Yes, that’s right, Steve Urkel, the iconic nerdy character from the 1990s family sitcom, Family Matters, drove a BMW. Many who watched the show may remember Urkel’s car: a tiny, round-shaped, white car that opened from the front. That car was a BMW Isetta, a popular bubblecar in Europe and Canada.
Bubblecars were usually small, economical cars that were round-ish in shape and manufactured mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. The Isetta or ‘Little Iso’ was an Italian bubblecar born in 1953. According to author Andrea Sparrow, the round shape of the Isetta was the inspiration for the shape of future bubblecars. In 1955, its inventor Rennzo Rivolta, sold the rights to manufacture the Isetta to BMW. BMW then introduced the Isetta as the affordable car in its range. Sold throughout continental Europe, the Isetta was eventually exported to the United Kingdom and Canada.
The Isetta had one door that opened from the front and that was attached to the steering wheel. By pushing on the steering wheel, it acted as a joint which opened the door outward allowing passengers to easily get in and out. It had one bench seat which could fit two adults and small engine behind the bench seat. Traditionally manufactured with four wheels, once it was exported to the United Kingdom, British manufacturers changed the set-up to three wheels (see the Reliant Robin post for why three-wheelers were popular in the UK).
From the look of Urkel’s Isetta, it seems to be an Isetta 300. According to the On Screen Cars Blog, the Isetta was featured several times throughout the run of Family Matters. The car’s quirky character and odd shape didn’t fit the standardized look of American cars. However, it did complement Urkel’s oddball demeanor and dress. Though both the car and Urkel didn’t fit the prescribed idea of ‘cool,’ they were both likeable to the Winslow family and to the audience because of their unique qualities.
Sparrow, Andrea. The Colour Bubblecars & Microcars Family Album. Dorchester, Dorset, England : Veloce Publishing Plc., 1996: 29-46.
“Steve Urkel’s BMW Isetta.” On Screen Cars. Entry posted January 27, 2010. http://onscreencars.com/tv/family-matters/steve-urkels-bmw-isetta/ (accessed May 24, 2012).
Robin Valencia is the graduate assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.