Iso Isetta: small car - big impact
The Isetta is physically a small car but as an idea and a design concept it had a big impact on the automobile industry. Conceived and developed by the Italian motor scooter and motorcycle company, Iso, it was a brilliant idea whose time had come. It continues to influence the automobile industry even today, nearly 65 years after it was first introduced in November 1953 at the Turin Auto Show. The motoring press had never seen a car like the Isetta and they loved it – after they got over the shock of such an unusual looking car.
Renzo Rivolta was a genius who does not get all of the credit he deserves. After WWII he saw the need to provide low cost transportation to Italians and other Europeans. He began manufacturing motor scooters and later small displacement motorcycles. This was so successful for Iso, Rivolta was inspired to move into the automobile business and the Isetta was the first Iso automobile.
British car publication Motor wrote about the Iso Isetta on September 22, 1954: ‘The Isetta is a boldly unconventional vehicle which fulfils two main purposes. It provides transportation of a kind, which is cheaper than conventional motoring but more comfortable by far than motorcycling. The basic difference between the Isetta and any other vehicle is that the entry is from the front in the manner of the hansom cab, instead of being from the side as is nowadays usual.’
The Isetta is a ground-breaking design that was created by new engineers hired by Rivolta for the purpose. One of the characteristics that made Renzo Rivolta a genius was his ability to hire the best people for the job, and this certainly was the case for the Isetta team he hired.
These engineers had not worked in the Iso business of scooters and motorcycles, or the older Iso predecessor business – the Isothermos refrigeration business.
These new engineers were Ermenegildo Preti (an aeronautical engineer and a Professor at Milano Politecnico) and Pierluigi Raggi (also an aeronautical engineer).1
Renzo Rivolta and Ermenegildo Preti came up with this basic idea separately. Preti called it the ‘city car’, by which he meant, a car designed to be easy to use in congested cities and not for long road trips – it was perhaps the first car intended for such a purpose. Preti and Raggi supplied the brilliant details of the Iso Isetta design and function.
Ermenegildo Preti arrived for his interview with Renzo Rivolta in 1952 with a wooden mock-up model of the new city car.2 This model had the now-famous front opening door of the Isetta. Contrary to urban legend, this door had nothing to do with Iso’s previous refrigerator business – Preti had not worked in the refrigerator, motor scooter or motorcycle business, but came to Iso directly from the aeronautical industry and academia.1 His concept for the city car, which became the Isetta, was unique and he applied for patents on this design in 1950. Iso applied for further patents on some of the design ideas in 1952.2
The one door on the Iso Isetta opened from the front – like a hansom cab, as noted by some journalists at the time. This unique door allowed the Isetta to park nose-first, toward the pavement, and the door would open with the steering wheel moving out of the way, so that the occupants could step right out on to the pavement. An Isetta took up much less space parked on the street and was shorter than the width of any conventional car.
There were two rear wheels, which were very close together, eliminating the need for a differential and thus saving expense and weight. The engine used was the Iso two-stroke, single-cylinder 198 cc motorcycle engine, with the twin-piston design producing 9.5hp. This engine was placed behind the occupants, so that an engine bonnet did not obstruct the view out of the front – allowing the entire front of the car to be the door.
Iso Isetta production begins
The first Iso Isettas came off the production line in April 1953. The Isetta was certainly an unconventional car, but it won widespread approval when tested.
Torino Motori tested one of the prototypes in late 1952 and wrote: ‘It is important,’ the magazine stated, noting Iso’s approach to motoring for the masses, ‘to understand that this little car defined as “the winter scooter,” really strays far in general style from the conventional ideas about cars, and achieves a completely new and very original look. People that haven’t been able to afford a car so far due to financial limitation, now find in the Isetta a practical and economical vehicle that can comfortably seat two people on any road in any weather … It is another step toward “motorization for everybody” that is the base for social and economic welfare.’2
In 1954 Iso entered four Isettas in the gruelling Mille Miglia (the 1000-mile Italian road race). The four Isettas placed in the top four positions in the ‘Index of Performance’ category, which takes into account the car weight, engine size, horsepower, average and top speed, plus other items. All four Isettas not only finished the race, they also beat all the others in the category, including Ferrari, Maserati and Porsche.
Even though the Isetta was a desirable car, Iso had difficulty with sales volume. Some journalists say this is because it did not suit the ‘style’ of Italians, and maybe because Iso did not have a great dealer and sales system set up. A contributor to slow sales could also have been competition in Italy from Fiat with the 600 and Topolino models. If Iso could not be successful in their home market, then they would certainly struggle outside of Italy.
This lack of sales led to Iso licensing the design to several companies, including BMW – which sold more than 160,000 Isettas while Iso sold maybe 1,5002 on their own. BMW replaced the Iso engine with a BMW motorcycle engine, which provided more power and reliability: plus, the economics favoured BMW in using their own engine.
The BMW marketing power, combined with the genius of the Isetta design, resulted in a great financial success for both Iso and BMW. This arrangement was successful enough to save both BMW and Iso from financial failure. In the case of Iso, this was a temporary save, but for BMW it allowed them to transform themselves into one of the most important automobile companies in the world.
Motor concluded in their September 22, 1954 article about the Isetta: ‘Boldly and cleverly unorthodox, simple but by no means crude, diminutive but quite good looking, the Isetta may well prove to be pioneering a development as important as that of the motor scooter … Very obviously, congestion in towns would be eased if a substantial number of orthodox cars could be replaced by vehicles as compact as this, and it may be noted that … the Isetta may often be nosed straight into the sidewalk allowing the passengers to step straight out of the front door onto the pavement.’
The city car was a new concept in 1952 and the Isetta demonstrated to the world what a car specifically designed to navigate cities could be. It was economical, small and convenient to drive and park. It started with the idea of two or three passengers riding in enclosed comfort instead of on an open motor scooter.
The Isetta is a milestone car. How many car designers were inspired by the Isetta as an example of what could be done with new, original thinking? Renzo Rivolta and Ermenegildo Preti, both brilliant men, made a significant contribution to the automotive world that is still being felt today.
by Mike Gulett
We have republished this blog with kind permission of MyCarQuest ( http://mycarquest.com/2018/01/iso-isetta-big-little-car.html ) as it may be of special interest to readers of our first Exceptional Cars title - the Iso Bizzarrini.