Here’s What You Need To Know About BMW Isetta Taillights And Wipers To Join The Exclusive Taillight Community

Isettalights Anim

Like almost any subculture, the Global Taillight Community has its own forms of gatekeeping. This isn’t surprising, as the taillight community wants to project a wholesome image, and not the one shown by savage, deranged hedonists who make up much of the inner levels of the community. Because I value our budding readership here at the Autopian so much, I’d like to take a moment to share with you a few small pieces of arcane knowledge typically reserved for “insiders” in the taillight world. This is basically what “Tubal-Caine” is for Freemasons, so pay attention.

In most taillight-focused bars, clubs, bathhouses, bathhomes, mahjong parlors, arcades, and so on, there will be an “outer” club and an “inner” club. If you want the good stuff – the finest form of pretty much any vice you need to satisfy – then you want to be on the inside. To get there, though, you’ll need to find a contact to lead you to whomever is responsible for gatekeeping the inner club; I can’t help you with that, though.

But, once you do manage to get to that door or beaded curtain or hatch or whatever, that’s when I can helpTraditionally, to allow entry, the guards ask two main questions, both about the BMW Isetta bubble car, the strange little egg with a door on the front that BMW licensed from the Italian company Iso (saving BMW after WWII by giving the company something to sell to the many broke and fuel-starved people rebuilding Germany after the war).

P4924 Isetta

Here’s the first question you’ll be asked: Whichever guard is on bouncer duty will ask you, worded in a huge variety of ways, to show them the three kinds of Isetta taillights. Note they say “show” not tell; what they’re looking for are specific hand gestures, in a specific order.

First, you need to show them the European-style taillights:

P4924 Car11

Euro-market Isetta lights–the original light design of BMW’s version of the car–were two tiny round lights inset into the lower bodywork. A third brake lamp was in the air exhaust duct and also served as a license plate lamp. The gesture needed to be seen here is taking both fists, balled up tight, and holding them about nipple level.

P4924 Figure1

Next, we have the US-market Isetta taillights:

P4924 Car2

The American market demanded larger lights, so free-standing round units were mounted on the upper face of that lower bodywork, and the holes for the Euro-spec taillights were re-purposed to be the upper mount points for the large chrome bumper overrider bars. In American Isettas, the middle brake lamp is black and opaque, serving only as a license plate lamp.

The gesture here is your hands forming large open round shaped formed by making a tube with your fingers and thumb, and holding them in front of your shoulders.

P4924 Figure2

These first two are fairly commonly known, and many taillight dilettantes think they’re home free at this point, ready to be chugging freshly-stirred “Eldorado Blinkers” while making out with hot young center high-mount stop lamp fans. But the test isn’t over.

The next one will be Canadian-market Isetta taillights.

Yes, for some reason, Canada wasn’t happy with either the original Isetta rear lighting or the modifications made for the U.S. market. The country seemed to want a larger scale version the American lights, with the added protection afforded by those bumper overriders, but executed with a bit more refinement. That’s why Canada got this:

P4924 Car3 So, we have big, round lights like the Americans, but connected to the upper bodywork with some body-colored mounting cuffs, positioned just under the rear window. The center brake lamp returns as well.

The gesture associated with these are to take your two hands, again forming open tubes, and hold them up by your ears.

P4924 Figure3

So, shorthand is this: fists by nipples, open hand-tubes by shoulders, then same hand position by the ears.

Just so you know I’m not making this up, here are some actual photographs:

P4924 Rear Ends

Then, if you make it this far, you’ll be asked one last question, which can come in two forms: “How do I wipe in California” or “How do I wipe in New York?

This is referring to the deeply weird fact that in America, Isettas bound for the West Coast had two wipers, while East Coast Isettas just had one, lone wiper. So, if you get Cali, you respond “by twosies,” and if you get New York, you say “alone.”

(This wiper-related question was added in the 1970s to throw off increasingly-common government moles and agents).

So commit these answers to memory, and practice until it feels natural and effortless. Once you’re there, seek out your local taillight bar and get your freak on, taillight-style, friends!

If you see me there, feel free to say hi, unless it just feels, you know, weird. It’ll be obvious.

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43 Responses

      1. I’m not even sure why exactly, but the answers “by twosies” and “alone” had me cackling at my desk. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’ll never tire of this shit.

  1. Imagine having a center stop light in 1955. That’s some forward thinking!

    Didn’t it also have 3 wheels on some markets and 4 wheels on other?

    Over here (DK) it’s classified as a motorcycle, so it’s inspection extempt and the yearly tax is ridiculously low.

    I really would like the Heinkel one. It has a better design than the Isetta, with integrated headlights and even more bubbly windows. All of them are really expensive now a days though.

    You should also do a story on the Mickey Mouse’y high positioned headlights on the old classic Fiat 500 for some markets.

      1. There were a few 3-wheeled Isettas built in Germany for export to places besides Britain that had tax laws that favored 3 wheel cars. Like Switzerland, I think. They’re pretty rare, though.

      2. Also, in the UK, you can get a motorbike license at 16 (as opposed to 17 for a car license), and also drive around on your own on learner plates (in a car you have to have a qualified passenger).
        These are a couple of other reasons why getting a vehicle classified as a motorbike was useful in the UK.

    1. Except that third brake light does not work like you think it does. At least not on Canadian cars. It is the ONLY brake light because the outside lights are only used for the blinkers.

      On non Canadian cars I am not sure the center light is a brake light at all, possibly just a marker light used when headlights are on to illuminate the license plate. Certainly on the US spec cars that do not even have a red lense to shine backwards with.

  2. I wonder how complicated the hand signs are for getting into back-alley Beetle clubs, the number of different taillights to sign is outrageous (though I might be able to squeeze in by explaining what a Pope’s Nose is).

  3. I have no idea why I find all of this taillight stuff so intriguing… but I do. It must have something to do with my childhood. The introduction of amber front turn signals in 1963, with the weird rubbery coating on the bulbs started it, I think. Then came my awareness of the various taillight configurations for different models. The Impala, with three taillights on each side was aspirational for those of us with a lowly Biscayne! Anyway, the fascination has only grown from there…

  4. Howdy Torch, you have written an article about which I am deeply invested and also something of an expert on. At least with regards to the Canadian export Isetta tail lights. I am finishing up a 2 year restoration on my very own Canadian export car and have a few points to add. I would love to discuss more so we can consider this a bit of an AMA if anyone is interested…

    My additional points are below:

    1) Canadian export cars were NOT built by BMW in Germany. They were built under license in Brighton England by a company called “Isetta of Great Britian LTD.” They mostly built 3 wheel right hand drive Isettas for the British market, but also produced 4 wheel left hand drive cars for Canadian export. These are interesting in that they have Lucas electrics and Girling brakes. They are quite rare.

    2) Canadian export cars use a Lucas L551 tail light lenses that were also used on MG ZA, ZB, Daimlers, Lotus Elite, Morris Oxford and Austins of the 1950s, Simcas and French Fords. Neat!

    3) Canadian export tail lights and indicators are very interesting. Most British Isettas had silly amber indicators on the side of the body, leaving the rear red lenses for nothing but brake lights. This works well with the Isettas very rudimentary electrical system and prevents the car from having to share filaments for both indicating and brake light duty. Also since the indicator sticks out and can be viewed from front and back there was no need for indicators on the rear and front of the car. Graceful, but stupid looking.

    The Canadian cars did not get the amber side indicators, a big improvement in my opinion, however this added the complication of needing indicators on front and rear. The front is no issues since there is convenient marker lights under the headlights that can be used. The rear is difficult however since the tail lights need both filaments, one for driving lights, the other for brake lights. What was a poor Lucas engineer to do???! Its easy! Apparently in Canada in the 50’s cars only needed a single brake light! All 3 red lenses light up for tail lights, this also illuminates the license plate. The center light however is the only brake light on the car and the outside red lenses halfway between the bumper extensions and window are ONLY blinkers. Thats right they do not light up with the brakes at all.

    Whew! That was quite an expose, If there is anything you or anyone else wants to know about Canadian export Isettas I would LOVE to talk at length about this stupid little car.

      1. I cannot speak to the details. I presume it had something to do with that. All US export cars came from Germany, but for whatever reason I do not believe they exported any to Canada, at least not directly.

        I am pretty sure many Canadian Isettas failed to sell or the distributor went out of business or whatever. They were shipped back to England and many converted to 3 wheel cars for sale in England. They were left hand drive however, no real way to convert to right hand drive.

        I wish I knew how many Canadian export cars were sold and how many still exist. Unfortunately England was not as good about keeping records as the Germans were.

        1. The only Isetta I’ve seen in Canada was at the All British Field Meet in Vancouver. This was perfectly reasonable, of course, given where it was manufactured, but it did attract a few puzzled looks.

      1. All 3 of my rear lights had faded to orange, I believe this is what you see. After extensive research I can verify that they are all supposed to be red and were red from the factory.

        I believe that light is likely more faded than the outside lenses for some reason. It is a Lucas 525 light housing. I cannot find an example of it ever being produced in any color other than red. Its commonly used on motorcycles.

    1. The worst is when the sit-down toilets are out in the open with no stalls, the roll is located between you and the guy sitting next to you, and you have to take turns rolling it. If there’s a line of people waiting for a toilet while you wipe, it further complicates matters.

  5. So what does one have to do to join this Exclusive Tailight and Wiper club?
    Are there dues to pay? A test perhaps?
    Do you have any literature I could peruse?
    If not would you like me to design some bespoke club cards that has information to convey to prospective members?

  6. Do I find myself riding the same rush I used to get from the two-for ‘Hey – both Road & Track AND Cycle World showed up today – double the Peter, double the awesome!’ when I take in some of Jason’s finest?
    yeah, I do.
    So now I’ll just plot how to get Nick, Peter & Jason onto a podcast I haven’t yet created; I’ll call it something like ‘To Hell And Back – Best Co-Pilot’s By a Damn Site’ (of course I’ll record it at the Fontana Damn – how else would I be able to expense a run on the Tail o’ the Dragon??) (eat your heart out Seinfeld!!)
    Enough about me – Jason, thank you.
    In this chaotic world knowing that there is joy helps me tackle each day.
    Don’t ever stop believing in the honesty of a damn fine tail-light.
    (I’ll have you see if you’ve weighed in on the “figure-8” of Miatas & Passats of the ’00s)

  7. Born in 77, I have found myself always having a taillight fetish too. As a wee lad, it seemed that I was always in the car traveling somewhere with my parents, and I prided myself being able to tell any car on the road by its taillights, at night, from a distance. Think the timeframe of Chevy Celebrity, Dodge Aspen, Pontiac 6000, Ford Econoline as so on.

    When I realized that I had a love for taillights was maybe Christmas of 86 traveling from my grandparents in Toledo Ohio, when I saw it: The 86 Pontiac Fiero Fastback with those large smoked taillights with the amber indicators. Whole crap those are the most beautiful taillights in my opinion. May not be the greatest car, but man that azz.

    Fast forward many years and I have a red 88 in my garage because of those lights. Still not a great car, but a good car with great taillights!.

  8. This obscure taillight knowledge is exactly what I need to keep normal people the heck away from me, thanks Torch!
    There’s an Isetta that comes to Cars and Coffee in my country Australian town from time to time, now I need to dig back through my photos to work out where it sits in the Isetta genealogy.

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