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BMW Isetta 300

At the complete opposite end of the automotive spectrum from the 1939 Packard Touring Sedan discussed yesterday, the Lincoln Highway Car Show served up this little McNugget on wheels, a BMW Isetta 300.

Das ist ein rollende Ei!

In Western Europe after World War II, there was a considerable demand for small, cheap cars for in-town transportation. The "microcars" developed in response to this were generally two- or three-seat affairs powered by motorcycle engines, the spiritual successors to the "cyclecars" of the early part of the century. These "bubble cars," of which the Isetta is probably the best known, sold in respectable numbers This is the original Italian version; note the different window arrangement.
until the Austin/Morris Mini and Fiat 500 came along. The Mini and 500 weren't a whole lot more expensive than a microcar, they allowed four adults and some luggage to travel at highway speeds in relative comfort, and they were far more survivable in an accident.

The name "Isetta" is Italian for "little Iso." Iso SpA (sometimes referred to as "Iso Rivolta" or "Iso Autoveicoli") was an Italian manufacturer of motor scooters, three-wheeled trucks, and refrigerators which branched out into the automobile business in the early 1950s. Introduced in 1953, the Isetta has sometimes been described as a cross between a refrigerator and a motor scooter.

The most obvuiously "motor scooter" part of an Isetta was the 236cc two-stroke Iso scooter engine tucked in under the bench seat, connected to a four-speed transmission. The track width of the rear wheels was much narrower than in the front, which allowed the drivetrain to get by without a differential. There was no room on the sides for a passenger door, so the entire front of the car was hinged to open up like a refrigerator door. The steering wheel and minimalist dashboard were on a trick mounting that allowed them to swing up and out of the way as the door opened, making it easier to get in and out. That also meant that there wasn't much of a front crumple zone, and if the door was rendered inoperable in a collision the occupants had to climb out through the sunroof!

The Isetta's trick steering wheel mount in action. Iso built and sold Isettas for its own account in Italy, Spain, and Belgium. It also licensed the design to other manufacturers: VELAM in France, where it was nicknamed "yogurt pot," and Romi in Brazil, where they called it a bola de futebol ("soccer ball").

The most important licensee was BMW, which built 161,728 of its version of the Isetta between 1955 and 1962. selling them mainly in Germany and the UK. Das rollende Ei ("the rolling egg") featured a slightly redesigned body with sliding side windows. BMW replaced the original Italian two-stroke with a 298cc one-cylinder motorcycle engine, and German-reengineered the drivetrain to reduce vibration and noise.

Das Bimmermotor. This mighty motor produced 13 HP and 13.6 foot-pounds of torque, propelling the blazing baby Bimmer from 0 to 30 in about 30 seconds, to an eventual top speed of 53 MPH.

The sole instrument is the speedometer; the sticker in the lower left corner of the windshield cues the driver when to shift gears. Yeah, that's pretty slow, but the fuel economy was a phenomenal 50 to 70 MPG, Prius-like effciiency without all the smugness.

The owner told me that this particular Isetta had at one time belonged to the truancy officer of the Ashland City Schools, who used it on his daily patrols in search of kids playing hooky. My son Alex speculated that some kids may well have skipped class just so they could get a ride in it!

Cold War memories. What really made this particular Isetta was the accessory trailer, with its literal fifth wheel.

Which came first, the Egg or the...um, other egg?This is not an original Isetta option. The owner told me that the previous owner had built it himself, as a way of giving the car some semblance of trunk space. He did an excellent job of styling it to match, making this one rolling egg that really rolls in style.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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That Isetta looks in unbelievable mint condition. Amazing.

This is the model of car Steve Urkel drove on Family Matters! It looks much nicer in these pictures, however.

I think I had a pimple the size of an Isetta back in my teen years. If you've ever stood next to one of these you can't help but imagine just how scary it would be driving in modern American traffic.

I've always been fascinated with these minimalist cars, first seeing them in 1950s MAD magazine artwork. I bought a book on Isettas and related microcars, and saw a few examples of advertising art showing a tiny car in a storm passing by pedestrians slumped under umbrellas - like the selling point of the car was 'a step up from an umbrella.'

featured in one of the greatest song of all times music video: Depeche "Never Let Me Down Again": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snILjFUkk_A
Chills. Just beautiful. Music that gets right into your soul... and a cool car too boot.

I lust after that almost as much as a Fiat 600 Multipla.

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