Thousands of exhibits in the Berlin Wall Museum on Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, commemorate the history of a once divided city. The tightly controlled border between East and West, the people who sought their way to freedom against all odds, they all have a story, but one particular exhibit struck a chord with us. On the upper floor near a window overlooking Checkpoint Charlie, the best known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, sits the smallest car ever used for an escape: a BMW Isetta.
Now 79 years of age, tourist guide Klaus Günter Jacobi regularly accompanies visitors through the museum. What few people are aware of is that Jacobi does not only know the history of the Isetta escape well, but that it was his idea to hide a person inside the tiny BMW bubble car in order to smuggle them across the border. Indeed, Jacobi concealed his friend Manfred Koster in the mini-car, a vehicle which helped a total of nine people escape the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1964. The story captures the imagination, so much so that this year it became the plot of a touching short fi lm entitled ‘The Small Escape’, aired on TV, YouTube and on the BMW Group’s social media channels.
The elaborately produced movie short transports viewers back to 1964. Jacobi’s family had already left East Berlin in 1958 – three years prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. When Jacobi’s old friend Manfred Koster asked him to help him escape the GDR, he came up with the boldest of bold plans. His own BMW Isetta would serve as an escape car. The moto-coupé, measuring only 2.3-meters in length and 1.4-meters in width, would, he assumed, arouse little suspicion from the border soldiers. Or so Klaus-Günter hoped… Some 30-years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seems a virtually impossible task to hide a person inside a BMW Isetta, the bubble car is already a very tight fi t for two people on seats directly behind the front door.
A secret hiding spot for Koster was actually built behind the seat bench, directly next to the vehicle’s engine. Car mechanic Jacobi carried out the conversion in his workshop in Berlin-Reinickendorf. There he cut an opening into the trim behind the seat, shifted the shelf upwards and removed the spare wheel, heating system and air filter. He also exchanged the 13-liter fuel tank for a 2-litre canister to make space for his concealed passenger.
The film shows how the BMW Isetta was turned into an escape car and how the risky border crossing played-out. A thrilling history lesson, the movie was produced by director Alex Feil, camera man Khaled Mohtaseb and set designer Erwin Prieb in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster. The props, costumes, vehicles and street sets were created in Budapest, adopted and turned into a faithful replica of 1960s Berlin. A checkpoint, complete with wall and border strip, was recreated to build an oppressive atmosphere throughout the fi lm.
Jens Thiemer, Head of BMW Brand Management. said: “Since their invention, automobiles have brought freedom and selfdetermination to humankind. Cars bring people together. This is something one should always also keep in mind in the current debate. The movie emphasises this. The moving escape story with the BMW Isetta can also be seen as a symbol of the invaluable value cars and individual mobility can have. It’s all about freedom, independence and dreams. Our movie recognizes the drive and courage of the people who made this successful escape possible”, On 23rd May 1964, shortly before the border crossing closed on the stroke of midnight, the converted BMW Isetta rolled underneath the opened barrier with Manfred Koster concealed inside. Shortly after crossing, Jacobi freed his friend from his hiding place behind the seat and took him in his arms, delirious with joy. It would be the only time Jacobi’s Isetta would be used as an escape car, but his achievement was to inspire imitators.
Eight further GDR citizens managed to escape to the West over the following years, all smuggled in a similarly converted BMW Isettas. Today Jacobi’s car sits on display in the Berlin Wall Museum – a permanent exhibit, and one with a fascinating story to tell.
Watch this video for BMW ISETTA; The Smallest BMW Cars