Car of the Week – July 07, 2007

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    1956 BMW Isetta 300 Bubble Window

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    The BMW Isetta you see displayed is a 1956 Bubble Window model. This car was located in 2003 in a barn near Boston, Massachusetts where it had sat unused for 28 years. Field mice had made their nest in the engine and nut shells were found almost everywhere inside. It is indeed fortunate the engine would not start as a fire from the rodent nest materials would have been inevitable. Like many other Isettas whose engines expired in the 20,000-30,000 mile range, it had approximately 24,000 miles on its odometer when it ceased to run and it ended up stored away in a barn.

    The car was transported to California and underwent a complete frame-off restoration in 2004-2007. New parts were obtained from as far away as England, Germany and even Uruguay. Many of the chrome parts were either missing or badly damaged by moisture. The body had dents and damage on practically every panel. The car had a nail driven into the transmission to lock it in one gear. A complete picture documentary of the restoration is available online:

    In spite of its small 300cc power plant, the 800 pound Isetta was used in races, rallies and endurance contests. The Iso Isetta’s car show debut was at the 1953 Turin Motor Show and in 1954 it successfully competed in the 1000 mile Mille Miglia Rally. The team placed first, second and third in the Index of Performance category where both speed and economy are judged. This outstanding rally result was witnessed by BMW “scouts” who were present for the event. The little cars’ handling, the noteworthy average speed of almost 45MPH and the positive reaction of enthusiastic fans along the roadside, were probably all contributing factors that led BMW to acquire a license from Italian refrigerator manufacturer Iso and to build the cars beginning in 1955. So the roots of the Isetta, being built by BMW, are firmly connected to racing in spite of the mild-mannered appearance of the car. It is possible that the BMW Company might not have survived except for the outstanding Isetta showing in that one significant rally event and BMW’s subsequent decision to purchase the manufacturing license. The following year the cars were back to race again with added horsepower. They cut another 2 hours off their 22 hour time from the previous year, raising their average speed to almost 50MPH. This was an amazing average speed and result for a one cylinder, 300CC car with a rated top speed of only about 55MPH.

    Note: In the 1954 and 1955 Mille Miglia events approximately half of the 400-500 car fields were unable to complete the difficult course. The Mille Miglia was rated as one of the toughest, most grueling car races in the world. Among the casualties were powerful and often factory supported Austin Healeys, Ferraris, Porsches, Lancias and Maseratis. Just finishing the 1000 mile race was a major accomplishment. The Isettas ran in a 750cc class beating some Fiat 500s, 600s, a Fiat 1400 and Citroen 2CV cars that had twice the size engine. Although we think of this as a cute little Microcar with lots of personality, this was also one tough little race car!

    As a tribute to the competition Isettas of the period, the car shown has been re-built to resemble a period rally car from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Note the Minilite 8 spoke magnesium wheels, Monza quick fill gas cap, full instrument panel, wooden steering wheel, navigation instruments, Lucas-style tripod headlights with rock guards, Notek spotlights, windshield spotlight, inspection light, rear fog & reversing light, tow rope, towing eyelets, sump guard, tools and other rally gear that are period-correct for a 1950’s to 1960’s rally car. The car has been owner-customized just like a rally Isetta from that era would have been, with pin striping, chrome plating and polishing on many normally painted parts, along with many other trim features. This car is a salute and a tribute to the little rally car that saved BMW.

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