Long before lawmakers tussled over corporate average fuel economies, auto companies produced tiny, fuel-efficient vehicles. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, companies such as Nash, BMW, Fiat, Austin, Volkswagen, and Autobianchi built diminutive cars with internal combustion engines as small as 300 cc. One automaker, Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing, even produced a wee, three-wheeled electric car.
"Petite Performance: Microcars," a new exhibit at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., offers a look at some of those vehicles. The exhibit, on display through October 14, serves as a reminder that postwar culture had its own mini-car revolution.
Click on the image below to see the eight microcars currently on display.
1959 Taylor-Dunn Trident. Decades after the electric buggy and decades before the GM EV1, Taylor-Dunn produced the tiny, three-wheeled Trident between 1959 and 1963. The all-electric Trident was described as a "neighborhood cart" that could hit a top speed of 16 mph.
I saw a Kubblewagen in a museum in Germany, interesting but it didn't inspire any desire to own one. They were a true engineering marvels if you consider where they were designed to operate. The VW engine/drivetrain/suspension/chassis was truly revolutionary, with torsion bars, swing-arm suspension, magnesium castings, monocoque body, wide tolerances for ease of manufacturing, 4 passenger capability and overall robust nature.
@JimT -- The VWs were far more ubiquitous than microcars world wide, as well as in the US, so most folks nowadays are unfamiliar with them. Most microcars weren't officially imported here, and their combined production numbers (except for the FIATs) were a small fraction of Volkswagen's. Also, of course, the US car market isn't really a good match for tiny, slow, low-powered vehicles, even ones with great mileage.
How can you make those microcars more efficient, and dependable? Make them electric! Below are links to videos of my daily commuter car, Little Go Green, and the wife's future daily commuter, Go Green 2.
Little Go Green is a 1962 Austin Healey "Bugeye" Sprite and Go Green 2 is a 1967 Austin Mini Countryman. Not only are these cars more efficient and dependable as EVs, they way out perform the originals.
Have had 20+ Volkswagen Beetles, 3 Microbus', 2 Citroen 2CV (ugh!), 1 Citroen DS19 (wow!), 1 E-Type Jag, 1 Jag XJ-6 (awesome - MTBF was typically less than an oil change!), 1 Bugeye Sprite (oops), some Volvos and Mercedes (dull but comfortable). Never had a significant accident in any one of these. I had more fun with the small super-high-mileage cars than any of the more robust higher performing cars. It takes a true "driver" to extract performance from microcars with such unique personalities. You knew beyond any doubt that your future was in your hands. If you crashed, it was almost always your fault and suing someone else for your own stupidity seemed the opposite of the value system I was raised with. Modern 'super-high-mileage-cars with direct fuel injection and a careful driver can realistically expect 50+ MPG but they typically have the personality of an uncomfortable chair. Bring back the micro-cars and at least give us a choice!
I had a 500cc rear engined 2 cylinder FIAT back in Scotland. It took some time to get up to 62mph through the 4 speed nonsychromesh gearbox, but once there regardless of the twists and turns on the lochside (lake) roadways you could cruise along.
One day my rear view mirror filled up with a big red Jaguar sportcar sitting almost on my bumper. I noticed that the registration plate showed that he was a stranger to the area, and just then the Big Bend was right ahead. This was right on the edge of the loch and almost came back on itself. Normally I would have slowed down to about 50 to negotiate this, but with the big car behind me almost pushing me along, I decided to go through at 62 mph.My tires started smoking; the Jaguar was right on my tail, then suddenly the camber changed, my FIAT's tires screeched as I hauled it tight into the turn....and the Jaguar disappeared! A glance in my side mirror showed a cloud of dust as the Jaguar screeched down the escape road to the edge of the water, meanwhile the FIAT exited the bend and the smell of burning rubber followed us for a bit until the straight stretch. Still travelling at 62mph we ambled down this long straight stretch (a rarity in Scotland!) A red speck in my rear view mirror rapidly grew to be the red Jaguar which roared past me...the driver shaking his fist at me!
No wonder Abarth takes these tiny cars, and breathes on them...they sit on the roads like ducks and go like scalded cats with the bigger engines!
Wow; Never even heard of most of these vehicles. Slide 2 ('58 Fiat) looked very much like the VW Micro-bus, being much more familiar. ,,,,And that BMW that opens like a refrigerator! Looks like my fellow moderators have me at a disadvantage, recalling old High School stories about this exact car – whereas I Never even heard of it ! But my H.S did have many VW bugs & Beetles' ---- maybe they just lasted longer?
We'll have to go to small cars for most transport as it's going to be too expensive to do otherwise as fuels, metals and material costs rise from 3 billion new customers in China, India and Indonesia, etc. Facts are in 20-25 yrs oil will be too expensive to burn as will other fuels. In 5 yrs gasoline will be at least $10/gal in todays $.
I presently drive smaller vehicles than some of these examples. My Harley size EV trike using fork lift EV drive tech and composite body/chassis could go 100 miles and 80 mph, not at the same time unless a 5kw generator was onboard, that could be mass produced for $12k if not $10k.
Same for the 2 front, 1 rear wheel all composite EV sportwagon that is easily as strong as any metal car the same size. The problem with these is there is not much money in them after the sale as they don't rust and the rest has few parts that need replacement.
I've owned a TR3, many bugs/Vans. The TR3 was very eff with 45-50mpg on 55mph trips and gas was $.26/gal, actually went down to $.16/gal in the 60's gas wars between stations. The Bugs, not so much as they were fuel cooled engines, run rich or they died you learned early on.
As far as safety that is up to the designer. Size has little to do with safety. As an example the Japanese Kei cars are 660cc, 1200lb or so 4 steaers mostly and they are the safest catagory there. Here SUV's are less safe than subcompact cars as another example.
It's in safety that composites really shines along with good design can make these micro cars eff, cost effective and safe.
I, too had a 66 Austin Healy Sprite with a 1100cc engine. It regularly got 35mpg even with my wild driving. (to the limits of adhesion) I too would sign a safety waiver because I believe in self responsibility. My first car that I could call my own, was a 1931 Model A Ford sedan. I resurrected it from my uncle's back yard and drove it daily to work one summer 10 miles each way. It had four slick tires, no spare, no front wheel brakes. The rear brakes were not capble of sliding wheels even standing on the pedal. It got 15 mpg, 50 miles per quart of oil, and the radiator required daily filling. No windshield wiper. I was caught in the rain one night and foretunately there were few cars on the road. I could only see the oncoming headlights and steered to the right, hoping I was still on the road. There were no inspections nor insurance requirements then. Unfortunately, I had to abandon it when I returned to college, I couldn't afford a car. I drove MG Midgets for about 20 years as my primary transportation. Fortunatly I could do all the maintenance required.
The Iso Isetta, the Italian progenitor of the much-loved BMW Isetta (it saved BMW from bankruptcy in the mid-'50s when its large cars weren't selling) was an inspired simple design. Note that all of the BMW versions (and I think all other licensed versions too) had sunroofs, to provide alternate means of egress in the case of a damaged or blocked door.
I have a 1960 Goggomobil, one of the most-produced microcars (over 260,000), a coupe' version with the "big engine" option -- a 400 cc twin, 2-cycle mill with 20 HP. It is great fun to drive, and will eventually get to almost 60 mph, but I harbor no illusions about its practicality on modern highways, or the safety of its light (1000 pounds) construction. It is acceptably competitive on most secondary roads though, and has proved quite reliable, and a great source of fun.
Tesla Motors’ $35,000, 200-mile electric car may not revolutionize the auto industry by itself, but it could serve as a starting point for a long, steady climb to a day when half of the world’s vehicles will be plug-ins.
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