In an attempt to create an affordable, efficient city run-around, BMW fashioned an appealingly unique motoring experience...
I clearly remember the first time I laid eyes on a BMW Isetta. I was no more than six years old, paging through a BMW coffee table book of my father’s when I reached the section on this curious little bubble car. At that age, I couldn’t make any sense of the text but it was the image of a newlywed couple climbing into the tiny chariot through a front door that fascinated me. It was such a foreign concept that you could enter a car through the front. From that moment on, I cultivated quite an obsession with the Isetta and when the opportunity to drive one arose 22 years later, I jumped at the chance.
Seeing the Isetta in the metal for the first time is quite a head-scratching moment as you try to make sense of its dinky proportions. The exceedingly quirky design, penned by Ermenegildo Preti when this car was first commissioned in 1953 by Italian carmaker Iso SpA (BMW built it under licence later on and changed much of the mechanicals), gives it a playful nature. When you examine it in detail, however, it’s quite impressive.
The first thing that throws you off is the lack of a bonnet or protruding boot, almost eliminating the front and rear overhangs. It retains A-pillars as on any other car but they flow nearly straight towards the ground, affording the bubble a flat face. This comical image is exacerbated by the two headlamps mounted to the sides and those slightly flared arches. Its retro-futuristic design profile is translated into its egg-shaped body and large-proportion windows. The clean, singular line running across the left flank is uninterrupted by a door while the right sports a ventilated engine cover. At the rear, there is a clear focus on the essentials; just two small circular taillamps that double-up as indicators, while a large part of the surface is taken up by a luggage rack.
Things get a lot more interesting when you awkwardly step through the door at the front. The Isetta is a packaging marvel that strips out anything deemed non-essential. Your sense of space is completely altered as there is no dashboard or centre console. Instead, you’re seated on a bench with the door up front and a storage compartment big enough for an overnight bag at the rear. Above, you’ll find a canvas sunroof. When opened, it slightly alleviates any claustrophobia. While this was a trendy addition to a budget car, it can also be used as an emergency exit in case the single door malfunctions.
The lack of a dashboard and footwell is the biggest adjustment as it feels like you’re not even sitting in a car. As for the controls, all the driver gets is a large, nearly horizontal steering wheel with an indicator stalk, a gauge with a speedometer and odometer, three reading lights and a two-step light switch. All of these are centred on a housing that attaches to the door hinge. To the right, mounted onto the side, are the handbrake and gear shifter in easy reach of the driver.
The tiny single-cylinder rattles to life at the turn of the key and sends a slight tremor throughout the shell as lead-replacement-petrol fumes filter into the cabin, creating an immersive impression of motoring in the 1950s.
Given how simple the Isetta’s mechanics are, it’s straightforward to pilot. The clutch feel is spongy but has a short travel while the gear shifter is mechanical and notchy. It eagerly accelerates as the single piston rotates its way to 5 200 r/min and the 10-inch wheels carry you along merrily.
Once on the move, you realise your sense of scale is completely altered. Every other car on the road seems enormous. Your perspective is also twisted because all the windows are so close. Driving an Isetta doesn’t feel like you’re piloting a car; rather, the impression is of zipping through a shopping mall in a Cozy Coupé toy car as passers-by smile goofily at your entertaining excursion.
Dynamically speaking, the Isetta is not as nimble as you’d expect given its minuscule wheelbase. A 9,10-metre turning circle works against it. It makes for some demanding steering input at low speeds and U-turns are near impossible due to the effort involved. At speed, though – which isn’t much as it tops out at 85 km/h – the Isetta is nicely responsive thanks to the driving axle boasting a track of just 520 mm.
It’s so strange seeing a BMW badge on a car like this because of how far removed the Isetta is from its traditional products; however, this doesn’t bother me at all because it’s something special. The Isetta was the Bavarian brand’s financial saviour but also became a unique, charming and enjoyable piece of its history.
FAST FACTSEngine: 0,3-litre, 1-cylinder, petrol
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Power: 10 kW @ 5 200 r/min
Torque: 18,4 N.m @ 4 600 r/min
Compression ratio: 7,0 to 1
Weight: 350 kg
Number made: 161 360