“Slow car fast”. We’ve all heard it before. And it’s an ethos that, as a classic-car guy, I’m totally on board with. Essentially the thinking is that if a car is slow, or relatively so, its performance limit is within immediate-enough reach that it can be toyed with within the confines of public roads and traffic laws. To the majority of automotive enthusiasts, the most enjoyable part of driving a car is hanging on the ragged edge of grip, right? So it would make sense then that the slower the car, the easier it’d be to maximize the fun of driving it. It does sound a bit ridiculous, and of course there are endless exceptions to the slow-is-more-fun rule, but the more cars I drive, the more parallels I see between the ones that truly exhibit the “it” factor. And I’ll tell ya from experience, sheer speed has nothing to do with “it”.
I haven’t yet mastered the formula for maximum smiles-behind-the-wheel, but I think I’ve got a general idea. Key components are weight, wheelbase length, and power output. The lighter a car is and the shorter it’s wheelbase, the more nimble and responsive it will be, and the less power the car will need in order to deliver an adrenaline-inducing driving experience. As the wheelbase gets longer, a car’s ability to react to sudden steering inputs is diminished, so for a long-wheelbase car to deliver a similarly exciting drive it will need a tremendous amount of power. Generally the cars that are recognized as truly great, household names like Porsche 911 or BMW M3, are the cars that find themselves right in the sweet spot; they have a relatively short wheelbase, are fairly light, and have ample power. However, when you look at the extremes on either end of the spectrum, that’s when things get interesting. On both ends you’ll find cars that have very specific strengths, as well as critical weaknesses. These are love/hate kind of cars. They have a dedicated following, but most folks outside of that following don’t understand the appeal. On one far end of the hobby you have microcars, and on the other, we’ll say trucks, with everything else falling somewhere between the two.
With such short wheelbases and little weight to lug around, microcars barely need any power in order to put a smile on the driver’s face. Fun and charming is undoubtedly their strong suit, but that does come at the expense of usability, in a big, big way. I mean, if your car were so outrageously down on power that speed limits had to be taken into consideration when planning travel routes, would that hinder the driving experience? Or would it just add a certain sense-of-occasion to the driving experience? Totally an odd thing to think about, but very much topical here at CCC, as we just treated ourselves to the ultimate big-boy-toy, a ‘56 BMW Isetta 300 Bubble Window. One of the coolest and most fun-to-drive vehicles on the road? No doubt. But usable? That’s probably not the right word for it.
With just 13hp on tap from it’s single-cylinder 298cc engine, it can barely get out of it’s own way; certainly not a wise choice for high-speed, densely populated routes. Not to mention the lack of front shocks, a backseat, or any sort of crash protection whatsoever. Yet somehow, despite all of that, in the right setting, with the right weather, right road, and right attitude, the Isetta is just about perfect. It’s drawbacks are all related to practicality, but is that really relevant? An Isetta isn’t anybody’s one-car-solution; owners are aware of the cars’ strengths and will play to them, only driving it when the time is right. For us, that time is at about 1pm every sunny weekday throughout the summer. We make an effort to exercise our cars and share the automotive enthusiasm with folks around town, making a point to get a different car moving each day. However, after just a couple miles of seat-time in the Isetta, I think it’s safe to say that some of our other cars are going to have to take a backseat until Summer’s end…
Written by: Jake DePierro