Tom Ensign is right up front about it: “I like things that are unusual.”
And his 1957 Isetta 300 drives that point home, with its single door being right up front, and its single-cylinder engine being tucked behind a miniature hood on the right side of the pale yellow micro car.
He was first exposed to Isettas when he skipped his college graduation in favor of a trip to the Museum of Transportation near St. Louis.
“They had an Isetta there and I thought it was about the most stupid thing I’d ever seen. But I kept thinking about it. I even bought a model of one and set it on my desk at work.”
A co-worker noticed the model and said, “I’ve got one of those. I drove it for years. It’s been parked in a barn in Massachusetts for 18 years.” He had driven the car there from Wichita to visit family in 1968, but it broke down and was picked up in the scoop of a tractor and unceremoniously deposited in the barn.
The thought intrigued Ensign, who tried to buy the car, sight unseen. But the owner resisted until one day he relented and told Ensign, “The first guy who gets to Massachusetts with $500, it’s his.”
Ensign talked his brother into driving to Massachusetts, where they loaded the Isetta into the back of a pickup and hauled it back to Wichita. The little car was in rough shape, its interior having been ravaged by squirrels and mice, its engine in dire need of an overhaul.
“But I was excited. I wanted to find out how it works,” Ensign recalls. Parts were hard to find, but he stripped the car down to its components, had the engine repaired and the body repainted its original BMW yellow. Downey Upholstery recovered the single bench seat, while Ensign handled most the mechanical restoration/reassembly himself.
The Isetta was designed as basic transportation as Europe recovered from World War II. It was designed to be parked “nose-in” to a parallel parking spot, so two drivers could fit their cars into a single space, Ensign said. He explained that the length of an Isetta is about the same as the width of a conventional car.
About 161,000 Isettas were produced, in both left-hand and right-hand drive configurations.
“They figured out if you want to build a cheap car, it has to be simple,” Ensign said. The car is powered by a modified air-cooled BMW R26 single cylinder motorcycle engine displacing 298 cc’s, or about 18 cubic inches. It breathes through an oval air intake in the middle of the rear sheet metal, producing a whopping 13 horsepower.
“And it needs them all … there’s a 50 mph redline on the engine. I once had it up to 54 mph and I passed a Camaro. But the guy in the Camaro obviously wasn’t trying very hard,” Ensign confessed.
The Isetta was originally rated at 75 mpg, so when Ensign had the car all back together and running at the end of its 5-year restoration, he took it to a Honda Insight dealer for a comparison.
“I told them my car gets better gas mileage than yours and it’s not a hybrid. I can be a bit of a stinker at times,” Ensign admitted with a chuckle.
Empty, the Isetta weighs in at about 800 pounds, which he illustrates by lifting one corner of the car off the ground by himself.
He doesn’t show the car often and doesn’t take it out on the highway much, for fear that gawkers might misjudge his speed and slam into the little yellow “bubble car.”
“A 20 mile trip is a darned long way in this car,” Ensign says. “I do take it to the grocery store occasionally. Mostly, I just drive it around the neighborhood and have fun in it.”