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.
As other more powerful vehicles came his way, Anderson put the little stunt buggy away for a while. He'd almost forgotten about it until about 15 years ago when he was chasing down a wolverine on his property and opened up one of the garages to see the humble BMW.
"At that point I tried to putting in a Kawasaki 1000 motor but had trouble getting the clearances right," he says. Frustrated, he put the little Iso back to bed. Enter two key players, fabricator Don Gacceta and machinist Dwight Hoelscher. Together these two spent more than a year building the frame.
"The biggest challenge was keeping the car in proportion and within the wheelbase," says Gacceta. "But it came out better than anyone expected."
While Hoelscher and Gacceta also mentioned that there were numerous difficulties constructing the frame, another obstacle was getting the tiny tin can to go in reverse. The Isetta is designed to nose into a tight parking space. Just pull in and get out the front. So of course you need a reverse gear to get out of that spot. By now the previous motorcycle motor had been replaced with a 140-hp '97 FJ1200, but that didn't come with reverse either. In order to back out of this tight spot they wound a high-torque starter motor backwards, then welded it to the brake rotor and turned it down on the lathe so it would float between the calipers. It's shadetree mechanic engineering at its finest, and while the operation is as a little jerky, it does the trick. Gacceta and Hoelscher's hands didn't stop at the reverse application. Take a look at the fully refurbished interior by F&H Auto Upholstery and you'll see the gauge panel mounted on the side by Gacceta and the Grant adapter for the steering wheel by Grant Hoelscher. Look even closer and you'll see a radio in the engine bay.
All four corners of the body had to be "stretched" to accommodate the various suspension modifications, which include another piece of top engineering, the cantilevered front suspension. This type of Formula-esque kit may be just enough to justify the graphics. While they see cartoonish at first, they represent the original spirit of Tony the tiger and belie the Isetta's potential handling characteristics in Anderson's desired theme of Sidewinder/Snakebite.
There have been stories that the Isetta was used to sneak short-statured people out from behind the Iron Curtain. Legend has it one woman burned her arm on the exhaust and cried out just as she approached the checkpoint.
Her fate was sealed, but this Isetta may have a long life of speed records ahead of it from the sound of Anderson's claims.
"This car is the fastest stock body street legal BMW Isetta in the world," he says. "The speedometer is GPS so it is 100 percent correct. I've had the car up to 80 mph and it's a little worrisome, but the handling is good. Once you hit 100 it could be a problem. And at this time 150 will probably need another driver. One with lots of life insurance."
Watch this space for verification of Anderson's record. With the weather as it is in Colorado it may not become official until late spring. But until then keep your eyes on your ankles. This snake bites.
1957 BMW Isetta 300
Modified BMW Isetta with 56-inch wheelbase
1989 1200cc FJ1200 Yamaha motorcycle motor. HiTorque starter backwards-wound for reverse, K&N style air filter, Supertrapp exhaust
Reclined cantilever front by Dwight Hoelscher, live axle rear, custom made four-link rear ladder bar, front and rear panhard bar, adjustable AFCO coilover springs
Wilwood calipers, 10.25-inch rotors (f), 10.75-inch rotors (r), Wilwood master cylinder
Wheels & Tires
Weld alloys, 6x13 (f), 7x13 (r)
Sumitomo, 175/50 (f), 205/60 (r)
All four corners stretched, Sidewinder/Snakebite graphics, Harley Davidson Tri Bar headlights
Peak Power: 150 hp @ 9000 rpm
Peak Torque: 70 lb-ft @ 7000 rpm
0-62 mph: 3.5 sec. (est.)
Top Speed: 150 mph (balls limited)