A look under the hood of one of the symbols of the West German economic miracle of the 1950s; or, The multifaceted and multinational tale of the Isetta microcar, part 1

A typical BMW 250 or 300. Devon Francis, “What you get in the foreign economy cars.” Popular Science, June 1957, 62.

Buongiorno, amico lettore, buongiorno. Come vanno le cose? […] Bene, bene. Vorrei discutere con voi di una storia molto interessante. La storia sfaccettato e multinazionale della microvetture Isetta. Iniziamo senza ulteriori indugi.

Let us indeed start without further ado, in English if I you allow me.

Once upon a time, in 1945, once the Second World War was over, there was an Italian manufacturer of electric heaters and refrigerators, as well as household appliances, Società Anonima Isothermos. Noting how devastated his country was, the boss of that firm quickly realised that his compatriots needed refrigerators less than they did small, reliable and economical vehicles, motorcycles for example.

Renzo Rivolta thus acquired a small firm specialising in that field, Officine Ottavio Quadrio. The first Isoscooter and Isomoto left the factory in 1949-50. Sales were so good that Isothermos put an end to the production of radiators and refrigerators, as well as household appliances perhaps, around 1951.

Sales were in fact so good that Rivolta decided to launch the production of a two-seat microcar, a vehicle halfway between a motorcycle and a small Italian automobile, one of the most popular Italian automobiles of its time in in fact, the FIAT 500 “Topolino” –Topolino being the name given in Italy to a well-known American comic strip / book and cartoon character, Mickey Mouse. Rivolta changed the name of his firm to Iso Autoveicoli Società per Azioni to reflect that change.

Would you believe that Rivolta hired a dynamic duo of fairly young yet experienced Italian engineers, aeronautical engineers mind you, to design the new vehicle? Yea, he did. They were Ermenegildo Preti and Pierluigi Raggi. Better yet, during the dark years of the Second World War, the former had come to the conclusion that a microcar would be a good fit for a devastated country like Italy, after the war – and Italy’s defeat.

A small team completed a 3-wheeled prototype in 1952. Realising the risk of injury or accident if a flat tire had to be replaced, it transformed its egg on wheels into a 4-wheeled vehicle, the Iso Isetta, still fitted with an engine similar to that of the one of the motorcycles manufactured by Isothermos / Iso Autoveicoli.

I have a question for you, my reading friend. How many doors did / does an Isetta have? Answer to the question…

A typical Iso Isetta. Anon., “L’Europe motorisée.” Photo-Journal, 24 July 1954, 6.

And yes, there was / is only one door. And yes again, the steering wheel and dashboard of the Isetta were / are attached to said door. Opening the latter tilted the steering column forward, which facilitated access to the vehicle, which was already rather easy. The driver of an Isetta could actually park facing a sidewalk without encroaching on the public road in the slightest. Take that, parallel parking!

Interestingly, the central part of the roof, in fabric, could be rolled up, thus transforming the Isetta into an open automobile. Mind you, that open roof could also be used as emergency exit.

The front door of the Isetta was Preti’s idea. During the Second World War, he had worked on the design of a cargo / transport glider, the Aeronautica Lombarda AL.12P, for the Italian air force, the Regia Aeronautica. The nose of said glider was hinged to facilitate loading and unloading. Although tested in September 1942, the AL.12P could not be put in production before the September 1943 armistice negotiated by certain elements of the Italian government, behind the back of Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, a pompous brute and buffoonish dictator mentioned since August 2018 in several / many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

It should be noted that at least one version of the Isetta seemed to have 2 fuel tanks for its 9.5 metric horsepower (9.4 imperial horsepower / 7 kilowatts (Hello, EP!)) engine. Once the main tank had sent its last drops to the engine, the person in command only had to activate a small auxiliary tank allowing her or him to go to a gas station. And yes, a typical 2022 riding lawnmower was quite a bit more powerful (50-70%?) than the Isetta. The mind boggles.

Iso Autoveicoli officially presented its Isetta in April 1953, at the Salone dell’automobile di Torino, in… Turin, Italy. The new microcar did not go unnoticed. Far from it. Similar in appearance to the cabin of certain helicopters of the time, it had an avant-garde, even futuristic air, light years away from certain more or less cartoonish microcars of the time.

Marketed in the fall of 1953, the Isetta sold rather poorly. Its unusual look and the slightly lower price of the FIAT 500 may explain that lack of success. Even more than honorable results from the 3 Isettas which participated in the 1954 edition of one of the most famous road endurance car races of the time (about 1 600 kilometres (1 000 miles) in about 24 hours), the almost mythical Mille Miglia, results due in part to the excellent handling of the Isetta, even these results, say I (type I?), did not improve things much.

A mini-van version of the Isetta did not sell any better.

Resigned to the likelihood that the Isetta would not be successful in Italy, Iso Autoveicoli began talks in 1954 to sell the production rights and tooling for its microcar. The firm it was discussing with was quite well known. That West German firm was called Bayerische Motoren Werke Aktiengesellschaft (BMW) and it was mentioned in November 2019 and April 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

During the months and years following the end of the Second World War, BMW kept afloat by producing motorcycles, vehicle brakes and pans. You see, its large automobile production plant was located in an area of ​​Germany which was occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1945. It had been quickly expropriated.

It should be noted that BMW had used forced labourers / concentration camp prisoners to produce its automobiles, aircraft engines and motorcycles during the Second World War.

Forced to create an automobile assembly line from scratch, BMW could not deliver the first examples of its first post-war vehicle until November 1952. Worse still, that BMW 501 was a luxury vehicle which sold poorly, which was quite understandable. After all, the West German economy was still not going very fast in 1952. Worse still again, the BMW 501’s production was so complex that the firm lost a sum equivalent to a third of the selling price on each example sold. Add to that a possible plateau in motorcycle sales and you can see why BMW management was very interested in the Isetta.

In fact, the management of the West German firm had been thinking for several months of launching the production of a small, inexpensive urban car. Of particular interest to it was the purchasing of the production rights of a vehicle designed by another automobile maker. BMW would thus avoid having to spend large sums on development. The firm could also launch series production a tad faster.

As things turned out, a BMW automobile importer in Switzerland visiting the Salon international de l’automobile de Genève, in … Genève / Geneva, Switzerland, in 1954, had observed the Isetta and expressed his enthusiasm to the management of the firm. The head of the test department immediately went to Turin where, shortly after, the Salone dell’automobile di Torino was held. BMW and Iso Autoveicoli signed an agreement in the following weeks.

While it was true that the production tooling for the Isetta arrived in West Germany even before the end of 1954, the fact was that BMW engineers modified the Isetta to such an extent that the Italian and West German versions of that vehicle had virtually no common parts.

BMW was not, however, the only West German firm that was ogling the little Italian with interest. Nay. Hoffmann-Werke Aktiengesellschaft (?) marketed a clone of the Isetta in 1954. The Auto-Kabine 250 was also equipped with a motorcycle engine. It also had a single door, which was on the right side however.

As you can imagine, BMW did not take kindly to such piracy. In fact, it sued Hoffmann-Werke and forced it to end the mass production of its Auto-Kabine 250. Barely a hundred of these microcars were seemingly manufactured. That problem was just one of the problems which were landing on the head of Hoffmann-Werke’s boss.

His Hoffmann Gouverneur motorcycle had technical problems at a time when the West German consumer preferred microcars to motorcycles. The unauthorised, all-new, more powerful, in-house designed version of the Piaggio Vespa scooter, which was then produced under license in the Hoffmann-Werke workshops, also had the misfortune to displease Piaggio & Compagnia Società per Azioni, a firm mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018. The Italian firm quickly withdrew the license. All the problems which were besetting it forced Hoffmann-Werke to declare bankruptcy around 1955, but back to BMW.

And yes, Hoffmann-Werke had used forced laborers / concentration camp prisoners to increase production during Second World War.

BMW officially presented its new microcar, the BMW 250, in March 1955. And no, the Isetta name was no longer used. This being said (typed?), it continued to be so used of course, if only unofficially. And yes, journalists who test drove the BMW 250 were impressed.

Interestingly, that automobile was far more powerful than the Isetta, thanks to its… 12 metric horsepower (11.8 imperial horsepower / 9 kilowatts) motorcycle engine which gave it a maximum speed of 85 kilometres/hour (53 miles/hour), which was pretty quick for an egg on wheels.

Interestingly, at least to me, was the fact that another West German firm was impressed by the Isetta. Yea. In 1954, a representative of Ernst Heinkel Aktiengesellschaft, perhaps even the great Ernst Heinrich Heinkel himself, saw an Isetta at the 1954 edition of the Salon international de l’automobile de Genève. In any event, Heinkel was impressed but thought the Italian microcar was a tad too heavy. He asked his engineers to design a vehicle very similar in appearance, a vehicle which became the Heinkel Kabine – the first and last automobile designed by the firm, which was making scooters at the time. As designed, that microcar could accommodate 2 adults and 2 children.

BMW heard about that project in 1955 and was understandably preoccupied. Was the vehicle under development at Ernst Heinkel a copy of the microcar it was about to produce? During a meeting, Heinkel made it clear that this was not the case. BMW did not pursue the matter.

The first production example of Ernst Heinkel’s microcar, known as the Heinkel Type 153, hit the road in 1956. A slightly more powerful Type 154 soon followed. The last Kabine seemingly hit the road in 1958, the year Heinkel died, a few days after his 70th birthday. All in all, approximately 12 000 of the vehicles were produced. That total presumably included the small number of microcars assembled in Argentina by Los Cedros Sociedad anónima between 1959 and 1965.

It should be noted that Ernst Heinkel / Ernst Heinkel Flugzeugwerke Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, as Heinkel’s firm was known after and before1943, had used forced laborers / prisoners of concentration camps to increase its production of aircraft during the Second World War. Heinkel’s various issues with the government of National Socialist Germany had led to the reorganisation of 1943 which took control of his firm out of his hands, but back to our story.

In 1958, the Irish government entered into negotiations with Ernst Heinkel, the firm of course, in order to help a local firm acquire the production rights for the Kabine. Dundalk Engineering Company had produced but a limited number of these German-engine vehicles when Ernst Heinkel withdrew the licence for reasons of poor quality control. A small British automobile maker picked up the torch in 1960 or 1961. Trojan Limited had delivered but a limited number of German-engine Trojan 200s, up to 7 000 perhaps, with 3 or 4 wheels, when production came to a stop in 1965. There was simply no way on the Flying spaghetti monster’s green Earth that the Trojan 200 could stand up to the most successful microcar in history, the fantastically successful British Motor Mini.

By the way, the West German driving a BMW 250 only needed a motorcycle license to hit the road. The West German road regulations which came into force in 1956 having put an end to that peculiarity, BMW took advantage of the fact that said regulations allowed microcars to have larger, more powerful engines to introduce the BMW 300.

Curiously perhaps, the BMW 250 and 300 sold well, which pleased but somewhat saddened the management of Iso Autoveicoli, which ended production of its Isetta around October 1956. The success of these vehicles, not to mention that of the versions intended for export, was all the more surprising given that the West German consumer could then choose from more than one microcar.

At one time, BMW used a shock formula to further boost its sales. An Isetta, it said, cost less annually in city taxes than a dachshund, or wiener / sausage dog.

Before I forget, BMW sold a number of 3-wheeled Isettas, partly for the Austrian market perhaps.

And yes, a 3-wheel Isetta was less stable than a 4-wheel Isetta.

Unless I am mistaken, Iso Autoveicoli produces around 1 000 Isettas, or maybe 4 000, which was really very, very little. It should be noted that some of these vehicles may have been assembled in Belgium.

The commercial failure of the Italian version of the Isetta could probably be explained in various ways. Its motorcycle engine was not ideal for an automobile and it required frequent maintenance. The Italian consumer who could afford an automobile also wanted to buy a vehicle which was more comfortable, larger, faster and more robust than the Isetta.

The first Isettas on Québec, or even Canadian soil, may well have been those that Charles Édouard Duquette, the brilliant founding director of “the largest and most luxurious retail pharmacy in the world,” it was said at the time, in translation, imported from Italy in 1955. Pharmacie Montréal Limitée added these go anywhere automobiles to its fleet of more than 50 delivery vehicles, vehicles whose drivers laboured day and night. Said pharmacy, founded in 1923, was a true institution in 1955. Duquette was indeed the first pharmacist in Montréal (Québec? Canada??) to offer rebates and discounts to help his fellow citizens.

Pharmacie Montréal included a small photograph of one of its Isettas in some of its heavily illustrated advertisements of the time, advertisements which said, in translation, that “The largest retail pharmacy in the world delivers its prescriptions with ISETTA... the smallest automobile in the world.” A version of that advertisement appeared in English-language daily newspapers of Montréal. Another advertisement in French, full page that one, offered no less than 4 photographs of an Isetta used by that pharmacy.

Would you believe that Pharmacie Montréal sponsored the pan-Québec tour of a Québec pioneer in homebuilt aircraft construction? And yes, yours truly admits willingly to seeking by all possible means the means of inserting an aeronautical aspect into his innumerable pontifications. You do not like that? Sue me, but back to our homebuilder.

In March 1935, a Montréal commercial pilot named Rodolphe Pagé completed and tested a two-seat cabin monoplane of his own design. It was apparently inspired by a stopover made in Longueuil, Québec, not far from Montréal, in July 1933, by Italian air minister Italo Balbo and the crews of a group of flying boats of the Italian air force, the Regia Aeronautica, en route to the Century of Progress International Exposition then being held in Chicago, Illinois. Pagé, it was said, was embarrassed by the apparent disinterest of French-speaking Quebecers in aviation.

Mind you, there were some who thought at the time that the people who controlled the destinies of aviation in Canada, anglophones in the great majority of cases, politely turned down francophone aviation enthusiasts who wanted to become civilian or military pilots because their English was not very good. Indeed, there were some / many who thought at the time that French speaking Canadians had to deal with systemic discrimination wherever and whenever they tried to better themselves, but I digress. The situation in 2022 may not be the same, but I digress even more.

Irénée “Pete” Vachon, one of the famous Vachon brothers or “Flying Vachons” who played such an important role in the development of aviation in Canada during the interwar period, helped Pagé prepare the drawings for his machine. At the time, Vachon may have been a shop superintendent at Noorduyn Aircraft Limited of Cartierville, Québec, a firm formed not long before and mentioned in January 2019 and February 2020 issues of our you know what.

Some of the financial support for Pagé’s project came from a few wealthy French-speaking Montrealers, including Arthur Sauvé, Canada’s Postmaster General in the government of Richard Bedford Bennett, and his son Joseph Mignault Paul Sauvé, a lawyer and member of the Assemblée législative du Québec.

First working, around 1933-34, in a small garage, Pagé had to move to a larger space used by a … funeral director. Surrounded by coffins in various stages of construction, Pagé was the subject of many jokes about the reliability of his future aircraft, if not the very idea of ​​​​making such a machine. One of the people who gave him a hand, however, was an excellent welder, Émile Pelletier, a nephew of Montrealer Wilfrid Pelletier, conductor at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, New York, and founding artistic director of the Société des concerts symphoniques de Montréal, in 1934, an organisation that would later become the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

The Pagé L’Émérillon homebuilt airplane accompanied by a portrait of its pilot, Rodolphe Pagé. Louis Sabourin, “Nos aviateurs – M. Rodolphe Pagé.” Le Samedi, 3 July 1937, 9.

The apparent disinterest of French-speaking Quebecers in aviation might have explained the name that Pagé chose for his aircraft. L’Émérillon was the smallest of 3 ships commanded by the French explorer Jacques Cartier during his voyage to North America of 1535-36. That and the fact that said voyage had taken place precisely 400 years before.

In September 1935, Pagé left Montréal to conduct a multistep tour of Québec to promote airmindedness among French-speaking Quebecers. He gradually made his way to the Lac St-Jean region. A drop in oil pressure in his engine as Pagé began his return trip to Montréal resulted in a return to the airfield in Roberval, Québec. Pagé soon contacted Duquette who suggested that L’Émérillon be dismantled and sent to Montréal by train. Page agreed.

Once back in the metropolis, Pagé contacted some Montréal businessmen to convince them to finance the construction of a factory where L’Émérillon could be put into production. These discussions led nowhere. Worse still, the certificate for the aircraft expired in July 1936. L’Émérillon was then grounded. Its final fate is unknown, but some believe that this elegant machine was eventually destroyed in a fire.

You will obviously be happy to learn that Pagé’s pan-Québec tour helped him find a job, but that is another story. Yes, yes, another story.

Before I forget, Balbo, a brute with the looks of a movie star, was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018, but back to our microcar.

A jewelry store in Saint-Jérôme, Québec, Bijouterie Giroux Incorporée, acquired an apple green Isetta with red and yellow (!) lettering around September 1958. That small delivery vehicle, of undetermined origin and unique in the region, certainly did not go unnoticed.

And yes, CKVL, an independent radio station in Verdun, a suburb of Montréal, and subsidiary of Radio Futura Incorporée mentioned in an August 2018 issue of our you know what, acquired an Isetta of undetermined origin around June 1959.

I will not tell you anything you did not already know, my reading friend with encyclopaedic knowledge, by saying (typing?) that a Québec journalist / radio host / actor very well-known at the time, Joseph David Lucien Miville Couture, took possession of a white Isetta no later than March 1956. He seemed to like his little vehicle. If I may quote him, in translation, “The big Buicks leave me behind, at the start, but I always find them at the next red light.” Couture may in fact have counted on 2 Isettas by September 1956 at the latest.

Incidentally, the big Buicks mentioned by Couture were presumably Buicks Roadmasters, Specials or Supers, three automobiles which were quite ginormous.

Would you believe that, in 1956-57, Couture and one of his Isettas were among the guests of Michelle Tisseyre, a very popular fashion commentator / television hostess / journalist / translator born Mary Jane Michelle Ahern, as part of her highly popular television show, the first Québec and Canadian talk show in fact, Rendez-vous avec Michelle, of the Société Radio-Canada? He and his jalopy / clunker might actually have been a very regular feature of that show. Couture may, I repeat may, have been disguised as maharaja.

Placing the small car in one of the freight elevators of the building of the crown corporation was not easy, however. Convincing the staff in charge of said freight elevator to try the experiment was not easy either. Indeed, finding an insurance company to cover possible damage to the Isetta was no picnic. The Société Radio-Canada naturally demanded that it be released from all liability towards Couture, who was then employed by it, and towards his car.

By the way, did yours truly neglect to mention here and elsewhere that the Société Radio-Canada had been mentioned moult times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2018? If so, I am very despondent.

It should be noted that, in the fall of 1957, Couture took possession of a Glas Goggomobil, a microcar reviewed backwards, forwards and sideways in an April 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. He had by then disposed of his Isettas, recently in one case and less recently in the other case, but back to our story and to BMW.

Realising the need to expand its range of automobile models but lacking the resources to design a vehicle for that purpose, BMW designed a stretched and more powerful 4-seater version of the BMW 300. That BMW 600 had two doors, yes, yes, two, the original front door and a side door, on the right side. The West German consumer unfortunately shunned the new automobile, preferring the Volkswagen Type 1, the famous “Beetle.”

And yes, the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, a sister / brother institution of my favourite museal institution, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, has a 1958 “Beetle” in its collection.

While fears concerning oil deliveries from the Middle East following the conflict (Suez Crisis, Second Arab–Israeli war) between the United Kingdom, Israel and France on the one hand, and their victim, Egypt, on the other, in October and November 1956, caused an increase in sales, the return to normal caused a drop which was maintained over the months. BMW therefore manufactured fewer than 35 000 BMW 600s between 1957 and 1959.

And yes, both the United States and the USSR called for a ceasefire when the fighting broke out. Shortly after, the Soviet government demanded the withdrawal of Israeli, French and British forces, threatening these countries with incineration through nuclear weapons if they refused to acquiesce. The American government, embarrassed, dare one say (type?) outraged, by the attack launched by friendly countries, launched an attack against the pound sterling which forced its British counterpart to throw in the towel, a throwing which forced the French and Israeli governments to also throw in the towel. Defeated militarily, the government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser had won a major political victory – and retained full control of the Suez Canal, a vital shipping route whose recent nationalisation by Egypt largely explained the conflict.

Would you believe that the West German Isetta played a crucial role in BMW’s survival as an independent firm? Yet, that was true. This being said (typed?), it was a close call. Indeed, as encouraging as they were, the sales of that microcar did not necessarily compensate for the decrease in motorcycle sales.

BMW’s financial situation deteriorated to such an extent that, in December 1959, its largest shareholder, Deutsche Bank Aktiengesellschaft, tried to force a takeover by a large and well-known West German automobile manufacturer, Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft. Outraged by that action, groups of employees, dealers and small shareholders immediately launched a counter-attack which proved successful. BMW retained its independence but its financial situation remained no less serious until around 1961, the year in which the first of a series of very successful mid-size automobiles arrived at dealerships. The dark years were over.

It should be noted that Daimler-Benz had used forced laborers / prisoners of concentration camps to increase its production of main battle tanks, aircraft engines, etc. during the Second World War.

In the early 1960s, a period which saw the purchasing power of the typical West German family rise, the German Isetta no longer had the drawing power of yesteryear. The last vehicle of that type hit the road in 1962. Between 1955 and 1962, BMW delivered more than 160 000 BMW 250s and 300s – a figure well above the sales of any other West German microcar except the aforementioned Glas / Isar / Isard Goggomobil.

As the title of this edition of our exceptional and stunning blog / bulletin / thingee mentioned, BMW’s microcars were among the symbols of the Wirtschaftswunder, the West German economic miracle of the 1950s.

Is this the end of the saga of the Isetta and of this peroration? Nay. I am not done with you yet. This being said (typed?), I assent to let you go about your business until next week.

I am also taking the liberty of offering you a brief video from a truly great website. Enjoy and have a cuppa tea.

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Rénald Fortier