an increase to 13 hp. In both versions, the Isetta achieved a not insignificant top speed of 53 mph.
Meanwhile, the BMW marketing department came up with the designation “motocoupe” for the innovation – which, over short distances and around town, put its competitors to shame. At just seven and a half feet and 770 lbs., it was zippier and more maneuverable than just about any other model. Yet the vehicle’s ultra-compact design did little to cramp the style of its two or three occupants. And just as with any conventional vehicle, driver and passenger sat next to each other – a feature no other micro-car could match. The forward-opening, refrigerator-style front door enabled easy step-in access, since the steering wheel and steering column also swung automatically to one side. In fact, the only limiting factor was storage space: luggage traveled on the outside, strapped to a rack mounted on the rear. As the public could see for itself, the Isetta was not some downsized sedan, but an entirely new automotive concept that hit the market at just the right time.
With the Isetta, BMW achieved a much-needed sales success: an initial price tag of 2,550 deutschmarks made the Isetta affordable for a broad target group. The first catalog outlined the intended customer base - “A car to enable those in salaried employment to get to their place of work: for doctors, sales representatives, tradesmen, traveling executives, the self-employed – and not least for ladies, when the man of the house is away using the ‘main car.’”
What’s more, micro-cars like these did not even require an expensive driver’s license – a motorcycle license was sufficient. With 10,000 units sold in the first year alone, the Isetta puttered its way into German hearts - and, subsequently, the affections of other nations. In 1956, BMW modified the body for Isetta export. Total sales of the Isetta reached 161,728, making it one of the most successful single-cylinder vehicles of all time. By the time production came to an end in 1962, the automotive world had finally come of age – but it was also more homogenized, more status-conscious, and more extravagant. Today, a BMW Isetta in good condition may fetch as much as $22,000. And the Isetta’s legacy is more relevant than ever as we consider the future of the automobile, for the urban micro-cars of the decades ahead are set to embrace the same “minimax” principle as BMW’s legendary egg on wheels.
In retrospect, one might have thought the BMW Isetta would be more at home in the narrow streets of a Piedmontese città than on the autobahn. And yet it proved much more successful in Germany than its native Italy. Known affectionately to Germans as the Knutschkugel (“smooch ball”), the Isetta’s celebrity fans included Curt Jürgens, Cary Grant, and Formula One world champion Stirling Moss, which generated valuable PR. As it puttered around the country’s towns and cities, the Isetta attracted shouts from bystanders of “Show us your swing door!” Even Elvis Presley - pioneer of another all-new form of movement, chose the Bavarian runabout as a birthday present for his manager. On occasions like this, the Isetta basked in world fame.
Although, at the time, this quirky vehicle possessed virtually none of the features that would come to typify the brand in years to come, BMW history would be unthinkable without the Isetta. Indeed, this is what gives meaning to the Isetta’s remarkable design idiom. The egg - which in industrial-design terms has always struggled against the harmonious circle, the bold square and the dynamic polygon - is the shape from which new life is born – not least, it must be said, for BMW.