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Little Cars, Big Fun

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

With $6 Gas Fears Very Small Cars Get Bigger Looks

When we were in grade school we had a 6.5-ft teacher named Mr. Lynch who came to work everyday in a Morris Minor Traveler. From the schoolyard, we would see him unfold himself from his little crate on wheels. He would rise up like a Jack-in-the-Box jumping out of his hiding place when the music stopped.

Mr. Lynch’s wee woodie wagon looked microscopic to us, but according to Britain’s Register of Unusual Microcars (www.rumcars.org) and the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum (www.microcarmuseum.com), the 948cc Morris Minor is not a Microcar. Both use 700cc as a displacement limit. Yet, the Vintage Micro Car Club (www.microcar.org) says 1000cc, which means they consider it a microcar. Maybe, we’ll ask Microcar Magazine (www.microcarmag.com) to settle this.

Actually, that won’t help, because the online magazine is for modern microcars like the Scion and Nissan Cube. They probably never saw a mid-‘50s Morris station wagon, much less a Messerschmidt or Heinkel. This proves there’s no set definition of “Microcar.” Whether you go by engine size, car length, model year or passenger capacity, different sources use different meanings for the term. So, let’s just say this article is about very small cars.

Very small cars have fascinated people since the dawn of the auto age. When researching a 1993 book named Weird Cars, we found that Harry A. Williams built a miniature car—it was about as long as he was tall—in Ohio in 1906. The $760 roadster was not an economy model as the body was solid cast iron and very heavy. The same book tells the story of the Arbet car owned by Jeff Gibson of Lynden, Wash. Started in 1945 and finished in 1956, the Guinness Book of Records certified that it is the smallest street-legal car in the world. With its 88.75 in. long body, 40-in. wide body and 38.5 in. height, the Arbet was also the smallest car registered in the United States in 1945. It is a normal car with wipers, lights and even a cigarette lighter, but it is shorter than its owner.

In the early days of automobile history, the “cyclecar” became very popular. According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1905-1942 at least 243 models were made, such as the Cricket, Dudly Bug, Gadabout, Imp, Little Princess and Peter Pan. The O-We-Go was a cyclecar made in Oswego, N.Y. in 1914. It was driven by an Ives motorcycle engine and belt-drive transmission. It featured passenger-behind-driver tandem seating. Top speed was 58 mph.

A better known cyclecar was the Merz, built in Indianapolis. It had an 84-in. wheelbase with tandem seating and $450 price. An air-cooled Deluxe two-cylinder engine with nine horsepower was mounted ahead of a friction disc transmission with final drive by V-belt. This car was reviewed by a reporter from Cyclecar Age magazine who stated, “They are the popular cars of the future.”

The cyclecar craze lasted only a few years, but very small cars stuck around. In 1929, Ken Morehouse spent $9,000 building the Little Mystery, a 100-mph car so small that his bride had to ride on the hood. The American Austin (1930-1934) and Austin-Bantam (1938-1941) came from the tiny British Austin Seven. American Austin Car Co. added adorable bodies designed by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and built by Hayes. There were roadsters, coupes, wagons, trucks and a Boulevard Delivery with open driving compartment.

One early American microcars was the Crosley, that Cincinnati, Ohio entrepreneur Powell Crosley, Jr. began building in 1939 and kept in production until 1952. Famous for radios, telephones, refrigerators and owning the Redlegs baseball team, Crosley tried cyclecars in the teens, before launching his two-cylinder, 12-hp, 80-in. wheelbase car. He made coupe, sedan, wagon and covered wagon models before World War II, advertising them as “The Car of Tomorrow” and “The Forgotten Man’s Car.” Cannonball Baker drove one coast-to-coast, averaging 50.4 mpg for 6,517.3 miles. After the war the Crosley came back with new models like a Hot Shot sports car and Farm-O-Road mini “Jeep.”

Bruce Weiner, who owns the Microcar Museum in Madison, Ga., collects chiefly the tiny “bubble cars” that were built in combat-devastated postwar Europe. His website says the war ruined cities and factories and caused material shortages. Small cars, some of which resembled the cabin of an airplane with wheels, were created to get around in. Weiner calls the bubblecar “A vehicle born out of need—a child of its time that became the symbol of a peoples’ spirit.”

Germany where the wartime production of aircraft had been a huge industry, became a bubblecar hot bed. Manufacturers such as Messerschmitt and Heinkel built the Messerschmitt KR175, KR200 and TG500 with aircraft-style sliding, see-through canopies. Germans called the cars “kabinrollers,” but in more recent times the term bubble car was coined by microcar collectors, since it also applies to cars like the “refrigerator-door” Isetta with its egg-like body.

Small American automakers produced a variety of 1950s microcars that weren’t bubblecars. The 1950 Brogan resembled an amusement park bumper car, the 54-in. long Eshelman (1953-1960) looked like a kid’s pedal car, the 1958 Colt was a two-tone coupe with fins and a 120-in. body and the King Midget (1947-1969) started as a racing car clone and wound up looking like a sporty golf cart.

Another type of microcar that caught on in the ‘50s was the “shopper” type vehicle that usually had one wheel in front and two in the rear and an electric motor. These were put out under names like Auto Cub, Autoette, Electric-Shopper and Marketeer. A few like the Davis and Publix were made in the 1940s and others like the Marketour and Electra-King survived into the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Cushman 3-wheelers used by Meter Maids to monitor parking meters are similar.

Companies here and abroad also made very small cars with more conventional designs. The MG Midget/Austin-Healey Sprite sports car is considered “micro” by most people who see one and the small, but the stately-looking Triumph Mayflower salon has been described as a “snippet of snobbery.” Britain’s Dellow, Singer and Reliant 3-wheeler, France’s Citroen 2CV and bumper-car-like Rovin, Germany’s little lloyd and tiny Trippel, Italy’s Fiat Topolino and more modern Fiat 500 and Japan’s Auto Sandal and OHTA are all tiny cars.

By American standards, even early postwar compact cars like the Allstate and Henry J, Crofton Bug, Playboy, Hudson Jet, Hudson and Nash Metropolitans, Nash Rambler and Aero Willys models were genuine microcars when compared to other Detroit Iron cruising the roads. However, we doubt that microcar collectors would feel the same about these “big-small” cars.

The majority of cars that collectors consider “true” microcars seat up to two people side-by-side or tandem style. Most have one- or two-cylinder engines of small displacement (as noted up to 1000cc in some collector clubs). Most have one driven wheel and many have cable-operated brakes that aren’t legal everywhere. They have tiny wheels and very basic chassis and suspensions. They often have only forward speeds (the owners lift them up to change direction), but some, such as a Messerschmitt, can go both directions in any gear.

In some countries the move to small cars was driven by tax laws and motor vehicle regulations, which means these nations have specific guidelines for microcars. For instance, in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the tiniest microcars are considered small motorcycles and do not require an automobile driver’s license. Some American states are struggling to develop laws covering tiny Chinese-made trucks now being marketed in the U.S. for fuel sipping deliveries. Some of these laws are having an unintended negative effect on collectors of vintage imported microcars that were not the target of the laws.

Some countries charge lower taxes for microcars to promote their use, which tends to save fuel and lower hydrocarbon emissions. There are also places where teeny cars can be parked in special spots or even on the sidewalk if motorcycle parking is permitted there. Another advantage to collectors is that a 1-car trailer can sometimes be modified to carry a pair of Microcars. Jim Rugowski, of Appleton, Wis., carries his Fiat Topolino and Simca Cinq this way.



A List of Popular Microcars and Minicars


At the Jefferson swap meet in southern Wisconsin last fall, we saw a German Lloyd sedan for sale. It was as cute as a button, but as rough as a rattail file. We considered buying the car, but then thought about the cost of restoration and wondered where we would ever find parts. We decided we might want a very small car someday (something tinier than our MG TD Midget Car), but we knew that it just made more sense to shoot for a more popular model to play with.

Below we have listed some of the tiny cars we actually see at car shows. To avoid hassles with definitions that vary from club to club and country to country, we’re calling these Microcars and Minicars. You can decide which one’s are small enough to fit your tastes, but we think that threats of $6 a gallon gas are going to “lift the boat” for small-car collecting and these are some models you probably won’t go wrong with if you buy a good one at today’s market prices.

If you want to know about every minicar, check the websites given above. The Vintage Microcar Club has an alphabetical list of the models that it considers to be microcars. For more information on small prewar American cars, read the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1905-1942. For the same information about early postwar models, read the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975. The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1976-1999 is a good source for small cars of these years. Likewise, the Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 covers bubblecars and other small postwar imports up to 2002. Sorry, we do not know of a comprehensive reference for prewar microcars made overseas. You might try the World Wide Web for that, in the meantime, here’s our list:


Anglia. The Ford Anglia name was applied to four models of car between 1939 and 1967. The E04A (1939-1948) and the E494A (1949-1953) have a really cool mini prewar Ford appearance that’s popular with hot rodders. Many, in fact, were drag raced years ago. But the postwar 100E (1953-1959) and 105E (1959-1968) are catching up and even the 1962-1967 Supers are seen on eBay.

American Austin 1931-1934. Seen in “Our Gang” comedies. Shrunken big-car with many body styles. Very collectible and restored are pricey.

Amphicar 1961-1968. This 83-in. wheelbase boat car has a 70-cid four and goes on the land or in the water. It always draws a crowd. Prices are high.

Austin-Bantam 1938-1941. Streamlined American Austin with really cool models like mini-limo with chauffeur’s compartment and coach lamps. Pricey.

Austin Seven 1930s-Up. England’s Austin brought out legendary second-series Austin Seven in 1921. The third series arrived in 1931 and fourth generation A30 appeared in ‘50s. Due to high production prices under $10,000.

Austin-Healey Bug-Eye Sprite 1958-1961: A.K.A. “Frog-Eye” Sprite has 80-in. wheelbase, 11-ft. length and 948cc engine. A real minicar. Values climbing fast. Bring about $12K for perfection. Bring a shoehorn, too.

BMW. This ‘35 BMW 319/1 roadster belongs to Jody Anderson, owner of the National Impala Assoc., whose dad bought it in 1955. Miller’s Yearbook & Price Guide pegs it at about $20,000.

BMW Dixie 1928-1932. The BMW Dixie was an Austin Seven built under license in Germany with 747cc four. Lasted until 1932. A few got custom bodies.

Citroen 2CV. The wonderfully idiosyncratic 2CV reduces the motorcar to is essence. About $15,000 restored. Be sure year of the car matches paperwork.

Crosley. Prewar rare. Postwar sedans and wagons abound. Look for cast-iron CIBA engine, not the COBRA four with sheet metal block. The rare Hot Shot sports car that raced at LeMans is more valuable. About $5,000 for coupe.

Cushman Truckster 1952-Up: Governed top speed under 40 mph to get Meter Maids around, $1,500-$2,500 will buy a nice one. Many parts around.

Dellow: British sports car with 82-in. wheelbase and 71-cid four. Introduced in 1947 and popular for use in hillclimbs since tiny frame didn’t break.

Fiat: “Mickey Mouse” Topolino made prewar and postwar is very collectible. Licensed versions like Simc Cinq are same car with different badge. A bit pricey since many were cut up for drag racing and parts source is in Europe.

Fiat 500: Boxier postwar version of the Topolino. The 500 designation indicates 500cc 13-hp four. Very popular for scooting around at vintage races.

Honda 600 Early ‘60s-1970: Honda began carmaking in ’62 and the 600 sedan was first brought to America in 1969. A 598cc twin powers the 125-in. car.

Isetta 1955-1965: Without a doubt the most popular microcar in terms of numbers collected. Dreamed up by ISO of Italy, BMW purchased rights and built it in Germany. Its 247cc two-stroke twin makes all of 12 hp. Popularized by the lovable Steve Urkel character (played by Jaleel White) on the TV show “Family Matters,” the Isetta was even an economy offering at Nickey Chevrolet in 1957. (Oh boy! Now someone is sure to build a Nickey clone Isetta to take to auction.)

Mini: Here’s a popular minicar you can get in old or new flavors. The Austin Mini first came here in 1960. The hot Mini Cooper “tuner” version bowed in ’64. By the late ‘60s, the Mini Cooper “S” was pulling 78 hp from a 78-cid (1275cc) engine. It had an 80-in. wheelbase and 10ft. long body.

Mini-Moke: A sort of golf cart version of the base Mini using its 848cc 37-hp four. You see a lot of these used by collectors at car shows and vintage races.

Mini Cooper Clubman: The original Mini Cooper Clubman was marketed by British Leyland in 1969-1980 with a squarer “face” designed by Ron Haynes.

Morgan 3-Wheeler: The first Morgan 3-wheeler (Runabout) arrived in 1909. In 1935, Morgan produced the best ever F series with 8- and 10-hp Ford engines. Morgan made a few 3-wheelers thru July 29, 1952, when the last Ford-engined F-Super left the Morgan Works. In 2010, a new 3-wheeler bowed.

Morris Minor: The first postwar Morris of 1948 was designed for America. The old 918cc flathead four was used until ’53, when a 803cc OHV motor arrived. Displacement jumped to 948cc in ’56 and 1098cc in ’62. Many body types made.

Nash Metropolitan: Austin of England built this car for Nash and Hudson to sell in America. It used the 1200cc (later 1500cc) Austin A40 four and packaged big car features and quality into an 85-in. wheelbase and 150-in. body.

Triumph Mayflower: Looks like a little Rolls with a 108-in. wheelbase and 1800cc 65-hp four. Fans describe it as a “snippet of snobbery.”

Vespa: Built by an Italian scooter maker, this 112-in. long suicide door coupe has a 67-in. wheelbase and a 393cc air-cooled 2-stroke twin.





In the past decade we’ve seen Amphicars jump from $8,000 to $80,000.




We prewar Ford looks, the Anglia E494A is popular with hot rodders.




We recall pictures with Spanky and his gang sitting all over an Austin.




Early Sprites are cute as a bug and not much bigger.




Restyling of American Austin created the Art Deco looking Bantam.




Tasty and tiny BMW roadster is owned by Chevy Impala buff.




France’s Citroen 2CV is small and basic.




Doorless Crosley Hot Shot SS was very fast for its class.




Easy-to-store’82 Cushman Truckster did parking enforcement duty.




English bog racers and hillclimbers liked the short, sturdy unbreakable Dellow.




Do you recognize the Fiat 500 from “Cars” cartoon movie character?




First Honda car sold in America was the 600 midget sedan.




As we see it, the BMW Isetta is the most popular of all minicars.




Nash Metropolitan has big-car build quality in Lilliputian body.




Upon taking over Austin, British Leyland created the Mini Clubman.




Mini Cooper version of Austin Mini was successful racecar.




Morgan 3-Wheeler started as cyclecar, but caught on for tax advantages.




Morris Minor was aimed at US market to help revive British economy.




Jim Rugowski modified his 1-car trailer to carry his 1936 Simca Cinq and 1951 Fiat Topolino.




Triumph’s Mayflower sedan looks like a little Rolls-Royce.




Italian motorscooter maker Vespa built cars only a few years.

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