In April 2020, the BMW Isetta, the iconic symbol of the post-war flourishing Germany industry, celebrates the 65th anniversary. Germany was in the midst of an overall country and industry reconstruction after the challenging conflict years and the painful defeat in World War II.
Money was scarce in the economy, infrastructure had to be rebuilt and production was far away the pre-war level. Yet the industry was starting to flourish, also fueled by the optimism of the German people.
How To Survive A Crisis
For BMW, the early 1950s decade was finding the Bavarian company in a troublesome situation. As we know, in times of crisis, BMW has always managed to reinvent itself and emerge victorious and more powerful than ever.
In those years, the BMW production was resumed and involved the assembly of high-end luxury cars (like the 501, 502, 503 and 507) in limited numbers, in addition to motorcycle building.
However, profitability was sluggish and the Bavarians really needed an impulse to survive. At that time, the segment microcars was gaining some serious traction.
BMW did not miss the opportunity and, in 1954, acquired a license from the Italian manufacturer Iso SpA for the project of a so-called bubble car which was to be eventually known as the BMW Isetta. It is important to know that Iso SpA used to produce refrigerator before the outburst of WWII. After the war, production was resumed and focused on three-wheel commercial vehicles and motorcycle.
A Unique Design
What made the BMW Isetta feel so special was its curved front-door body, which was decisive mark of the refrigerator production history of the Iso company. This door was the single entrance into the cabin, with its surface and handle mimicking the aspect of refrigerator.
However, the technical underpinnings and some design features were adapted by BMW to suit its brand philosophy before sending off into serial production. This made the BMW Isetta stand apart from the original Iso Isetta project and serial car and other similar license-produced bubble cars.
As a special mention, the Iso Isetta was revealed at the 1952 edition of the Turin Motor Show. In 1954, the race-modified version of the microcar was victorious and monopolized the top 3 positions in the economy class of the legendary Mille Miglia.
Different BMW Isetta Variants
Coming back to our Bimmer, the first BMW Isetta rolled off assembly line in April 1955. Right from its market launch, the car caused a complete stir. BMW marketed the Isetta neither as a car nor as a motorcycle, but as a “motocoupe” given its one-cylinder motorbike engine.
Furthermore, the price point was the most attractive argument for the average German citizen, that was paid with around 90 DM per week. The BMW Isetta started at a price of only 2,580 DM, which made it 5 times cheaper than the 501 sedan and 15 times more accessible than the upscale 507 roadster. The car featured a rear-engine architecture with rear-wheel-drive traction.
Several versions of the Isetta were produced. The first was the 250 Standard, with a 250-cc single-cylinder engine, rated at 12 hp. The top speed of this variant was 85 km/h. By November 20, 1955, the example no. 10,000 of the Isetta was produced. In December 1955, given its success, the 300 Standard model was released, featuring a 300-cc engine developing 13 hp.
The Isetta addressed to the German market featured fixed side windows and, thus, it came with a retractable roof that could be used as an emergency exit in case of a front end accident in which the single door would remain stuck. The Export version of the Isetta came in 1957 and was essentially different than the German variant. Among others, it featured a fixed roof and retractable side windows.
A version with a single wheel on the rear axle was sold in the UK and proved highly popular for tax purposes. The “tropical” version of the Isetta was offered in countries with hot climate, as the model had been equipped with ventilation grilles on the doors.
BMW Isetta also arrived in the US through the brand’s importer at the time, Fadex. For promoting the new microcar or “bubble car”, the dealer produced a spectacular photo shoot in New York, starring the famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant.
In 1962, after 161,360 units assembled, the production of BMW Isetta ceased. This speaks pretty much of the special success of the Isetta. Along with the 700 model, it paved the way for BMW to establish itself as a true premium carmaker after 1959.
Beginning with 1962, the BMW started the production of the Neue Klasse models, which ignited a long-term success for the Munich-based constructor.
As a sign of admiration and affection, the BMW Isetta received the nickname “Knutschkugel”, which basically means “smooch ball/bubble”, highlighting the vehicle’s small-sized, yet very intimate and special passenger shuttle.