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My stepmom, Olly, has a cat named Gogo.  She’s got this wild, fluffy black hair, a rip-roaring purr, and huge green eyes (Gogo, not Olly).  Basically, she’s absolutely adorable, and I bet even the SMV engineers would love her, based on this highly educational video.

Anyways, I love the name Gogo, so obviously, I love the Goggomobil, even though it’s a little difficult to find information about the company’s history.

The Goggomobil began its life story in 1895.  At that time, a Bavarian man called Hans Glas opened a repair shop for agricultural equipment.  I can’t say he had the catchiest name I’ve ever heard of (Hans Glas, Reparaturwerkstaette fuer landwirtschaftliche Maschinen mit Damptbetrieb or the Repair Shop for Steam-powered Agricultural Machines).  Despite the ultra-long name, Glas enjoyed some success, particularly with his sowing machines.  His business kept expanding as Hans went through life (and several wars).  Eventually, his son, Andreas, joined the business.  After World War II, the demand for agricultural machinery was in a steep decline and Andreas was scouring the European countryside for new ways of generating business.  Lo and behold, in 1951 he came upon a Vespa scooter.

He brought this idea back to the Dingolfing factory and Glas began pumping out scooters.  In a stroke of naming genius, Andreas and Hans decided to call the scooter after the youngest Glas boy, nicknamed Goggo.  The Germans went wild and the scooters sold like hotcakes to the economically-depressed Germans who were hungering for affordable, respectable forms of transportation.  The scooter’s success led to the development of a larger car, and thus the Goggomobil was born.

Goggomobil

Not quite as cute as Gogo the cat, but pretty close!

The Goggomobil T300 was produced from 1955 through 1968.  Like other Goggomobils, it had a low center of gravity which provided good stability on the roadways.  Pietro Frua, a top Italian designer linked with Maserati, designed the body, which featured a pressed-steel chassis and stiffening ribs for reduced flexibility.  The car had swing axle suspension and independent springs, making it a comfier ride than many of its fellow micro competitors.  This model sported a 297cc engine that topped out at about 60 mph and put out 15 hp.  Like many other microcars, the Goggomobil sipped gas at the leisurely rate of over 50 mpg.

Like many microcar makers before them, Andreas and Hans were not satisfied with their tiny cars and sought to expand into the large car market.  Their attempts were not received well and in 1966, the company was sold to BMW.  Goggomobils were made under the BMW name until 1969, at which time the Glas factory at Dingolfing began producing BMW suspension components instead of mini cars.

However, the Goggomobil reigned supreme in its glory days.  By 1956, the small car was exported into 36 countries and ultimately over a quarter million Goggomobils were sold, making the vehicle the most successful German microcar ever sold.

Want some help impressing the ladies?  Get yourself a microcar!  Rodney from the BBC show Only Fools and Horses shows you how it’s done with his Reliant Regal van.  Microcars just get more useful every day!

After seeing this car, I couldn’t not write about it.  Before I say anything, take a look at this Top Gear video.  Absolutely priceless.

Really, what more do you need to know?  The Peel P50 was the smallest production car in the world and likely one of the cheapest.

The story of this minuscule auto began in the early 1950s when Cyril Cannell of the Isle of Man started the Peel Engineering Company.  Peel primarily made fiberglass boats, glass-reinforced plastic, go-karts, and motorcycle fairings.  In the 1960s, the Isle of Man produced both the Bee Gees and the Peel P50, changing the course of history as we know it.

Peel P50

It might not set any land speed records, but it's a heck of a machine.

The P50, which debuted in 1962, had a welded tubular steel chassis and measured in at 4’5″ tall, 3’3″ wide, and 3’5″ high.  It should be noted that records of these dimensions vary a bit, as all the cars were handmade by Peel, which employed about 40 people at maximum capacity.  Without a passenger, the car weighed just over 130 pounds (I never thought I would weigh almost as much as a car).  Today, the car could be driven not even as a motorcycle, but as a moped with its 49cc two stroke engine that put out less than 5hp.  The body was naturally made out of fiberglass and was available in three stunning colors: Dragon Red, Daytona White, and Capri Blue.

This tiny car’s fuel efficiency almost puts other microcars to shame.  The P50 is claimed to get about 100 mpg.  Its top speed (at best) was about 40 mph, although this certainly depended on who was driving the thing.  Like other microcars, the P50 lacked a reverse gear.  Most drivers dealt with this by hopping out, picking up the car, and placing it in the desired direction.

Peel P50

I'm lifting a car! I must be superhuman...

A few other quirks of the P50: it had only one headlight, one windshield wiper, and only one door.  It was advertised as seating “one adult and one shopping bag.”

The P50 retailed for about 199 GBP.  At the time, a motorcycle went for about 250 quid.  Only about 50 Peel P50s were produced, and today the diminutive car is quite a collectible.

Peel stopped production of the P50 in 1964 and produced a few more microcars before the company folded in 1974.

The team is (as ever) hard at work.  The Milwaukee School of Engineering is on spring break, but that means little to these dedicated engineers who are putting in hours every day.

This week, one big project is finishing the carbon fiber body.  They’ve finished the bottom of the body and the chassis (and if I may say so myself, both turned out beautifully, super smooth and glassy).  Now, they’ve moved on to the top of the body, which we last saw in the fiberglass form (much thanks to Midwest Composite Technologies for all their help with the car body!).  The team laid out the carbon fiber, bonded it together, and now it’s sealed away in its vacuum-induced sleep, ready to awake in four to five days, now prepared for the challenges the team will throw at it.

On a different note, can you tell I’m not an engineer?  Anyways, take a look at the top of the body.

Carbon top

And now the waiting game commences...

As you may remember, the team will compete with their car coming up June 10-11 in Marshall, Michigan.  While this is certainly the number one priority, the fun doesn’t stop there.  The car (we really need a name for this thing) will be displayed July 8-11 at Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The whole exhibit will feature the SMV, several antique microcars, and example(s) of hybrid vehicles.  We are so grateful to have this opportunity and when the team gets the rare break from working on the car, they’re working on the museum exhibit.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, Discovery World sits right on Lake Michigan next to Summerfest grounds.  The location is absolutely gorgeous and the museum is a lot of fun; it says it tries to connect “innovation, science, technology and the environment with exploration and learning through interactive exhibits and experiential learning programs.”

Discovery World

What a gorgeous location!

Really, what better venue could we have?  The SMV team definitely covers the bases in Discovery World’s mission.  In addition to the cars, we will have interactive, hands-on exhibits for kids to enjoy.  At the end of the day, we’re hoping to provide interesting, relevant information about the history and future of fuel-efficient vehicles.  However cliched it sounds, the children are our future, and this is stuff they should know.  We think so, at least!

We will also hopefully have guest speakers, including an insurance representative to explain what car insurance is and why we need it.  While this perhaps doesn’t sound super exciting, how many of you really know how insurance works, or what to do if you’re in an accident, or how to change your insurance plan?  Yeah.  Didn’t think so.

To be honest, I’m really excited for the SMV team to have this great opportunity to meet with the public.  The SMV engineers are so enthusiastic and committed to what they do.  They were the kids who wanted to know how everything works, and by now, they’re well on their ways to figuring out all that stuff.  This gives them a chance to interact with the next generation of engineers who will be working to solve the world’s problems.  And no matter how hard I try, I don’t speak “engineer.”  But the team does, and this is a fantastic chance for them to inspire the up and coming students.

By now, I’ve talked about a few microcars.  Most of them were foreign, and all of them were made decades ago.  Historically, microcars just haven’t caught on very well in US markets.  After lean times in World War II, Americans tended to go for the big, buff cars.  That trend has more or less carried us through to 2000.   The age of the SUV came and (kind of) went, with GMC management so certain they would profit forever from the gas-guzzlers that their motto was “our future’s so bright we’ve gotta wear shades.”  Well, our future might be a little brighter because of the hole in the ozone, but fuel efficiency is getting to be more important for consumers.

That’s what Toyota is banking on, at least, with their unveiling of the 2011 Scion iQ at the New York Auto Show.  The car (which has been selling under a different name and slightly different specs in Japan for a few years now) stands at 120 inches long with a wheelbase just under 79 inches.  It boasts a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine that is expected to get about 100 horsepower.  The car fits “3+1” people, which apparently means a couple regular-sized adults, a child, and a pet goldfish.  If you get creative, I’m sure you can squeeze four (very friendly) people in it.

Scion iQ

The 2011 Scion iQ

One important feature has drawn people to bigger cars for years: safety.  We assume that we’re safe behind the wheels of humongous SUVs, and for the most part we’re right.  But the Scion iQ promises to deliver on that front, too.  The car boasts ten airbags, ABS panic control brakes, stability and traction control, and electronic steering.

Even with the iQ’s small size, don’t expect the legendary mpgs of the car’s predecessors; Toyota says it expects the car to get in the upper thirties.  With mileages increasing on cars across the board, we’ll have to see if that’s enough to be competitive.  You can expect the car to start below $15,000, with some estimates coming in around $12k.  The car will be available in the US in early 2011.

Does this signal a comeback of the microcar in the US?  If nothing else, this car sounds like it will offer some creature comforts and safety in a small package, which might help American consumers understand that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

You’ve gotta love the British.  They not only gave the world James Bond, but Bond Minicars, too.  Now, I have my own opinions on who’s cuter, but nonetheless, the car was pretty neat, too.

Lawrie Bond, like so many men before and after him, loved racing.  Any spare money he had went directly to building and improving his race cars.  After World War II, there were fuel shortages in Britain (like so many other places in the world).  This led to difficult times in the racing community and the emergence of lightweight car divisions.  Lawrie, a brilliant designer, loved this new challenge and built new prototypes each season.

Mark G

The perfect shopping vehicle! At least for Lawrie Bond's wife, Pauline

However, Lawrie did not come up with his Bond designs single-handedly.  His wife, Pauline, wanted a car she could take shopping that was a cross between a car and a motorcycle.  That way, shopping bags could have an enclosed space but the fuel economy of a motorcycle could still be enjoyed.  So it was with the help of his wife that Lawrie came up with the first Bond Minicar.

While Lawrie was undoubtedly a bright man, he built the first Minicar on the second floor and had to lower the vehicle to the ground through a hole in the floor.  So Lawrie began making cars at Sharp’s Commercials Limited, a recently established company that produced Chevrolet trucks in Preston, Lancaster.   Bond Cars began making Minicars in 1949.

Bond Minicar

Want me to pick up anything at Target?

The first model was the three-wheeled Bond Mark A.  It had a single-cylinder two stroke 122cc engine.  The car had no chassis; instead, it had a stressed skin made of aluminum.  It featured a three speed motorcycle gearbox, rear brakes only, a kick start, no rear suspension, and a steering system that turned the engine and the front suspension strut as a single unit.  The Mark A fit two people on a bench seat and had an open top.  Top speed was a blazing 35 mph and this model was made from 1949 to 1951.  Fuel economy was good enough to be competitive in this gas-hungry country at about 60 mpg.

The Bond Minicar kept evolving as the 1950s went on.  The Mark B was made from 1951 to 1952.  Essentially, the Mark B was an upgraded version of the Mark A.  This car had a larger (197cc) engine and rear suspension.  It was also offered in a few different body styles, such as a commercial van styling.

The Mark C, offered from 1952 through 1956, was the most popular Bond Minicar.  Customers had the option of an electric start (eliminating the need to open the trunk and kick start the motor) on the 197cc engine.  A worm and sector mechanism enabled the engine to turn 90 degrees.  This allowed the car to turn its own length to further reduce the need for a reverse gear.  Around 14,000 Mark Cs were made out of about 24,500 Bond Minicars total.

Mark C

Not entirely sure if that's true advertising...

Four more models were offered (D through G) over the next ten years.  Engine sizes slowly increased and body styles became more like proper cars.  But the Minicar’s heyday was over; production of the Bond Minicar ceased in 1966 and Bond focused on other larger models.  Bond Cars was sold to Reliant in 1970 and one Bond model (the Bond Bug) was kept in production until 1974.

Today, the few Bond Minicars still existing can be seen (slowly and efficiently) roaming the streets of Britain and the US.

It was one of the most successful microcars ever made.  It was made in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, although it originated in Italy.  This car was the original “bubble car.”  Yup, I’m talking about none other than the Isetta.

Isetta

The BMW Isetta.

The Isetta started with the now-bankrupt company Iso Rivolta, which was then known as Iso SpA and owned by an Italian named Renzo Rivolta.  Iso SPA made the logical predecessor to the microcar: the refrigerator.  Well, to be fair, they also made scooters and three-wheeled trucks, and it’s been said that an Isetta is basically a couple of scooters with a fridge plopped in between them.

Iso SpA brought their Isetta prototype to Turin in 1953 and people were enthralled.  Even then, an Isetta was something to behold.  It stood 7.5 feet long, 4.5 feet wide on 10-inch wheels placed 19 inches apart in back.  The first Isettas had one lone back wheel, but Iso thought these cars were too unstable, hence the fourth wheel.  The engine was a 236cc motorbike two stroke engine that could go from zero to thirty mph in a blazing 36 seconds and reached a top speed of 47 mph.  Naturally, the Isetta’s gas mileage was stellar, with an average mpg of 50 to 70 depending on the driving.  The car had four gears (plus reverse!) and a unique body design, with a front-opening door, a canvas top, and space for two and a half people, or a couple and a suitcase.

The diminutive auto became popular throughout Europe and other countries began to assemble Isettas using parts from Italy.  Meanwhile, Iso began experimenting with different models, including a flat bed and a fire truck.

Iso entered some of his cars in the Economy class of the Mille Miglia in 1954 (which is soon to be run with electric vehicles!), where the Isettas took the top three spots and averaged 43 mph over the thousand-mile race.  Despite this success, Iso was on to other things.  Rivolto sold the entire Isetta to BMW this same year.  And so the Isetta came of age.

Isetta

Hey there gorgeous...hop in on. After all, insanity isn't the only thing that gallops in my family.

BMW gave the micro a new engine (13hp, 247cc, four stroke) and a whole body full of new parts.  BMW started with the Isetta 250, which featured headlights affixed to the sides of the car, aluminum cylinder head, cast iron crankcase and cylinder, and an elaborate power train that involved two Hardy cases, an oil bath, and some shafts of various, mysterious kinds.  Germans loved the bubble car; Isettas proved to be an affordable mode of transportation that could even be operated on motorcycle licenses.

Isetta

Could life get any better than this? Well, maybe if I were allowed to actually drive the car.

In 1956 the Isetta 300 was introduced, which had a nifty sliding window and a larger 298cc engine.  BMW also produced the Isetta 600 from 1957 to 1959, which was more similar to normal cars than other Isetta models.  On this car, BMW brought out its semi-trailing arm independent suspension system.  They would use that suspension for the next forty years.  Although the 600 had a 582cc motor, it wasn’t one of the more popular models.  Its lack of appeal was partly due to the competing VW Beetle and partly due to the fact that you couldn’t tell the front of the car from the back.  Or at least that’s my explanation.

BMW stopped producing Isettas in 1962 after putting out over 160,000 microcars.  Some people say that the Isetta microcar made BMW into what it is today.

Of course, the Isetta’s story doesn’t end there.  It is still one of the more popular microcars for collectors worldwide.  And it made a frequent appearance (along with trusty navigator Steve Urkel) on the show Family Matters.  So the next time you’re out driving on a nice summer day, keep an eye out for the original bubble car, shaped like a “teardrop in the wind.”

Talking about Crosley cars brings me again to the idea of specifying exactly what a microcar is.  Generally, the agreed upon definition is a three or four-wheeled that has two doors and an engine size of 1000cc or less.  And for those of you who are still wondering why I care about microcars, remember: they were some of the first really fuel efficient vehicles.

On to the Crosleys.  Really, these cars were the dream of one man: Powel Crosley, Jr., a man born in Ohio in the late nineteenth century.  Like so many people, he was obsessed with cars.  After dropping out of the University of Cincinnati, he tried to make his first automobile at the age of 21.  Crosley didn’t get anywhere with those first attempts, but he never lost his love for vehicles.

After holding down a few odd jobs, marrying a girl named Gwendolyn, and fathering some kids, Crosley found a niche market: auto accessories.  He helped to found the American Automobile Accessory Company and, with the help of his business-smart brother, Lewis, sold over a million dollars in parts through World War I.

Crosley, a creative inventor, continued to innovate and sell new products, like tire re-liners.  He was the first producer to offer a “money back guarantee” and tried to offer quality, affordable items to his customers.  This mindset led Crosley to begin manufacturing radios after expressing dismay at the exorbitant prices of radios in stores.  In the 1920s, Crosley became the largest radio manufacturer in the world and soon developed a car radio.

Crosley Pup

Powel Crosley, Jr. and his radio brand "mascot" listen to a Crosley Pup receiver

Once he’d figured out the radio manufacturing business, Crosley jumped on to the radio broadcasting scene.  His station, WLW, eventually became the most powerful station in America; during World War II, WLW could be heard throughout most of the world.  Crosley helped develop some of the first soap operas (with the sponsorship of Ivory Soap, of course).

But Crosley didn’t stop with radios; he kept expanding into other markets.  He made refrigerators, creating the first fridge with shelves to hold food.  Crosley also developed the first non-electric refrigerator, too.

Pre-war Crosley

Made in 1941, this simple car exemplified Crosley's dream for domestic autos.

By the end of the 1930s, Crosley finally returned to his dream of making automobiles.  “I believe that every American who can afford any car should have an opportunity to buy a brand new, truly fine car,” Crosley said.  The first Crosley cars, built from 1939 to 1942, came in three colors and had a mere 80 inch wheelbase.  You could buy a brand new Crosley for $250 to $350, depending on the model.  Crosleys were pretty basic cars; they featured six gallon gas tanks, a hand-powered windshield wiper, three interior gauges (speedometer, water gauge, and fuel gauge), and a prominent hood with freestanding headlights.  While Crosley stopped its production during the Second World War, people still liked driving the microcars because they regularly got 50 miles per gallon.

Of course, Crosley didn’t sit idle during the war.  He became the largest manufacturer of the proximity fuze, which “won the Battle of the Bulge for us,” according to George S. Patton.

Crosley Hotshot

A 1949 Crosley Hotshot - America's first sports car

After the war, Crosley continued producing cars with the same pre-war goals.  He made some larger cars, but still focused on fuel efficiency and affordability, with price tags of most cars below $1,000.  Crosley kept up his innovative spirit (can you see a pattern in his life?) and introduced the following “firsts” into the auto market:

  • Disc brakes
  • Mass marketed overhead camshaft
  • All steel-bodied wagon
  • American sports car

While Crosley sold about 25,000 cars altogether, Americans were moving into an era of “bigger is better” which I think we are only now coming out of.  Gas rationing didn’t matter anymore and Crosleys began diminishing in popularity, despite some impressive enthusiasts like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Humphrey Bogart.  In 1952, Crosley closed his car operations and sold them to General Tire and Rubber Company.  Crosley sold off the rest of his businesses and his name ceased to be its own brand in 1956.  Crosley passed away in 1961 from a heart attack; he is remembered for his many inventions and entrepreneurship.  Both he and his cars are remembered for embodying the American dream.

Take a look; we’ve got a Heinkel, a Reliant, and a Morris Minor live and in person.  Not to mention Carlo, our lovely narrator!

The story of the Velorex Oskar began in 1938 with two brothers, Mojmír and František Stránský.  The two men owned a bicycle repair shop in Northwestern Czechoslovakia called Moto-Velo-sport, which means motor-bike-sport.  They were inspired to build three-wheeled vehicles by a British manufacturer, Morgan Motor Company, and spent several years designing a vehicle.

In 1943, they finally built the first Velorex Oskar, which mean “cart on axle” in Czechoslovakian.  The car was built out of steel tubing wrapped in dural sheet metal and it sported quite a few bicycle parts.  Their goal was to create a sort of hybrid motorbike/automobile that would be an affordable means of transportation for those with less money.

Velorex Oskar

'59 Velorex Oskar

By 1945 the brothers produced the first batch of cars, then using leather cloth instead of metal for the body.  They experimented with different types and sizes of motorcycle engines for their cars, trying to determine what would be the best fit. Because the war had just ended, both money and cars were hard to come by and there was demand for the Stránský brothers’ vehicles.  A Velorex Oskar was only a quarter of the cost of a normal car.

During this time, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was restructuring many of its country’s businesses.  As such, the Stránský brothers had to move their shop in 1950 to a cooperative facility that housed five other companies in Hradec Králové.  Moto-Velo-Sport was renamed Velo, which was later changed to Velorex to reflect the exportation of their cars.

The early 1950s was a successful period for Velorex.  The vehicles were especially popular in the Soviet Union, where motorcycle/car combinations were desired and money was tight for many families.

Tragedy struck the Stránský brothers early in 1954.  František was killed when a test Velorex prototype crashed.  Devastated by the loss of his older brother, Mojmír refused to become a Communist Party member and was fired by the government from his own company.  Velorex was then completely taken over by the Czech government.

Despite the loss of the brothers from the company, Velorex continued to thrive with production peaking at 120 cars per month in 1959.  The different Velorex models were improved year after year with bigger wheels, bigger engines, hydraulic clutches, and rubber-mounted engines.

Velorex

"Frankie, I think we have to put the car down if we want to win this race." "Mo, the government only gave us so many gas coupons for the week. If we use them up now, how will I go to the grocery store on Thursday?" "Just forget about the groceries and put the car down so we can drive the damn thing! I can't even see Johnny anymore!"

However, the Communist government was not very happy with the three-wheeler’s success, apparently believing that normal cars should satisfy needs that motorcycles could not.  So eventually only the disabled could by the Velorex, and sales continued that way until Oskar’s production was stopped in 1971.  Velorex then tried to market its four-wheeled cars.  However, problems in the four-wheeler’s manufacturing and design, as well as tough competition with popular autos like Trabants, caused Velorex to quit making automobiles in 1973.  Overall, Velorex ultimately produced five different models, four of them three-wheelers.

A company in the Czech Republic is planning on unveiling the “New Velorex” microcar in 2010, although its designs are not in alignment with the original Velorex plans.

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