The Isetta was incubated in the post-war economy of Europe. After the World War II, many people did not have the money to afford large automobiles and instead moved about on scooters and motorcycles. Renzo Rivolta, who made Iso S.p.A. refrigeradors in Milan, Italy, entered the market at this time with a line of scooters, motorcycles, and three wheeled trucks. After some success with these vehicles, he decided to move into the automobile business.
Designed and developed during 1952-1953, Iso presented the first Isetta (literally, little Iso) at the 1953 Turin Motor Show. Looking like the result of a high speed collision between a refrigerator, a scooter, and an ovulating chicken, the Isetta was only 4.5 ft wide and 7.5 ft long. The car had a single door at the front, rear wheels that were only 19 inches apart, and gas mileage of over 50 miles per gallon. The two-cylinder twingle, two-stroke, 236 cc engine allowed a top speed of 45 mph and could propell the Isetta to 30 mph in 36 seconds. Iso began production in Italy and in Belgium for domestic sales and limited export.
Iso entered seven Isettas into the storied Mille Miglia (1,000 mile) race of 1954. Five of the Isettas finished the course with the lead car maintaining an average speed of 45 mph. BMW scouts had seen the little Isetta at the 1954 Geneva and Turin car shows and almost undoubtedly witnessed the impressive showing of the little car at the Mille Miglia. At the time, BMW was producing the 502 and the 507: Cars that few Germans could afford to buy in the post-war economy. Therefore, the company was on the lookout for an inexpensive economy car, and the Isetta fit the bill. Iso licensed the car to BMW in October 1954.
Iso also licensed the car to Isetta Automobiles of Brazil. The cars manufactured there for five years beginning in 1956 were christened Romi-Isettas. These Brazilian Isettas kept the Iso design and used Iso engines until 1958, when they switched to the BMW 300 cc engines. In addition, Iso licensed the car to VELAM in France in 1953 or 1954. This french version had a completely redesigned, more bubbly body and used the original Iso motor. The front door opened by pushing a button and the speedometer was in the center of the steering wheeel. The Isetta was also built by Iso in Spain and Belgium.
BMW made the Isetta its own. They redesigned the powerplant around a more reliable BMW one-cylinder, four-stroke, 247 cc motorcycle engine with 13 hp. Although the major elements of the Italian design remained intact, BMW re-engineered much of the car, so much so that none of the parts between a BMW Isetta Moto Coupe and an Iso Isetta interchange. The first BMW Isetta appeared in April 1955. BMW introduced the restyled Isetta Moto Coupe DeLuxe (sliding-window Isetta) in October 1956 with the larger 298 cc motor for export. Over a hundred thousand of the the little cars sold in Germany. Legend has it that BMW would not be here today if not for the success of the little Isetta.
Under license from BMW, Isetta of Great Britain also began producing cars (the sliding-window variety) at Brighton in 1957 with selected British parts. The Isetta was initially not popular in Great Britain until a three-wheeled version was introduced. The three-wheeled version was taxed at a much lower rate than the four-wheeled version. Isetta of Great Britain continued to produce four-wheeled Isettas, but only for export to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. BMW began exporting Isettas to the United States in 1957. However, the car did not sell well among large Chevys and Fords. Overall, the Isetta was successful enough to encourage BMW to produce the 600, which shared the Isettas front door and a motorcycle engine (two cylinders, 600 cc) and the more car-like 700 (also powered by a motorcycle engine).
Due to competition from faster and more car-like mini-cars (specifically the BMC Mini), BMW stopped production of the Isetta in 1962. Isetta of Great Britain also stopped production of the little cars but continued to produce Isetta engines until 1964. Romi-Isetta in Brazil continued to manufacture the original Italian Isetta until 1959 and produced spare parts until 1961. VELAM went out of business in 1958, not able to compete with the Citroen 2CVs.
Thanks to BMW, the Isetta was the most successful of the bubble cars. BMW built 136,367 Isettas. Isetta of Britain produced about 30,000 cars. Romi-Isetta manufactured about 3,000 of which an estimated 200 remain. Velam produced about 5,000 cars. Iso itself only made about 1,000 Isettas. Of the cars made by BMW, about 8,500 were exported to the United States of which it is estimated 1,000 still survive.
Note: Research on this car has been problematic. Different articles offer different dates and oftentimes contradicting information. For example, one states that Isettas were not produced in Belgium. Another says they were. One says Romi-Isettas were produced until 1961, another states Romi produced them for a few years after BMW stopped production. If you have any information or any problems with the above writeup, please contact me via email.
the original... the Italian Iso Isetta!
Iso Isetta in the Mille Miglia
the German BMW redesign: the sliding window motocoupe.
the French VELAM Isetta
the Brazilian Romi-Isetta
the British-made 3-wheeled Isetta
the BMW export model with 'nerf' bars.
nice history here
history of the Romi-Isetta
la web de los microcoches
the Rivolta Group the parent company of Iso
the autoette (prehistoric isetta?)
the unix nerd's history of bmw