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Saturday, February 07, 2015

Second vehicle - 1958 BMW Isetta 300

I received my driver's license at the tender age of 14 after taking a summer driver's education class. That same summer, I bought my very first car for $600.  At the time I was earning money throwing newspapers onto people's doorsteps.

The vehicle that I was really was interested in was a 1968 Toyota FJ40 Landcruiser, and the 'For Sale' sign indicated that the Toyota owner also wanted $600.  The darn Toyota owner would never answer his phone, and this was in the era before answering machines.  The car I bought instead was a 1958 BMW Isetta.  It was insanely small, cute and nerdy.  It also seldom ran.

This car had a sunroof that was covered by a canvas flap.  The car stunk of treated canvas, not unlike a military tent.  To open the door, you twisted the handle.  To latch the door, you twisted it back, like latching the door on a cheap metal cabinet - there was no spring-return.  The steering wheel was mounted to the dash structure in a collar, and the entire steering column swung out with the door by pivoting on a universal joint.  The gear shift was on the LEFT side of the driver, sticking out of the side panel.  I think the shift pattern was backwards too - first gear was forward and right.

Let me cut to the chase.  This car was an utter piece of crap.  The engine was a low-compression 300cc air-cooled single cylinder, which is barely enough to propel a man on a small motorbike.  It's certainly not enough engine to push something with much more weight and frontal area down the road.  I once tried to find out the top speed of the Isetta, and got it up to about 50 mph before weird burning odors started wafting up out of the engine compartment.

Below, driver's view from the Isetta.  You've gotta love that windshield defroster nozzle!  Notice the lack of a fuel gauge.  The Isetta has a normal/reserve fuel selector on the ledge behind the seat.  It isn't labeled which is normal and which is reserve, so it's wise to keep the tank pretty full.

Just behind the top middle of the seat you can see the un-labeled fuel selector.  Is selected to normal or reserve?  It's a mystery until you run out of fuel!

The headlights on the Isetta (no matter how many times I tightened them) liked to get loose and twist straight up whenever they were bumped.  They were bumped every single time a passenger got in the car with me.  They also worked their way upward as the car drove over bumps.

I mentioned that the car almost never ran.  The reason for this was mostly due to the Bing carburetor, for which parts were difficult to find, and for which tuning was next to impossible.  The final fix was to install a carburetor that came from a scrapped Yamaha motorcycle.  In this way I was able to get the Isetta running long enough to sell.  That was one of the happier days of my teenage years.

For some reason everyone thinks these cars have three wheels, and maybe some do.  Mine did not.  It had four wheels, although the rear pair were pretty close together.  They were driven on a solid axle by a chain in an oil bath.  The close spacing of the wheels eliminated the need for a rear differential, because the rear tires would not rotate at much different speeds while turning.

Cary Grant actually owned one of these things.  I wonder how long he kept it?  Days?

The Isetta experience forever tainted my opinion of BMW.  I always laugh when I see how BMW marketing has created a "discriminating driver" sports/luxury machine (lease) niche.  I think I will pass on those...

 I absolutely adore the look of the 3.0 CSI, but it's unlikely I will ever own another BMW.

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