Car of the Week: 1957 BMW Isetta cabriolet

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By Brian Earnest

Randy McMillen is a sucker for unique “fixer-upper” cars, and his wonderful 1957 BMW Isetta Cabriolet filled the bill on all fronts.

The quirky little German-engineered three-wheelers stands out in pretty much any crowd these days, and McMillen knew his ’57 had more potential than most. All it needed was some patience and TLC.

“I’ve been told only about two percent of the Isettas that came into the United States were cabriolets,” noted McMillen, a microcar buff and collector from Mansfield, Ohio. “This one had sat for about 20 years. I bought it from a used car lot and the only reason I know some history on it is by going through the archives at BMW in Germany. I know the date it was manufactured and shipped to the U.S. It came to New York and all we know is there is a 1966 safety inspection sticker in the corner of windshield. That’s not a lot of information … We know it was in New York for at least 10 years.”

“I had been watching around on the Internet and this showed up on eBay. An old retired school teacher in Plant City, Fla., had it sitting in the back of his garage. That was in December of 2012… and I bought it and had it shipped up here.”

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Regardless of who had owned it or where it had been, McMillen figured the Cabriolet was right up his alley. He had already been bitten by the microcar bug years earlier, and he knew this one was a great specimen that deserved to be restored. “It had never been taken apart. I was the first one to take it apart and that’s the way I like ’em. It had all the original hardware. It was probably a 95 percent complete car. It’s the rarer model and also had a heater, which was optional, and it also has the optional vent in front door, which they call the ‘tropical’ door.”

McMillen has already restored on Isetta previously — a 1959 that he said was in far worse shape than the ’57 Cabriolet that came later. The ’59 had been cobbled together with a bar stool for a front seat and had a lot of missing parts, but it gave McMillen a chance to take an Isetta completely apart and learn how they operate. He put that experience to good use with his Cabriolet. The car has already received its First Junior Award at the AACA National Meet in Auburn and was scheduled to compete for its Senior Award July 18 in Louisville.

Having the cars judged and bringing home trophies and plaques isn’t McMillen’s primary goal when he restores his cars — in addition to several other microcars he’s also redone two pre-war Plymouth pickups — but it does dovetail nicely with his desire to restore his cars as near perfectly as he can.

“To me, that all adds to the credentials,” he says. “I like the originality. I like the AACA judging and getting it back to the way it was originally. That’s what’s fun for me. Restoration means different things to a lot of people. To me, restoration means everything has to be as good or better than brand new. That means everything has to come apart. That’s why I take a lot of time.”

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BMW’s microcars have always attracted plenty of attention, but when they were new and now among collectors and fans of specialty models. The Isettas became official BMWs from the company factory, but they weren’t German originally. Neither the concept nor the end product had its origins at BMW. The Isetta’s predecessor had been developed by the Iso Works in Italy, from which BMW  purchased the production rights. Designed by Renzo Rivolta (who was later responsible for the larger Iso Rivolta), the minicar had sold poorly in Italy, but caught on in Germany. As fate would have it, the Isetta happened to arrive at an opportune moment – in the midst of a boom in trendy little cars.

For German production, the original two-cylinder, two-stroke engine was replaced by a 247cc single-cylinder unit, derived from BMW’s motorcycle engine.

The Isetta debuted at the 1955 Frankfurt Show, along with the huge BMW 505 Pullman limousine (which never went into production).

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Nicknamed the “rolling egg,” the Isetta saw extensive use in the German postal service during the 1950s and found an enthusiastic following later among American car hobbyists.

The entire drivetrain fit between and ahead of the car’s narrowly spaced back wheels. Some expert models had one back wheel and high front impact bars aimed at countries that taxed three-wheelers at a lower rate. Early models used friction-type shock absorbers, while later examples had hydraulic units.

Through the Iso and original Isetta 250 looked very similar, they were different cars and parts were no interchangeable parts. The Isetta’s steering wheel moved forward along the front-opening door, which was the only way into the car. The initial version had a wraparound rear window, folding sunroof and small triangular side windows at the front. Headlamps were mounted separately alongside the door. At the rear were separate round tail lamps and a center stoplight, with vertical bumper guards over the thin horizontal bumper. The front also had tubular guards.

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Though it was originally advertised as being able to fit three, the debut Isettas were a tight fit for two adults. In October of 1956, a different configuration debuted with two-section sliding rear windows and a more modest back-window wraparound.

Isettas began to arrive in the U.S. for the 1957 model year and were known as the 300 model. It was slightly longer than the 250 it replaced and came as a coupe, coupe with sliding rear window, and cabriolet, which had a roll-up soft top at the back of the roof. They were priced at about $1,050 and weighed a whopping 770 lbs. The 298cc engine on the 300 models shifted through a four-speed manual transmission and chain-drive. Drum brakes did the stopping and drivers could expect to get 40-45 mpg. With a tiny 3.4-gallon fuel tank, that mean Isettas could travel about 140 miles between stops at the filling station.

BMW added a four-passenger Model 600 later in 1957, but it wasn’t enough to give the Isetta much staying power. A more conventional-looking 700 model came along a year later and lasted until 1965, but the 300s made it only until 1962.

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McMillen has four Isettas in his fleet, which are accompanied by two Messerschmitts, the two Plymouth pickups and a few other oddities. He takes turns driving all of them, although the ’57 Isetta has been on the road sparingly since its restoration. When it is done being judged, however, McMillen says that will change.

“I drove it just about 200 miles since the restoration,” he says, “but hopefully once it gets its Senior Award — and maybe gets nominated for a Grand National Award — I’ll drive it a lot more. I’m not a trailer queen person. I like the have them really nice, but they are made to drive. My two Plymouth pickups are both really nice, and we drive them all the time.

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McMillen admits to being more a buyer than a seller, and has a hard time with the idea of selling off any of the cars he has spent a lot of time reviving. He says the ’57 Isetta would be particularly hard to part with. “Obviously it gets a lot of attention,” he says. “And it’s right up there for me because it’s the rarer model, and I like the unique things.

“I just love the weird, unique vehicles, I guess,” he adds with a laugh. “And microcars are very hot right now … I have four Isettas and I’m working on one right now. I just get a kick out of taking a piece of crap and trying to make it look good!”

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