By BO EMERSON
See Bruce Weiner's bright red F.M.R. microcar out on I-20, streaking along like a tiny earth-bound rocket, the wind whipping over its stubby wing-like fenders, the sun glinting off a clear plexiglas bubble top, and you're looking at the future.
Or the retro-future. The car of tomorrow — smaller and more fuel-efficient — may come from the ruins of World War II.
Such a car is this road missile, built in the postwar microcar boom, when gas was not just expensive, but virtually nonexistent, and the economy (at least in Europe) was in a shambles.
With a top speed of 70 miles an hour, a fuel efficiency of 90 miles to the gallon and the ability to park in a phone booth (almost), Weiner's microcars might solve a few of Atlanta's traffic problems. These cars were smart when Smartcars were still a twinkle in some auto designer's eye.
But that isn't why Weiner has collected more than 350 of the small wonders, including a handful of boxy Bavarian Goggomobils, a Kleinschnittger featured in a famous Cadillac Escalade TV ad, and a French Avolette that looks like a red jellybean with wheels.
He remembers seeing his first microcar, a Messerschmitt, in Hemmings motor news in 1991.
"This thing looked like it came from Mars," he said. "It had three wheels — two in the front, one in the back. It had a canopy that lifted up. I thought, 'Wow, what is this thing?' "
Most of all, it looked like fun. These bizarre vehicles were sometimes called "bubble" cars because they had clear Plexiglas domes up top. Weiner, 49, a Sandy Springs father of two, made millions in the bubble gum business.
The bubble car and the Bubble Gum King seemed like a match made in heaven.
Quirky guy, quirky cars
Weiner may be better known as the businessman who recently invited Sandy Springs public safety officials to his Madison ranch to ride ATVs and shoot guns. The fallout from that event caused some turnover in the police department, but Weiner remained unrepentant, pointing out that 1) he didn't do anything wrong, and 2) he's single-handedly helped support the police and fire departments in the newly minted city of Sandy Springs to the tune of a quarter-million dollars.
Why the largesse? "I'm big into law enforcement," Weiner said. "I like those kinds of guys; I've had a good time with them."
His company, Continental Gum, started out selling gumball machines to chain retailers such as Sears and K-mart.
Diversifying, the outfit got into the gum manufacturing business, turned into Concord Confections, and eventually bought Fleer, makers of Dubble Bubble.
While running Concord Confections in Toronto with his two partners, he expanded his microcar collection, scouring garages and fields in Germany, Italy, France and England, looking for survivors of the microcar era.
Microcars were created out of necessity. Not only was gasoline at a premium, but manufacturers were short of money and materials. Messerschmitt was banned from building fighter planes and turned out sewing machines and refrigerators.
Entrepreneurs such as Fritz Fend (builder of the F.M.R.), created small shops, then collaborated with larger manufacturers. (Fend built thousands of vehicles in the Messerschmitt factories.) Some microcars were little more than enclosed, three-wheeled motorcycles.
The microcar craze lasted through the mid-1960s; by then European fortunes had risen, and customers demanded cars that could seat a family comfortably.
A collection lost and found
Weiner (his name rhymes with "miner") sold his first microcar collection in 1997, after he'd married Jeanene Thomas and moved to Sandy Springs. With his cars in Toronto, the distance between them was annoying.
He made $1 million, but immediately regretted the sale.
"I missed them."
He started buying again the next day.
Soon he needed a warehouse to keep all his new cars, so he bought land in Madison, a spread he calls Dubble Bubble Acres. There he keeps the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum, a rifle range, ATV trails, a microcar test track and restoration facilities.
There are also four conservators who transform the rusted miniatures he purchases into polished jewels, carefully researching paint colors and engine specifications.
About 15 of the cars are licensed, fueled-up and road-ready, but Weiner doesn't drive them on I-285 these days ("I got blown around by the trucks"), instead tooling around Madison or on his own track.
What he describes as the world's largest collection of microcars is open to the public, except during June and July, and can be seen online at microcarmuseum.com.
To put these cars in perspective, today's reborn Mini Cooper, at 12 feet long, is a full three feet longer than Weiner's favorite candy-apple red F.M.R., and more than twice as long as the 4.5-foot, undulant, trout-faced Dart (made in Australia).
Most of Weiner's vehicles run on one-cylinder engines; some of the engines are only slightly bigger than that of a powerful weed eater.
Recently at Dubble Bubbles Acres, LaShawn Hagler, a friend and employee, tidied up in the 25,000-square-foot museum and reminisced about the time she was cleaning an Eshelman (which looks like it belongs on a carnival ride) and got stuck.
"Some of these I try not to get inside, 'cause I'm a healthy gal and I don't want to push my luck," she said.
Back to the future?
More than anything else, Weiner loves the hunt when it comes to microcars — the pursuing, haggling, dealing, buying and transforming these cars into glowing gems. "I love taking a diamond in the rough and making it into something great."
The keeping of them? Not so much. He is gradually giving all of his cars to the museum, which is a nonprofit organization.
Weiner, who sold his candy business in 2004, is not wholly devoted to small, fuel-efficient engines. He and his family (including children Brittany and Brandon) went on vacation recently in an RV that gets six miles to the gallon.
"I figure it costs me about a dollar a mile to drive it," he said.
Will the world reawaken to the value of the small, super-efficient microcar? People ask Weiner whether the microcar could make a comeback, but he doubts it. There are too many regulations to pass.
But you never can tell. The once and future microcar could be dawdling around Madison right now, revving its two-stroke engine and leaving a trail of blue smoke in its path.
Microcars are generally considered "micro" if they're under 11 feet in length and under 700 cubic centimeters in engine capacity. They provided cheap, fuel-efficient transportation in the broken economy of post-war Europe. Perhaps 250,000 were built altogether, said collector Bruce Weiner of Sandy Springs. These four are from his collection of more than 350, housed at the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum in Madison:
Italian refrigerator designer Renzo Rivolta came up with the Isetta in 1954, a microcar with a front door just like a Kelvinator. He licensed the design to builders in five countries, who created three- and four-wheeled versions. This 1958 Isetta comes from Spain.
Fritz Fend collaborated with Messerschmitt of Germany on a successful series of vehicles, before producing his own model, the F.M.R. TG, which Weiner calls "the Patek Phillippe, the Ferrari of the microcar world." Weiner located this 1957 model in Australia.
This egg-shaped vehicle had a one-cylinder, 191cc engine, three wheels and no doors. It is accessed by flipping up the domed plexiglas top. Egon Brutsch designed the vehicle, then sold the license to an aircraft distributor in France, called Societe Air Tourist.
Australian builder Bill Buckle used an imported chassis from German microcar makers Goggomobil wedded to a handsome fiberglass body to create this 1958 two-seater convertible. Later models added a small front door.
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