Tuesday, October 6, 2009

History: The Bubble Cars

They may not be high performance machines that left their names on the record sheets of famous motorsports events. But there is no questioning these cars significance to automotive history and their legitimate status of classic automobiles. They are the Bubble Cars and they brought mass transportation back to war ravaged Europe.


Europe was left in quite a state after the most bloodiest and destructive wars to ever explode on the Earths surface. Germany was raised to the ground by allied bombers, and it would be years until some of the most basic of services would be returned to the general public. Its economy was in shambles and fuel was in extremely short supply, only to become scarce once again in the 60’s during the Suez crisis. It was these set of challenges that brought about these little Bubble Cars, designed to be economical, yet provide their owners with sheltered transportation. I say sheltered transportation because these cars were little more than scooters that could be driven in, rather than ridden on.


Several manufacturers starting building these interesting little automobiles soon after the war. Companies like Messerschmitt, who were temporarily banned from building aircraft, turned to mass-producing microcars with the guidance of aircraft engineer, Fritz Fend, who had been working on the idea for some time. Under Fends direction, the first vehicle to enter production at Messerschmitt's Regensburg factory was the KR175. The KR stood for Kabinenroller, which in turn means "scooter with cabin." And that’s all they were, nothing more than three wheels, a light metal skin and was powered by a 173 cc (10.6 cu in) Fichtel & Sachs air-cooled single cylinder two-stroke engine mounted in front of the rear wheel, just behind the passenger's seat. Fend designed the car with a transparent acrylic bubble top, much like those found on the fighter planes of the day. It was a trait carried on through the Messerschmitt evolutions as well as many other microcar manufacturers. It was this feature that coined the fraise “Bubble Cars,” carried on by future models such as the BMW Isetta, whose entire bodies took the shape of a bubble or teardrop.


Messerschmitt would go on to build the KR200, a updated three-wheeler with a 191 cc engine producing a whopping 10 horsepower to move the 230 kg car all the way up to 90 kmh. At a cost of only 2,500 DM the 200 became a great success, selling 40,000 examples and spawning competition from rival aircraft builder Heinkel as well as BMW, Fuldamobil, Citroen, Velorex, Iso, Peel, Trojan and Reliant.

Needless to say these cars have turned into cult classics. Their miniature size couple with the massive amount of character they exude has made them much sought after by collectors and admirers alike. The problem is not many survive today despite being mass-produced fifty years ago. But one car that was produced in such great numbers and was so stylish for its era, has long since represented this class of automobile has to be the iconic Isetta.


While many think it was BMW that designed and built the Isetta, it was actually the Italian firm Iso SpA that conceived the car. Iso was building refrigerators, motor scooters and small three-wheeled trucks when company owner, Renzo Rivolta decided to try his hand at the microcar sector. Designed with the traits of the companies other businesses, you’d think that a car designed to look like a fridge riding on two scooters would be a design monstrosity. Quite the opposite, the Isetta was an instant darling unveiled to the press in 1953. Unlike the Messerschmitt, where the driver sat in front of the passenger, the Isetta was a side-by-side, while the entire front face represented the only door. With the steering wheel, controls and instrument panel connected to the hinged door, access was made easier to the bench seat. However, in the event of an accident, and providing the passengers still had legs, the canvas sunroof would act as a secondary escape route. 

Under the rear parcel shelf was a 236 cc two-stroke two cylinder that provided 9.5 horsepower to the two narrow rear wheels via a chain. While the cars top speed was only 75 kmh, but weighing in south of 500 kg, the car was capable of getting 70 mpg. It was all going great for the little Isetta, but with the introduction of the Fiat 500C in 1954, the cars popularity began to slip, and Rivolta began to license the car out to just about anyone who would listen. In 1955, BMW produced the first German made Isetta, dropping in one of their own 247 cc four-stroke, one-cylinder motorcycle engines that upped the cars power to 13 horsepower. Other than the engine the car was identical to the Iso version, so much that parts were interchangeable. But the BMW version was a massive hit and garnered much better sales. BMW would go on to update the car, calling it the Isetta 250, as it featured a new 250 cc engine and updates to the suspension. A 300 and longer wheelbase four-seater 600 versions were added to the line-up as sales toped an unprecedented 161,000 units by the cars demise in 1962.

But the Isetta, along with all the other Bubble Cars live on thanks to dedicated fans and collectors. With cars with a background like these you’d think they would be only obtainable by wealthy collectors. However, excellent examples are known to sell between $10,000 and $20,000. The hard part is trying to find one.  

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