Motoring Memories: BMW Isetta motoring memories classic cars car culture
1957 Isetta 300. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

In the 1950s some strange little vehicles came onto the European auto scene. They were created in response to high gasoline prices and the need for low-cost, weather-proof, personal transportation. They became known as Bubble Cars and had names like Messerschmitt, Heinkel, and Isetta. These tiny, usually three wheeled cars had air-cooled engines and, although small and basic, they were at least a step up in comfort and convenience from the motorcycle and sidecar that was all many families could afford.

They owed their conception to a refrigerator manufacturer named Renzo Rivolta of Milan, Italy, who decided in 1952 to branch out into the car business by making tiny, basic cars. Since his fridges carried the Iso brand name, he called his little machine the Isetta, literally “small Iso”.

The Isetta, introduced in 1953, set the whole Bubble Car trend in motion. The most striking feature of this egg-shaped, two-passenger vehicle was the method of entry and exit. Perhaps Rivolta was influenced by his refrigerators, because the entire front of the car, including the windshield, was a side-hinged door that swung out, bringing the universal-jointed steering column with it.

Occupants stepped aboard, turned around and sat down, and the driver pulled the steering wheel back to close the door. In the event of a frontal crash, passengers escaped through the mandatory sunroof.

The 1,199 mm (47.2 in.) front track was about normal for a small car of that era, but a mere 518 mm (20.4 inn.) between the rear wheels was decidedly unusual. It did, however, eliminate the need for a differential; a chain transmitted the power from the engine to a large sprocket attached to the drive axle in the rear housing.

The Isetta was powered by a 236 cc two-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine mounted just ahead of the right rear wheel, the location chosen to counterbalance the driver’s weight. The four-speed transmission shift lever to the left of the driver had an “upside-down H” pattern.

Rivolta built the Isetta until 1955, when he decided to stop. He would return to car building in 1962 with vehicles at the other end of the spectrum: high-powered sports cars called Iso Rivoltas.

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