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The Rolling Egg

October 1, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

Among the new releases Herpa just announced for November-December is BMW's 1-Series. This upscale hatchback is causing quite a stir in automotive circles because some see it as an expansion of an already strong brand while others view it a dilution of a premium name and reputation.

In 1954, BMW scouts saw Isettas finish 1-2-3 in their class at the Mille Miglia race in Italy. Photo courtesy of the BMW Historical Archives.

For those of us in North America, the issue is somewhat moot as BMW has no intentions of bringing the current 1-Series over here, in spite of the fact BMW's U.S. car sales could use a shot in the arm. Even with the addition of the new 6-Series, overall BMW car sales are down almost six percent for the first nine months of the year, lead by a nearly ten-percent drops in sales of the 5-Series and a sixteen-percent decline for the flagship 7-Series. In any event, citing American distaste for hatchbacks, the Bavarians have decided to wait until another body style is developed, possibly in 2007. Strange that neither Audi nor Mercedes seem to be as worried; the Audi A3 Sportback, which has the same 5-door layout as the 1-Series, will hit showrooms next spring and the new B-Series Mercedes, which is derived from the popular A-Class, will take its North American bow in Detroit come January and go on sale sometime next year.

What is more important is to remember the 1-Series is not BMW's first venture into small cars. In fact, the first car to wear a BMW badge was the Dixi, a licensed copy of the little Austin Seven, and postwar baby Bimmers pulled the company's fat out of the fire, not once, but twice.

Count Renzo Rivolta (left) and Ermenegildo Preti created the Isetta, but Iso was more successful at licensing production than at actually building them. Photos courtesy of The Isomillenium Group.

In the early 1950s, Bayerische Motoren Werke was in a world of hurt. Its motorcycles were successful, but its 500-series cars, which would have looked just fine in the years leading up to World War II, were woefully out of sync with the market. Dubbed the "Baroque Angels," the cars were well-engineered but far too expensive for most Germans and of only limited interest to export markets like the United States. Sales didn't come close to meeting BMW's goals and soon the company was on very shaky financial ground. BMW needed a mass-market car that it could sell in volume, but lacked the money to develop one in-house. So the company began looking for a car it could license.

BMW found the car it needed at the 1954 Mille Miglia. It was the Isetta, a tiny Italian car powered by a motorcycle engine that beat all competitors in its class.

The Isetta was created by Iso SpA which was located just outside of Milan, Italy. Iso got its start in 1939 making refrigerators. In the post-war years, company founder Renzo Rivolta (1908-1966) recognized there were many people who could not afford an automobile, so he developed a line of scooters, motorcycles and small three-wheeled trucks that were sold under the Iso name.

The original Iso Isetta of 1954. Most of the engine was under the seat. Notice the faired-in headlights, a feature that disappeared on the BMW versions. Photo courtesy of The Isomillenium Group.

In 1952, Count Rivolta asked Ermenegildo Preti, an engineer in Iso Rivolta's technical department, to begin developing a new car. Working with Pierluigi Raggi, Preti developed a small car powered by a 236cc two-cylinder, two-stroke motorcycle engine. Actually "small" isn't the right word; "tiny" is closer to the truth. First displayed in 1953 at the Turin Motor Show, the egg-shaped Isetta (literally "little Iso") was just seven feet, six inches long, over eight inches shorter than a Smart City Coupe. The Isetta was also almost two inches narrower than the Smart.

The Isetta was too small for conventional doors, so it had a single door on the front and resembled a refrigerator on wheels. In case of a front-end collision, there was a fabric sunroof to allow the occupants to escape. The steering wheel tilted out when the door was opened for easy access to the single bench seat.

Tiny is also a good word for the Isetta's performance. The rear-mounted 12-horsepower engine needed thirty-six seconds to propel the car to thirty miles per hour. (I was tempted to say something about using an egg timer to clock the Isetta's acceleration, but didn't.) Top speed was only about forty-five. On the other hand, Isetta got better than fifty miles per gallon of gas.

Iso began building the Isetta in Italy and Belgium, but despite its great mileage, sales were as slow as the car itself.

The second-generation BMW 300 added sliding glass windows and a larger engine. The rear wheels of the Isetta were only 19 inches apart. Photo courtesy of BMW Historical Archives.

In 1954, Iso entered several Isettas in the legendary Mille Miglia. They took the top three spots in the economy classification and also captured the attention of BMW. A year later, Iso licensed the design and manufacturing rights to BMW and the real history of the Isetta began.

BMW quickly made a number of changes, including a new 247cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine, borrowed from the BMW R25 motorcycle, that made thirteen horsepower, boosted top speed to about fifty-five and didn't create the two-stroke's tell-tale cloud of blue smoke. BMW's overhaul of the Isetta was said to so thorough that none of the mechanical parts in the BMW car could be interchanged with the Iso version.

In April 1955, new BMW 250 Isetta Moto Coupe made its debut. Nineteen months later, the restyled BMW 300 Isetta Moto Coupe DeLuxe, featuring a larger 297cc engine for export, went on sale.

The happy couple in their BMW Isetta. She obviously didn't marry him for his money; the fixed side windows mark this Isetta as the base Standard model. Photo courtesy of BMW Historical Archives.

The Isetta, which Germans quickly dubbed "das rollende Ei" or "the rolling egg," proved to be a major success for BMW, with ten thousand sales the first year. Along with the Messerschmitt, Fuldamobil and others, the Isetta became one of the German "Bubble Cars" of the 1950s. Inexpensive and economical, the bubble cars were part of the micro-car boom that fueled rapid expansion of the European automobile market in the decade following the return to peacetime vehicle production after World War II. By the time production ended in 1962, 136,367 BMW Isettas had been sold, more than ten times the number of 500-series sedans sold in the same period.

Isettas were also made at the Southern Locomotive Works in Brighton, England. BMW licensed production of its models to Isetta of Great Britain, which built about 30,000 cars from 1957 to 1962. Sales got off to a slow start in the UK until a three-wheeled version was introduced to take advantage of British road tax laws. The regular four-wheeler remained in limited production for export to Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

There were other Isettas, as well. Iso licensed production to Isetta of Brazil, which produced them under the name Romi-Isetta, and to VELAM in France. Between them, the two companies built about 8,000 cars.

This image is taken from a 1959 ad for the Isetta. Not sure what they did with the kid when dad needed to actually sit in the seat to drive. The picture gives a good view of the tilt-away steering wheel that was attached to the door. The sunroof was a standard feature on all Isettas. Not only did it provide ventilation, it provided access to the car if someone parked to close to the door. Photo courtesy of BMW Historical Archives.

All told, over 170,000 Isettas were built from 1953 to 1962. Ironically, Iso, the company that created the Isetta, produced only about a thousand. It made far more money from licensing than it did from building the cars.

The rolling egg even rolled its way to the United States. After adding bumpers and sealed-beam headlights, BMW began exporting the Isetta to America in 1957 and it was one of the first foreign cars to be displayed at the Detroit Auto Show. The U.S. wasn't the best market for the Isetta, which was more suited to European city traffic than an American highway, but BMW managed to sell about 8,500 cars, of which about a thousand are said to be still with us. Even without huge sales, the Isetta attracted its share of attention. A 1958 sales brochure showed actor Cary Grant emerging from a BMW 300 and Elvis Presley, who already owned a BMW 507, bought a red Isetta as a Christmas gift for his manager, "Colonel Tom" Parker.

The Isettas were by far the most successful of the bubble cars. Many automotive authorities believe sales of the tiny cars pulled BMW back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1950s. It also served as the basis for the second baby Bimmer, the BMW 700 of 1959, which cemented the company's recovery and paved the way for BMW's rise to one of today's automotive powerhouses. The BMW 700 was based on the BMW 600, a longer, four-passenger version of the Isetta with two doors (one in the front, one on the rear seat passenger side) and a larger, two-cylinder engine. One of these days, I'll cover the 700, which is worthy of a column of its own.

Although Herpa does make a very nice model of the BMW 502, they don't make one of the Isetta. Wiking produces a model of the BMW Isetta 4-wheeler. There is also a police version that is a model of a real car. There used to be a Wiking model of the 3-wheeled British variant, but that one has been discontinued. Schuco also has an Isetta in its Piccolo line of diecast cars. As you'd expect, Oddball's has a couple of the Wiking models in the inventory.

I need to shift subjects for a moment. As I suspected would happen when they returned to the "model-a-day" formant, Herpa is already sold out of the 2004 Advent Calendar. Bruce Penner told me that, as of October 1, Promotex was still accepting reservations. If you want one, get your order in soon.

If you miss out, there's still a chance to get an Advent Calendar. Enter the 1/87 Vehicle Club's Fourth Annual Holiday Model Contest. We'll be giving away two of the calendars, one to the winner of the Holiday Model competition, the other to the best Holiday Scene. There will be other nice prizes, too. For complete contest information and rules, visit the 1/87 Vehicle Club's website.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005