The perfect car for those wanting a quirky classic with investment potential, says CHRIS RANDALL
Just getting in is something of an event as you unlatch the big front door and watch the steering column swivel out of the way so you can squeeze onto the tiny bench seat. Once in there, is a surprising amount of room, even for tall drivers, and visibility is as excellent as you’d expect. The BMW engine buzzes into life with a turn of the dinky ignition key, and with first gear easy to find with the handily-placed lever it’s time to experience the full force of that 13bhp. And the Isetta proves to be surprisingly nippy off the line.
You won’t set any speed records – with just three wheels it isn’t tempting to try – but it is easy to keep up with the flow of traffic. The short gearing makes the most of the available power.
The steering is light and accurate too, and any fears of instability are soon dispelled after a few miles behind the wheel. Interestingly, left-hand drive models are considered better in this respect as the weight of the driver balances that of the engine which is mounted on the off-side.
POPULAR BMW ISETTA IN 1956
Top speed 59mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
The first thing to check for on any Isetta is corrosion. The dreaded tin worm can attack the wings and wheel arches, as well as the large front door. Repair panels are available but fitting them can be a fiddly job, despite the general simplicity of the car. Check the door hinges for wear and also the condition of the glass and its rubbers. A new front screen is around £260 from specialists, but refitting the sliding side windows can be a tricky task. Lastly, check the condition of the folding sunroof as this can crack and leak with age. Ensure it moves smoothly on its runners – it acts as the escape hatch should the front door be blocked so you’ll want to be sure it is working.
Engines were 250cc or 300cc, the latter BMW R27 motorcycle unit being the most common. The iron block/aluminium head unit is generally robust but there are a few things to watch for here. Cooling is by a fan driven by the Dynastart unit so make sure this is working and that the metal shroud around the engine is in place – overheating can occur if it is missing. That overheating can also lead to an inherent problem with these engines which is breakage of the two-piece valves which will ruin an engine. One-piece items are sensible upgrades.
The gearbox is a four-speed plus reverse unit and is generally reliable. Any difficulty in selecting gears can be due to perished rubber grommets in the linkage and these are cheap and easy to replace, so worth checking here first before assuming the worst. Drive to the single rear wheel is via a shaft from the gearbox and a duplex chain, and as long as the chain case oil levels are maintained shouldn’t give problems. A replacement chain is fairly cheap as are the rubber drive couplings which perish and break-up over time – a vibration at speed indicates these are in need of renewal.
The rest of the running gear is straightforward and trouble-free with regular maintenance. Replacing worn bushes or joints in the steering linkages is fairly cheap and straightforward, though it is worth checking for movement in the column itself as the support bush can wear. The drum brakes or suspension shouldn’t give problems though the cost of a thorough overhaul will soon add-up, so factor this in to the asking price if work is required. A conscientious previous owner should have kept on top of the regular greasing of items such as the kingpins and steering shaft so it is worth checking for signs of fresh grease.
There is little to go wrong with the interior, so just check the overall condition. Ensure that the rubber cover over the battery is in place as this is mounted below the seat and a nasty shock will ensue if the seat springs make contact!
If you’re after a classic car, and have a burning desire to buy something a bit different, then the Isetta bubble car will almost certainly fit the bill. Small, light and economical, this tiny BMW could have been made for today’s crowded roads and you’ll be guaranteed to draw a crowd when you park.
The Isetta is mechanically simple and easy to look after; it consists of a lightweight steel body mated to a single-cylinder motorbike-derived engine. Over 160,000 examples were made in its 10-year production run and there are still plenty available today; they have a dedicated following too. Owning a bubble car really is a fun way to scratch that classic car itch without breaking the bank and there are fans all over the world as well as great club support.
The Isetta is a tiny car with a huge personality and that more than makes up for any performance or handling deficiencies. Buy carefully and it could well be the most fun you’ve had behind the wheel for many a year.
Simplicity and ease of use are real pluses in the Isetta’s favour and the fun-factor is a bonus too. Despite the tiny dimensions you do need to buy carefully as the restoration costs will soon mount if you land yourself with a neglected example. Mechanical work is fairly straightforward so finding a rot-free example is the key.