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BMW Isetta: Buying guide and review (1955-1964)

BMW Isetta: Buying guide and review (1955-1964) Classic and Performance Car
BMW Isetta BMW Isetta
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
0-50mph 41.5sec
Fuel consumption 55mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
 
Dimensions and weight
 
Wheelbase 1500mm
Length 2250mm
Width 1340mm
Height 1320mm
Weight 353kg
 
Common problems
 
• 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.
 
Model history
 
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
BMW Isetta BMW Isetta
Last updated: 9th Nov 2015
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BMW Isetta cars for sale

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BMW Isetta
28500 32800 GBP
  • 1958 BMW Isetta

    $28,500(£23,293.05) $28,500(£23,293.05)

    In the middle of the 1950s, BMW’s product catalog was in a curious state. At one end of the spectrum, they offered the gorgeous and exotic 507 roadster and the V8 powered 502 “baroque angel” luxury sedan. These cars were expensive to produce, expensive to buy and had a very limited market. In fact, it is believed that BMW lost money on every 507 they built. At the opposite end of the scale was the Isetta; a cheeky little microcar that put working-class German citizens back on wheels during the post-war reconstruction period. In spite of the quality and style of the 502, 503 and 507, it was the Isetta that kept BMW afloat, putting enough money in the coffers to aid development of the more car-like 700 and mid-sized Neu Klasse, all the while helping the company to barely survive a takeover bid from its rivals at Mercedes-Benz. While the Isetta is best known as a BMW by today’s enthusiasts, the design originated in Italy at Iso SpA, a refrigeration manufacturer that moved to building scooters, motorcycles and cars under the direction of its petrol-head owner, Renzo Rivolta. The clever little Isetta featured a unique forward-facing door, and was powered by a single-cylinder, 236cc IsoMoto motorbike engine driving a pair of closely spaced rear wheels. It was light, cheap, could return exceptional economy. Unlike a motorcycle, it could be driven by nearly anyone, had room enough for two passengers and some groceries and afforded all weather comfort – exactly what the post-war economy needed. Signore Rivolta really wanted to build luxurious grand touring cars, but the Isetta filled a definite need in the market and it paid the bills effectively. In a stroke of genius, Rivolta raised the cash he needed by selling the rights to the Isetta design to several manufacturers, including BMW, to finance his desire to move upmarket. As with any German company, BMW could not resist making improvements and refinements to the original Italian design. In fact, they reworked the car so extensively that few, if any, parts are interchangeable between the Italian and German versions. First order of business was for BMW to ditch the IsoMoto engine in favor of a 250cc unit from their in-house R25/3 motorcycle – which was later upped to 300cc. The motorcycle-based engine was heavily reworked internally by engineers to suit the heavier body and different requirements of automobile duty. The body was also revised with new headlamps and badging, and interior trim was improved. Production began in 1955 and proved an immediate hit with buyers, with more than 10,000 examples built in the first 8 months. The Isetta was a shot of lifeblood for BMW, and today’s collectors and enthusiasts still recognize the significance behind the cheery face of this microcar. Our featured 1958 Isetta 300 is a lovely, fully restored example that presents in excellent condition, in a delightful color scheme. The two-tone dark blue and light blue paint has been restored to a high standard, accented by excellent chrome and alloy trim. The single, front mounted door fits properly and the body panels are straight and clean. Every Isetta features a large folding fabric sunroof which actually doubles as an emergency exit should the signature front clamshell door become blocked. The roof has been restored using correct grey vinyl material and the fit is nice and tidy. Sliding side windows and windscreens are all in fine order and all lights work as they should. The tubular bumpers which protect the delicate body have been very nicely restored with excellent chrome plating. It rides on proper 4.80 x 10 tires on steel wheels enhanced by original polished alloy wheel covers. Interior surfaces are painted correctly in medium gray and the bench seat is trimmed correctly in blue basketweave upholstery. Of course, there’s little luxury to speak of as the Isetta is only a few steps removed from a motorcycle, but where it lacks in equipment it more than makes up for with heaps of charm. Mechanically, this Isetta is very well-sorted and it drives exceptionally well. The engine is tidy and clean beneath the removable side cover. The case is properly finished in bare alloy while the various sheetmetal parts are finished in black as original, showing a few nicks in the finish from use, but otherwise straight and correct. The 300cc engine runs strong and everything works as it should. It’s nearly impossible to not wear an ear-to-ear grin when driving this cheeky Isetta –possibly excepting an overtaking maneuver – and this wonderfully restored example will ensure plenty of trouble free miles. It may be easy to pass off an Isetta as a mere novelty, however, it is important to remember that this is a significant piece of motoring history; an extremely clever design that put the automobile in the hands of thousands who otherwise could not afford one, all the while saving the storied BMW marque from the brink of extinction and simultaneous allowing for other great cars (Iso Rivolta) to be born.

    For sale
    Hyman Ltd
    314-524-6000 VIEW CONTACT NUMBER
  • 1957 BMW, Isetta Convert.

    $32,800(£26,807.44) $32,800(£26,807.44)

    cute-as-a-button Isetta convertible, staggering 13hp 1 cylinder 247cc engine, 4 speed manual transmission, fewer than 1% of production in convertible trim, 4 wheels, 2 passengers, 1 door and smiles for the whole summer camp.

    • Year: 1957
    • Mileage: 32800 mi
    For sale
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