Isetta History

  The BMW Isetta was made famous, in recent times, by its regular appearance on the "Family Matters" show. Some TV viewers mistakenly believed that this was a car that Steve Urkel supposedly "invented" since he was cast as an inventor on the show. The real history of the Isetta was even more exciting than being a TV star. In its most exciting role the Isetta was used to smuggle escapees out of iron curtain countries and also because of its popularity became known as the "Little Car that saved BMW". During the post WW II time frame, BMW was primarily building large motorcars that were not selling well. The Isetta enters the BMW story when it was seen by BMW engineers and BMW then bought the manufacturing license and cranked out 160,000 cars from 1955 to 1964. Famous Isetta owners included Cary Grant and Elvis Presley.
The car is powered by a single cylinder, four stroke, air cooled engine with a whopping 13 horsepower. This engine is very similar to BMW R27 series motorcycle engines from that same era. Power is transmitted through a 4 speed gearbox and double roller chain drive to the rear wheel or wheels depending on the destination country. In some countries, like the UK, a three-wheeled version was offered. On the four wheeled model the two rear wheels are on a live axle and have only one rear brake that stops both of the rear wheels. Because the wheels are placed so close together, BMW decided that a differential was unnecessary. In spite of its unusual appearance, the car is a technology statement for its time. It boasted then cutting edge features like a mid-engine motor placement, a center mounted brake light, an integrated starter motor/generator and an egg shaped aerodynamic body with a narrow rear wheel track. These safety and performance features are found on many street cars of today, almost 50 years later. The Isetta was designed with a minimum of electrical and mechanical connections between the car body and the chassis and drive train. As detailed in the factory shop manual, if you planned to work on anything moderate to major in the drive train, the standard practice was to remove the body, which only took about 30 minutes to accomplish. The small area under the package shelf, near the engine, was where a few short statured refugees were smuggled out of East Germany. One woman was riding across the border checkpoint to freedom only to accidentally reach out and touch the hot exhaust pipe. Her poorly timed scream alerted the nearby guards and she was arrested and the car impounded.     

The Isetta boasts a sleepy 0-30 MPH time of 11 seconds but the little car's gas sipping 60+MPG figure was appealing to buyers due to high fuel costs and post WW II gas rationing. The original sticker price was just under $1,000. The most unusual feature on the Isetta is the dash and steering wheel which are hinged at the front door to allow easy interior access. In spite of the small size of the car, drivers of 6 foot 5+ have found it possible to sit in the car.  All Isettas come with a fold-back convertible top which doubles as an escape hatch if the car's front door was blocked or damaged in an accident. At just over 7 feet in length, the Isetta is short enough to park perpendicular to the curb. Just open the door and step out the front door onto the sidewalk! Notice the dash with only a single instrument: A speedometer. The motorcycle-like 3 gallon gas tank has a small reserve section that was turned on if the main tank ran out of gas so no gas gauge was fitted.      

The Isetta and its bubble car cousin, the Messerschmitt, began to fade in popularity in the 1960's and were replaced by the more spacious and practical VW Bug and Austin/Morris Mini. It is a bit ironic that although the Mini made the BMW Isetta obsolete in the 1960's, eventually BMW would purchase the Mini name, when they decided to offer buyers a small, fun economical car in the spirit of the original Isetta.  

The above text was provided by a fellow Isetta owner by the name of Richard Lewis.  He is also in the process of restoring his Isetta and you can see his project here on under the "Your Isetta" area.  He also has a website with more than 600 pictures of his project so please be sure to check it out.  His website can be viewed at:

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