1965 was not a good year for me. As a student reading French I was required, not unreasonably, to spend a year teaching in France. This ought to have been a pleasure, but by and large it turned out not to be. However there was one unexpected consolation prize, thanks to General de Gaulle, then president of the republic.
For some unknown reason, that year he decided to pay an extra month’s wages to all those like me who had been engaged in the mostly futile task of teaching English to French schoolchildren. This inexplicable but welcome gesture enabled me to buy my first car – an Isetta bubble car.
From two wheeled hell to three wheeled heaven!
Bubble cars were all the rage then, very much part of the sixties scene. But they were not just fashion statements; for many of us who had good reason to turn away from scooters and motorbikes they were a practical and affordable form of motorised personal transport with no legal impediment so long as the car was a genuine three-wheeler and you had a valid motorcycle licence. Officially they were classed as motor tricycles.
After quite a few recces, I finally pitched up at a dealer’s not far from my parents’ home in London NW9 and, armed with the general’s bonus, did the deal on a 1957 BMW Isetta bubble car. One snag – I had never driven a car before, so she had to be delivered. For a week or two she sat outside the house while I plucked up courage to start her up and give her a whirl. The problem was that even though I understood the principles of car driving, I had nobody to teach me and no practical experience.
Predictably, my first tentative trip up the road was a disaster, ending up wedged in a neighbour’s hedge. Fortunately no harm done to the car, and not much to the hedge. Even the neighbour thought it was a laugh.
Only slightly daunted I persevered and taught myself to drive, venturing out on to the main road and then going further and further afield, almost without incident. I can’t tell you how liberating this was, as I revisited the leafy lanes of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, just as I had done on my bike years before.
My deadline was the beginning of my final year at Leicester University, a hundred miles north. When the time came I set off up the A5 surrounded by all my worldly goods – or as much as it’s possible to cram into a bubble car. A few hours later I parked up outside the shared student house in Filbert Street, dazed but happy enough.
In principle the advantages of bubble car ownership were that it was:
- Affordable : I think I paid £99 for my Isetta, and I sold it on in 1967 for £100. Because the engine was a cut-down motorcycle job I got about 50 miles to the gallon, unheard of in any normal car at the time.
- Weatherproof: In our dreadful climate, keeping the rain, snow and wind out on the road is now taken for granted, but such luxury was then normally only available to those who could afford a conventional car.
- Taxed and licensed as a motorcycle: In Britain, if you already had a motorcycle licence, you could legally drive your new bubble car away from the dealer’s forecourt, so long as it had only three road wheels. (Elsewhere, the standard Isetta had four wheels, but In the UK most Isettas were the three-wheel version.)
- Fashionable: To be honest, I did not realise just how fashionable bubble cars were at the time, but mine certainly was a talking point when I returned to Leicester to finish my degree, arousing envy and derision in equal measure; undergraduates rarely owned cars in those days, at least at redbrick universities.
- Made in Germany: Most of the genuine bubble cars available in the UK were originally made in Germany, either by aviation companies such as Messerschmidt or Heinkel, or by car manufacturers. The Isetta was taken over from its Italian creators by no less than BMW, and I am still amused by the fact that mine sported the now-iconic BMW badge on the front door. Yes, the front door. One of the abiding novelties of the Isetta was the means of entry and exit, through a hinged door up front, facilitated by a universal joint on the steering column and gas strut to keep the door open when getting in and out. Unlike some of its competitors the Isetta was a vehicle that was more like a “real” car, even though it had only three wheels and a motorcycle engine at the back. It was a two-seater with a proper steering wheel, conventional controls, an integral electric starter motor / generator, 12 volt electrics, conventional gears, handbrake and even a soft-top for fine weather driving. The engine was a 300cc version of the classic BMW 600cc twin cylinder four stroke motorbike engine, achieved by literally cutting it in half and counterbalancing the mainshaft with a flywheel.
- Easy to park: The Isetta was indeed very easy to park because it was so small, and because it had no side doors. At a pinch, two people could also lift the rear end to get into or out of a really tight space. Apparently.
So much for the plus-points, what about the downside? In my case the Isetta proved less than perfect because:
- It had a dodgy clutch
- It had a dodgy oil breather valve
- Like all bubble cars it was slow
- No good for long journeys
- Kerbside repairs were difficult
- Bubble cars were thought to be dangerous
The two main mechanical problems I discovered through painful experience were the cable operated clutch and a poorly designed engine lubrication system. Without going into the gory details, both problems involved stripping down the entire engine, and, given my lack of money, kerbside DIY repairs with only a translated workshop manual as a guide were the only option.
While researching this article I came across several films made by an engaging American vintage car restorer who really gets across his love of bubble cars, in this case a four-wheeled Isetta. In this clip you see not only the ingenuity behind the engine design but understand why I could really have done with a workshop……
By the way, the weakest point of the clutch was the push rod, which used to burn out. Interesting too that the old engine had run out of oil.
The oil problem first became evident to me when travelling down to Kent for a wedding. I had noticed the car was using a lot of oil, but on this trip she started overheating and almost stalled. A dipstick check and a smoky engine suggested an oil problem, but I had bought a spare can of oil, so I filled her up and continued the trek. A few miles on, we had to stop and buy more oil and repeat the exercise. Several times.
Eventually we arrived at the church in the nick of time, hungry and in my case with a dirty suit and oily hands. Handshakes were embarrassing, and the return journey was just depressing. For the technically minded, the fault was with the oil breather valve, not the most accessible component in the vehicle.
Even without such mechanical glitches, bubble cars were, let’s face it, useless for long journeys. The engine and road noise was mentally wearing, the seating was only suitable for small people, and because the top speed was about 45mph, any journey over about 50 miles could be quite stressful. Motorway driving was hairy at times – no overtaking, and a tendency for the car to be apparently invisible to other drivers. On reflection though, I think these problems made me a safer driver in the long run.
Bubble cars were also perceived as dangerous, and I do remember reading some scary newspaper stories, but I recall only two incidents, both amusing rather than alarming.
The first happened on the North Circular Road, waiting at a red light at the Neasden crossroads. Suddenly the world went dark, as a policeman fell over the bubble car. He had simply failed to see it as he walked into the road. In the debate that followed he seemed quite convinced that this was my fault, but I saw no reason to apologise for daring to own a car that was apparently invisible to him. Even though it was painted bright yellow at the time.
The second accident was in near-stationary traffic, also in Neasden, when I ever-so-gently rolled downhill into the rear of a builder’s van. This time it was my fault, and we both pulled into a side street to examine any damage. The closing speed must have been less than walking pace, but lo-and-behold there was a huge dent in back door of the van, but not a scratch on the Isetta. Van-man put on a great show of kerbside outrage while I had a good look at the dent. For a start, the floor of the van was a good foot or so higher than that of the bubble car so the dent lined up with the bubble car roof, more or less. I pointed this out but he ranted on. I then noticed that the inside of the dent was rusty, and I drew this to his attention too. As if by magic van-man was suddenly very keen to be somewhere else.
By the way, bubble cars were inherently less dangerous than some other three-wheelers, such as the Reliant Robin, because they had two wheels at the front, and so were less likely to roll over.
The only other adverse reaction I recall was that of my father-in-law-to-be when he first saw his beloved daughter opening the front door of the Isetta and calmly walking out. I’m not sure if this shocking experience affected his as yet undiagnosed heart condition, but it I’m sure it did little to inspire confidence in his daughter’s choice of life partner.
Actually the Isetta played a significant part in bringing us together, especially on a day trip from Leicester to, of all places, Skegness. That day alone cancels out any bad bubble memories. We celebrate our our 50th wedding anniversary this year; perhaps it was a magic car.
Eventually I had to sell the Isetta before emigrating to New Zealand, but the problem was that by 1967 bubble cars were going out of style, a demise hastened by affluence and the unstoppable rise of the Mini. It’s ironic that if you want to buy an Isetta or any vintage bubble car now you’ll need up to £20,000. Having dealt with the usual time-wasters I sold the Isetta to a sloane ranger from Belsize Park, despite her dislike of the new livery – british racing green and white. Evidently she didn’t get irony.
The last time I saw any bubble cars on the road was a few years ago, when we were dining on fish and chips in a cafe by the bridge in Wroxham, on the Norfolk Broads. I was facing the road, and I caught sight of a lone bubble car (an Isetta I think,) bubbling along. As I struggled to curb my enthusiasm another appeared, then another and another. Within a few minutes Wroxham was under a bubble car siege. We caught up with the rally later on (not hard to do), and overtaking them was a nostalgic binge. If only had I not sold mine……….
I did retain one physical reminder of all those kerbside repairs, the workshop manual, which, incidentally was once borrowed by Charlie Watts’ sister Linda, who had bought an Isetta, and who lived with her mum and dad opposite my parents’ council house in Kingsbury. (How’s that for gratuitous name dropping?) I suppose I must have taken the manual to New Zealand and back, because it recently surfaced and I donated it to the Bubble Car Museum in Langrick, near Boston, which, oddly enough is only a few miles from where we live now in Lincolnshire. A gem, in my opinion, well worth a visit if you happen to pass this way.
Merci mon général – it’s all down to you.
There are plenty of bubble car films on Youtube. If you can bear the forced joviality and somewhat patronising attitude of the presenter, this one has the merit of being shot at The Bubble Car Museum, before it relocated from Cranwell
This one suffers from testosterone fuel injection and a cheesy music track (or is it ironic?) but it does have the merit of being shot on the road, proving that in good nick the Isetta is still capable of locomotion:
Bubble Car kills Errol Flynn’s mother (allegedly!)
The bubble car Museum, Lincolnshire
The bubble car is back! (Pinch of salt required – it’s a Daily Mail article after all. But it does look very much like an electric Isetta. Good thinking if it’s true.)
From Rhys Jones:
Thanks for the memories and your amusing account. I had quite a few rides – but only when I got up early enough! You failed to mention keeping the engine warm on freezing night with a funny round little oil heater which you placed under the sump (is that the right term?) – Rhys
It was Rhys’s wedding!