While visiting A.F.N. Ltd. at Isleworth recently I could not help being conscious of a “scuttling-about” by bubble-like vehicles, even though I was admiring Sebring and Le Mans Frazer-Nashes and Porsche Carrera coupes. These bubble-shaped objects were the little Isetta two-seaters of Italian Iso design and built under licence by B.M.W. in Munich, A.F.N. Ltd. being the importers. When the opportunity was offered to try one of these economy cars I readily accepted, for they are distinctly unorthodox in design and have the appeal of novelty.
Powered by a 245-c.c. pushrod B.M.W. single-cylinder engine, coupled to a delightful four-speed and reverse gearbox and mounted beside the rear wheels, the manner of going was anything but a novelty, it proved to be a revelation. With i.f.s. by coil springs and ¼-elliptic rear springs the ride is quite good for such a light vehicle and the very light steering has a pleasant understeer characteristic. One of the pleasures in driving the Isetta was its control and handling being quite orthodox. So many economy cars call for manipulation of some comic feature, either a special type of gear-change, an unusual method of starting, very odd steering or a lack of brakes. The Isetta suffers from none of these and everything is worked by normal car practice, even the starter being brought into play by merely turning the ignition key beyond the normal “on” position, as with most modern German cars, while headlights of surprising power are dipped by a lever on the left of the steering column, a similar one on the right operating the direction indicators. Seating two people with comfort and room for three at a squeeze, with a vast parcel shelf behind the seats, this little 245-c.c. runabout is ideal for shopping trips or inter-village communication out in the country. Providing the engine is taken up to its maximum of 5,800 r.p.m., and the gearbox is used to the full, one is never in the way of other traffic as with many economy cars, in fact a 45 m.p.h. cruising speed, with another 5 m.p.h. in hand, deals with the average British family saloon and “Mimsers” get in the way.
In city traffic the Isetta is a joy, for with its very crab-track layout once the front is through a gap there is no need to worry about the rear, though at times one gets a feeling of being in the dark when squeezing between two double-decker buses, and, of course, with the way the average driver creeps along there is always room for the Isetta to pass by on the inside in busy streets. The parking problem is immediately halved when using an Isetta for it is only a few inches over 7 ft. in overall length and if the nose is allowed to overhang the pavement a little it can be driven into a parking gap at right angles to the road, needing only a 4 ft. 6 in. gap for this manoeuvre. Having a single door in the form of the complete front of the car, hinged on the left, you then step forward out on to the pavement, much to the consternation of passers-by. As the whole of the upper half is of glass and Perspex, visibility is literally “all round,” which makes the occupants rather conspicuous, but the “bubble” shape of the Isetta attracts attention anyway, so it is no added hardship.
The Isetta must surely represent the most successful way of providing transport at low cost while avoiding the complications of a motor car and the disadvantages of a motor-cycle or scooter, while its cornering power and general safety in handling, relative to its size and power, classes it with cars of the highest order.
When I heard that the Italian versions of these little vehicles had averaged 50 m.p.h. from Brescia to Rome in the Mille Miglia, I found it hard to believe. Now I have sampled the B.M.W. version I can well understand how it was done.
Having covered 350 miles in the course of a quiet weekend I suddenly remembered it was supposed to be an economy car so the tank was drained and 62 miles were covered on a gallon, cruising at 30 m.p.h. uphill and 40 m.p.h. downhill, around North Hampshire. Economical and lively, as well as being enormous fun to drive, though a bit noisy by some standards, was the final verdict, and fantastically safe. If the Government would remove Import Duties and other money-grabbing rackets there would be one in every home, but even so anyone who delights in something that is not only different but also functional and practical, should call in at Isleworth.