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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.

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 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.

Looking to buy a greener car?  Want to learn about other SMV teams?  Curious about this microcar-thingys?   Here are some excellent resources to help!

Greencar — This site has information about green car technologies available now.  It can help you find an eco-friendly car, learn about biodiesel, read articles about cars of the future, or even locate an alternative energy fueling station!

Greenercars — This is a site run by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a DC research group.  On it you’ll find environmental news, lots of consumer information, and lots of tips to help you go green.  It also offers a comprehensive guide to extensive consumer information, although you have to subscribe to get access.

Green Guy — This has tons of interesting, useful information about green cars.  Super, super blog.

The Green Car Website — Again, lots of information about green cars and a good news source for greener energies.

SMV Blogs


University of British Columbia

UC Berkeley

University of Massachusetts

Cal Poly

Microcars! Yes, there are other people out there who indeed know what I’m talking about!

Microcar news — Lots of cars for sale and quirky things.

Microcar lover — A wealth of information about different microcars.

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