The 1959 BMW Isetta 300

A Brighton Bubble

Mike Holland recalls an unusual motoring industry

The area around Brighton station these days is a world away from the thriving industry that once flourished on the site. Brighton railway works was one of the earliest locomotive repair works founded in 1840 and pre-dates the railway works at Crewe, Doncaster and Swindon. The works grew steadily between 1841 and 1900 and whilst there were always problems because of the site restrictions it turned out more than 1200 steam engines between 1852 and 1947. Perhaps even more interestingly some of the first prototype diesel electric and electric locomotives were constructed there. However by 1957 production ceased and the site was leased to BMW for the production of their Issetta 300 model (bubble cars).

The Issetta was taking the country by storm and at the height of production BMW were turning out 300 vehicles per week at the Brighton factory with a workforce of just 200 operatives. The Issetta was a small one door car, designed in Italy by a company called “ISO” and Issetta means little ISO. BMW bought the rights from ISO and using their existing motorbike technology ,re-engineered the car so that it had ,initially a 247cc four stroke air cooled engine. When this was found later to be a bit underpowered the engine was upgraded to a 297cc version which was much more popular. As the factory had no road access all materials coming into the site did so by rail. The finished product also left the same way which seemed to work well for both BMW and the railway. The Issetta factory made its last vehicle in 1964 having been made extinct by the mini, the bubble car era came to an end and the works closed. It seems ironic that today’s mini is in fact made by BMW.

Whilst the railway works were at their height across the other side of what is now the city of Brighton and Hove a young Fred Miles was practicing a wholly different type of engineering. In 1922 at the age of 19 Fred was busy building a plane in his fathers laundry works in Wellington Road, Portslade. At 19 he had already run his own motorcycle rental business and whilst this early aviation model never actually flew it provided young Fred with some invaluable experience. He then learned to fly at Shoreham where he and his instructor Leonard Pashley formed a flying school. Much to his fathers delight he also formed an aircraft repair business and the whole operation moved from Wellington Road to Shoreham airport.

In 1931 at the age of 28 he married a former flying pupil Maxine Freeman-Thomas known to their friends as Blossom. She had divorced her husband to marry the flamboyant Fred and there was a fair amount of unpleasant publicity surrounding the very acrimonious divorce from her husband who was heir to the Marquis of Willingdon. Having weathered the storm the couple went on to design a successful single seat biplane, the Miles M.1 Satyr later modified to become the Martlet.

Fred and Blossom had been joined in the business by Fred’s extremely talented albeit quieter and less extrovert brother George. The brothers complemented each other well and at eight years younger than his brother George brought with him a renewed freshness to the business. It wasn’t long before the Southern Aircraft Company was going from strength to strength. The company even built a custom built Mohawk for Charles Lindbergh the American aviator and their designs were in ever increasing demand. The family went on to form Miles Aircraft and amongst their many achievements built several models of training aircraft for the RAF and many wartime pilots received their training in them. This truly remarkable family are yet another local example of our engineering heritage of which we should can be rightly proud.