• license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en Modification: edited canvas size to fit editorial template {{Information |Description=Panasonic G1 14-45 Lens |Source= |Date=

You would think that BMW would feel a bit embarassed at having such a humble means of transportation as part of its history, but that has never been the case when talking about the Isetta bubble car. After World War II, the Bavarian car maker was not exactly in tip-top shape in terms of financial success, with Herbert Quandt being close to selling the entire company to Daimler Benz under the pressure of management. Thanks in small part to the prosperity brought by the tiny Isetta and Quandt’s rather risky decision of increasing his stake instead of selling all of it, BMW is still an independent brand now.

As some of you know, the Isetta was actually born in Italy, not Germany, and its original raison d’être was simply to offer an inexpensive means of transport with good fuel economy. Created by Iso, which subsequently became famous afterward for its elegant sports cars in the 1960s, the original Isetta had thee wheels and a single-cylinder motorcycle engine from the Iso Moto 200. Its quirky styling, low price and great city maneuverability caught the eye of BMW, who bought the project along with its tooling and made its own version, keeping the name.

Using a BMW motorcycle engine this time, the BMW Isetta spawned two more variants and became a resounding success for the Bavarian car maker, with over 150,000 units being sold between 1955 and 1962. Part of its success was also thanks to the Suez Energy Crisis, but no one can argue with the cuteness of its bubble car design as also being a very good reason.

Updated 9/1/2015: Our man Jonathan Lopez took some pics at Monterey Car Week. Enjoy!

Click past the jump to read more about the BMW Isetta.

  • 1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
  • Year:
    1955- 1962
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Transmission:
    4-speed manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    12 @ 5200
  • Torque @ RPM:
    10 @ 4600
  • Displacement:
    248 cc
  • Top Speed:
    53 mph
  • Price:
    3000 (Est.)
  • Price:
  • car segment:
  • body style:

BMW Isetta Videos

BMW Milestones: BMW Isetta

Isetta Restoration Walkaround

Isetta Walkaround and Drive

Classic Isetta Promo Videos

BMW TV Review (German)


1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
- image 643696
1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
- image 643701
1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
- image 643700

With Iso being first known as a manufacturer of scooters, petite urban trucks and refrigerators, it is no wonder that the Isetta looked like an Art Deco refrigerator from the pre-war period on wheels. With room for two and a small child, a canvas "Targa" roof and a single door situated in the front, it would be rather hard to find another car that looked as unorthodox, no matter what period in time.

By far its most bizarre feature was the front-mounted door, especially since the steering wheel was attached to it.

By far its most bizarre feature was the front-mounted door, especially since the steering wheel was attached to it. Both the wheel and the door swung outward to create easy access to the interior. The large and curved windows gave the car a a look similar to the canopy of a World War II fighter plane, while the fabric roof could be opened for better ventilation and to give the impression of a convertible. Speaking of ventilation and design, BMW improved both by giving the Isetta a sliding side window, something the original Iso variant didn’t have.

The frog-eye headlamps, bubbly front end and the two rear wheels sitting very close to each other made for a rather comedic appearance, but they were also part of the model’s eccentric appeal to various types of clients. Not to mention that its highly efficient packaging solutions are now partly used by cars like the smart fortwo.


1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta Interior
- image 600507
The front-hinged door also meant that most frontal impacts were pretty severe in terms of casualties, with the survivors' only exit being through the fabric roof opening above.

With a single bench seat that catered to a pair of adults and a single child, you would expect the tiny Isetta to be rather cramped inside, but thanks to the lack of a real luggage compartment and clever front-opening of the door it was actually rather spacious for its lilliputian size. A small amount of luggage could be carried on a shelf-like platform behind the seats and on top of the single cylinder engine, while the location of the petite steering wheel, the adjacent column and instrument panel made it very easy to enter or exit the car. The front-hinged door also meant that most frontal impacts were pretty severe in terms of casualties, with the survivors’ only exit being through the fabric roof opening above.


1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta High Resolution Exterior
- image 600502
Even though the car was extremely light, its performance wasn't exactly uplifting, with the first 30 mph being reached in around half a minute.

Both the BMW Isetta 250 and the Isetta 300 were powered by a single-cylinder, four-stroke engine sourced from the BMW R25/3 motorcycle, paired with a manual four-speed transmission. Even though the car was extremely light, its performance wasn’t exactly uplifting, with the first 30 mph being reached in around half a minute. In other words, it wasn’t exactly the best car to take to the mountains, or in areas with drastic changes in road elevation.

Since the two rear wheels were only a few inches apart, the rear axle wasn’t fitted with a differential, giving the four-speed transmission a unique connection with the wheels. The rather complex drive consisted of two cardan joints made of rubber, a cardan shaft and a double chain which transmitted power to the fixed rear axle. This also made for the engine and gearbox to flex independently than the rear suspension. With the Isetta 250 developing 12 horsepower and the 300 variant upping that amount to 13 horsepower, it is no wonder that both of the models’ top speed was only 53 mph, and even that depended very much on wind conditions.

Drivetrain Specifications for the BMW Isetta 300

Type 248 CC Single-Cylinder 4-Stroke 298 CC Single-Cylinder 4-Stroke
Output 12 HP @ 5,800 RPM 13 HP @ 5,200 RPM
Torque 10 LB-FT @ 4,50 RPM 13.6 LB-FT @ 4,600 RPM
Top Speed 53 MPH 53 MPH
Transmission 4-Speed Manual (with reverse) 4-Speed Manual (with reverse)


1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
- image 643704

One of its biggest advantages, the BMW Isetta first had a starting price of 2,550 Deutsch Marks, so considering that a German worker at the time earned around DM 360 per month, he would have needed just a little over half a year’s salary to buy himself a BMW bubble car. Not exactly cheap for what was essentially a scooter with a roof, but much cheaper than most other German cars at the time.


Fiat 500 Nuova

1957 Fiat 500
- image 82709

Although the Isetta spawned an entire wave of European bubble cars in the 1950s, the BMW model’s only true competitor became the Fiat 500 Nuova, which was built as a replacement of the original 500 Topolino from pre-war times. Built on a slightly larger frame and offering seats for four passengers, the 500 Nuova was also using a rear engine configuration and offered a similar amount of power as the Isetta.

Its overall look was a bit more mainstream though, despite using equally quirky suicide doors, and over the years Fiat offered an entire lineup based on the little city car, including the "Giardiniera" station wagon variant. The 500 Nuova was so successful, in fact, that almost four million of its various versions were manufactured between 1957 and all the way to 1975, creating an aura of city car expert for the Italian car maker.


1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta
- image 643706

While not exactly in line with BMW’s credentials as a premium car manufacturer nowadays, the Isetta is still a very important part of the Bavarian carmaker’s history. Despite not offering any luxury features or "driving pleasure," the tiny city car that could is a very good example that success can come from the most unexpected places. Sure, it wasn’t single-handedly responsible for BMW’s resurgence in the late 1950s, but it did play a large part, especially since it was the best sold BMW model at the time.

Some of its rather clever packaging solutions have since been used by many city car manufacturers, with the smart fortwo being the latest example of a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive vehicle for two, which can be parked nose-first when the situation requires it. Its most evident quality might be that it was arguably the most successful microcar until the Fiat 500 Nuova and the original Mini destroyed its niche by offering something slightly larger and with more car-like features.

  • Leave it
    • Awful safety credentials
    • Poor performance
Alex Oagana
Alex Oagana
About the author

Related Articles

This Lego BMW Isetta Could Be the Cutest Set Ever

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder:
  • BMW Isetta