“Hey!” you’re probably thinking. “Why does that Isetta have doors in the wrong place? Am I in Bizarro World?” Haha, no. That’s not an Isetta. It’s the Hoffmann Auto Kabine 250 and it’s one of the more audacious knock-offs in car history.
Jacob Oswald Hoffmann was born in Düsseldorf in 1896 and was an ambitious entrepreneur starting in his early 20’s. After failing at selling tobacco and furs, he found his calling in bicycles. After the First World War, bicycles became popular as cheap transportation and Jacob got in at just the right time. Hoffmann started out selling Opel bikes in the 20’s, and then became a partner in the Solinger company, one of the biggest bicycle manufacturers in Germany. Their factory was destroyed in WWII, but Jacob got a license to start a new factory in 1946 and began production a year later of bikes with his own name on them. At the time, it was very difficult to procure raw materials and Hoffmann’s plant was one the few manufacturers running. Apparently, Jake had a way of making connections and skirting regulations. Business was ok, but not like before the war. So, in 1948, he got a license to build frames for DKW motorcycles. Even though times were tough, it seems people still didn’t want to power their own vehicles and cheap motorcycles were selling like bratwurst. In 1949, though, Jacob discovered something better.
At the 1949 Frankfurt Spring Fair a clever little two-wheeler was on display. It wasn’t a motorcycle, but it was motorized. It was stylish and thrifty, comfortable and easy to drive. It was called the Vespa and it was about to revolutionize personal transport in Europe. Hoffmann was impressed and quickly acquired a license to build the things in Germany where he thought they would be just as popular as in Italy where sales had jumped from 2,500 in to 45,000 in just a couple years. There were any number of small, basic motorcycles on sale in Germany, but the Vespa was completely unique.
Hoffman starting building their own Vespas by the end of ’49 and they were an instant success. To hedge his bets, Hoffmann also began production of small motorcycles with two-stroke Ilo motors that ranged from 125cc to 250cc and these were considered well built little bikes, but it was the Vespas that brought the money in. Jacob invested in a 450 ton press, one of only two in Germany at the time, the other being Volkswagen’s. Vespas were buzzing all over the continent and all the ones in Germany said “Hoffmann.” Jacob was even featured in Life magazine as the “man who put Germany on two wheels.”
He had a 5 year license with Piaggio, but by 1953, sales had started to cool. Hoffmann had sold 30,000 Vespas, but now the economy was beginning to improve and people wanted something a little peppier than a 4.5 horsepower scooter.
Hoffmann decided it was time to invest in building his own motor for a more powerful motorcycle. He hired renowned engineer Richard Küchen to design a 250cc four stroke boxer engine that could be enlarged to 300.
He put it in a beautiful, shaft-driven motorcycle called the Gouverneur. It was a hit at the motorcycle shows and was well engineered. In what would in retrospect be ironic, BMW was impressed enough to acknowledge that it was serious competition. But, the ambitious bike was a little too expensive and sales were lower than hoped. An overheating problem with the new motor didn’t help any. And, Hoffmann had invested a million Marks in it.
He asked Piaggio if he could put a bigger engine in the Vespas, but his license stipulated that he had to produce the scooters exactly as they were designed. They didn’t want a foreign scooter that was any better than their own. Well, Jacob, in a sign of things to come, told them to shove it, and began producing his own 150cc two-strokes to replace the Piaggio 125. This helped sales, but enraged the Italians and they promptly canceled his license, handing the contract over to Messerschmitt.
Jacob had already seen the future, though, and it wasn’t on two wheels. Once again he looked to Italy. An article about a new microcar, the Iso Isetta had caught his eye. It was like the Vespa of automobiles; tiny, cheap, but stylish and totally unique. It was the next step up from a scooter which was exactly what people were looking for. He applied for a license from Iso to produce the car in his factory, but was denied. Not learning anything from the Vespa affair, he said fuck it and told his chief engineer Hans Röger to copy it.
To be fair, he did have his attorneys check that he wasn’t violating any patents as far as Germany was concerned. Since Isettas weren’t sold there, they gave him the thumbs up, but with one caveat. The front mounted door was too unique and may be an issue, so they recommended he give it a side door. That sounded good to Jacob, so they got to work. Röger worked off a photo of the Isetta and whatever information was available about the car in articles. Hoffmann had some ideas to make their car an improvement over the Italian one. He thought a longer wheelbase would make the car more stable. In addition, he wanted a Hoffmann 250 engine set in the middle of the narrow tracked rear wheels driving them via shaft. On the Isetta, a smaller Iso engine was mounted on the right side of the frame and powered the rear wheels by chain. Röger also designed a beefier frame for their car. One other thing Jacob requested that would prove troublesome was a fashionable column mounted shifter for the Hermes 3-speed transmission. Three on the tree was en vogue at the time on more expensive cars. They quickly bodged together a nearly bodyless prototype and began test drives in early 1954.
The car performed pretty well until the transmission fell apart at 13,000 km. This was due to the extreme angle the shift linkage entered the gearbox because of the column shift. Hoffmann stubbornly wanted it corrected instead of just moving the gearshift to the floor. A rubber boot managed to help matters, but apparently the transmission was always wonky. One other issue was that even without a body, the car was heavy for its size and the 250 motorcycle engine wasn’t enough. So, they expanded it to 300. The only problem with this was that the lowest class of driver’s licenses in those days was a class 4 which only allowed you to drive cars with motors 250cc’s and less. These drivers were going to be the car’s biggest market. So, Jacob did what anyone without scruples would do and just called the car the Auto-Kabine 250 and hoped no one would notice. Just like they wouldn’t notice it looked just like an Isetta, right?
They decided that the budget model would just have one door on the passenger side, and the more expensive version would have two doors. By May, they had a full prototype of each. The cars looked good and were actually a step up from their inspiration. Not having a front door meant it could have a full dashboard with a range of gauges as opposed to the Isetta which only had a speedometer mounted on its steering wheel. The Hoffmann’s 300cc four-stroke engine was much more powerful than the 236cc two-stroke unit in the Isetta. The Hoffmann did weigh more, especially with two-doors, but they didn’t have to say that in the brochures.
In June, the cars were presented to the public. Some journalists wrote that it was a brilliant all-new design, but industry magazines assumed Hoffmann had a license with Iso. They also wondered why the door was on the passenger side and thought it was a mistake since there was a definite reason why the Isetta had the door in front. It was for parking in narrow spots nose-in to the curb. If you did this in a Hoffmann, you’d be stuck. Funny enough, an American writer thought moving the door was a brilliant idea.
Jacob made plans to put the car in production by the fall. Since he had sunk so much money into the Gouverneur and Vespa engines, he needed to take out a loan with Deutsche Bank for the funds to make the tooling for the Auto-Kabine. The money would come in in October, so Hoffmann began producing a first run of cars by hand on its own. They could only make the single door cars since they hadn’t made a dye for the driver’s door, yet. It’s around this time that Iso began to take notice. The sent Hoffmann an injunction to cease production. Ol’ Jake promptly ignored it going so far as to take out ads stating that the Isetta was a copy of his car. Oh, boy. Since his lawyers had said everything was cool, Jacob figured he was fine and took one of the cars to the Paris Motor Show.
Also there was an actual Isetta and now more people were starting to be suspicious. Hoffmann brushed off concerns by pointing out that his car was better. It was more powerful and robust. The interior was nicer. He had the more advanced car, so how could it be the knock-off? Meanwhile he even began to sign up dealers for the cars trickling out of the factory. He was also still waiting for the money from the bank. Unfortunately, though, a development was about to happen that would doom his little car.
BMW had procured a license to build Isettas and their new plant was also going to be financed by Deutsche Bank. BMW was a much more established brand than Hoffmann and Germany was eager to reestablish a presence in the global automobile market. A microcar wasn’t going to do it, but they would keep a factory open while an old marque got back on its feet.
Deutsche Bank sided with BMW and cancelled the Hoffmann loan. In addition, Iso and BMW sued Hoffmann for infringement. With no money, Hoffmann couldn’t pay his workers who then began looting the factory. Jacob filed for bankruptcy. This allowed him to protect the plant and finish building Auto-Kabines using what parts he had left.
Simultaneous to the bankruptcy proceedings, he also fought the Isetta suit. Hoffmann claimed that it was only coincidence that the two cars looked alike. Since they were both trying to solve the same problem, design a small, cheap two-seater, they just happened upon similar ideas. It was convergent evolution. No one bought it and BMW won. Amusingly, they sent him a brand new BMW 502 V8 for his trouble. It was a pretty small consolation. He company was liquidated to pay his worker’s back wages. 113 Auto-Kabines were said to have been built before the end. It’s suspected at least 80 of them were sent to dealers. But, none survive today. The legend is that BMW had them all recalled and destroyed. BMW’s Isetta became the best selling microcar of all time and it did indeed save the company by buying time for them to design the Neue Classe line. Hoffmann’s cars never had a chance against the Bavarians. Jacob remained in the automobile industry becoming a supplier for Karmann. He died pretty much forgotten in 1972. Today, there is a small, but dedicated number of Hoffmann motorcycle collectors. And, Hoffmann Vespas are highly sought after in the scooter world as being the best built Vespas. It’s also been said that the Auto-Kabine was the car BMW would have made if they, like Hoffmann with Vespa, weren’t restricted by their license with Iso. I still don’t think they would have put the door on the side, though.