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Cute, astute - will bubble-cars return?

2014-04-07 14:02

OPEN DOOR POLICY: Dave Fall enters and leaves the BMW Isetta through its front-facing door as the steering wheel and instruments swing out of the way. Could it make a comeback? Images: SUPPLIED ('cos that's Dave on the left)


WHITE RIVER, Mpumalanga – A recent car launch based here included a stopover at Lowveld resident Dawie Wille’s eclectic motor museum – and what a treat it turned was.

There were classic cars, motorcycles and - even a small plane  - on display but for me the most attention was demanded by two rare BMW Isetta 300 bubble cars from the mid-1950’s.

Each had four wheels, rather odd because most Isettas I’ve seen had only three - two front and one rear.

VIDEO: Take five and listen to The Bubble Car song

Such was the demand for these egg-shaped little cars with bubble windows; they were initially designed and assembled in Italy but quickly gained popularity because they were so easy to drive, ultra-economical and a doddle to park.


There was also huge post-Second World War demand for family mobility that extended beyond a motorcycle and sidecar.

Little wonder, then, that a number of companies decided to produce these little marvels that everyone seemed to want, back then. From memory come Morgan, BSA, Reliant, Bond, Berkeley, Heinkel/Trojan, Messerschmitt and, of course, BMW.

BMW’s Isetta was the upmarket choice. It was originally designed and assembled in Italy in 1953 but soon gained popularity for all the reasons mentioned above.

A year later Renzo Rivolta,inventor/designer of the Isetta, entered three of his creations – largely for publicity purposes – but walked off with a trio of top awards in the Mille Miglia achieving an average speed of 70km/h over the race distance of 1600km.

Success was now his, manufacturing licences were eagerly granted to assembly plants as far afield as Brazil, Spain, France, England and BMW in Germany. The BMW plant in Munich chose to redesign the engine around its celebrated 250cc motorcycle engine and uprating other elements of the Italian design – so much so that very few parts were interchangeable.

The entire forward-facing panel of the car was the door/windscreen which, when swung open, carried with it the steering-wheel and instrument panel. In the event of a crash, every bubble car was fitted with a sunroof that doubled as the emergency exit!

Sales took off for the ‘propeller brand’ which churned out 10 000 in eight months – and you could drive a four-wheeler ‘bubble car’ just about anywhere in Europe, except in the UK*, on a  motorcycle licence.

Wille’s Isettas (see above) are the more powerful 298cc ‘300’ models that could manage 85km/h; had a dry and comfy cockpit for driver and passenger – and even a little room left over for the weeks’ shopping. Those ‘bubble’ windows were uprated by the factory in 1956 with sliding windows to make the Isetta appear more streamlined – but with the little extra power (now all of 10kW).

The motoring scribes of the day felt there was a marked increase in flexibility – especially noticeable when climbing a hill …

*The Isetta, if I remember correctly, was not that popular in the UK until a three-wheeled version was introduced. Although three-wheelers were more prone to flipping there was a financial advantage to consider: they could evade car legislation and taxation by being classed as three-wheeled motorcycles and thus could be driven on a motorcycle licence.
Read more on:    bond  |  bsa  |  mpumalanga

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