No wonder the BMW Isetta looks funny, it started life as a fridge!


Most folks who see a BMW Isetta for the first time aren’t sure whether they should be amazed or appalled.

BMW Isetta

Unlike pretty much every car of the modern era, the Isetta only has one door. And instead of being on the side of the car, it’s in the front. In fact, the entire face of the car opens up. It’s a pretty ingenious system because the steering wheel has to tilt along with the door. Of course, it’s both ingenious and scary. Built during the 50’s when cars were hardly designed for safety, the BMW Isetta had deathtrap potential written all across it’s cute little facade.

But what do you want for a car that was designed by a refrigerator company?

The Isetta design originally came from an Italian company called Iso SpA. It’s bread and butter line after the war was fridges, motor scooters and three-wheeled trucks. In the early 50’s they came up with the design for the Isetta. It’s about as minimalistic as a car can get. Not only did it have just one door, it only had a single cylinder in its tiny little engine. The Iso company built it for a while, but then wanted to spend more time on a new sports car design, so the rights to the Isetta were sold to various companies around the world. Spain, Belgium, France, Brazil, UK and Germany built the Isetta at various times. In fact, before the Isetta lost steam more than 175,000 cars had been sold. Supposedly, it’s the top-selling single cylinder car in the world.

Isetta racing at the 1954 Mille Miglia (Courtesy BMW Historical Archives)

The Isetta even has some racing history. It finished 1-2-3 its class in the 1954 Mille Miglia road race in Italy. Not sure whether it was the teeny-tiny car class, or the fridge-on-wheels class. Either way that had to be one scary ride. By the way, while it looks like the Isetta, has three wheels, it really has four. The two rear wheels are very close together. (Although a three-wheeled version was built in the UK.)

While it was built by plenty of companies, the BMW version is probably the best known. The German car maker built them from 1955 to 1962. The original BMW engine had just 247 cc and a whopping 13 horsepower. It later expanded to 298 cc and the same whopping 13 horsepower. Various stories have said that the Isetta saved BMW in the 50s. While the BMW 507 was beautiful, the Isetta was the car the people could buy.

These days, the Isetta is an oddity that folks love. Decent examples sell for $20,000 and nicely restored models have gone across the Barrett Jackson auction block for more than $40,000.

But just because they think it’s cute, doesn’t mean they’d want to drive it at freeway speeds. After all, it’s just a fridge on wheels.

Incidentally, there have been rumors floating around for the last few years that BMW was planning to revise the Isetta name, but so far nothing has happened.

Here’s a fun video about the BMW Museum that stars the Isetta.





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