Isetta: The iconic bubble car that is considered the world’s first microcar, 1950s


The Isetta was a microcar originally designed in Italy in the early 1950s. Initially, some people called it a vehicle which looked like a collision between a refrigerator and a scooter.

Initially produced by the Italian firm Iso SpA, the name Isetta is the Italian diminutive form of Iso, meaning "little Iso".

After World War II, demand for smaller, cheaper cars in the European market prompted engineer and businessman Renzo Rivolta to create one.

At the time, he was the owner of Iso Autoveicoli, the country's third largest two-wheeler maker, a pre-war refrigerator and other appliance maker.

These roots were best symbolized by refrigerator-like doors, a feature that became a symbol of the microcar.

Isetta caused a sensation when it was introduced to the motoring press in Turin in November 1953. It was unlike anything I had seen before.

Small (only 2.29 m (7.5 ft) tall by 1.37 m (4.5 ft) wide) and egg-shaped, with bubble-type windows, the car's entire front end hinges outwards to allow entry.

In the event of an accident, the driver and passenger had to exit through the canvas sunroof. The steering wheel and instrument panel came out with a single door, allowing easy access to a single bench seat.

The seat provided reasonable comfort for two occupants and perhaps a small child. Behind the seat was a large parcel shelf with a spare wheel under it.

Power came from a 236 cc (14.4 cu in), 7.1 kW (9.5 hp) split-single two-stroke motorcycle engine. The engine was started by a combination generator-starter known as a dynastart.

A manual gearbox provided four forward speeds and reverse. A chain drive connected the gearbox to a solid rear axle, with a pair of about 250 mm (9.8 in) rear wheels.

The first prototype had a single rear wheel, but having a single rear wheel made the car prone to roll-over, so the rear wheel layout was changed to two wheels spaced 480 mm (18.9 in) apart from each other. .

This narrow track eliminated the need for a differential. The front axle was a modified version of the Dubonnet independent front suspension.

Isetta took 30 seconds to comfortably reach 50 km/h (31 mph). Top speed was only around 75 km/h (47 mph). The fuel tank held only 13 liters (3.4 US gal; 2.9 imp gal); Isetta will be found somewhere between 5.6 l/100 km; 42 mpg.

Renzo Rivolta wanted to focus on its new ISO Rivolta sports car and was interested in making licensing deals. Plants in Spain and Belgium were already assembling Isetas and Autocaros using Italian-made ISO components.

BMW began talking with Rivolta in mid-1954 and bought not only a license, but the entire Isetta body tooling. Rivolta also negotiated licensing deals with companies in France and Brazil.

Eventually, BMW made the Isetta its own. They redesigned the powerplant around the BMW one-cylinder, four-stroke, 247 cc motorcycle engine, which generated 9 kW (12 hp).

Although key elements of the Italian design remained intact, BMW re-engineered much of the car, so much so that none of the parts are interchangeable between a BMW Isetta moto coupe and an Iso Isetta.

The first BMW Isetta appeared in April 1955. In May 1962, three years after launching the traditionally modern looking BMW 700, BMW ceased production of the Isettas. A total of 161,728 units were manufactured.

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