Although it has Italian roots, the funky Isetta is inexorably linked to BMW. The German company produced the vast majority of the diminutive bubble cars with single cylinder 250- and 300-cc engines that produced a whopping 12 and 13 horsepower, respectively. They are certainly not the “Ultimate Driving Machine” sport sedans on which BMW later built its reputation, yet the Isetta developed a loyal following because it so well fulfilled its role as an economical city car.
For collectors, the Isetta offers an iconic, quirky classic that, while not cheap, does offer a different sort of value. After all, how many other cars can fit three to a parking spot without a lift?
If you’re a fan of the strange Italian/Bavarian microcar but need a bit more gusto than 13 horses can provide, here are three examples of Isettas that toss originality aside. Engine swaps here mean far more power, not that the bar was terribly high.
How about an engine swap that keeps things Teutonic with four times the cylinders and four times the power? This 1957 BMW Isetta 300 recently sold on Bring a Trailer for $14,500 and packs an air-cooled VW 1600-cc four-cylinder. The rear suspension and drivetrain are all VW and, with the factory 10-inch wheels up front, the stance is almost like a mini gasser.
Just like a drag racer, the engine is on full display because it’s just too big to fit under the factory bodywork. This car appears to be fully functional and the listing has a video that you may want to check out, as this froggy little grocery-getter is always one clutch dump away from a wheelie.
Keeping things air-cooled, the Corvair-powered Isetta above ups the grunt even more. Unlike the previous, VW-powered pod, this “Corsetta” features custom bodywork to cover the engine, but the stance is quite similar. Again, the Isetta’s rear wheels and suspension were tossed in favor of the donor car’s running gear. If the rear camber is any indication, this swap is likely from a first-gen Corvair.
The car was built in the 1970s by a high school shop class and featured in the March 1977 issue of Hot Rod magazine. Its sculpted fenders and rear deck are surprisingly well integrated with the rest of the micro muscle car’s lines. It’s no surprise that with an even larger, more powerful engine out back and a still-short wheelbase, this thing is practically made to do wheelies.
Finally, we bring you perhaps the single most famous engine-swapped Isetta of all time. Whatta Drag was originally conceived by Hot Wheels designer Phil Riehlman in 1998, stretching the horsepower factor about a hundred-fold by adding blown V-8 power, a single rear wheel, and a wing to turn the microcar into a dragstrip ballistic missile. Bruce Weiner, who had a plethora of microcars already in his collection, decided to make Whatta Drag a reality in 2005. In 2013, it sold at an RM Sotheby’s auction for $92,000.
This car is not meant for the street—nor the strip for that matter—but it is functional. The blown 502-cubic-inch big-block Chevy V-8 ingests air through a BDS 8-71 blower and twin Holley 750 carbs and belches exhaust through a set of zoomie headers. Its two-speed trans sends power to the rear wheels by way of a belt-drive system that has polished covers just like the tiny toy original.
Even with its stretched wheelbase, Whatta Drag probably still fits in the compact spots at the supermarket, but we think it’s best suited for burnouts. That much power through a single rear tire, even though it is wide, is surely not for the faint of heart.