Renzo Rivolta was Italian born engineer, the son of a wealthy lumber trader. Renzo decided to move away from the lumber business and move into something that quenched his passion for motorcycle, car and boat racing. In 1939 Renzo Rivolta bought in to a small company based in Genoa, at the time company Isothermos produced fridges and heaters. Renzo believed they could diversify and move in to the Automotive arena although it was sometime before Renzo achieved his ambition.
In 1948 after the end of World War II Isothermos began to build motorcycles, scooters and three-wheeled transport scooters. By the turn of 1950 Renzo has decided the main focus of the company should be to build a small car for mass distribution. To succeed in this quest he recruited two super brains of engineering and styling, Ermenegildo Preti (engineer) and Pierluigi Raggi (designer). Between them the Isetta would begin to take shape.
Interestingly Preti had already applied and received patent on a design for such a car in 1950, an egg shaped vehicle with the door at the front and the engine at the rear. His work with Raggi and support of Rivolta led to the first working prototype of the Isetta in 1952. By the summer of 1952 Rivolta applied for a patent on the design and the Isetta was officially born.
Exhibited for the first time later that year at Bresso and then again in November 1953 at The Turin Motorshow the Isetta was in instant attraction, something that had never been seen before.
Small at only 2.29 m (7.5 ft) long by 1.37 m (4.5 ft) wide with an egg-shaped body, bubble-type windows and a front door that hinged outwards to allow entry. The steering wheel and instrument panel swung out with front door, making access to the single bench seat much easier. Although the car may look like a 3 wheeled vehicle, the Isetta actually had 4 wheels, with 2 at the rear to aid stability.
With a bench seat for two, a parcel shelf at the rear, spare wheel, optional heating, ventilation from the canvas sunroof and a small two stroke engine returning almost 50 miles to the gallon, the Isetta was perfectly positioned to exploit a European market where money was tight.
However this proved somewhat of a false start for the little Isetta with sales only being made in mainly Italy and Belgium. However in 1954 seven Isetta’s were entered into the Mille Miglia (a 1000 mile open-road endurance race). Five of the Isettas finished the course with the lead car maintaining an average speed of 45 mph. To cap it all they also finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the Economy classification. BMW scouts had seen the little Isetta at the 1954 Geneva and Turin car shows and almost undoubtedly witnessed the impressive showing at the Mille Miglia.
BMW decided to buy the license to produce the Isetta under it’s BMW brand, replacing the small two stroke engine with a more reliable four stroke 247cc engine. With BMW now producing the little Isetta, other licenses flooded out to Spain, France, Great Britain, Belgium and even Brazil. The Isetta had truly made it’s mark.
The Isetta’s reign as “the small car” continued until production ceased in 1962 when other similar sized cars became available to meet a more prosperous marketplace.
Today the Isetta is as much of a head turner now as it was then, loveable in design, quirky and very very collectable. Given the global economy at the moment I wonder if a car such as the Isetta could make a come back? Lets face it, with modern engine technology, even electric motors, roads as busy as they are, fuel prices constantly soaring, are we not truly in the right market for a small economical car that turns heads and looks amazing…I think we maybe.
Bring back the Isetta it could just save the day…and brighten up our roads!