Jim Anderson's 1957 BMW Isetta 300
For those used to flipping through these pages and finding a familiar make and model on each page, an introduction may finally be in order. This is the BMW Isetta 300... or more accurately, a heavily reworked version of one.
This quirky little rear-engine two-seater can trace its roots back to post-war Italy. Those with meager means generally got around on scooters and the like back then until Renzo Rivolta, a manufacturer of Iso S.p.A refrigerators, started making three-wheeled trucks. Iso debuted the first Isetta, (literally "little Iso") at the 1953 Turin Motor Show. The stats for this tin can with a motor weren't exactly devastating: Two-cylinder, two-stroke, 236cc motor; 50 mpg; 4.5 feet wide and 7.5 feet long; zero to 30 in 36 seconds and a 45-mph top speed.
While the performance may have been anemic, one particularly appealing aspect of the car seemed to be the mileage. A little gas mileage goes a along way. Especially when you're buying gas on the black market. At the time, BMW needed what today we might call "a beater car" as the 502 and 507 it had for sale at the time weren't really doing that.
BMW acquired the Isetta in the autumn of 1954 and proceeded to completely redesign it with a more reliable 13-hp motorcycle engine, debuting the car in October 1956. Over the course of its life it sold over a hundred thousand in Germany. Many agree that BMW would not be here today if not for the success of this odd-looking, sometimes three-wheeled, yet inexpensive chariot.
Of course, the Isetta wasn't exactly a huge seller in the U.S. BMW exported about 8,500 Isettas here starting in 1957. Today approximately 1,000 remain. And you're looking at what could be one of the fastest in the world.
If anyone has petrol pulsing through his veins it's the owner of this revamped refrigerator, Jim Anderson. He started drag racing in high school at various tracks throughout Colorado at the helm of various muscle cars like 270-hp '57 and 290-hp '58 Corvettes, a '58 Nomad with 348 cubic inches, a 220-hp Chevy 150 police car, and a 425-hp '56 Chevy. After seeing this horsepower-heavy list you might think that he'd be the last to want to jump into a 900-pound car with as much horsepower as a riding mower. But that's exactly what he did with this very Isetta more than 50 years ago.
A little arithmetic will tell you that Anderson is no spring chicken, but take it from this reporter, he's a spritely chap with plenty of bounce in his step. While he had help with this build from a few other men, he did a lot of the work himself-and of course initiated the project in the first place. As we were going over some facts of the buildup in his office I couldn't help but notice the array of motocross trophies. One of them was for First in a seniors division won just three years ago. Like Tupac said, "Ride 'til I die."
Anderson lives on the very 15-acre spread that he bought 30 years ago, and this is where we photographed the Isetta. This is also where he worked on the car and where he lived when he bought it.
Actually, he didn't buy it. He swapped for it.
"About seven years out of high school I found the car at a gas station called Enco," Anderson says. "It had a tiger on the front and a tail sticking out of the gas tank. The logo read, 'put a tiger in your tank.' I traded a paint job on a 1956 Ford for it."
Anderson is by trade a housepainter but obviously possesses a number of other skills. Lucky for him, none of those skills include destroying the Isetta when he was younger.
"My cousin and I abused it by seeing if we could roll it in the gravel," he says. "Luckily we didn't get it done." He went on to mention how he lifted the car up by himself to assess the damage but nearly tipped it over.