(published in Uncle John’s “AHH INSPIRING” Bathroom Reader)


The automotive icon of the current age seems to be the Sport Utility Vechicle—big, fuel hungry and expensive. Aside from a few ups and downs in the economy and some temporary fuel shortages there has been little to distract us from our quest for automotive power and comfort. But in another time, on another continent, necessity gave birth to a different idea—the microcar.

Size Matters

In post-World War II Europe economic realities forced car designers to re-think the idea of the automobile. Europeans were already accustomed to the idea of smaller cars before the war. More densely populated than America, many of its cities had narrow streets which pre-dated the automobile by centuries. Smaller, easily maneuverable cars were built by manufacturers such as Rover, Alfa-Romeo, Fiat, and Saab.

But after World War II fuel was expensive and materials were in short supply. The damaged economy made even small, but conventional, cars out of reach for many people. In contrast to America’s post-war optimism which was expressed by renewed materialism and the “bigger is better” approach, Europeans tightened their belts and looked for ways to get by on less. Many used motorcycles for transport, but these left a lot to be desired in inclement weather, and were of little use for carrying more than the driver.

In the late 40s and early 50s a number of unconventional inventors began designing vehicles that were sort of a hybrid—not quite cars, but more than motorcycles. Many were designed to use motorcycle engines, particularly the early models. Later versions used more powerful proprietary engines. But one thing they all had in common was size: because they were small they were known as microcars.

Some had four wheels, making them more car-like. But many had just three—usually two in front and one in back. According to British law a vehicle with fewer than four wheels (and without a reverse gear) was considered a motorcycle and was taxed at a lower rate than cars. Another plus: a motorcycle license was all that was needed to drive the three-wheelers.

More than 50 different microcar brands were produced in Europe, some with a great deal of success. Others barely got off the drawing board. With names such as Atom, Frisky, Scootacar, Trojan, and Wolf it was difficult to take some of them seriously. But Europeans seemed to find the names and many of the wacky designs endearing. They were cheap to buy, economical to operate and, as one ad said, “Why walk when you can ride?”

Small Beginnings

Some of the diminutive vehicles were designed and built by companies with automotive backgrounds such as the British Reliant, which expanded on its pre-war three-wheeled vans. (Reliant made three-wheelers until early 2001, and continues to market four-wheeled small cars.)

But many others were the product of inventive entrepreneurs with little or no experience in vehicle design. Bavarian businessman Hans Glas manufactured agricultural machinery. But demand for his equipment dropped sharply in the late 40s. Glas thought there might be a market for a well-built scooter, so he began manufacturing one in 1951. He was right. With the success of the scooter he went on to design a tiny car, the four-wheeled “Goggomobile”, first sold in 1955 for about $750. As rugged as its agricultural heritage might suggest one reviewer noted that “the only way to flip a Goggomobile is to drive it over a land mine.” With more than 280,000 sold by the end of production in 1969, the Goggomoblie became the most successful small car produced in Germany.

Another well-known microcar started out as a wheelchair.

Luftwaffe Chic

Shortly after the war German aeronautical engineer Fritz Fend, a former Luftwaffe technical officer, began experimenting with some ideas he had for a hand-powered tri-cycle for disabled servicemen. His design evolved into a motorized version with the single wheel in the rear. He was surprised to find that he was swamped by requests for his vehicle not from disabled servicemen, but from ordinary people looking for economical transport.

Fend was more of an inventor than a businessman, so to get his vehicle built and marketed he turned to his aviation contacts at the Messerschmitt aircraft company. The Messerschmitt factory, which had built fighter planes during the war, was put back to use making Fend’s little cars. The first 8-foot-long production model of the Messerschmitt, which the makers preferred to call the “Cabin-Scooter”, was introduced to the public 1953.

With flowing lines and a clear plastic dome top it resembled a cockpit on wheels—some thought the Cabin-Scooter was made of old fighter plane parts. Reinforcing that misconception the top opened upwards and the two seats were in tandem, one behind the other. With a 191cc engine and a top speed of more than 50 miles per hour the Cabin-Scooter got 60-75 miles per gallon. Some 45,000 were sold by the end of production in 1964. A more powerful sibling, the Messerschmitt Tiger, had four wheels, a 500cc engine, and claimed a top speed of 90 miles per hour. The Red Baron would have loved it.

Tiny Bubbles

In 1952 Italian businessman Renzo Rivolta, manufacturer of “Iso” refrigerators, got into the car business. He named his car the Isetta ( “Little Iso”).

Though the Isetta, along with the Messerschmitt and other microcars of similar design were called “bubble cars” because of their rounded enclosures, the Isetta bore little resemblance to the Messerschmitt—there was no chance anyone could mistake it for a fighter plane. Sometimes derisively called “an Easter egg on roller skates” it was distinctly ovoid, 54 inches wide by 90 inches long.

The Isetta had a single door which opened from the front, much like a refrigerator. With the door open occupants would step into the car, turn around and sit down on the single seat. The driver closed the door by pulling on the steering wheel, which was on a jointed column and would pivot into place. It had a canvas pull-back sunroof which made motoring around the countryside more pleasant on sunny days, but the real reason for it was that in the event of a frontal collision the sunroof provided an emergency escape.

Though versions of the Isetta was made by manufacturers in Brazil, France, Spain and Belgium, it was BMW of Germany that refined the little car and contributed most to its success. In the post-war economy BMW was having trouble selling it’s more expensive models and was looking for an economy car to manufacture. In 1954 scouts from BMW were impressed by the performance of several Isettas which entered Italy’s Mille Miglia (1,000 mile) race. One reportedly finished with an average speed of almost 50 mph with a fuel efficiency of 60 miles per gallon.

BMW bought the manufacturing rights, replaced the original engine with a 13 horsepower 247 cc motorcycle engine and made several design improvements such as better suspension and a sliding front window. With a cost of just 20% of its least expensive luxury cars BMW sold more than 160,000 Isettas in Germany. Another 30,000 were made in Great Britain under the BMW license. Some attribute the continued existence of BMW to the success of the Isetta.

BMW built Isettas until1962 when competition from more car-like microcars, especially the British-built Mini, was making bubblecars obsolete. Ironically nearly half a century later BMW would adopt the Mini and, as it did with the Isetta, make some modifications and give it a new lease on life.

Millions of Minis

In the late 50s microcars were enjoying another surge of popularity. Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956 and Britain was rationing gasoline. Sir Leonard Lord, head of British Motor Company, asked car designer Alec Issigonis to design a revolutionary car to “wipe those blasted bubble cars off the road.” And that is exactly what happened. At about 4 1/2 feet by 10 the Mini was a little larger than many of the earlier microcars, but with proper side doors and a front and rear seat. The engine was in its own compartment, in the front over the drive wheels. The real revolution however was the drive train—by turning the 848cc engine sideways and putting the gearbox underneath it Issigonis fit the mechanicals into just eighteen inches. That left plenty of room for four passengers and even luggage.

With its four-cylinder 37 horsepower engine the Mini could hold its own on the highway among larger cars. The early models had a top speed of 72 mph, but later performance modifications boosted that figure to over 100 mph, a remarkable speed considering the Mini rode on tiny10 inch wheels. The combination of size, power and maneuverability made the Mini the best in its class and sales figures reflected its successful design— during the twenty-five years after its introduction in 1959 more than 5 million Minis were built.

In spite of its long popularity the Mini gradually fell victim to the times. It was competing with small but more powerful sports cars, and the economical but less sporty Volkswagon Beetle. By the mid-80s sales had fallen off dramatically. A new owner, the British auto manufacturer Rover, tried to revive the Mini offering a number of special editions. Strong sales in Japan helped keep the Mini alive, but as the end of the millennium approached it looked like the Mini would finally join the Isetta and other legendary little cars on the scrap heap of history. But history was about to repeat itself.

Back to the Future

In the mid-90s Rover was bought by BMW, which was seeking to expand its line. The Mini came with the deal, but BMW was mainly interested in the four-wheel-drive Land Rover and the modestly priced Rover car. It turned out to be a bad match. English investors didn’t like the idea of a German company owning Rover, and the Rover division cost BMW more money than it made. BMW sold most of Rover in 2000. But the head of the company reportedly was a fan of the Mini, and BMW kept it as well as one of the Rover factories in England.
In 2001 BMW unveiled a new Mini, built in the English factory, sporting BMW styling and engineering. With a motor nearly twice the size of the original with more than twice the horsepower (built jointly by BMW and Daimler-Chrysler in Brazil) top speed is estimated at 125 miles per hour. Automotive reviewers seem to think it is both a blast from the past, and a peek at the future.

Fathers of Invention

Though giant SUVs and luxury cars abound in today’s mostly peaceful prosperity, many car manufacturers with a grasp of history are preparing smaller, fuel efficient models. Economic factors have been joined by environmental concerns. If the BMW Mini is any indicator modern microcars will feature high-tech advancements with new designs, materials and fuels. If necessity is the mother of invention, the fathers must be the innovative designers and engineers who re-think old ideas in search of new solutions.

copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012