Bubbly Beemers

Lincolnite Enjoys Rare BMW Isetta 300, 600

By Jeff Barnes

The only thing better than a bubble? Two bubbles. That’s bubble as in bubble cars, and Brad Swiggart has a couple of beauties – a 1958 BMW Isetta 300 and its younger-but-bigger brother, a 1959 BMW 600.

These are show-stoppers – the 600 was at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance last year and was at the Milwaukee Masterpiece last weekend. The Isetta showed in the Art of the Car at the Kansas City Art Institute, and both got displayed together at the Joslyn Castle Classic Car Show in July.

Swiggart, a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual of 30 years, said he was met at the Joslyn by another car owner who was still smarting from the 300 beating his Cadillac in another show. “He said he’d never enter it again,” said Swiggart.

The Isetta has always been a giant slayer. It was a leader in the golden age of microcars in the twenty years after World War II. The time period forced larger-car manufacturers to deal with shortages as they resumed production, but it allowed microcar builders to take advantage of the new technology from the war.

Iso – an Italian-based manufacturer of refrigerators – began making in 1953 a little car called the Isetta, or “little Iso.” This was the first of what because of its basic shape was called a “bubble car,” a design trend that other manufacturers soon followed. The front-opening door was a novelty, but practical – cars could pull up nose-first to a curb, allowing the driver to step directly onto a sidewalk. One could even use a garden shed to house the car.

Iso sold the rights to manufacture the car to other car builders, including BMW in West Germany. BMW made a number of improvements to the car, including boosting the original Isetta engine with its own 247cc, four-stroke motorcycle engine. In 1956, a 295cc, 12.8-HP engine was added for export models, leading to the “300” designation.

dsc_0462The car sold well and the “600” came out the following year, with twice the engine size, horsepower, doors and seating capacity. “This is the ‘limo’ of the two,” jokes Swiggart. “This is the rarer one, too – parts for this are impossible to find.”

A native of Crete, Neb., Swiggart said he’d always wanted an Isetta. He’d found out about a restoration-project one locally, but it got sold and moved to Ceresco before he had a chance to buy it. He ended up buying it in 2009 when the second owner couldn’t take on the project.

“It was a basket case – the engine was lying on the floorboard when I got it,” he said. Swiggart didn’t do the restoration himself – the mechanics were done by a specialist in South Carolina and the body by a shop in Lincoln. The 600 was found for sale in Canada two years ago, but was about 90-percent restored when he bought it and he used the same shops to finish the work.

“The 600 is a little more ‘blinged out’ than the Isetta,” he said, with the whitewall tires and personalized (“SWIGGY”) plates.

dsc_0386

dsc_0509The 300 has a more fun history attached to it – in its younger days, the car was used for delivery for the local Chicken Delight franchise.

“They had three cars in Lincoln and three for their store in Sioux Falls,” Swiggart said. “I’ve tried to track down stories or pictures of them, but no luck. I had the car at a show here in Lincoln and a guy came up and asked if he could sit in it… he said when he was going to law school, he had a job delivering chicken in a car like this. I told him ‘This could be that car!’”

(Originally printed in the Omaha World-Herald, August 29, 2015)

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