Nothing about Steve Urkel's car makes sense. Not the single door that swings open from the front, revealing both too much and too little of the interior all at once—too much because of the grotesquerie of seeing a car open like a clam shell, not enough because there's simply not enough car; not the single bench seat that serves as the only place to sit; not its bizarre, almost triangular shape, a remnant of a past design that had only three wheels; and certainly not its cloth sunroof, a mockery of a feature on a vehicle that tops out at 53 MPH. And who would bother to import a Europe-exclusive 1960 BMW Isetta 300 to suburban Chicago in 1993?
Family Matters, an ABC sitcom that ran from 1989 to 1997, deals in the bombastic and the absurd. At times, it borders on magical realism. Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), the irritating, dorky neighbor of the Winslow family, at one point invents a "Cool Juice" that transforms him into a smooth-talking ladies' man named Stefan Urquelle; later, he renames "Cool Juice" "Boss Sauce." None of this, mind you, is fantasy.
The presence of the Isetta in the world of Family Matters, then, is somehow fitting. Urkel defies explanation as a human being. It's suitable that his car defies explanation as a vehicle. And it's also suitable that the bubbly, futuristic Isetta is making a comeback as an all-electric vehicle—something, it seems, it was destined for all along.
Urkel's Car Is Just As Strange And Magical As Urkel Himself
The Isetta is so strange-looking that you'd be forgiven if you thought it was entirely fictional, something a crazed set designer concocted to suit Urkel's bizarre personality. But, somehow, the Isetta is real, though its features are embellished on the show. It takes a tumble off a cliff in a Season 6 episode and nearly takes Urkel with it. You'd think falling off a cliff would be enough to wreck the car—especially since it falls nose-first and it has no crumple zone—but it's repaired and resurrected in Season 7. At one point, Urkel even modifies the Isetta, adding a rocket propeller that allows it to travel at supersonic speed so he can win an illegal drag race.
The Earliest Isettas Had Only Three Damn Wheels
In 1953, Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A., an Italian scooter maker, decided to step up their game and manufacture a car. Their idea of what constituted a car, though, was very different than anything else on the road at the time. Their Isetta prototype—Italian for "little Iso"—had only three wheels.
By the time it reached the market, Iso had tweaked the design and given the Isetta four wheels. People were enamored with it; it set off a design trend that came to be called a "bubble car." Still, it didn't sell particularly well for Iso, which is why they licensed the design to BMW in 1954. BMW made a few more changes to the design, and rolled out the Isetta in Germany in 1955, where it was a huge success. The German automaker sold 50,000 Isettas in under a year.
BMW continued manufacturing the Isetta for a few different markets in a few different styles—they even brought back a three-wheeled version—until 1962.
A Swiss Company Is Resurrecting It As An Electric Vehicle
Maybe the problem with the Isetta is that it was ahead of its time. A Swiss automaker certainly seems to think so—Micro Mobility Systems is bringing it back as an all-electric vehicle called the Microlino. They've swapped out the 247cc gas engine for a 15kW electric motor, and bumped up the top speed from 53 to 62 MPH.
It can travel 60-75 miles on a single charge and, the company claims, "you get more looks than in a Ferrari." Micro even debuted it at the Geneva International Motor Show, where, in 1954, BMW execs first saw the Isetta and started working on a licensing deal with Iso. Micro is looking to start production on the Microlino in 2018; sadly, there's no word yet on which markets it'll be available in. One can only dream some modern Urkel will be able to pick it up, and modify it into a wise-cracking robot sidekick or whatever.