The Cold War's Smallest Hero
The story of how the BMW Isetta helped 9 people escape the Berlin Wall
Until its fall in 1989, at least 140 people had died trying to get across the Berlin Wall. Manfred Koster could have been one of them.
Manfred Koster was a German citizen that lived in East Germany in the early post-war era. He chose to stay there even as the situation worsened in the Soviet-occupied territory, but in 1962 the regime started sending out letters calling for all eligible men to join the National People's Army. A convinced pacifist, Manfred had had enough of the GDR's oppression. He was going to escape.
The oppressionist regime that controlled East Germany inspired people to try and flee. Many of them died in the attempt.
At first, Manfred had no idea how could he escape the East. Until he remembered a friend of his that lived on the other side of the wall. His name was Klaus-Günter Jacobi, he and Manfred were childhood friends and had remained very close ever since. Klaus had managed to flee the East before the wall was built, and Manfred believed he would know how to devise a plan to get him out. Manfred's brother, Hans, who lived in the West, went across the wall to visit him, and since the two looked very much alike, he lent Manfred his identity papers so he could have a quick visit to the West and talk to his friend Klaus. His arrival was a complete surprise to Klaus, who hadn't been able to talk with him for a long time. That same day, the two old friends started setting up their plan. By the time Manfred had to leave back to the East, it was all settled, Klaus was going to help his friend escape, hidden inside his car.
The BMW Isetta had been the car of many people in the post-war Germany. It was the cheapest way of personal transport at a time where only 2% of the German population could afford a car.
Klaus-Günter Jacobi had managed to start a new life in West Germany after he had fled. However, even though he was a somewhat established man, he was still far from a wealthy man, and the car he planned on using to get his friend across the wall was his very own, red and white, BMW Isetta. He had purchased it himself at a used car dealer for 1500 marks (approximately 800 euros) and believed that using it as an escape vehicle could in fact work. The larger cars were usually inspected meticulously by the guards, who used mirrors and trained dogs to check for any hidden compartments that could be used to smuggle a person. But the small size of the Isetta would probably lead most guards to dismiss it without a second look and just let it go through with minimal inspection, as nobody would have expected anyone to possibly go unnoticed in a car that Germans themselves literally nicknamed "The Mouse".
The Isetta had an extremely simple design, its small dimensions made it the perfect car to go unnoticed
On the other hand, the small size of the car obviously had its drawbacks. Jacobi had to figure out a way to get his 1.75m (5,7ft) tall friend to fit unseen inside a car that was only 2.3m long by 1.4m wide (7,5ft by 4.5ft). It was then that he could put in use his professional skills. Jacobi worked as a simple part-time mechanic at a workshop, but between 1956 and 1959 he had studied mechanics at Reinickendorf in Berlin. He spent several weeks working after hours in the workshop, mostly alone and with only some occasional help from coworkers whom he trusted. In the process of transforming the vehicle, he simplified the already simple design of the car to create some extra space. Among the things he changed were: removing the air filter, bending the exhaust pipe, cutting the mudflaps so they wouldn't scrape on the ground giving away the extra weight, and replacing the 13L fuel tank with a small 2L container, this last change was done the very same day of the escape.
The car was ready, but there was still another problem separating the two friends. Since the German Democratic Republic (GDR) didn't recognize West Berlin as a part of the Federal German Republic (FGR), Klaus couldn't drive the car into East Berlin. However, lucky for him, there were still plenty of German students at the time that organized escapes out of conviction. The first driver was a med student from Stuttgart, but lost the nerve in a test drive through the border. Manfred Koster only had a couple of days left before his time to join the army was due on June 1st, 1963. Early in the morning of the 23rd of May, Jacobi got a call from two other students willing to participate. After meeting with Jacobi, that very same day they crossed into East Berlin, one in the modified Isetta and the other in a VW Beetle. They met with Manfred Koster and took him to a dirt road. It was getting dark, and the men struggled to replace the Isetta's fuel tank with the smaller 2L container under the dim light of their flashlights. During this time, a farmer passed by to see if everything was ok as they were on his lands, they managed to have him leave by telling him that their car had broken down. The operation had taken them much longer than expected, but with the tank replaced, Manfred Koster squeezed inside and they headed for the border as rain started to fall.
Klaus Jacobi waited on the other side of Bornholmer bridge, which separated East and West Berlin. Koster and the students were almost 2 hours behind schedule, but eventually, with only half an hour left before the border closed, Jacobi saw the Isetta and the Beetle make it past the barriers. Manfred's legs were swollen and his back was aching, but he was finally free. Klaus and Manfred used what was left of fuel in the Isetta to give a victory lap, this time with both men in the proper seat.
Artwork showing the moment the Isetta makes it past the checkpoint and into West Berlin
Soon after the escape, Klaus Jacobi had to take his Isetta to the scrapyard, as the modifications made meant it wouldn't pass regulations. The only thing he managed to keep was the key to the engine compartment.
The two students who participated in the escape kept in touch with Jacobi and continued conducting similar operations, using other modified Isettas to smuggle people out of East Berlin until one of them was caught. An Isetta appeared to "wiggle" while it was seemingly empty and the authorities pulled out a person hiding in the compartment. In October of 1964, the stories made the papers. Including Manfred Koster, a total of 9 people had managed to escape East Berlin with the help of a BMW Isetta.
Klaus-Günter Jacobi remains attached to the history of the two Germanys, more than 30 years after the fall of the wall. Now he works as a guide at the Berlin Wall Museum. Of the many visitors who visit each year, hardly anyone knows who is the man who sits on the replica of the Isetta that was used for the escapes, the one who watches Checkpoint Charlie from an upstairs window.
Inspired by the story of Klaus-Günter Jacobi, BMW themselves made a short film titled "The Small Escape" and wrote the article that I have used to gather most of the information and pictures on this one. I recommend you give them a look if you have the chance.
I knew about the BMW Isetta, and perhaps because of that was it that I found it so amazing to hear how such a car could be used for a purpose such as smuggling people. I am a freshman in mechanical engineering and I found the story of Mr. Jacobi and his Isetta to be simply incredible. It was very inspiring for me and I felt that it was a great story and very much worth telling. I've never been to Berlin, and it was only out of luck that I stumbled upon BMW's short film. If it wasn't for that I might have never known about the story. So I wanted to write this article to shed some little extra light on it. I hope you have liked it as much as I did.