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Not to be outdone by its German counterpart, BMW received the 2010 Green Car Award from The Independent in the United Kingdom a few days after VW became the producer of both the best and greenest cars in the world at the New York Auto Show.  Leave it to the Germans to be constantly searching for more success, even when their own countrymen take home the prizes.

The specific model that won the award was the 320D EfficientDynamics.  Like the VW, the 320D isn’t a hybrid; it simply gets stellar gas mileage, coming in at about 68.9 mpg.  The 2-liter engine puts out 161 hp, maxes out at 140 mph, and goes from naught to sixty in 8.2 seconds.  Its CO2 emissions are pretty good, as well.  The 320D is rated at about 109g/km.

BMW 320D

Over 60 mpg? Yes, please!

Like other efficient gas models, this BMW sports some unique features that allow it to sip instead of slurp fuel.  It has slimmer tires (reminiscent of microcars), improved suspension, and a system that eliminates vibration for a smoother ride at lower engine revs.  And of course, it helps that the car is a diesel – we are getting farther and farther away from the smoke-belching trucks of our past.

German Flag

Need a green car? The Germans will hook you up!

And as with the VW, the 320D isn’t available in the United States, despite clamor in US markets. With Prius sales through the roof and waiting lists for the Leaf and the Volt, it seems to be clear that there’s a market for European cars with super fuel economy.  Considering most of the best-selling cars in America are smaller cars that get good gas mileage, the demand is there, even with likely increased costs due to importing and such.  The question remains: will the US give car buyers the quality German engineering they desire?

Heinkel Kabine

1958 Kabine

The Heinkel Flugzeugwerke (Heinkel Aircraft Works) was established in Northern Germany in 1922 by Ernst Heinkel of Germany.  Heinkel began his fascination with airplanes as a child when he first saw zeppelins, rigid “airships” shaped like whales.  His interest in unique forms of transportation would continue his entire life.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the inventor of such an imaginative microcar was also interested in unique kinds of airplanes.  Heinkel loved high speed aircrafts.  His support allowed the first airplane to be flown completely under turbojet power in 1939.   Of course, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were coming to power during the 1930s, as well, and Heinkel’s airplanes were very valuable to the Luftwaffe, or the German Air Force.  Some Heinkel bomber planes and a night fighter model became very popular in the Luftwaffe.  Heinkel also developed the first fighter jet, although his model never made it past the prototype stage

Despite the Nazi’s power, Heinkel did not like Hitler’s regime or plans for Germany.  He was very upset to lose his Jewish employees before World War II and his contempt for the Nazi party ultimately resulted in a government takeover of Heinkel Flugzeugwerke in 1942. Heinkel then spent the end of the Second World War in Austria working on airplane designs.

After the war ended, Heinkel was put on trial by the Allied forces but was acquitted of all charges because of his anti-Hitler activities.  Just like many other airplane manufacturers, Heinkel was prohibited from producing airplanes, so the company made bicycles, scooters and the Heinkel microcar.

Heinkel got the idea for his microcar after seeing BMW’s Isetta, a very common vehicle, but made improvements so that the finished product was lighter and faster.  Heinkel made his sole microcar, the Heinkel Kabine, only from 1956 to 1958.  This microcar came in three models: a three-wheeler with a 174 cc engine, a three-wheeled version with a larger engine, or a four-wheeled version with a larger engine.  The Kabine had a steel unit body, which meant the vehicle’s weight was supported by its external structure, rather than by a separate internal structure.  Unlike many other microcars, the Kabine also had a reverse gear.  For those with families, the Kabine had some room in the backseat for children.  The little car became known in Germany as the “Smooch Bowl,” although you’ll have to come up with your own ideas about what that means!

Heinkel Kabine

"Susie! Move your head! I can't see around your curls. Did Johnny go left or right? I demand a rematch. There are at least a hundred pounds of kids weighing me down here. And why are my mirrors set so all I can see is Betty's mug? No, you're very pretty sweetie, but you mustn't touch Daddy's mirrors. Well, tell Mr. Bear he mustn't touch them. Susie, which way did Johnny turn again?"

Even with these design improvements, the Kabine was not popular enough to be profitable for Heinkel.  Ernst Heinkel did his best to compete with the other microcar brands, but when he passed away in 1958, the original Kabine went with him.  The Kabine’s production rights were sold to an Irish company, Dundalk Engineering.  However, that contract only lasted a short while because Dundalk had very poor quality control and assembled the cars on dirt floors with improperly-stored parts.  After that, a company in England called Trojan Cars produced Kabines until 1966.  The microcar was also assembled in Argentina from 1959 through 1962.

The Heinkel Company itself was bought by Verinigte Flugtechnishe Werke in 1965 and eventually became part of Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Bluhm in 1980.

The history of the Messerschmitt company began decades before microcars were even thought of.  The German engineering company MAN AG started an aircraft-building business called Bayerisches Flugzeugwerke AG, or the Bavarian Aircraft Works.  They began making wooden airplanes in World War I, moved onto kitchen outfitting in the ’20s (little bit of a change from planes, huh?), and went back to airplane manufacturing in the ’30s.  The company was eventually combined with BMW’s engine works and renamed after the manager, Willy Messerschmitt.  Despite some setbacks (like a prototype killing the best friend of the head of Lufthansa and near bankruptcy), World War II broke out and Messerschmitt airplanes were selling like hotcakes.

1956 Messerschmitt Kabinenroller

A gorgeous 1956 Kabinenroller

After the Second World War, Messerschmitt (along with all other armament manufacturers) was not allowed to produce aircraft.  So the company turned to other ideas for revenue, and one of them was the microcar!

Willy Messerschmitt himself didn’t have much to do with the creation of the Messerschmitt microcars.  Fritz Fend, one of his designers, was responsible for their creation.  He started building three-wheeled vehicles as alternatives to cars for the disabled, especially those individuals wounded in the war. His creations soon proved to be popular with healthy individuals, too.  After successfully making his own microcars, Fend brought his knowledge to Messerschmitt.

Fend made microcars from 1955 to 1964.  The Kabinenroller, which means scooter with cabin, was one of the more popular Messerschmitt microcars, with 12,000 built during its first year on the market.

Messerschmitt Kabinenroller

"Oh, Johnny, this is so much fun! It's just like a little baby car!"..."Hush, Linda. I'm trying to look as masculine as possible while sitting six inches off the ground in a tiny car."

These microcars were so simple to operate that Fend said, “If you still had a head, you could drive a Messerschmitt.”  The KR200 indeed has some unique features.  Its two seats are placed in a tandem position, which means that it could be driven anywhere in the world without changing the placement of the driver’s seat.  Its dome canopy has the appearance of a bubble, giving microcars the nickname of “bubble cars.”  And if you look at its steering system, you’ll see it looks more like airplane controls than a steering wheel, reflecting the company’s aeronautical roots.

Reverse was accomplished not by including a reverse gear in the transmission, but by reversing the rotation of the engine itself.

During the time of its production, the Messerschmitt was tested in a 24 hour run.  The car ended up breaking 22 international speed records for vehicles in its class.

Eventually, Willy Messerschmitt lost interest in microcars and their production was stopped.  Messerschmitt went back to building airplanes and the company was bought out several times.  Today, what remains of the Messerschmitt Company is now EADS Germany.  Fritz Fend kept working on different inventions, including other microcars, until his death in 2000.

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August 2020