My First Car: Isetta on a roll… until the bubble burst!

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In the latest feature of our new My First Car series, Jonathan Smith tells of taking to, and leaving, the road in his Isetta 300 and some sound advice from former BMW PR boss Raymond Playfoot.

It seemed like my father – a pretty shrewd chap with money – had driven a hard deal in helping me get my first car.

The conditions ran like this. I had to save up the purchase price through pocket money, odd jobs and birthday gifts and, in return, he would tax, insure and maintain the vehicle.

I must add that the year was 1968, and I was 15. My chosen car was an Isetta Bubble car, the same colour and similar to the one pictured above, which I could drive legally from my 16th birthday, only months away.

Well, as time would tell, my father’s contribution ended up many times greater than my own.

A few weeks before turning 16, I had raised the necessary £50 to purchase WCA 357, a 10-year-old red Isetta 300 with 41k on the clock. It was a left-hooker but that mattered little as the car was so narrow I only had to lean over slightly to get decent visibility.

I’d done the Christmas post, worked selling ice cream at Chester Zoo and saved as much money as possible.

Blast from the past – a young Jonathan Smith.

Desperate to drive, I had already learned in the family Mini on a local disused airfield, tutored my very nervous father, and within weeks of getting the keys of the Bubble car I passed my driving test – a full test just the same as in a four-wheeler.

I must add that the Isetta became my number one choice after realising that the sportier Messerschmitt three-wheeler seated the passenger behind the driver which would not have led to the same social interaction with girls… if you follow my drift.

I virtually lived in that car. I drove to school, volunteered to collect my mum’s shopping, eagerly ran my dad to and from the pub and would get up at dawn for an early spin in it.

But it wasn’t long before the trouble began. Breakdown after breakdown. The AA men became my best buddies, fixing electrical faults, unblocking the carburettor, sorting a dodgy plug cap and even replacing a snapped-off gear lever.

And when they tired of me, or couldn’t do a roadside repair, WCA 357 was towed into a nearby garage. This is where my dad’s offer to maintain the car came in. Within a couple of months the bills had clocked up to more than double the initial purchase price of the car. The bubble had burst, you might say.

In the end, a school pal of mine who had also owned a similarly unreliable Isetta, went halves with me and we bought a third broken model to cannibalise for parts. It cost us just £20 between us and proved a good investment.

It was my first car, and in it I clocked up a number of significant ‘firsts’ – my first crash, my first kiss and (very nearly) my first cigarette.

The shunt was certainly memorable. Although the Isetta wasn’t exactly fast – the maximum according to the handbook was 55mph. And I endeavoured to drive at that speed everywhere.

The problem came on bends, particularly if my passenger was a pal who weighed more than my then slender 11-stone. I regularly lifted a wheel during enthusiastic cornering but on one particular occasion, when I was accompanied by a beefy rugby-playing mate, I felt one of the front wheels lift as we corkscrewed down a windy residential road, but the wheel never came down again.

Instead the car rolled over… and over and over. Unfortunately the rotund shape of the vehicle encouraged this momentum. After what seemed like an age, we came to rest in the drive of a large house owned by an unsympathetic woman who shouted at me and persisted to brush up the glass from the Isetta’s broken headlights.

Fortunately neither myself nor my beefy chum was hurt. But the car’s battery had become dislodged from beneath the bench seat and had landed on my knee causing acid burns in my new Levi jeans.

I knew this because my mum took them back to the store, complaining they were in holes after just a few weeks. They sent them back to Levi’s who conducted tests and discovered traces of battery acid.

At this point I had to make a complete confession to my parents, explaining the details of my accident.

Despite the problems, few cars offered the feel-good factor of the Bubble car. Particularly in winter time. While my buddies were getting soaked and chilled to the bone on scooters and Triumph Tiger Cubs, I was cosy and comfy with a roof over my head… and usually accompanied by a pretty girl.

Not everyone, however, was impressed with the Isetta. About 10 years after I parted with the car I was on a BMW press launch as a young muttering rotter. I happened to mention to the then PR boss – a very urbane Raymond Playfoot – that my first car had a BMW power in the shape of the 300cc BMW engine, which was quite accurate.

He politely advised me not to mention the Isetta ever again if I wanted to be invited on another trip. Sound advice.

Send your My First Car memories with pictures to Andy Russell at andrew.russell10@sky.com

Comments 2

  1. Great one, Jonathan. My dad worked on Isettas in the 60s. I remember one rolling the full length of Kings Ash Hill in Paignton. I don’t think that person was hurt either. I saw a restored one in New Romney a week or so back.

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