1958 BMW Isetta

In the middle of the 1950s, BMW’s product catalog was in a curious state. At one end of the spectrum, they offered the gorgeous and exotic 507 roadster and the V8 powered 502 “baroque angel” luxury sedan. These cars were expensive to produce, expensive to buy and had a very limited market. In fact, it is believed that BMW lost money on every 507 they built. At the opposite end of the scale was the Isetta; a cheeky little microcar that put working-class German citizens back on wheels during the post-war reconstruction period. In spite of the quality and style of the 502, 503 and 507, it was the Isetta that kept BMW afloat, putting enough money in the coffers to aid development of the more car-like 700 and mid-sized Neu Klasse, all the while helping the company to barely survive a takeover bid from its rivals at Mercedes-Benz.

While the Isetta is best known as a BMW by today’s enthusiasts, the design originated in Italy at Iso SpA, a refrigeration manufacturer that moved to building scooters, motorcycles and cars under the direction of its petrol-head owner, Renzo Rivolta. The clever little Isetta featured a unique forward-facing door, and was powered by a single-cylinder, 236cc IsoMoto motorbike engine driving a pair of closely spaced rear wheels. It was light, cheap, could return exceptional economy. Unlike a motorcycle, it could be driven by nearly anyone, had room enough for two passengers and some groceries and afforded all weather comfort – exactly what the post-war economy needed. Signore Rivolta really wanted to build luxurious grand touring cars, but the Isetta filled a definite need in the market and it paid the bills effectively. In a stroke of genius, Rivolta raised the cash he needed by selling the rights to the Isetta design to several manufacturers, including BMW, to finance his desire to move upmarket.

As with any German company, BMW could not resist making improvements and refinements to the original Italian design. In fact, they reworked the car so extensively that few, if any, parts are interchangeable between the Italian and German versions. First order of business was for BMW to ditch the IsoMoto engine in favor of a 250cc unit from their in-house R25/3 motorcycle – which was later upped to 300cc. The motorcycle-based engine was heavily reworked internally by engineers to suit the heavier body and different requirements of automobile duty. The body was also revised with new headlamps and badging, and interior trim was improved. Production began in 1955 and proved an immediate hit with buyers, with more than 10,000 examples built in the first 8 months. The Isetta was a shot of lifeblood for BMW, and today’s collectors and enthusiasts still recognize the significance behind the cheery face of this microcar.

Our featured 1958 Isetta 300 is a lovely, fully restored example that presents in excellent condition, in a delightful color scheme. The two-tone dark blue and light blue paint has been restored to a high standard, accented by excellent chrome and alloy trim. The single, front mounted door fits properly and the body panels are straight and clean. Every Isetta features a large folding fabric sunroof which actually doubles as an emergency exit should the signature front clamshell door become blocked. The roof has been restored using correct grey vinyl material and the fit is nice and tidy. Sliding side windows and windscreens are all in fine order and all lights work as they should. The tubular bumpers which protect the delicate body have been very nicely restored with excellent chrome plating. It rides on proper 4.80 x 10 tires on steel wheels enhanced by original polished alloy wheel covers. Interior surfaces are painted correctly in medium gray and the bench seat is trimmed correctly in blue basketweave upholstery. Of course, there’s little luxury to speak of as the Isetta is only a few steps removed from a motorcycle, but where it lacks in equipment it more than makes up for with heaps of charm.

Mechanically, this Isetta is very well-sorted and it drives exceptionally well. The engine is tidy and clean beneath the removable side cover. The case is properly finished in bare alloy while the various sheetmetal parts are finished in black as original, showing a few nicks in the finish from use, but otherwise straight and correct. The 300cc engine runs strong and everything works as it should. It’s nearly impossible to not wear an ear-to-ear grin when driving this cheeky Isetta –possibly excepting an overtaking maneuver – and this wonderfully restored example will ensure plenty of trouble free miles.

It may be easy to pass off an Isetta as a mere novelty, however, it is important to remember that this is a significant piece of motoring history; an extremely clever design that put the automobile in the hands of thousands who otherwise could not afford one, all the while saving the storied BMW marque from the brink of extinction and simultaneous allowing for other great cars (Iso Rivolta) to be born.

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