Fuel economy is king these days, but the idea of a car capable of almost 100mpg isn’t a new thing. Introduced in 1953, the Isetta ‘Bubble Car’ was capable of an incredible 94mpg yet cost pennies to buy. It was, for a sort time, a revolution in motoring. The car was the brainchild of sports car maker ISO - famous for the V8-engined Grifo – so was a bit different to the company’s norm. It was considered so different that it attracted attention from across the car industry, with several manufacturers asking Iso to build it under licence. Velam in France and De Carlo in Argentina were two of them, but the biggest name to get involved was BMW, which in 1955 began making Isettas of its own, powered not by the original two-stroke engine, but by a 247cc BMW motorcycle engine that gave it surprisingly eager performance.
In the UK, most Isettas sold were three-wheelers, which made them eligible for motorcycle tax and allowed them to be driven on a provisional driving licence – a strong marketing ploy. Supplied new in Johannesburg, South Africa, it’s both a four-wheeled Isetta and a right-hand-drive one. Only a handful were ever made in that combination. There isn’t much in the way of service history with the Isetta, largely because it isn’t South African custom to retain bills and receipts in the same way that UK owners often do. There is a copy of the South African registration document and a few other minor documents, though.
All of the import duties have been paid and the car is now UK registered.
The Isetta was overhauled before it left South Africa and was repainted in its original black, to a very high standard. It looks amazing, the only minor faults being a missing badge for the new owner to source and some scuffs and marks on the original chrome hubcaps. It’s a peculiar but very charming little thing, with a side-hinged front door and a full-length fabric sunroof – though in this case full-length doesn’t mean especially long. The engine, meanwhile, is accessed via a detachable side panel. There’s no rust to be seen anywhere, and the sills and underside appear to be in excellent order.
The front door hinges away sidewards, taking the dashboard and steering column with it. The gear lever is on your right, incorporated into the car’s side panel. The handbrake is behind your right ankle. It’s in great condition inside, the tartan bench seat really setting off the black exterior nicely. The only fault is a small nick in the seat fabric on the passenger side.
The Isetta had a mechanical check-over and minor overhaul in South Africa and is in great running order, with no known faults. It started immediately after three months at sea and the vendor reports that it drives well in its own weird and wonderful way, though he does advise that it ‘takes a bit of getting used to'. Bubble Cars have a collector appeal all of their very own, and this one is bound to attract the attentions of Isetta aficionados thanks to its astonishing rarity – four-wheel Isettas are rare in the UK as it is, but to find a right-hand-drive one is a veritable needle in a haystack. It’s a fascinating and fabulous car, complete with its own dinky BMW ‘kidney grille’ for added charm. A far cry from the fast lane where you’ll find most BMWs of today, but all the more endearing for it.