Forget James Bond — international intrigue is more likely to involve something far more innocuous, and cheaper, than an Aston Martin. Something like this BMW Isetta.
An eye-catcher on Auckland’s waterfront, but right at home in East Germany before the wall came down, believe it or not, an Isetta was used several times to smuggle people from East to West, curled up in that tiny engine bay — Horst Brestoffer was caught after he had successfully smuggled nine people across the wall.
One can’t imagine this car’s owner demonstrating how he did it. At 1.9m tall, Dr Cam Calder has to keep the sunroof open simply to drive his little car, which at 2.28m long, 1.37m wide and 1.33m high is the smallest I’ve been in, and yes, it is cosy with two aboard.
It seems hard to believe that something so modest carries a BMW badge, and it was initially designed by Iso, in Italy. A manufacturer of refrigerators, scooters and three-wheeled trucks, the company launched the Iso Moto 200 using a motorcycle engine and called it an Isetta, or little Iso.
Revealed at the 1953 Turin motor show, it was powered by a 236cc two-stroke engine with chain drive running the rear wheels — which sit only 48cm apart, so there’s no need for a diff. It took 30 seconds to reach 50km/h, topped out at about 75km/h and would hold only 13 litres of fuel.
Nevertheless it entered the famous Mille Miglia race, averaging 70km/h over the 1600km course, and taking the top three podium positions in the economy category. But when Fiat’s new 500C delivered stiff competition, its days were numbered, and construction in Italy stopped in 1955 after BMW bought the licence and tooling.
The German company opted for a 247cc four-stroke motorcycle engine with a four-speed transmission, and re-engineered most of the car. Cam’s is a later DeLuxe model with sliding side windows, and a bigger 298cc engine with a 10kW, 18.4Nm output and a claimed 85km/h top speed.
But back to Bond. Cam was conducting his own version of foreign relations when he bought the car in 1995. He’s a petanque fanatic, and was promoting the French game when he got it, partly because it resembled one of the balls the game is played with.
He had spotted it first in Whangarei, outside a BP station and painted in BP colours, lost sight of it and eventually tracked it down. He remembers being drawn to them as a young Otago lad. “They fascinated me, their outrageous shape and how tiny they were, with those crazy ‘bull bars’ out the front and the escape-hatch sunroof.”
The car was a runner — the previous owner had regularly driven it from Whangarei to Muriwai — but it needed some attention, so he joined the owners’ club and found an able local mechanic to strip it, replace everything that looked as if it needed replacing, fit new tyres and repaint it.
Otherwise it’s completely standard, not that there’s much you could change, or the space to make additions.
His car is British-built — Isettas were constructed at a factory in the old railway works in Brighton, England, under licence, in right-hand drive with a door hinged from the right and the steering wheel moved across. With the driver and engine on the same side, a 27kg counterweight was fitted to the left. UK cars were largely produced as three-wheelers, but those destined for export to Canada, Australia and New Zealand kept the four-wheeled format.
This car was imported new, and sold first on January 22, 1959, in Ellerslie — which is about as far as Cam takes it nowadays, “it can be frightening driving it across the Auckland harbour bridge”.
He admits it takes longer to get anywhere in this car, though it’s surprisingly agile, and coped with the steep hill he pointed at — albeit slowly. It’s certainly cosy with two aboard, both entering through the front — the steering wheel is attached to the floor at the bottom, and the door at the top, with a clever hinge device.
You certainly feel its diminutive size in traffic, and I can see why Cam fitted the flag, but you’re never ignored: a couple of pedestrians risked whiplash as we passed, most folk smiled, and taking photos was tricky as others stopped to ask questions, though none bit when told it was for sale.
My usual list of queries proved superfluous, as everything the car has is visible or touchable from the passenger seat. There is no boot — just that rear rack — and there’s not even a fuel gauge.
Cam doesn’t know how frugal it is, but in 1955 the Isetta officially became the first mass-produced car anywhere to achieve a 3l/100km fuel-use claim. After all, that tiny engine is not working too hard, the whole car weighs 350kg — I’ve ridden heavier motorcycles.