I Didn’t Mean to Buy a BMW Isetta

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I didn’t mean to buy a BMW Isetta.

After all, I like cars for two main reasons: speed and beauty. The Isetta has neither of those two things.

1958 BMW Isetta
1958 BMW Isetta

It has no speed because the Isetta has a one cylinder engine that pumps out a whopping 13 horsepower. On a good day, with a tail wind, you might hit 50 mph.

It has no beauty because, well, it’s doesn’t. Oh sure, I’ll hear the word “cute” a lot. “Funny looking” will be close behind. As I climb in the single door that is the front of the bubble-shaped body, the words “odd” and “downright ugly” will be uttered after I hopefully can’t hear.

So why did I buy an Isetta? Because I had to.

Mr. Hodgens and the Isetta at Canoga Park High School
Mr. Hodgens and the Isetta at Canoga Park High School

It all started at Canoga Park High School back in the early 1970s. Our principal, Hugh Hodgens owned an Isetta. He’d bring it to football games on Friday nights. Every time our team would score a touchdown, he’d pop a cheerleader out the sunroof and drive around the track.

Ever since then I’ve had a fascination for the tiny cars. I remember regularly seeing one parked close to Highway 101 near Anderson’s Pea Soup in Buellton, California (just north of Santa Barbara). As I’d drive back and forth to college I’d ponder how it would be fun to own an Isetta.

Funny looking 1958 BMW Isetta
Yes, the Isetta is Officially Funny Looking

Fortunately, it was not an obsession. My automotive tastes are a lot more mainstream. Mustangs and Corvettes are more my style. The smallest car I owned was a 1959 Bugeye Sprite. But while it was small, it was sporty and a lot of fun.

Over the past five years I’ve seen the Isettas become a popular fixture at the Barrett Jackson auctions. There’s always one or two and they bring impressive money. Apparently cute sells.

Of course, not even that was enough to make me want to buy one.

1958 BMW Isetta 300
The Isetta has a 1-cylinder Motor with less than 300 cc

Until I found it. “It” was a 1958 Isetta sitting just outside of Sacramento. It was restored about six years ago and has less than 100 miles on the odometer since the work was done. Nicely finished with red paint and a red and white interior, the frame was in great shape and the engine started right up.

But that’s not what made this Isetta special. It was special because of its owner: Hugh Hodgens. That’s right, the principal. It was the same car I’d seen him drive around the track at football games.

1958 BMW Isetta Front Door
Mr. Hodgens Shows How the Isetta Door Opens

The path to my purchase started one day when an email was forwarded to me from a family friend who used to work at the high school. I happened to notice that Mr. Hodgen’s (I can’t call him anything else) email was included. Having plenty of happy high school memories (after all, that’s where I met my wife), I decided to send him a message, and mentioned that I had a fondness for Isettas. His return message included the nugget that he still owned the car. My next email concluded with one of those brash statements, “If you ever decide to sell the Isetta, let me know.”

Turns out that Mr. Hodgens, after owning the car for 46 years, was ready to sell. It was always a novelty, but also a part of his family. Still, it had reached the point that he wasn’t using the Isetta much. It was garaged at some property he owned near Sacramento. My offer came at just the right moment. More importantly, it wasn’t from a stranger. It was from a member of the Canoga Park High School family.

Mr. Hugh Hodgens and the Isetta
Mr. Hodgens and the Isetta

Suffice to say that one thing led to another and before long we had a deal. Mr. Hodgen’s son brought the car down to Los Angeles where I picked it up and trailered it back to Phoenix.

So now I own an Isetta.

What am I going to do with it? Well, it’s hardly transportation, at least not the way we think of it today. Back in the 50s, it was designed to be a step up from a motor scooter, if not quite a full car. It’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy, but it’s also a rolling death trap. I pity anyone who was hit in one of these back in its day. And then there’s the speed, or lack of it.

BMW Isetta Speedometer
Notice the Red Zone at 50 mph!

My wife and I will putter around the neighborhood. We’ll take it to church, although I’m a little worried about driving it to the grocery store. I’m not concerned about someone trying to steal it (first they’d have to figure out the backwards shift pattern), rather some pranksters might try to pick it up and move it for fun (just like kids did back in its high school days). We’ll definitely hit some car shows where we stand a great chance of winning the “People’s Choice” award.

One thing we will do is make people smile. The few times I’ve driven it, people stop and point. They wave and tell their kids to come take a look. They desperately try to whip out their camera phone and take a picture.

1958 BMW Isetta Interior
Plenty of Room for Two in the Isetta

Maybe that will be the legacy of this car. It made me smile in high school, and now I get to pass those smiles on to a new generation. How many cars can make that claim?

And that’s why I had to buy it.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Nicely done Rick. I was pleased when you said you had bought it. I thought it was perfect. I don’t know a bigger “car nut” than you! See you at the next reunion!

  2. Nice article, Rick. Many years ago, a customer brought two Isettas to my foreign car repair shop in Ann Arbor. Neither one ran, and he asked me to put them together to get one running. He really wanted to get one running because his driveway was six feet long, and the car fit. I did it just to see what it was like to drive one. Considering how unstable they are at 45 mph, I’m not sure it was worth it.

    But the following story made it all worth while. When I got the car finished, I took it out for a test ride. I came back laughing, and told my business partner he had to drive it. Well, the battery is right under the driver. He weighed just enough more than I that the seat spring dead shorted across the battery, which then got hot enough to catch the seat padding on fire. Dave’s pants got distinctly hot before the seat melted through. I had to unbolt the seat as quickly as I could, which by then had a large hole in it. Fortunately, the other Isetta had a good seat, so I just switched them. This time, I insulated the battery.

    Somewhere in my files, I have a piece of paper with a cut-and-fold Isetta . It makes a 3-D model about 4″ or so for your desk. If I can find it, would you like a copy, and how can I get it to you?

    Steve

  3. About, 1963, a friend of mine, Brian Orsetti’s dad, had puirchased 3 of these at an auction house..except, these had a 600 CC motor, with ‘fold back’ top, and us, being ‘teenagers’, with “lotsa hormones’, and little sense, drove one from Vancouver BC Canada, to Barkerville ‘Ghost town”..about 300 miles, and then on the way back, one of the rubber CVC joints..broke, and because those CVCs were so primitive, they only had the bolts mounted in the rubber ring..at different angles for the ‘exit’ drive, and the axle, so ..basically, we were in Limbo! I remember coming through the mountain passes, on the way up, while my buddy Brian Orsetti drove, and I stood on the passenger seat, and put my elbows on the top of the fold back convertible roof, and life was great..at 55MPH! A ‘mechanic’ at a ‘service spot’ tried to make a replacement using ‘belting’ from his shop, but after 100 miles we were done, and finally brought it home to the coast, on a truck his dad had in storage a 1947 Merc 3/4 ton pu, that we had already loaded with lumber, and had to tow through the Fraser Canyon, with a similar ’47 tow tuck, a one ton..so the Isetta, was atop, a 1947 3/4 ton PU, filled with lumber to the top of the pu box,and the Isetta, was on top of that!! We made it home, and only then figured out that his dad could have sent us another CVC off of one of the others there!!
    One of my many stories
    from my past!
    Cheers
    Syd

  4. I’m a 74′ graduate from Canoga and I too remember Mr. Hodgens cruising it at football games. It is nice to know that to you – it’s not just another car but a memory of times spent less hectic.

    • I am a 1975 graduate of Canoga Park HS. What great memories. Mr. Hodges and the Isetta are both gems. So happy to have read this story. Thank you for posting.

  5. That story about the springs on the seat frame shorting out the battery, is a fairly common one and explains why original seats are quite scarce. this happened more than you would guess and still happens today to restored cars if the battery cover or an insulator is not installed.
    The 600cc Isetta is not really an Isetta at all, despite the fact that it shared the unusual front entry door. It was called the BMW 600, and it had a single back door to access the rear seat.
    Chas

  6. I just came across your story and I remember the car from almost all of the football games in 1972. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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