Feature Image Credit: Volo Auto Museum
The BMW Isetta is the world’s first micro-car with unique origins and an even more unique design. While it’s probably not your first choice for a vintage car, it has a rightful place in the vehicular history books and maintains a sizable cult following. Here’s a closer look at the 1957 BMW Isetta.
A Brief History
The 1957 BMW Isetta was originally not a BMW at all. The vehicle first emerged in 1952 from an Italian company called Iso SpA, which had only made motor scooters and three-wheel trucks up to that point. Owner Renzo Rivolta decided to take his business to the next level and started mass producing a bubble-shaped car with the Iso Moto 200 motorcycle engine.
Rivolta named his new vehicle the Isetta and officially released it at the Turin Motor Show in November 1953. We won’t spoil the car’s details here, but needless to say, the Isetta caused a lot of commotion among the crowd. No one had seen such a strange vehicle before. Its acceleration was poor, and it could only reach 47 miles per hour, yet it passed all safety inspections and had fantastic mileage.
Iso SpA quickly received offers from other European manufacturers to purchase the rights to the Isetta’s body, and Rivolta came to an agreement with BMW in 1954. BMW was not an auto giant at the time, but a steadily growing German manufacturer still recovering from World War II.
BMW’s 1955 model became the world’s first vehicle to achieve a fuel consumption rate of 50 miles per gallon and was considered the pinnacle of single-cylinder cars. The company continued to produce Isettas until 1962 and made a total of 161,728 vehicles. Of that number, only 8500 made it to the United States.
Isetta’s Defining Features
The Isetta is best known for its egg-shaped body and lone entry point. Instead of side doors, one front door opens directly to the driver’s seat. The entire front interior panel, including the steering wheel, is connected to the front door. The Isetta’s front wheels also sit 47.2 inches apart while the back wheels are 20 inches apart, giving it a three-wheel look that Rivolta wanted.
Isettas are known for pairing remarkably well with bright colors, especially red and baby blue. The chrome wheels, bumpers and luggage rack perfectly contrast with the primary color. Some specific models also have light accents, such as a tan retractable roof on the convertible model or a beige front door.
The interior has a simple design: one leather booth seat that comfortably fits two people. It quite literally feels like a pod from the inside, with smooth walls and very few accessories. All you see are the steering wheel, ignition, speedometer and four-speed stick shift. A small luggage area sits behind the booth.
The Isetta is not known for blazing speeds. Its modest 297-cc four-stroke one-cylinder engine takes about 30 seconds to accelerate the vehicle to a top speed of 55 miles per hour, making it practically unusable on major highways. Perhaps that’s for the best, because its body doesn’t offer much protection.
Modern sedans dwarf the Isetta and can cause serious damage. The confined space could easily trap passengers in the event of a crash, but Rivolta was apparently aware of this defect. He installed an emergency exit in the Isetta’s roof to give the vehicle two exit points instead of one.
However, what the Isetta lacks in speed and security, it makes up for in mileage. Even the very first BMW model made in 1955 sported 50 miles per gallon, and the 1957 model averages about 60. A full tank of gas will take you 159 miles.
1957 BMW Isetta Sub-Models
BMW produced five variations of the 1957 model:
- Standard 1957 Isetta (manual 4)
- Isetta 250 (1 series, manual 4)
- Isetta 250 (2 series, manual 4)
- Isetta 300 (1 series, manual 4)
- Isetta 300 (2 series, manual 4)
The 250 models have a little more torque and horsepower than the standard model, and the 300 models are just a step above the 250s. The maximum speed ranges from 50 to 55 mph.
Where to Find a 1957 Isetta
With such an odd portfolio, the Isetta is a viable vehicle in only a handful of settings. If you want to find one, start your search in coastal cities with limited elevation. Isettas suit the quiet, laid-back atmosphere that beach towns tend to have. They’re also popular restoration projects, so one could be hiding in a garage somewhere in your hometown.
If you manage to find an Isetta in driving condition, expect to pay at least $45,000 for it. Isettas that need work range from $17,000 to $30,000, depending on the parts you need.
The Strangest BMW Ever Made
BMW has released many obscure vehicles over the years, but nothing looks quite like the Isetta. Its bubble-shaped exterior, vibrant colors and absurd mileage make it the strangest BMW and one of the most peculiar vehicles ever made by anyone.