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IT WAS TOO EARLY (1958) to wonder what the R&T staff was smoking, but imagine hallucinatory oddities of February and April road tests that year: the Isetta 300 and Chrysler 300-D.
Apart from the “300,” extremes of numerical data are the only things these two cars have in common. Yet, surprisingly, each car received a favorable R&T review. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from the two road tests.
The Egg and We. R&T wrote, “For specialized uses—getting around a crowded, slow-moving city or a smaller place where traffic does not move at breakneck speed, or in isolated areas where service could be a problem for more complex machinery, and where economy is all important—there is little doubt the Isetta is a vehicle to consider. It is well designed, well built, and it does its job efficiently.”
Consider these specializations.
City Use. “The front-opening door is a wise idea,” R&T noted. “Entrance around the double-jointed steering column is very easy for the driver if the passenger hasn’t preceded him, and once he has learned not to grasp the wheel for support, for doing so will close the door smartly before he is ready for it. If it is raining (and it was) a considerable amount of water is likely to enter with him.”
“Head-in parking is practical with a car whose length is approximately the width of an American car. In this position, one can step directly on or off the curb.”
Unmarked parallel parking, though, depends on the kindness of others. “For once hemmed in,” R&T noted, “the driver can get neither in nor out.”
Driving the Isetta. “The gearshift lever,” R&T says, “extends from the side panel at the driver’s left. The pattern is an H, with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th speeds. Fast shifts are smooth and enjoyable; a frequent reluctance to go into 1st speed is not at all enjoyable, particularly because a departure in 2nd is an ignominious thing indeed.”
“Quiet starting with a Siba Dynastart [a combination starter/generator] quickly gives way to a noise level that is less than pleasing.” The dealer offers “a polyurethane foam insulation kit that makes a surprising difference; it costs $30.00 installed.”
“There is no sense of strain from the single-cylinder, 4-stroke engine when it is revved up, but being right behind the seat, it is always evident. In spite of the unprepossessing acceleration figures, the 300 is like the smallest Berkeley (tested in last month’s issue) in this one respect only: It gives a satisfying sense of acceleration, due partly to its size and partly to the willing response of the engine.”
That is, all in all, a tidy little package for city driving.
Ride and Handling. R&T reported, “Here is yet another tiny car whose ride—at least, considering size,—is very good indeed. It is wise to watch for, and avoid, any large obstacles in the road. With the very narrow rear tread, this is not always easy, and the jounce is severe.
An English Commonality with Morgan. As described by Wikipedia, Iso Isetta’s prototypes were trikes, “but having a single rear wheel made the car prone to roll-overs, so the rear wheel layout was changed to two wheels set 480 mm (18.9 in) apart from each other.” Such was the case with the BMW-licensed Isetta tested by R&T.
However, BMW Isetta U.K. found its 4-wheeled microcars to be a hard sell, so it introduced a three-wheel version. Like the Morgan trike, it profited from taxation advantages, never mind an occasional tendency to upset. Isetta U.K. stopped producing the trike in 1962.
Incredible Economy. R&T reported, “Gasoline mileage, of course, is almost incredible. The wisdom of changing from the original 2-cylinder, 2-stroke design to a single fairly large cylinder of 4-stroke pattern shows up especially in hard driving. That is the way it is fun to drive the 300, and it is pleasant not to have the miles-per-gallon figure drop as it can with a 2-stroke when pressed.”
Rugged Design. “The apparent ruggedness of the design impressed us most favorably,” R&T observed. “There is very little to go wrong with the Isetta, and repairs should be both simple and cheap.The single spark plug can be reached from the driver’s seat, and the carburetor is behind the slotted cover on the right side of the car.”
A Telling Comment. “The air-cooled engine,” R&T noted, “is on the right to balance the weight of the driver, on the supposition that the car will frequently be driven without a passenger.”
Well, I’m not surprised.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll explore the Chrysler 300-D, 1958’s other extreme of automotive design. It won’t matter how many passengers. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023
Adding a commercial aspect to this fine post, take a look at https://www.classic.com/m/bmw/isetta/300/ and other sources (Hemmings and BringATrailer come to mind immediately.)
There’s an active market for these Isettas, too, and Citroen 2CVs as well! But the big kahuna of odd but loved smaller cars has to be MORGANs!
Passenger weight impacts reminds me of a time when I was in Mallorca as a teen and we were driving a Seat 500, that my friend’s father had rented. Two young men and two ladies. We started (or attempted) up a steep hill. Success was achieved with three passengers disembarking and walking up the hill.
Reminds me of a Seat 500 that a friend’s father had rented in Mallorca many years ago, and with 4 people aboard we attempted to drive up a steep hill. Success was achieved with three passenger disembarking and walking up the hill.