When the first microcars went on sale in the 1950s they allowed those with only modest means to buy their own personal transport. Then the Mini arrived and at a stroke it made most microcars seem expensive, slow and impractical. Indeed, it was largely because of the Mini’s introduction that many microcar manufacturers went bust.
Now that microcars such as the BMW Isetta are classics – so bought for fun rather than as essential family transport – they’re very much back in favour. It’s not hard to see why, because while the BMW may be small physically, it packs far more character than most classics twice the size.
But while few cars are as characterful as the diminutive BMW, this is hardly the most usable classic out there. Performance is limited (cruising at 45mph is about as much as you can expect) while there isn’t much interior carrying capacity. But on the latter score things are better than you might expect as the bench seats provides ample space for two and the parcel shelf behind is surprisingly capacious. But what will probably clinch it for you is those cute looks; if you like to be the centre of attention, few things will grab it like an Isetta.
Which one to buy?
There are more Isetta derivatives than you might think, including ultra-rare cabriolet and pick-up editions. These can be replicated, so if you’re looking at one of these make sure it’s the real deal. Other than that there are 250 and 300 derivatives, left- or right-hand drive along with three- or four-wheelers.
There’s not a huge amount to separate the different models – you’re always better off buying the best car you can find, whatever its specification. Bear in mind though that stability levels are dictated by where the steering wheel lies. Right-hand drive examples have the driver on the same side of the car as the engine, so it’s all rather unbalanced. BMW fitted a 25kg cast-iron counterweight to try to balance things out, but drive solo in a right-hand drive Isetta and taking left-hand corners at speed can be a hair-raising experience.
The cars may be small, but the prices aren’t. Because so many people buy their classics for occasional use only, the Isetta is almost seen as automotive jewellery; something that looks cool and doesn’t carry a price tag that’s in proportion to its size. As a result, you’ll need to dig deep to secure a really good Isetta. But there’s a lot of rubbish out there, so tread carefully.
Performance and specs
Engine 298cc, 1-cylinder
Power 13bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque 14lb ft @ 4600rpm
Top speed 52mph
Fuel consumption 55mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• There might not be much bodywork but there are still plenty of areas to check for corrosion. The door base, front footwell and sills can all corrode, as can the base of each inner front wing and the rear panel. You also need to scrutinise all the seams, as these often harbour corrosion – especially the ones above the brake lights. Because complete body panels aren’t available, full restorations can be challenging.
• The chassis also needs careful checking, along with the engine cover and its mountings. The chassis rarely corrodes to the point where it’s a big problem, but cracks can appear across the back, where the crossmember is attached near to the spring mounts. This is a particular problem on three-wheelers.
• Cars being sold as non-runners should be viewed with suspicion; most engine parts are available, but a full rebuild can be very expensive. Also, dropped valves can wreck an engine so assume a worst-case scenario and assume you’ll have to find a decent used powerplant. Special tools are needed to work on the one-cylinder engine and because there’s no oil filter a lubricant change every 500 miles is recommended.
• Gear selection will be tricky if the linkage has been allowed to get out of adjustment; setting it all up properly takes time, but it’s not difficult and makes the car far nicer to drive.
• Check for play in the steering, as there are lots of joints that can wear. It’s worth establishing where the wear is; worn steering boxes are costly to overhaul.
• Also ensure the front suspension hasn’t worn out, as the kingpins need greasing every 1,000 miles. Replacing them isn’t as straightforward as you might think, with specialist tools needed, so don’t shrug off tired kingpins too readily.
• Trim isn’t a problem as the original tartan material is available should a seat overhaul be required.
1953: Renzo Rivolta launches his Isetta bubble car. But it’s all too late to save his supercar company, which is on the verge of bankruptcy.
1955: BMW buys the rights to build the Isetta, to save itself from oblivion. Those first Isettas (the 250) have a 245cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine, a modified version of BMW’s motorcycle unit.
1956: There’s now a 298cc export edition, known as the 300.
1957: The Isetta is now produced in Brighton and from this year right-hand drive cars become available.
1958: The option of a semi-automatic transmission is introduced, but it’s obsolete within a year. More importantly, until now the Isetta featured two rear wheels, just 48cm apart. However, from this year, left-hand drive cars are available as three-wheelers, to attract a lower rate of purchase tax.
1960: Right-hand drive cars are now available with three wheels.
1962: The bubble bursts and German Isetta production is halted – but British production wouldn’t stop until 1964.
Key clubs and websites
• www.isetta-owners-club-gb.com - the Isetta Owners Club of Great Britain
• www.microcar.org - Vintage Micro Car Club, and forum
• www.bmwisettacarclub.tripod.com - BMW Isetta Car Club
• www.isetta-club.de - German Isetta club
Summary and prices
As you might expect, the novelty factor counts for a lot with classic cars, and its something the Isetta has in spades. Values surged a few years ago, and while they have now stabilised, there’s still a lot of interest in microcars in general. A decent example will now cost in the region of £10,000, although there are of course more expensive cars around, pushing £17k for a concours example. Slightly more average examples come in at about £6000, while projects start at £3000.
Words: Richard Dredge