BMW's Isetta isn’t, strictly speaking, a motorcycle. It isn’t a motorcycle in any way, really. It’s just a very odd, very adorable little car. However, it does have the four-stroke, single-cylinder engine out of a motorcycle, and that’s good enough for us. Plus, this story is just too insane to pass up. In 1963, a humble Isetta—a tiny bubble car with an engine smaller than nearly every motorcycle I’ve ever ridden—was used to smuggle a man out of East Germany. Smuggle him, it should be noted, inside the engine bay like some sort of oily, mechanical womb.
For our younger readers, Berlin (and, effectively, all of eastern Germany) was split right down the middle from 1961 to 1989 by what was (un)affectionally known as the Berlin Wall. On one side was West Germany, controlled by the United States, and home to freedom, puppies, and capitalism. On the other side was East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, home to communism, the Stazi, and countless Trabants.
In East Germany, Manfred Koster, a young pacifist, was drafted into the East German National People’s Army in November of 1962. I don’t know how much you know about pacifism, but serving in the military of a totalitarian government is not the ideal place to practice that particular ideology. So he made the very wise decision that it was high time to head west. The penalties for sneaking over the border were harsh, and the wall itself was nigh-insurmountable. Berlin Ninja Warrior wouldn’t be invented for quite some time, so Koster had to get crafty.
Luckily, he had a friend on the other side: Klaus-Günter Jacobi. Jacobi had an Isetta, an idea, and a workshop. A motivated German with a full workshop can accomplish mighty things. Now the Isetta seems like an odd choice for smuggling, and it is. It’s smaller than some bathtubs, and therein lies the genius. Nobody would be stupid enough to try and smuggle a whole person inside of one. Nobody except Jacobi.
For weeks he worked at night secretly modifying the BMW for smuggling a human. The fuel tank was removed and replaced with one that only held a few quarts. The luggage shelf was raised. An access hatch was cut in behind the seat. The spare tyre, exhaust heat shield, and air filters were removed. A false floor was built, the rear wings were cut, and the rear suspension was raised. It would be cramped, dirty, hot, and uncomfortable, but it was such an insane idea that it wouldn’t be expected.
In the end, the operation went off without a hitch. Jacobi himself wasn’t able to drive the car—because East German authorities wouldn’t allow a West Berliner to drive into their country—so he subcontracted the job out to a pair of politically sympathetic students. Those students themselves later modified their own Isetta to smuggle more people out of East Germany. They wound up smuggling nine different people to freedom before they were discovered, all in the humble BMW Isetta. Presumably, they weren’t all in there at the same time.