In the two decades following World War II there was a worldwide explosion of automobile manufacturers, some of which had made their names and reputations in products outside the industry. And with them came an unending presentation of designs, ideas and even gimmicks in an effort to capitalize on the car craze.
The 1957 BMW Isetta 300 is a product of those times. Its roots originated in 1952 with Italian manufacturer Iso Sp, which had previously made refrigerators, motor scooters and small three-wheeled trucks.
Iso manufactured about 1,000 of the cars, affectionately known as “bubble cars,” from 1953-56. In the Isetta’s first year of production it became the first mass-produced vehicle to achieve 78 mpg. During this same period, Iso permitted the Isetta to be built under license in Spain, Belgium, France, Brazil, Germany and the United Kingdom.
German manufacturer BMW was awarded production of the car in 1953 with the Isetta 250, which was manufactured through 1955.
An updated version, the Isetta 300, went into production in 1956. It was powered by BMW’s modified 250cc, four-stroke single-cylinder R25/3 motorcycle engine, and its bore was increased to 2.8cm and its stroke lengthened to 2.9cm with a 7.0:1 compression ratio.
The crankcase and cylinder were made of cast-iron, although the head was rotated 180 degrees compared to the motorcycle engine. It had an aluminum intake with a Bing sliding throttle motorcycle carburetor. A manual gearbox provided four forward speeds and reverse. A chain drive connected the gearbox to a solid rear axle with a pair of closely spaced wheels 19 inches apart. This combination produced 13 horsepower with a top speed of 53 mph.
The two-passenger car had only one door, which was hinged at the front left side and opened outward. In the event of an accident, passengers were to escape through the canvas-covered sunroof.
The steering wheel and instrument panel swung out with the single door, as this made access to the single bench seat simpler. The seat provided reasonable comfort for two occupants and perhaps a small child. Behind the seat was a large parcel shelf with the spare wheel located below. A heater was optional, and ventilation was provided by opening the sunroof.
Some 161,728 versions of the car were manufactured through 1962, when production ceased and BMW decided to concentrate on its recently released BMW 700.
Few of the Isettas remain in running condition. And with few imported to the United States, it is a rare car. Fully restored ones can go for as much as $40,000 at high-line auctions.
The pictured Isetta 300 is home-based in Syracuse, Ind., and can occasionally be seen cruising around Lake Wawasee.