The BMW Isetta is a German legend. Along with the VW Bug and the Goggomobil, the car stood out on the streets of mid-1950s West Germany. Nowadays only a handful of Isettas putter along Germany's roads -- unfortunately.
The pride of Bavaria in 1956
At 16, Sven Höttges discovered his mint-green Isetta in a junkyard. It was love at first sight.
"I scraped together my school money and bought the thing," Höttges recalled. "We loaded it onto a coal truck and transported it home. I restored it there, much to the chagrin of my neighbors. That took two years."
An Isetta is three meters (10 feet) long, 1.4 meters wide and 1.3 meter tall. Thus, it can be a pretty tight squeeze inside. But that has advantages, too; the narrow settee allowed people to quickly get to know each other better, remarked BMW historian Manfred Grunert.
The Isetta cost only 2,550 deutsche marks (€1,300, $1,720) at the time and was thus an introduction to car ownership.
"It was a roof on four wheels," said Grunert, a car for young people. "And in the early years, getting closer to the opposite sex really was an issue." And the Isetta was soon dubbed the Knutschkugel or "smooch ball."
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In the 1950s, West Germany awoke from its postwar lethargy. The economy flourished and the future looked bright. But business wasn't going well for Bavaria's BMW.
"In effect, we didn't have any production facilities in Munich. Our plants were in Eisenach, in the Soviet Zone, and had been largely dismantled. That is, we had to start production again from nothing and we also needed personnel," said Grunert.
The lack of production facilities was only one of the problems. BMW wasn't particularly successful in developing new models. The BMW 501, the so-called baroque angel, didn't sell as well as expected. And the company was practically broke. A car like the Goggomobil, the big seller from the town of Dingolfing, was what BMW needed.
The four-door Isetta allowed a tad more room.
But it would have taken too long to develop a similar sedan from scratch. Instead, the Bavarians bought the license for the Isetta from the Italian refrigerator and car manufacturer ISO.
"In this phase, the liquid capital wasn't especially plentiful. And what could be more obvious than licensed production?" said Grunert.
In contrast to the original Italian Isetta, however, the Bavarian sister developed into a money-maker and a cult object thanks to its robust four cycle engine. Even today the car has ardent fans, like Sven Höttges.
"That's one of the last things I would part with. It was also one of the first things I bought and still own," Höttges said. "The Isetta is simply a part of me."