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Bubble Car Survivor: 1957 BMW Isetta 300

Like Triumph’s Amphicar and Fiat’s Jolly, the BMW Isetta has a “coin of the realm” quality when it shows up at auctions. Once parked on the lawn at Bonham’s or Gooding, these cars are almost guaranteed to bring three times what any sane person would pay on an ordinary Thursday for a tiny, underpowered, intensely cute, slightly weird vehicle. This 1957 BMW Isetta 300 here on craigslist illustrates the two-tier price structure, with an ask of $29,999. Restored versions can sell for over $80,000, and yes, they’re nicer, but if you just want to drive about in an intensely cute, slightly weird car, perhaps you can eschew the restoration. T.J. found this car for us – thanks T.J.! This particular car is described as a survivor, and it runs and drives. It’s located in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Isetta carries the distinction of a sturdy production run, stretching from 1953 to 1962, across several countries. BMW alone made over 160,000 units. But the car was first launched by its inventor, Renzo Rivolta of Milan, Italy. Rivolta didn’t just make the Isetta; in the 1940s his factory manufactured appliances including refrigeration units, then mopeds and motorcycles, and much later, sports and touring cars. The Isetta was his bet that post-war Italy was ready to upgrade from the motorbike to an enclosed vehicle with room for a passenger and better weather protection. The Iso Isetta was powered by a two-stroke split-single engine, coupled with a four-speed manual transmission. Alas, Italians were buying far more Fiat Topolinos than Isettas, and when BMW expressed interest in licensing the concept and purchasing the tooling, Rivolta obliged. BMW Isettas are quite different from Iso Isettas: BMW immediately replaced the engine, for one thing, with a 247 cc four-stroke. Later Isettas received 298 cc engines, with an output of about 13 hp. The engine is behind a panel just in front of the passenger’s side rear wheel. The tail light position varied depending on where the car was delivered: Euro cars have tiny lamps set very low on the rear; American cars had these large-ish pods you see above, and Canadian Isettas installed the same pods, but further up on the rear of the body.

The interior of the car hides behind the refrigerator-type front door. Here is a photo of an Isetta ready to welcome its driver. This car has a canvas roof; Isetta also made about 50 convertibles and a pick-up body style. Early cars had a “bubble” window arrangement, with fixed panes; this one has sliding panes. The interior is in fine condition – I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been restored at some point. The view out the rear reminds us this car isn’t for claustrophobes.

Plenty of spare parts accompany the sale, including a new windshield, rubber seals, lenses, and manuals. The seller mentions minimal rust, and suggests the car is suitable either for restoration or to drive as-is. I’d choose to leave it alone, but he is right: it’s hard to find a viable Isetta restoration candidate these days. On the other hand, owners sell restored Isettas constantly; I found thirteen for sale on Hemmings alone. Does this micro-car tempt you?

Comments

  1. Avatar photo Troy

    I think it’s cool, just not for me. If I showed this article to my wife it would the car would wind up in the driveway so I’m not going there.

    Like 7
  2. Avatar photo Nevada1/2rack Member

    Always a quick wit in the turning of a perfectly descriptive phrase, Michelle-“..a tiny, underpowered, intensely cute, slightly weird vehicle.”
    Fits it to a T. Interesting too is the description of the motor first designed for it, “a split single engine”. Is that like the “Twingle” Triumph, or something different?

    Like 8
    • Avatar photo Derek

      It’ll be something like the 1930s DKW engine, I’d hazard a guess.

      My pal’s dad was into Isettas. If I turn 90 degrees to my left, I can see most of a BMW engine sitting on the windowsill…

      Like 4
    • Avatar photo justpaul

      Yes, same idea as the Twingle: two pistons in what is technical one connected combustion chamber.

      Like 1
  3. Avatar photo Terrry

    Back in the late 70s I knew someone who hung a built 1600 VW Bug motor on the back. That thing would wheelie easily if you pressed the pedal too hard! Needless to say, he’d added wheelie bars too.

    Like 7
  4. Avatar photo Dan

    Another AZ car from the 50s in incredible condition. Given how much (insane) money these are bringing at auctions, this one seems appropriately priced. The color isn’t my cup of tea; if I were to get one of these, I’d look for one with two-tone paint. The epitome of a “town car”…don’t try to drive one of these on an interstate!

    Like 7
  5. Avatar photo Mark

    Too bad these were never run thru an NHTSA front offset crash test. Maybe the resulting footage would change the minds of those willing to pay up to $80k to appear “cute” by putting themselves in these deathtraps on public roads. But hey, everyone is free to choose to do so. And for those who opt to, would you please do us other drivers a favor by using the bike lane?

    Like 5
    • Avatar photo Derek

      No-one* did crash tests back then. There’s an interesting bit of film on youtube; offset frontal of 1959 and 2009 Chevrolets going into each other.

      Also, drive a splitty VW bus; you rest your foot on the headlight shell…

      *Maybe the odd few, but not mass-market.

      Like 7
    • Avatar photo Kim

      If we all bought vehicles only for safety or practicality we’d all be driving hummers and old power wagons. This is not a grocery getter and neither is a motorcycle. Just know the limits, traffic and purpose and enjoy life. Efficiently and safety are abundant in prison.

      Like 12
      • Avatar photo Mark

        Yes, folks are free to enjoy their automotive pursuits.
        Just make sure they have the financial means to insure aganist the associated risks of said freedoms. 800 hp.or 13 hp….just make sure you (or next of kin) can cover the costs of your long-term care.
        If people want to play, they can pay.

        Like 2
    • Avatar photo Jimmy Novak

      I consider motorcycles as deathtraps, with half the wheels, overpowered engines and absolutely no body protection. (Well, okay, yeah, fenders.)
      Isettas (Isetti?) are looking more and more like civilized transportation.

      Like 4
      • Avatar photo Derek

        Motorbikes are great. You dance with the traffic, if that makes sense.

        And you almost always get to the front of the traffic light queue.

        Like 1
    • Avatar photo scottymac

      Just an overpriced golf cart for their estates!

      Like 0
  6. Avatar photo jwaltb

    Triumph Amphicar, Michelle?
    According to Wikipedia the Amphicar was built in Germany by the Quandt Group. It did have a Triumph engine but I don’t know that there was any other involvement by the Brits.

    Like 7
    • Avatar photo JudoJohn

      I noticed that, too. Definitely, it is NOT a Triumph.

      Like 5
      • Avatar photo Michelle Rand Staff

        Sorry about that, I was thinking about the motor. Argh.

        Like 5
  7. Avatar photo Lance

    I remember seeing one of these in a hot rod mag a long time ago. Someone had stuck a hemi in the thing and renamed it” Allsetta” Yep, sure was. LOL

    Like 3
  8. Avatar photo DD

    I restored 8 and kept one for myself. One of the nicest cars I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a few. So cute, so tender, so…. Italian! It does miss 10HP more for more serious itineraries , but perfect for weekend fun.

    Like 9
  9. Avatar photo gregb

    There are two of these in Cherokee Co SC. One on the roof of the Restaurant and one inside on display next to a Studebaker and a statue of Elvis.

    Like 3
  10. Avatar photo chrlsful

    “…tempted…?”
    “No” but the 600? w/4 wheels & ‘places’ is of interest.
    Beemer engine too.
    https://www.classicdriver.com/de/car/bmw/isetta/1958/331648

    Like 3
  11. Avatar photo Chris Cornetto

    My Grandfather was cheap. He drove one of these through the 50s and traded it in on a 60 Falcon. They gave him 5.00 for it. He told me about how semi trucks, though much smaller then would blow it off the road. On one ocassion the truck blew him off the road and it fell on its side. On another the spark plug fell out and he spent two hours wandering up and down the road seaching for it. He said he was the butt of all jokes. My grandmother refused to ride in it and never did. I guess considering the money these are bringing, i would have fared better had he kept that and left it to me instead of his 67 Continental….Nah I glad I have the Lincoln.

    Like 6
    • Avatar photo Bob_in_TN Member

      Great post Chris.

      Like 1
  12. Avatar photo Michael Tischler

    Oh man,turn back the clock to 1970.Friend of mine bought one of these, brought it to the Esso gas station he worked at and nearly burned the place down when it caught on fire while working on it.

    Like 2
  13. Avatar photo justpaul

    Left hand manual with a backwards pattern. That would take some getting used to.

    Like 1
  14. Avatar photo Skip

    I had one and fun to drive. Just had to keep the sunroof unlocked when parallel parking. I had to climb in through the roof when someone parked to close and couldn’t open the door.

    Like 3
  15. Avatar photo Harrison Reed

    Does the word, “personality”, come to mind? The Isetta was a car you either loved, hated, or laughed at. But I think it would be fun. Except, at my age, if anyone ever hit it, I would not have one single un-fractured bone. I’m “frail” enough as it is, without tempting disaster: I’ll appreciate this one from a distance and by nostalgia; thank you!

    Like 2

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