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Revised March 2004
"I want to buy an Isetta. Where is the best place to find one?". "Where did you find yours?"
On the Internet. One of the suggestions on locating an Isetta is to check out independent German auto repair shops and BMW motorcycle shops. Sure enough, after conducting a search on "BMW, vintage, motorcycle", we came across the Web site of Bench Mark Works in Sturgis, Mississippi. The owner, Craig Vechorik, had lived here in Austin back when and just happened to have one of his customers' Isettas taking up much-needed shop space and was wanting to sell it.
eBay just about always has an Isetta or two for sale, not to mention scads of parts, toys and related items. You can also join the Vintage Microcar Club and receive their Bi-monthly publication, "MICROCAR NEWS". You can count on at least two or three Isettas to be up for grabs in the classified section in every issue. It's not as tough to find one as you might think. It's knowing what to look for and who to turn to for help so your level of expectation isn't bull-dozed as you get into working on it.
You might be interested in a neat home-brew video by Dave Major of Benton, Kansas, "Shopping For Your First Isetta". It runs a little over an hour and is a down-to-earth look at one person's experience. Very intertaining and informative. You can email Dave for pricing and placing your order. By the way, go back and take another look at the title of Dave's video, paying particular attention the the word 'First'. Hint, hint.
"Can you get parts for Isettas?"
You bet! We've got the receipts to prove it. There are several good parts suppliers that can provide many NOS (new-old-stock or original unused parts), reproduction and used parts. There's hardly anything you can't get. Keep in mind that there were roughly 163,000 Isettas made between 1955 and 1962. Approximately 8,000 were exported into the US. BMW Mobile Tradition, the division that deals with vintage models, has basically blessed Hans Rothkegel in Waal, Germany to provide the distribution of Isetta replacement parts. On this side of the drink, Werner Schwark at Isettas-R-Us provides many of the same parts and is in pretty constant contact with Hans. Werner has also had several parts fabricated on his own like the funky engine-to-heater hose, rubber pedal covers, laser-cut interior panels and other items. There are quite a few Isettas running around Europe which has helped grow the market for parts. The resurgence of interest in the Isetta here in the States, along with microcars in general, hasn't hurt either. Look under the Parts Suppliers section for all kinds of ways to vaporize your savings account.
Stand advised that all parts are not perfect, particularly the reproduction items. They are generally of high quality but don't think that everything you order is going to be bolt-and-boogie. Repro body panels are a good example. What you pay for the panel may be half of what it costs installed if tweaking is required. Some other items have quirks that fall into lesser detail but will require your attention to fit properly. Don't let this stop you though. Isetta parts suppliers do a great job and stand behind their products. We've never been stuck with anything. Don't hesitate to ask very specific questions about a part if you're not sure. If you have a digital camera, use it to your advantage.
"How much can I expect to invest in a complete, frame-off restoration?"
At the risk of sounding blunt, that's the old "How much does a car cost?" question. Let's enlist the services of Mr. Daniel Webster here. Danno tells us that the word 'restoration' means "The act of putting someone (gotta love that one) or something back into a prior position, place or condition". New tires, brakes, battery and an Earl Schieb paint job is not what we consider a restoration although there are those that would insist that they "restored" their Isetta by virtue of the fact that it looks better than it used to and runs again.
In our humble opinion, a total frame-off restoration is going to run in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, more than the car is worth on the open market. Your labor factors into the equation at zero. Where did we come up with the numbers you ask? Personal experience, number one. Others' experiences, number two. The $5,000 (it could be greater than that) delta represents how much bodywork your car will require, type of paint and upholstery you choose, missing parts that have to be replaced, accessories you may choose to add, etc. On our car, body and paint was by far the biggie followed by upholstery, running gear rebuild, engine and transmission, in that order. Finally, it would be fair to add that this number could easily come down if you are handy in the body/paint/ welding/upholstery/BMW vintage motorcycle engine rebuilding area(s).
"Is it street legal?"
Yes! What was legal back then is legal today. Do you want to tear up the Interstate during rush hour in your one-lung hemi? No. Our car is licensed as a Texas Antique Vehicle and, therefore, doesn't require inspection. Insurance is still mandatory along with a 2,500-miles-per-yer clause. It cannot be used for any type of advertising. If the State of Texas is actually paying someone to follow antique cars around and count miles or look for magnetic signs or pizza delivery wind socks, we're not aware of it. Sounds like our kind of job though. We went ahead and had it inspected just for the satisfaction of knowing that everything passed. Check your state's vehicle license codes for specifics where you live. We know of no state in the US or any other place on the planet that an Isetta can't be licensed and driven on a regular basis. Just let your good judgment prevail when picking your route.
"How many different models of Isettas are there?"
There were many variants of the BMW Isetta. And we won't even get into the Isettas licensed for production by Velam in France, Isetta of Great Britain, Romi in Brazil and the original Iso Italian models. Early models were of the bubble window variety. In early 1957, BMW switched over to the sliding window model which eventually became the most common of all Isettas with the biggest sales year, at least in the US, being '57.
The following is a roster of the basic variants we were able to unearth. Keep in mind that there were slight changes in body panels, trim and paint schemes over their respective production runs but the models shown below are exemplary of what was offered to the public for sale. All models are four wheelers except where noted.
Bubble Window Coupe
Bubble Window Convertible (Cabriolet)
Bubble Window Pickup
Sliding Window Coupe
Sliding Window Coupe / British Three Wheeler
Sliding Window Convertible
Sliding Window Pickup
Then, there are always the one-offs:
Isetta Medcar The Medcar car was an Isetta converted for side entrance on the passenger side to accomodate people with medical problems that made front entry difficult or impossible.
Isetta Railroad Car Granted, this is not a different model but a retrofitted European Sliding Window Coupe equipped for rail taxi service. Note the light mounted in the middle of the door. As if it isn't already weird enough, can you imagine seeing this barreling down the tracks?
Speaking of retrofitting Isettas, how about this set of skis for snow patrol duty?
Check this one out that has been set up for a handicapped driver.
Chadwick Golf Cart OK, this isn't exactly how it rolled off the assembly line. Here's the one and only Werner Schwark sitting in his Halloween-motifed ride. The Chadwick's were Isettas from the frame down with a custom cart body installed in place of the factory shell. This one was never sold as new.
In general, European models differ from their Export counterparts in the following areas:
Horizontal blade front bumpers as opposed to tubular nerf bars. US models have a front bumper mounted at the bottom of the door that is effectively the largest chrome trim piece on the car as opposed to anything that could be considered as functional.
5" Bulb-type headlights as opposed to US-mandated 7" sealed beams. Early Euro Isettas had a swooped teardrop-shaped headlight shell as opposed to the bug-eye lights in later models. For the record, those earlier, more aerodynamic shells carried over to the BMW 600.
Side marker/turn signal lights just below the window at mid-body. The Export models used a cast aluminum bullet housing on the front fenders along with the tail lights at the rear for turn signals. Those side marker lights are just one more example of how the European automakers were years ahead of Detroit in terms of safety and design. It wasn't until 1968 that the US Government dictated that cars either manufactured or imported into the States have the same configuration ... 25+ years later.
Horizontal blade rear bumper with two round running lights, louvered air intake and horizontal chrome trim housing a center brake light. Export models have a slightly wider bumper plus two vertical nerf bars that mount through the holes where the Euro lights were fitted. The Export models' rear running light pods do double duty as turn signals. On a side bar, British-built Isettas shipped into Canada also used the rear lights pods but they're mounted higher on the body, just a few inches below the back window on either side.
Euro models had a center-mounted brake light surrounded by a horizontal piece of chrome trim. In earlier models, there was no external air intake "schnoot". All Export models had that external air intake and the area where the Euro center brake light was mounted was covered by a blank plate.
Perhaps the most obvious, no-brainer difference was the right hand drive model. This also put the shifter on the 'correct' side of the driver. Euro steering wheels were two-spoke units where the Export models were three-spokers.
In earlier Euro models, BMW used their 250cc motorcycle engine, hence, the Isetta 250. All Export models were shipped with the beefier 300cc engine. With the exception of the obvious 250 (or 300) badge on the door, one could only distinguish engine displacement by looking at the forward side of the block behind the coil or having access to a production serial number list. Engines with a '40' stamped into the block were 250's. A '41' indicated the 300cc powerplant.
"My car has split rim (two piece) wheels and takes a special inner tube with a bent stem. Where do I buy new ones?"
Split rim wheels were on early-mid 1957 models, replaced by one piece tubeless wheels in late 1957 through the end of the 1962 model year. The split rim wheels use 10" tubes with a right angle bend on the valve stem which allows the stem to pass through the front side of the wheel. Coker Tire has these for you. It's their part number TR-87 and should run you around $10.00 a copy. They can also fix you up with new bias or radial ply tires. If you prefer, give 'em a buzz at (800) 251-6336. Great customer service, by the way.
"My windshield was cracked/missing when I got my car. Where can I get a new one?"
You'll want to contact Lo-Can International for that. Ring 'em up at (800) 345-9595. They carry windshields for many vintage European cars and provide excellent service. For what it's worth, the Isetta windshields are made in Spain and carry the name URO Glass. It's Lo-Can's part number FW-38-CLN. The windshield itself is around $285 but with crating charges, shipping and insurance, plan on around $350. If you order a new windshield, do not fail to insure it! If it shows up broken, one phone call takes care of the problem. Lo-Can will ship you a new one, have the damaged one picked up and deal with the robots in the Customer Non-Service and Claims Payment Retention Departments at UPS.
While you're at it, go ahead and replace that rubber seal and filler strip. Parts suppliers like Werner Schwark at Isettas-R-Us or Hans Rothkegel have them ready to go for around $50.00. You can also buy this same seal and filler strip in bulk from glass distributors like Sommer & Maca. It's usually sold in 50' rolls, enough to do at least two Isettas. Ironically, this is the same type of seal that is used on buses, tractors and heavy equipment.
"What about insurance? How much does it cost?"
Insurance is readily available for your Isetta. We got a quote from our State Farm agent with no problem although it was $100 higher than what the antique car insurers get. Don't rule your daily driver insurance company out though. If you're getting a multi-car discount and have a good track record with them, you may find them to be competitive. It sure simplifies things to stay with one insurer. Specialty automobile insurers such as JC Taylor, Grundy Worldwide, Hagerty and American Collectors provide online quotes so it's easy to compare prices, check annual premiums based on stated value, coverage, etc. Antique and street rod-type vehicles are their only business and they know it well. The variation in price is driven by the amount of coverage and the value you want placed on your car. For a stated value of $20,000 and full coverage (we shot real high on purpose), figure somewhere in the $125-$165 per year range. Rates for additional antique cars will typically be less on one policy. See the Services section for more details on insurance.
"How fast will an Isetta go?" What kind of mileage does it get?"
Loaded backwards in the pickup bed of a full size Chevy truck, we were able to get around 85 mph out of it on Interstate 20. The original factory spec on top speed was 53 mph (300cc engine). Your car will probably see 30-45 mph all day long for the rest of its life. For the record, the gas tank has a capacity of 3.4 gallons. Factory spec on fuel consumption was 62 mpg which would give you a cruising range just over 200 miles. You should be in the 55-60 mpg range if everything is dialed in. Driving downhill and tailwinds are a plus in this category.
By the way, the Isetta has only one instrument on board, the speedometer. When your engine starts sputtering, that's your queue to flip the fuel tap lever behind the seat from the passenger side to the driver's side. You now have around 30-40 miles to find a gas station. Rule of thumb: keep the tank topped-off. Also, turn that fuel lever to the twelve o'clock position and shut the fuel valve off when not driving the car. The owner's manual even suggests that you turn it to twelve o'clock as you near your final destination to drain the gas out of the line from the tank to the carb.
"My keys are missing. What do I have to do to get a new set?"
This is an easy one. First, the Isetta has three keys; ignition, door lock and engine cover. The cover key is a unique little guy, shaped like a thumb screw with a square end on it, but the same for all Isettas. Werner or Hans can supply one of these for around $10.00 plus postage. Frankly, a flat blade screwdriver will work too but may be a little funky hanging from your keychain. The ignition and door key can be made by any competent locksmith.
The key blank numbers shown below fit our car. We know of at least one other Isetta that took an entirely different set of blanks. The keys (no pun intended) to the whole deal are the codes discussed below. The rest is what you're paying the locksmith to do.
The ignition key blank for our car was Taylor Lock Company number M73N. Your locksmith will need the key code number stamped on the face of the ignition switch where you insert the key. Should read something like "SB141". The door lock key for our car was Taylor Lock Company number 62VB. The key code for the door lock can be found on the square shaft that the handles are attached to. Just take the inside nut off, slip the inside handle off and pull the assembly out from the front. Remove the external chrome bezel and you'll see the alphanumeric code on two sides of the shaft. It should be somewhat similar to the ignition key code but with the alpha part on one side, numeric part on another. An example of the combined code should look something like GC7461. Go ahead and have a spare set or two made up while you're at it. Additional keys are cheap (insurance).
"I thought Isettas had three wheels but yours has four. What's the deal?"
You're right and you're right. The three wheelers were European-issue Isettas. Most were manufactured by Isetta of Great Britain, a few by BMW Munich. Considering the fact that Europe was still in post-World War II shambles, cheap transportation was the order of the day. If you consider that fact that an Isetta is really a motorcycle (hence the referral to the Isetta 300 Motocoupe in sales brochures and manuals) with an enclosed body, British owners could a.) license their cars as a motorcycle and save a chunk of change on registration and, b.) take advantage of their motorcycle driver's licenses and stay legal driving their Isettas.
For your trivia buffs, Isettas in Switzerland had to be modified to conform to their motoring laws which spawned a "four-wheels-with-a-three-wheel-look". You won't see many of these around.
For a pictorial example of each model, Page Up a little and check out the links that show the most common Isetta variants.
"Who can rebuild my engine and what kind of price range am I looking at?"
There are several very reliable sources for rebuilding your Isetta powerplant. Keep in mind, you're looking for a vintage BMW motorcycle rebuilder or someone who specializes in Isettas. Our personal choice is Perry Bushong, owner of Perry's Motorcycles & Sidecars in Fort Worth, Texas. He is not only a motorcycle dealer but also restores vintage BMW bikes and has a great museum at his facility. He has rebuilt/restored several Isettas and knows the R/25/26/27 series engines like the back of his hand. Perry knows all the tricks involved in swapping various engine components from the R/26 and /27 variants if you were so inclined to beef your quasi-R/25 motor up too.
Werner Schwark at Isettas-R-Us in Woodstock, Georgia can either rebuild your engine or swap you for one that's ready to go.
Isetta John Wetzel in Rutherford, New Jersey can fix you up, too. He's been at it for a long time and is extremely knowledgeable on the subject. Check the Links and Services pages for contact info.
Price? Quotes we initially got for the rebuild, sight unseen, ranged from $1,200-$1,900. The higher price range included items such as new coil, mounting brackets and some other peripherals as well. Our engine had a cracked timing chain cover which had to be replaced at a cost of arond $100 for an NOS unit. The cylinder head had half a dozen cracked fins which BMW of Fort Worth repaired. Some knucklehead had chiseled the flywheel off and messed up the keyway on the rear of the crank. Luckily, it had a steel rod as opposed to an aluminum unit. Many people will tell you to convert that aluminum rod into a paperweight and replace it with a steel unit and new roller bearing. The rest of the engine was in pretty decent shape given 30,000+ miles. Perry charged $1,200 for everything right down to port-matching the intake manifold and polishing the head. That included all new gaskets, seals, bearings, spring tensioners, studs, timing chain, solvent tanking, bead blasting, painting, retiming, run-in, etc. Looked like a new unit when it came home.
Once again, refer to the Services section for more detailed information on how to contact the folks mentioned above.
"What are the key maintenance issues I need to pay particular attention to?"
Change the oil and air filter on a regular basis! BMW engines do not have an oil filter, hint, hint. Two issues play into the death of Isetta engines. Number one, these engines utilize an oil slinger to lube the rod roller bearing and upper part of the engine. The slinger is basically a round disk that is attached to the side of the crank. It has a hole on its outer edge that picks up oil at the bottom of its travel and 'slings' it upward as it rotates. There is also a groove cut around the inside perimeter of the slinger which acts as somewhat of a runway for the oil to follow up to the hole. Let that get clogged up and reduce or choke the lube supply to the rod bearing or upper half of the engine and it's party time, not one you want to go to either. If you're lucky, the motor will seize up. If you're not lucky, your crankshaft and assorted giblets will be waiting for you back in the middle of the intersection you just went through. Number two, not changing the air filter just makes the little 13 horsepower motor work that much harder and forces dust and dirt into the intake system. It all ends up in the oil pan and clogs the oil slinger and oil pump screen. Don't sacrifice a burnt offering to the gods over a $20.00 bill.
While you can get yourself into a bar room brawl on the subject, BMW of Fort Worth recommends competition motorcycle oil like Belray 20W50 and steers clear of just about all automotive brands, especially Pennzoil. BMW bike oil would be a good choice too. Talk to your rebuilder and go with the oil they recommend based on their experience. If you encounter an argument about what kind of oil to put in an Isetta, excuse yourself and go do something constructive instead.
On a newly rebuilt engine, change your oil after the first 100 and 300 miles, then again at 1,000 and again at 1,000 mile intervals. During break-in, some folks do it more often until they hit 1K miles and then adopt the 1,000 mile rule. You might consider a magnetic, 14mm drain plug to factor any small metal shavings out of the equation. Parts suppliers should be able to help you get one. Finally, make sure that you check the screen on the bottom of the oil pump from time to time and make sure it's not clogged up. It can be cleaned with solvent or replaced.
"Wasn't there a 'big Isetta'"?
Sure was. That would be the BMW 600. US sales brochures originally called it the Isetta 600 but purists refer to it only as the 600. It was sort of a double Isetta in that it added a back seat, passenger side door and a two cylinder, 600cc boxer-type engine. It broke the Isetta mold in that BMW designed the thing from the ground up instead of living with the constraints that had been put into place by Iso Rivolta, the Isetta's Italian designer, who licensed the car to be manufactured by BMW as well as others. The 600 was manufactured in 1957 and axed in 1959. It was a sales flop but the fact that comparatively few of these cars were ever built, the remaining few have quite a cult following and, yes, it still sports that wacky front door.
"How much did an Isetta cost new?". Where did you go to buy one?"
The sliding window coupe, standard model, retailed for around $1,095 while the deluxe model was another $100. What's the difference in the two models? The deluxe had all of the basic features the standard model offered but added a pair of fresh air grilles in the door with accompanying ventilation system on the interior side of the door, an ashtray and sun visors. Some folks refer to the deluxe model as the "tropical" model. There were all sorts of options you could get too. Think the new VW Beetle came up with the flower vase idea? No way. That was an Isetta option in 1957 as was a grab handle, stainless steel gravel guards, mud flaps, interior light (although we know of nobody that's ever seen one), radio, inside and outside luggage racks, wheel trim rings, headlight visors, cigarette lighter and on and on.
Dealers? Here in Austin, Texas, it was Jesse James Smith, the guy who handled all the "foreign cars" back before they were cool. He also sold European motorcycles and ran a full service department. He still had Isetta parts on his shelf as late as 1970. Many motorcycle shops sold them as well as one Schwinn dealership we've heard of. Conventional auto dealers were a more common venue for Isetta sales. We keep hearing stories about dealers that advertised new Pontiacs or Cadillacs at 'x' dollars and threw an Isetta in on the deal. FYI, a company by the name of Fadex in New York City was the US distributor and also operated a West coast facility as well.
"Why did Isettas disappear so quickly from the scene?"
As a segue to the answer, a comment you can expect to hear over and over will be "I haven't seen one of these things in forty years!". That'll be from the old-timers. The newer generation will simply refer to the Isetta as an "Urkel Car", named after the character Steve Urkel of the TV show "Family Matters", who happened to drive an Isetta in several episodes. In fact, since Urkel played an inventor in the TV series, there's gotta be a lot of youngsters running around that probably think that the "Urkel Car" is one of his inventions, no clue that it's a real car. Everyone in between those two strains of humanity will continue to drop their jaw and glaze over at the first site of your car. As a matter of fact, this might be a great place to inject the 6 Basic Isetta Reactions you will encounter. These come from the article "In Search of the Blues" by Peter Egan as published in the Brooklands book "Isetta Gold Portfolio". They are as follows:
1. Accidental eye contact 2. Classic theatrical doubletake 3. (Our personal favorite) "Isetta Paralysis" in which kids stop dribbling basketballs, jaws drop,fuel fillers overflow and the thread of street conversation is lost in mid-sentence. 4. (Second place) Involuntary reflexive pointing where the arm comes up like a spring. 5. Grinning 6. Calling to friends frantically to some see the car before it's gone.
Now to your question. Americans of the '50's, and on into the horsepower-crazed, cheap-gas '60's, had no use for a bottom-of-the-food-chain ride like the Isetta. Understandably, most people wanted a car they felt safe in and had more room. Throw in a big V-8 engine, some fins and plenty of chrome and the Isetta became lost in the rear view mirror. Who was BMW anyway? Second, as sales began to decline in the early '60's, the Isetta dealer network began to dry up and BMW didn't exactly do a stellar job of keeping a decent state-side parts inventory. They were focusing on the 1600 and soon-to-be 2002 line that put their company on the map and shaped their future. The Isetta had bailed BMW out of almost certain post-War bankruptcy but was a soon-to-be-forgotten entity. Some have gone so far to say that the Isetta is the car that BMW would like to forget although BMW had a big 40th anniversary Isetta blow out in Germany and issued a hand picked batch of memorabilia including die-cast models, limited edition artwork and embossed signs that are reproductions of some of their Isetta ads. Very nice memorabilia if you can still get your hands on any of it.
Depending on the condition of your Isetta, you will probably find all sorts of interesting work-arounds that people have improvised due to the demise of available parts and competent mechanics. Our car probably had 50-60 feet of bailing wire holding things together in the engine compartment. The speedo cable was secured to a steel tab with plaster of paris(!). A friend's car had shag carpet reinforced drive couplings. There should be some sort of a museum paying tribute to American ingenuity based strictly on Isetta quick fixes. Ask anyone who has restored one of these little guys and, guaranteed, they'll have a story for you.
"With all due respect, that thing looks like a deathtrap. And why don't you have any seat belts?"
The main reason the car looks like a death trap is because it IS a death trap. While very cleverly crafted in terms of body construction, it utilizes single skin sheet metal, weighs 770 pounds and is underpowered with only 13 horsepower. This is how you retail a car, overseas, at a profit, for $1,000. One noted feature of the sunroof is that it also serves as an escape hatch if you rear-end someone or get hit from the front.
Seat belts are a different issue. Can you name one car that had seat belts in 1957? We can't either. If a car ever needed a set of belts, it's gotta be the Isetta. Problem is, there is very little room to work with under or behind the seat. It's been done but takes some real jockeying and you'll also have to drill holes in your car and provide some reinforcement where the belts are anchored. The stock sheet metal is just too thin. Our car doesn't have a set yet but plans are to install them, at least on the passenger side. The upshot of the lack of belts is to be careful where you drive your car. While you'll probably find that most drivers are going to spot you and that your Isetta will get its fair amount of respect on the street, don't hide behind that as an excuse for not looking into seat belts.
Finally, you may get the comment "I wouldn't want to be riding in one of these things and get hit by an eighteen wheeler". Provide a polite, snappy comeback with "What WOULD you like to be riding in when you get hit by an 18 wheeler? That'll cork 'em up everytime, guaranteed.
"Where can I get an owner's manual and a factory service manual?"
The owner's manual has been reproduced by several individuals. Dave Major in Benton, Kansas has these for you. They're $13.00 each. He also had the service manual copied and sells those for $30.00 each. Contact Dave at email@example.com. Ask him how his BMW 600 "Aerocar" is doing. Also, Dave has a rather unique offering in his "Buying Your First Isetta" video. It's a great home-brew one hour tape that's interesting viewing and worth the money.
One other excellent source for the service manual is Jenny Morgan. She has taken the same manual that Dave sells but completely reformatted it by stripping out all of the French, Spanish and German, leaving just the English text. She also synched the pictures up with the text which makes it easier to follow, printed it in a very high quality mode and slipped it into a binder. At $75.00 it's a bit more than Dave's version, but worth it given the effort she put in to it and ease of use. Contact Jenny at firstname.lastname@example.org for your copy.
"What air pressure should I run in the tires?"
Factory spec on this one is 17 psi in the front and 14 psi in the rear. The spare should also get 17 psi. Play around with this number. For instance, the original tires were bias ply tires. Some were mounted on split rim wheels requiring inner tubes while most were mounted on one piece, tubeless wheels. The Isetta's suspension was tuned for bias-ply tires but radials will sure put the ride into another category. Using the numbers listed above should give you a range to work with based on your particular setup.
"What's the wackiest, craziest thing you ever saw done in or to an Isetta?"
Hmmmm. Let's leave the "in" part out of this conversation. This is a family site, sort of. Leading up to Number One, it's hard to beat the Isetta that was converted to railroad wheels and ran on tracks. Next would probably be the one with snow skis replacing the front tires for ski patrol/general winter transportation. By the way, skis were offered as a third party option for Isettas. No doubt, the Big Enchilada has gotta go the Isetta Aerocar (not to be confused with Dave Major's BMW 600, the original Aerocar). It's owned by a gentleman and his wife up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Try and picture this. It's an Isetta body mounted on a boat trailer. The wheel wells have been covered with sheet metal. There is a pitot tube off of an airplane mounted in the door. It has a single wooden ski mounted to what looks like a small airplane landing strut for steering. This thing is powered by a six cylinder Lycoming aircraft engine hanging off the back with rear mounted, wooden propeller. This car, and apparently two others, were modified years ago up in Minnesota for crusing the frozen lakes, racing, general mayhem and riotous behavior. Not beautiful but so weird it always attracts a crowd.
One guy who spotted it at a car show was from the area the car originally came from and recalled seeing it in action with its two siblings. Top speed on all three cars was around 120-125 mph. He said it was quite a spectacle to see the three Isettas and their occupants out on the frozen lakes running flat out, living out their respective death wishes.
"The driveshaft sits at an angle between the transmission and chain drive. What's wrong? Won't it hurt something to leave it that way?"
You have good eyes. There is a 15-17mm difference in the center to center alignment of the ouput flange of the transmission, to the front, and the input flange of the chain drive, sitting to the rear. And yes, it looks totally wrong. See those drive couplings (also call 'donuts' for us non-technical types and guibos for you politically correctoids) that sit between the flanges and drive shaft? Those pups take a beating as they squirm around back there taking all kinds of abuse from the drive shaft and the chain drive gyrating around while under power. Enterprising wanna-be engineers have hacked Isettas to make this shaft line up and it's a big mistake. It looks strange but it's that way for, apparently, a good reason. Get over it.
Iso Rivolta, the car's designer, put the cuffs on BMW in regards to re-designing this setup although allowed them to change to longer rear leaf springs and change up the actual rear of the frame. The offset seems to work very nicely and is there to accommodate the less-than-conventional drive arrangement. One word of warning here! Those rubber couplings are the Isetta's Achilles heel. Letting them dry out and crack or allowing any of the 12 drive coupling bolts to come loose is a disaster on the order of not changing the oil in your engine. It's right up there with a hand grenade going off under your car if it happens. Many Isetta outer transmission cases show the scars where this happened, assuming that the bolts didn't punch a hole in case. Our car had this happen in a former life and part of the ejecta came out like a .38 slug and punched a hole in the right rear mud guard about the size of a nickel! Check both of these couplings on a regular basis and make sure you don't see cracks and that the nuts are good and tight. Make sure that the nuts face to the inside of the donuts, not towards the chain drive or trans. Assume that you will be using lock nuts for this job. Finally, DO NOT replace those drive coupling bolts with off-the-shelf hardware store units. The factory bolts have a low profile head to account for the close inside tolerances on the drive and trans sides. Go to your Isetta parts suppliers for these parts if you need them.
Suppliers have these couplings for you too. Another tip is to go straight to the BMW store and get the real deal over the parts counter. They still make 'em! Be sure and take your originals with you so you can match them up. You're looking for a coupling guibo (pronounced gi-bow) for a 325 automatic transmission car. There are several couplings that fit that description so take the one you're replacing. Third party couplings will set you back about $40 apiece. You can pretty well bet that a BMW logo will run you more.
"I think my voltage regulator bought the ranch and have heard they are very expensive to replace. Where do I get a new one and how much do they really cost?"
Sounds familiar. Our car's VR was visually fine but functionally farkled. Just for fun, a call was placed to the local Euro auto parts store and the Bosch number was plugged into their system. It was a special order item, sensibly priced at only $535.00, 100% deposit up front and no return policy. Sounded like Plan B was getting ready to go into effect, huh?
Bosch uses South American (Argentina in this case) manufacturing facilities, primarily in Brazil, to manufacture many of their parts. The company also labels the same product under their own name, Nosso. While parts suppliers have these in the the $230 range, why not save a few bux and contact John Wetzel at email@example.com or give him a call at (201) 939-2208. A while back, he bought a batch of 50 Nosso units and gets about $175 each for them. They work great! The only two details to be aware of are a.) the wiring is slightly different than the Bosch units (terminals 2 and 3 are reversed) and, b.) the mounting holes are slightly farther apart than the Bosch which means that the new unit will only line up with one of the threaded mounting points on your floorboard behind the battery box.
"Speaking of the electrical system, what kind of battery should I use?"
This is all over the map from a brand standpoint. Here are a few ideas. First, you have a 12 volt, negative ground system. Your battery choices fall into a couple of categories. You can go the motorcycle battery route. Another member of this genre of batteries are the riding lawn mower/lawn tractor/ATV variety. Most have the old timey caps and require distilled water, etc. Almost all of them have a vent tube to let the acid vent outside, not our idea of a good time in a small, enclosed interior. You can hit your local Sears Auto Center and cruise their catalog and shelf inventory to get a good idea of what's available, most units probably in the $50-$100 range. A motorcycle shop is another good choice. Tell your BMW bike dealer you need a battery for an R/60 and you should be good to go. Around $90.00 for the Beemer last time we asked. Our car runs a Harley-Davidson Non-Spillable battery, part number 65989-97. This is the second genre in that it is sealed just like the ones we all have in our daily drivers. If memory serves, it runs around $75.00. It is coming up on its third birthday and cranks the Lunar Lander just fine. Dimensions on this battery are 7" wide by " 6" tall by 3 1/2" deep. Fits in the box with plenty of room left over.
On the issue of size, be sure to measure your battery box and make sure your new battery will fit. You also want to have the top retaining bar in place and threaded rods that secure it to the wings on the battery tray for a firm fit. It's recommended that you get a battery with the negative post on the left (facing it). That way, it's better positioned to connect the ground cable to the frame ground stud in front of the battery box and run the positive cable back to the voltage regulator. It's not a matter of right or wrong, just a convenience issue. An acid free mat in the bottom of the box isn't a bad idea either, if you can find one. They seem to have vanished off the shelves around Austin and the suppliers either didn't carry them or didn't have them the last time we asked.
The proverbial icing on the battery cake is a charger. We don't have many cold weather issues in Central Texas but if you live in a part of the country where the car sits up over the winter, or if you don't drive your car on a regular basis regardless of where you live and battery life is a concern, take a look at the Westco Batteries AccuMate Power Charging System. It's model number LS6/1.2 and sells for $60.00. It's a small, switchable, fully automatic charger for 6V / 12V small batteries. This unit won't allow you to accidentally reverse polarity and comes with a neat pigtail adapter that you can attach to the battery and leave under the seat. When need be, just plug the pigtail into the charger, plug the charger into the wall and go catch a couple of episodes of Dragnet and the Munsters. When the green LED comes on, you're ready to lay rubber. An LED will tell you to forget it if the battery has bought the ranch and can't be charged. It will also sit there for months and maintain a full charge without burning your car, garage and house to the ground. They also include the old standby alligator clips too. Surf over to Westco Batteries or dial 'em up at (800) 372-9253. Oh yeah, they sell batteries for Isettas too. Go to Motorcycles, select BMW and check out the battery for the R/60. You can get it all right here if you want. Fast, friendly service, too.
"How big of an engine can you put in an Isetta"? Seems like it wouldn't be that big of a deal".
Frankly, your gender re-assignment operation will go more smoothly. Reminds us of the guy back in high school that inherited his grandmother's 1963 Ford Falcon, pulled the lowly six cylinder motor out of it and dropped in a High-Performance 289, a Hurst three speed floor shifter and started pumping Enco Extra into the tank. That's all. He went through two rear ends in two months before Moses finally came down the mountain with the guy's tablets.
Besides the butchery you'll have to do and drawing the ire of Isetta enthusiasts everywhere, this is no minor undertaking. It has been done before though... the Honda 600cc motorcycle engine seeming to be the engine of choice. Two projects we've seen pix of ended up as one-seaters due to the fact that the firewall had to be cut out on the passenger side with a gasoline powered protuberance poking through. We've also seen three different Isettas that are basically hack jobs because someone torched off frame's motor mount tubes, pitched them and then abandoned the project. Only one engine transplant we've seen is a true class job and we don't know what all of the underpinnings are, just that it looks outstanding. Please note that the owner has restored many Isettas to their original condition and one can only speculate that he had a rough car, or parts thereof, that had the project written all over it. We'll let that one go.
What are you going to do to mount the Isetta transmission to the new engine? Are you going to use a different transmission? How are you going to attach it to the chain drive? Will the chain drive (i.e. chain, bearings, etc.) hold up to double or triple the power it was designed to handle 45 years ago.
Why not just optimize what you've got via port matching and polishing the intake manifold and head, having a one piece exhaust header installed and maybe even using a motorcycle baffle/muffler? The one person we know who did this can cruise 60 at will and has an extremely reliable car.
"I've been told that there is a European rear center light that fits the US Export model. How much does it cost and how do you wire it up? It's not in the wiring diagram I've got".
Correct and correct. The Euro's were at least 20 years ahead of the U.S. in auto safety features and this is a good example. If you're keeping score at home, the overseas Isettas also had amber side marker/turn signals as well as tail lights mounted where the U.S. model's nerf bars are attached to the car at the top. The Euro-issued models had a blade style rear bumper that was just about as useless as the U.S. model. Instead of the blank steel plate that the US models had on the rear air intake, The Euros utilized a ribbed lens that not only houses the license plate light like the US model, but also has an upper light that shines through the red lens and acts as a rear running light. It replaces that blank steel plate. The kit sells for under $30.00 and is an excellent add-on to your car. Keep in mind that it doesn't function as a center brake light. It is either off or on. It will light up if your light switch is turned to either the parking light or headlight position.
Wiring it up? Simple. Figure that both taillights are already wired so all you have to do is get one rear light wire from either rear light, the driver's side light being a good choice, over to the new rear light. Think of it as adding another string of lights to your Christmas tree. Call it a jumper wire if you like. Just cut a 3' piece of wire (make it longer than it needs to be and tidy it up when you're through) and connect it to position 47 on the left light or position 45 on the right. That's the running light side of the bulb socket, not the brake light side. Connect the other end to one side of your new rear light. Make a 6" jumper wire to connect the ground side of your license plate light to the center brake light and you've just propelled your Isetta into modern times.
Our light, a Hella reproduction, came with a built-in ground strap for both bulbs. All you have to do here is hook your license plate ground wire (tan) up according to your wiring diagram and your upper running light is automatically grounded.
For you trendy types, we've also seen a rear deck mounted gorilla that raises its hands and eyes that light up when you hit the brakes. Please send us a pic if you go that route. Looked outstanding in a gold 1969 Buick Electra 225. You also had to have been there at the time to get the full visual impact.
"My horn doesn't work. The wiring from the main terminal block to the instrument panel is intact, the wires going to the horn are there, the button moves freely and the fuse isn't blown. What's wrong?"
The Isetta horn schema is a bit on the bizarre side. Here's what you're probably dealing with and it's a common problem. Let's assume that the horn itself is a working horn and that all of your wiring is in tact, no blown fuses, the obvious just as you stated in your question. Let's put on our X-Ray Spex for a moment and take a look through your cast aluminum steering column, the part your turn signal and high/low beam housings are attached to. Towards the bottom of the shaft (underneath the base of the cast aluminum housing) that connects to your U-joint on the pedal cluster, there is a brass ring mounted in there with an insulator ring to keep it from making contact with your steering shaft. There is a wire that is soldered on to the bottom of the ring which enters a hole in the shaft just below the ring and continues up through the shaft to the horn button. Finally, there is a spring loaded carbon brush whose holder protrudes from the left side of the steering column that contacts the brass ring and completes the horn circuit back to the main wiring terminal and on out to the horn. This brush must make contact with the ring at all times.
Two, three or four things have probably happened. One, the insulator ring has deteriorated causing the brass ring to short to ground. Two, the wire at the bottom of the ring has broken loose and nuked your horn circuit. Three, the carbon brush is worn out and/or broken. Four, it's also possible that the ring has slipped off center and the brush is hitting that solder joint which will break it in half every time. You might also want to make sure that the retaining ring under the column housing is good and tight.
How do you fix it? Let's start with the easier stuff and work our way down the list. You can get all of these parts from parts suppliers by the way. Check your carbon brush by pulling the U-shaped retaining clip off of the brush holder and pull it out. If you see mostly spring and little to no carbon tip, replacing the brush (about $15.00) may solve the problem. If you see a carbon tip that's broken in half, you have no choice but to replace it. If that doesn't do the trick, it's probably going to be a brass ring related issue.
Next, remove your turn signal and high/low beam housings from the steering column. Disconnect the horn wire from the bottom of the horn button, remove the steering wheel, the carbon brush holder and the bolt that secures the steering column from your instrument panel. Now pull the cast housing off and you'll be most likely be looking at the problem child. If that ring is loose and/or has no insulator, you probably just got to the bottom of the mystery. Feed the wire down through your steering shaft, out the hole below the brass ring and remove it from the car. You'll have to improvise an insulator ring here. One item that works very well is a "skirt" for a candelabra style lighting fixture. That's the slender plastic tube that covers up the socket just below the light bulb. It's strictly an aesthetic piece. Hardware or lighting stores usually carry them and they're under a dollar. Just cut a piece that's just slightly wider than your ring so part of it extends out of either side. Put a thin coat of epoxy glue between the outside of the ring you just made and the inside of the brass ring to secure it. Finally, put a thin coat of epoxy around the steering shaft just above the hole that the horn wire goes through and reinstall.
Pay careful attention that the carbon brush lines up with the ring when you put everything back together. That brush must make constant, 360 degree contact with the ring and not come into contact with the solder joint where the wire is connected at the base of the brass ring.
Finally, if it still doesn't work, take your horn and connect it directly to a car battery just long enough to see if it emits any sound. If it doesn't, here are the two culprits to check. Number one, make sure that the adjusting screw on the back of the horn is set for max volume. It may have slipped out of adjustment or been messed with. If that doesn't do it, remove your horn cover. You'll see a round resonator plate underneath the cover. Marking the exact position of the plate, remove it and check to see a.) if the rectangular magnet contact on the bottom of the resonator plate is lined up across both magnets in the horn's base and, b.) that the paper gasket between the bottom of the resonator plate and the top of the horn base is intact. If it's gone or torn in any place at all, that resonator plate is shorting out on the horn base. You can put masking tape around the perimeter of the base and put it back together to check it. If that solved your problem, you can neatly trim the tape up or make a new gasket out of thin cardboard or gasket material.
To recap, make sure you have a good, working horn before you start troubleshooting. Make sure you have a good carbon brush. Remove your horn button and see if it has a wire attached to it. Verify that there is a good fuse in the horn circuit terminal of your fuse box. Using the above tips, you should be making plenty of racket by now. If that Isetta horn has its adjusting screw set correctly, your car should sound like a big motorized goose crusing down the street.
"I want my car to be painted an original factory color. How do I find out what the original colors were and the various paint schemes that were offered?"
Firemarshal Bill Waite of Oak Harbor, Washington has done the homework for you. If its instant gratification you're looking for, why not just click here to be propelled to the Articles section. Page down and you'll find 'em.
As far as the actual colors that were offered, just cruise over to Robert Mace's site, Isetta Source. Page down to Technical Resources and the first item will have Firemarshal Bill's color charts (not published in the above mentioned article) along with the Standox (DuPont) color numbers. These colors can still be matched up. You'll be amazed at all of the different colors that BMW squirted on the Isetta.