The phrase “outside the box” gets bandied around a lot, especially in today’s “disruption” culture. But, how often does something come along that really is completely outside the box? And, what is this box anyway? Wikipedia says the phrase came from the 9 Dots Puzzle which has to be solved by literally drawing outside the “box.” Here’s Wiki’s version.
So, the box is an imagined constraint. A barrier that isn’t really there. There isn’t a box around the nine dots, we just put one there because I think we have a natural attraction to borders. Boxes, both actual and metaphorical, are cozy and safe. It’s why cats like boxes. Cars are literal boxes, but I think the imagined one in their case is precedence. Once the one, two, or three box design came along, that’s what cars basically looked like forever. Whether it’s a sedan, minivan or SUV, the basic outline of all cars is the same. Square in front for engine or luggage, square in middle for people, square in back for engine or luggage. There’s variations obviously, but at their most rudimentary, that’s what a car’s always been. And that’s how we liked it. Until an Italian refrigerator magnate decided the world was ready for something different.
Renzo Rivolta was the son of a wealthy Milanese industrialist who was keen to expand upon his father’s success. Fresh out of engineering school, he bought a small maker of refrigerators and space heaters in Genoa called Isotherm that had come up with a cheaper, simpler way to manufacture the things. He built the company up expanding their market to outside Italy. The success allowed Renzo to indulge his love of motorized speed. He raced motorcycles, cars, and boats, once winning the Pavia-Venezia inboard engine boat race. He was also savvy enough to keep his company running throughout the war when Mussolini then the Nazis sucked dry and destroyed Italy’s industry. In 1942, after his factory was damaged by Allied bombs, he moved the business to an 18th Century family villa in the small town of Bresso to protect it from advancing armies. A year later, with the help of loyal locals, he hid the company’s assets from the retreating Germans who were taking whatever they could from the beleaguered Italians.
After the war ended, sales of refrigerators and heaters declined. They were luxuries people just couldn’t afford. Renzo had already been thinking of a way to transition the company to his passion, things with engines, and saw it in a desperate need for cheap transportation. While at the Milan Exposition in 1947, he saw a small scooter called the Furetto (Ferret, in English, which is awesome) that was being built by the tiny Giesse company.
It was basic and pretty stupid looking and I don’t know what the man who would later give us the Iso Grifo saw in it with its minuscule 2 horsepower 65cc motor. But, somehow, Renzo saw potential and bought the company, moving its production line to Bresso. Along with the scooter came its designer and engineer, Gianfranco Scarpa. When the Furetto went on sale as an Isothermos in 1948, the underpowered, rickety thing was an utter failure.
With the sleek and stylish Vespa coming out at the same time, the ugly Iso didn’t stand a chance. Renzo even demanded a bunch of unsold ones be buried. So, Rivolta ordered Scarpa to completely revise the thing.
The scooter got a more substantial frame and body, and an all new 125cc split cylinder two-stroke that was built in house and based on an auxiliary motor used to start Fraschini aircraft engines. The double piston made the engine more efficient by making sure that all fuel is burned in the cylinder, as well as producing more torque especially at low speeds.
The new scooter was a big improvement, but its looks were no match for the Vespas and Lambrettas that were now buzzing all over the country. Still, while expensive, they were well built, and sold in enough numbers for Renzo to expand into more models. He dropped the “thermos” part of the name since it was confusing, and began producing small motorcycles called Isomotos; and Isocarros, three-wheeled utility vehicles.
Larger, more powerful versions of the twingle engine were also made. Renzo Rivolta was finally in the motor vehicle business. But, as a new decade began, he knew the future wasn’t in things with two wheels that left the driver out in the open. The war weary public, however, couldn’t yet afford proper cars. So, Rivolta wondered if it was possible to build something that was halfway between a scooter and a car. Primitive microcars had begun to appear in Germany and France, and Renzo knew that Fiat was in the process of coming up with a replacement for the venerable Topolino. So, when he was approached by an engineer wonderfully named Ermenegildo Preti who had an idea for a completely unconventional vehicle, he jumped at the opportunity.
Preti was a prolific builder of glider planes and later Director of the Department of Space Aero Politecnico di Milano.
Preti also understood the need for cheap transportation in his war ravaged nation. Italian cities being what they are, he wanted to build the most compact, and inexpensive, car possible. One of his his first ideas was to do away with two side doors in favor of one front door, which kept the width down to the exact size of two (small) adults and one child sitting shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. He had actually used this idea on one of his gliders, the AL 12, which had a nose that was hinged on one side exposing the cockpit. Expanding on this idea, he figured it would be safer if all occupants could exit right onto the sidewalk, so he made his design as short as possible, the production version was just 7’ 6” long, so the car could be parked nose to the curb. When Ermenegildo showed up at the Iso factory with a scale model, Rivolta’s secretary cracked up and reported that some nut was there carrying a wooden watermelon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Preti’s original designs, or wooden watermelons, exist, but I can only imagine it must have seemed like an insane idea. But, so crazy it just might work.
To make improvements on Preti’s idea, Rivolta hired a young designer named Pierluigi Raggi, about whom not much seems to be written, unfortunately, although both guys are described as “volcanic.” Apparently Preti would come up with ideas and rough sketches, and it was Raggi who turned them into something workable. Preti was never happy with how Raggi interpreted his ideas, and Raggi thought Preti should have stuck to planes without engines. Only a couple of the original drawings, and no prototypes, seem to exist, so it’s hard to tell exactly how the design evolved. But, one of Rivolta’s demands was that on the inside, the car should be as comfortable, and conventional as possible. As with his later cars, he thought it should be designed from the inside out.
Whatever the exact process was, they definitely thought outside the box. They seem to have started with two people sitting on a bench with a door in front of them and then encased them in an egg. No boxes whatsoever.
To keep to Renzo’s demand for operational orthodoxy, it has a regular ol’ steering wheel, and the gear shift layout is a normal H-pattern; both features that weren’t present in a lot of micros like the Messerschmitt. The brakes are hydraulic, it has 12v electrics. Suspension up front is a fancy independent Dubonnet type, with leaf spring in the rear.
At the suggestion of Giovanni Michelotti, they also gave it as much window as they could. There’s wraparound plexi in back, and big side windows with just the little triangle vents opening. All cars would also come with a large, cloth sunroof. All this airiness gave you the feeling of being in something bigger than you were.
It has a light, but sturdy, tubular triangle frame; and 10” wheels which made it much more stable than cars like the Fuldamobil which used 8 inchers.
The engine was a version of the twingle from the Iso 200 motorcycle expanded to 236cc’s and making 9.5 horsepower. The first drivable prototype was completed in 1952 and it was actually a 3-wheeler. Everything worked so well, though, that they shredded the rear tire, so they decided to add a fourth wheel. The back wheels were positioned close together to add stability without the need for an expensive, and heavy, differential. One of the car’s cleverest features, thought up by Preti at the last minute, was a universal joint at the bottom of the steering column to allow it to fold away with the door making getting in and out easy. Also, the engine, in a way that could be described as MR, was placed on the right side of the frame in order to counter balance the weight of the driver. It was attached to a 4 speed transmission that drove the rear axle with two chains.
The body is shaped steel welded to a tube skeleton. Raggi gave it the accent line down the side to create fenders and alleviate the watermelon effect. One of the coolest features are those shark gill vents on the engine cover.
The Isetta was first presented to the public in the fall of 1953 at the Turin Auto Show and it was a mindfuck as you’d expect. No one had really ever seen anything like it. Messerschmitts had been on the road in Germany for only a few months, and most Italians had never seen one. So something as tiny as an Isetta that actually kept you out of the weather was a revelation. And it had a certain stylish charm that made it like a Vespa of cars. It was priced slightly lower than a Topolino at the equivalent of $650, which was affordable to a lot of people. Renzo expected to build 50 a week and said the price would drop after production ramped up. However, Fiat, which was in the process of developing the 600 which would already cost about $100 more than the Isetta, objected to the Italian government which put pressure on Iso, so the price never changed.
Renzo knew he was on to something, and felt the little car could solve the problems of cities all over the continent. He also knew that the pressure from Fiat meant that the Italian market was going to be limited, and he was right. So, he also showed the Isetta in Paris and Geneva where it was every bit as much a sensation. The international press raved about the car with England’s The Motor saying, “Boldly and cleverly unorthodox, simple but by no means crude, diminutive but quite good looking, the Isetta may well prove to be pioneering a development as important as that of the motor scooter…” They even loved the way it drove saying, “Fast cornering reveals complete stability, with little body roll and quite a definite under-steer characteristic.” Of course when you say, “fast cornering” in regards to an Isetta, the “fast” part is relative. Still, sounds like a hoot and I can attest that it is. Driving an Isetta is as unique an experience as you’d expect. 0-30 (yes, 30) takes about 13 or so seconds, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re in something the size and shape of a giant pumpkin. The steering is really quick and direct, and these Italian cars had a really nice gearbox, believe it or not, with synchros on each gear. Of course, you’re acutely aware of the fact that is no car in front of you, just your knees, and some thin steel and glass.
To the public, the Isetta was something out of science fiction. A cutting edge look at the future, and is like a space pod compared to the ancient Topolino and the other jalopies sputtering around the countryside. Plus, it was light years ahead of other microcars in terms of refinement. But, for whatever reason, initial sales were slow. Outside the box looks good from inside the box, but actually venturing out there yourself is scary. As ordinary as it may have been to drive, the Little Iso still looked like an egg and that was kind of weird.
In 1954, to promote the car, Rivolta entered four Isettas in the Mille Miglia endurance race. They started first and finished last, but all four cars did complete the 1,000 mile race, averaging 43 mph, a pretty remarkable achievement. They were awarded special trophies for the being the coolest, pluckiest cars in the race, no joke.
The publicity didn’t help, though. And, when Fiat came out with the 600 and 500 in succession, the Isetta was doomed in Italy. A commercial Autocarro version was built, but it only picked up a few sales.
Renzo had his backup plan, however. At that motor show in Geneva there was another car. The V8 powered and luxurious BMW 502, also a sales flop.
Its builders were in a similar predicament as Rivolta’s company. BMW needed a new start, and Renzo wanted to begin building cars like the ones that had thrilled him in his youth. But, he needed money to realize that vision. Iso only sold around 5,000 Isettas between 1953 and 1956. But, Iso, obviously wasn’t done. And neither was the Isetta.
Stay tuned for part II where the little egg rescues everyone’s favorite Bavarian motor work from its postwar doledrums!