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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Isetta and Drive-a

(The first draft of this post was written on Nov. 23, 2011; It finally was posted on my blog on Nov. 23, 2014. Three years later. I feel a little silly that it sat unfinished for that long. It’s true that I get all gung ho starting projects and that I sometimes don’t finish them. Three years seems like a long time to let this post marinate. Of course not when I compare it to the age of our planet…)

‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving,

with much cleaning to do,

but Sarah was gazing online

at cars that looked like shoes.

It’s true. Thanksgiving (2011) is tomorrow and I do have tons of cleaning to do before people come over. But I’m procrastinating. I mean, I’m doing important research on my blog post about the Isetta. Do you know it? It’s a teeny, three-wheeled car from the 1950s and 60s. I love things from this era and this is no exception.


Before I go any further, allow me to do a mini Italian lesson. (I used to be fairly fluent in Italian and I studied there when I was twenty-one.) Please pronounce it like this: EEE-set-tuh. Not, I repeat not, like this: EYE-set-tuh. In Italian the “I” has an “eeeee” sound. When you start sharing facts about the Isetta with your friends, you want to pronounce this correctly, right? (On a related note, Iran and Iraq are not pronounced “EYE-ran” and “EYE-rack.” Talk to any person from Iran or Iraq and listen to how they pronounce it!)

My mom likened the Isetta to the cars Richard Scarry drew, which is right-on! Here are two of Scarry’s illustrations that remind me a lot of the Isetta:



(The photo above must have been a later incarnation, with four wheels. But its top remains mostly glass, like the earliest models, and like Scarry's illustrations.)
Of course, Scarry illustrated books in the 1960s, and Isettas are from that time period so the similarity makes sense. My appreciation for items from that time period comes from the rounded shapes used in a lot of designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, from toasters to cars. Compared with cars of today, ‘60s cars had a lot of glass and chrome, rounded edges, and a more playful, less boxy look.

Isettas are were not the only microcars developed in the 1950s and 60s. (Microcars are exactly what they sound like: cars that look like they were shrunk in the hot water cycle.) Microcars were developed in Europe after World War II, when small vehicles were in demand because of their fuel efficiency. But today I’m focusing on the Isetta. Their small size (only 7.5 ft long by 4.5 ft wide) and unusual design make Isettas intriguing. But what really fascinated me about Isettas was that they opened at the front, like a refrigerator. An Italian company named Iso SpA, which built refrigerators and motor scooters, made its first foray into car design in 1955. Their engineers decided to use elements of what they already made, and when they combined an engine from their scooters and a door from their refrigerators, the Isetta was born. (Oh, how I love this charming backstory!)

Isettas were known as bubble cars because of their curved body style and almost all-glass tops. There are other bubble cars, including the one, below: 

In the 1950s Isettas were built in various countries including Spain, Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium, and Brazil. In 1954, the French company VELAM acquired a licence from Iso to make a car based on the Isetta. Iso had sold the body making equipment to BMW, so VELAM developed their own body but used the original Iso engine. The VELAM body was rounder and more egg-like than Iso's Isetta.


In 1955, Iso licensed the Isetta to Romi, a Brazilian company. With each new manufacturer, the body style changed slightly. Some companies chose to elongate the car so that more people could fit into it. Other companies made their microcars pointy or squarish. But for me, the original Isetta design wins in cuteness and originality.

In 1962 manufacturing of the Isetta was stopped. Among other factors, competition from the VW Beetle and Fiat created less demand for the Isetta. The Isetta’s seven year ride was short but this unusual car has not been forgotten. Today small cars are in demand due to fuel prices and a growing concern about the environment. Fuel-efficient cars, electric cars and hybrids are popular. I’d like to think that the Smart Car has picked up where the Isetta left off. It’s small, it’s very different-looking and it’s fuel-efficient. Did I mention cute? (No, I don’t drive one, nor do I work for Smart Car!)

I’m a good driver but I don’t understand much about how car engines work. I am convinced a really fast hamster is running through a wheel under the hood to power my car. Even if I know very little about how cars work, I’m intrigued by the design of cars from the 50s and 60s. Cars had such unusual design features back then: exaggerated lines and curves and true personality. And some had really fun, pointy tail fins!

This is only somewhat related to our chat about the Isetta, but I did spot a tuk-tuk on the streets of San Diego a few years back. It too is three-wheeled, small and efficient. I was shocked to see it!

That’s why I’m keeping my eyes peeled, people. I’m always on the lookout for something unusual and I feel it’s my calling to share my observations and photos with you. Fear not: this won’t be my last post about vintage cars or unusual sights. I’m on it…

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