Electric Microlino: The 'Bubble Car' Reborn

By Bill Moore

Production of the Isetta micro 'bubble' car ceased 1962. Between the various licensees in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Great Britain, more than 161,000 of the little Italian-designed two-seaters were built. Now a Swiss company wants to bring it back.

In the early 1950s, Iso S.p.A.manufactured motorcycles and three-wheeled work trucks. Founded in Genoa, Italy before World War II, it's name originally was Isothermal and it built refrigeration units. But it wasn't its motorbikes or refrigerators that would eventually capture the attention of the world. It was the creation of its now iconic "bubble" car: the Isetta. Eventually, variants of the little two-seater would be built not only in Italy but also in Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Spain. Before production ceased by 1962, more than 161,000 units would roll out of those assembly plants.

Today, they can be found mainly in museums, collector garages, and old barns. However, a small Swiss company just across the Alps from Milan, plans to bring it back, this time as an EV.

Face off of original Isetta and Microlino

Founded by Zurich businessman Wim Ouboter, Micro Mobility Systems' main business is electric kickscooters and two-wheelers for adults and kids. The firm generates an estimated 60 million Swiss franc in revenue annually.($60mil US). Like his Italian precedessor, Iso's Renzo Rivolta, who also wanted to build a small, mass-produced car, Ouboter thought the time right to bring back Rivolta's creation. He calls the car the Microlino.

A 2013 study by Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) predicts that there will be a huge global market by 2030 for small vehicles like the famed 'bubble car,' which not only use a fraction of the resources of larger, conventional automobiles, but are more aptly suited for use in dense, urban environments, as the video below of Micro's prototype clearly demonstrates.

What's different this time around, is that instead of powering it with an Iso single-cylinder motorcycle engine, Ouboter plans to power it with an quiet, pollution-free electric drive system capable to a top speed of 90 km/h (55 mph) and a battery range up to 80 km (50 mi). The Microlino is also slightly larger by 10% than the Isetta.

To stir up interest in the project, Ouboter and his team converted an existing Isetta to electric drive in collaboration with German electric forklift maker Linde. For the electronic control system he turned to Micro Beam, a Swiss firm.

Micro debuted the car at the Paris car show last September, showing a scale model of what the new version may eventually look like. As its Italian forbearer, it too will retain its unique front entry with its folding steering wheel and instrument panel. The company maintains both a Facebook and Twitter page that report on current development of the car, which is clearly aimed at Gen Y as a company PDF suggests, touting the light, 400 kg (881 lbs) vehicle as having "3 to 5 times less mass than a conventional automobile." It claims the little EV will cut fuel consumption to the equivalent of 1 liter per 100 km, that's equivalent to an astounding 235 mpg!

And besides, 'women love it.'

Of course, building a prototype and a small tiny plastic scale model is one thing, bringing something more substantial like a real production version is quite another, But here, Ouboter and company have thought ahead. They are partnering with micro electric carmaker Kandi in China to manufacturer the car. The companies hope to have a rolling prototype out by next month, and start full production by either 2017 or 2018.

That's the good news.

The 'bad' news, at least from Isetta-lovers perspective, the car will only be sold in China, initially, though here too is a silver lining. The company hopes to be able to sell them for around 7,000-10,000 Swiss franc ($6,900-9,940US).

Of course, such tiny cars are not 'everyone's cup of tea.' They are designed for crowded urban streets where space is at a premium and fossil fuel exhausts a serious health hazard. In the event of a front-end crash, passengers can, like the original Isetta, escape though the canvas-covered sun-roof.

And then there's the question of design ownership. The original Iso SpA went out of business back in the 1970s. Another possible claimant might be BMW, who reportedly also was working on bringing back an updated version of the Isetta, which they licensed from the Italians. Apparently that program morphed into the i3 electric car of today. Additionally, a British company back in 2008 was doing a thriving business in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) restoring Isettas there.

According to Microlino's Facebook page, Kandi, its partner in China, just shipped the first prototype this week destined for Switzerland and, presumably, the Geneva auto show in March. Stay tuned.

Times Article Viewed: 17964
Originally published: 21 Jan 2016


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