February 28, 2005

BMW Isetta ‘bubble car’ celebrates fiftieth anniversary

Munich, Germany – The Isetta, the tiny “bubble car” that saved BMW, celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 5th.

BMW Isetta
Click image to enlarge

In 1955, life in war-torn Germany was finally returning to normal, and the idea of a weatherproof car was sweeping the nation. BMW, which was in danger of being absorbed by Mercedes-Benz due to poor sales of its expensive cars, introduced an egg-shaped, two-seater “Motocoupé” that eventually sold 12,911 units in its first year.

Its 250 cc 12 hp engine, with a top speed of 85 km/hr, was mounted in the rear. Its only door was the entire front of the car, which opened as a single unit with steering wheel and dashboard still attached. It was priced at DM 2,550, reasonable at a time when German workers made an average DM 90 a week. Compulsory third-party insurance was set at DM 95, while tax was only DM 44 – or, as the advertising of the day pointed out, “less than a city dachshund”.

The Isetta was actually an Italian import; a BMW dealer visiting the 1954 Geneva Motor Show saw the Isetta, made by the Italian scooter firm Iso. BMW acquired a licence to build the car, adding a BMW single-cylinder motorcycle engine and fine-tuning the styling for German tastes before bringing it to market a year later. Iso also licensed the car to other automakers in France and Brazil. In Britain, the Isetta was built with three wheels – German ones had four, although the rear tires were spaced very closely – so as to be taxed at the lower motorcycle rate.

It became a bit of a global phenomenon – Elvis Presley was photographed with one – and its runaway sales brought BMW from the brink of disaster back into solvency.

Isetta went through a few changes over the years, including a 300cc 13 hp model in 1956, and upscale export versions with top-hung side windows and improved chassis. Several options were available, including right-hand-drive, soft-top roof, and a removable cargo platform with 200 kg payload.

In Germany, only the Glas Goggomobil mini-car rivaled it in sales; in peak year 1957, BMW sold almost 40,000 Isettas. Demand for four-seater cars resulted in the short-lived 600, a stretched version with rear-mounted twin-cylinder boxer engine. It was replaced by the significantly advanced BMW 700.

So-called “bubble cars”, which included Germany’s Messerschmitt, suffered a fatal blow with the 1959 introduction of the Austin Mini, which combined the bubble’s compact size and fuel economy with vastly superior passenger and cargo space. Isetta production ended in 1962, after 161,728 had been made.

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