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 remember the winter of 1957 when a friends father received an Isetta for a Christmans gift as a joke from his wife. Soon all the shipyard engineers were gathered to find out why the little funny car was getting around through the Sturegeon Bay snow with no problems and the American iron was not comapring so well.
Low power engine over the narrow track rear wheels appeared to have a true advantage in power to the ground in packed snow and ice winter conditions.
About wavers for less safe vehicles. If someone make the decision to get one of these vehicles and signs the waver, they have also made the decision for their children. Does this mean that the rescue squad should also do less for these people after an accident because these people chose the less safe vehicle? Should these people not be allowed disability or life insurance payments because it was their choice to be less safe? Should their bosses not give them the sick leave needed to recuperate? Should the Red Cross not supply blood for any surgery? Except for a few people who have committed suicide, I never heard of anyone who truly took full ownership of their decision to be less safe.
At the Studebaker Museum?? How appropriate. It didn't take microcars to obtain fuel economy. The only successful entry on the market in the postwar 40's and 50's was the Crosley. Meanwhile 'full size' cars had something to offer. The 1952 Studebaker I learned how to drive in would be considered remarkable in economy today. Featuring a 170 cubic inch flat head six with a 3-speed manual and a Borg-Warner electromechanical overdrive I obtained 45 mpg highway when I was a college student and keeping track of my pennies. The problem was that nobody was keeping track. With the price of gas less than 50 cents a gallon, nobody needed to. For that reason, 'economy' cars never caught on too well. The Kaiser-Frazer Henry J and Aero Willys were examples that briefly strutted the stage and were gone before the second act.
What happened? Big v-8's pulling two tons of car and geared with a ridiculously low (high numerically) final drive sucked gasoline like a drunkard. Then the price of gas went up. The concept of 'overdrive' gearing is slowly returning to the fore. The horribly inefficient 'slush pump' two and three speed automatic transmissions have been replaced with multi-speed units with locking torque converters in top gear.
But the question remains, why can't we build a 2700 lb. full six passenger car with a 2.8 litre six cylinder engine that gets 45 mpg highway? We did in 1952! The Studebaker standing joke was telling the gas station attendant, "Fill up the oil and check the gas." Maybe it was the oil consumption that gave the car that respectable fuel economy......
Kid in my High School had a BMW Isetta. Standing joke was to find the owners of the two cars parked to either side of it and then turn the Isetta around sideways. The length of the car was not much more than the width, so six or so guys could do that. The owners of the two adjacent cars were given a ride home and then brought back to the school around 8 or 9 PM to retrieve their cars. Meanwhile, the Isetta owner was out of luck.....
This post brought a raft of memories. I owned and drove a red 1951 Fiat Topolino, a yellow 1968 Isetta, a blue 1968 beetle, and now a 2007 Prius. It looks like a trend that I never really thought of before. I have to admit that the Prius is the first car that didn't need constant servicing. The Fiat and Isetta were in the shop for repair weekly if not more often. I recall that the Fiat had a "Brake horsepower" rating, the actual power making it to the drive wheels, was 8.5 HP. Problem was that I couldn't drive it on those new freeways being built. It took about 45 seconds to get up to it's top speed of 50, if I was luckey.
With the aim of contributing to loe complete information about "Microcars" carry some additional information.
1) Autobianchi "Bianchina". It is built on the same floor and with the same engine of the Fiat 500, which were built millions. Bianchina was considered the luxury version of the 500. There is also a wagon version of the Bianchina and of the 500. They differ, as well as for the body, also for the motor that is constructed in flat ("sogliola") version.
2) "ISETTA". The first version of this microcar was built on autonomous design, by Italian company: ISO MOTO, which ceased all business about 40 years ago. The car produced by BMW is identical to the original version, differing only by the engine, of course; is not ISO MOTO but is BMW. Even the original door back to the first version of ISO MOTO
3) I had time to touch with my hands when I was a kid, the first ISO MOTO cars, a family friend had one and I also had the pleasure of short trip with that car.
4) "Mickey Mouse" is the Italian name of Miky Mouse. This car was built in three different series, referred to as A, B and C. There was also the station wagon version, in two series, called "500 Belvedere". The first car of my family was a "Topolino C", convertible version.
5)My first car was just a "Multipla" with 750 cc engine and 6 seats; the 4 rear seats could be folded to form a single cargo. I have also driven and owned some version of Fiat 500.
"The Fiat and Isetta were in the shop for repair weekly if not more often."
I completely disagree with that statement!
Having owned and driven some of these cars, I can say that requiring standard maintenance for cars of the time. Personally, I have covered more than 100,000 kilometers with my FIAT 600 MULTIPLA performing only routine maintenance. Change engine oil every 5000 km, check brakes every 10000 km, replacing the spark plugs every 25,000 km. As extraordinary maintenance I had to perform only the replacement of a joint to 70000 km. Even my other friends, who had similar cars, have had the same maintenance intervals,
how can one know other than in a visceral or statistical sense what is safe ! especially in such a cooperative activity as piloting a motorcar. i'm reminded of a video i once watched of a person who'd strapped a rocket motor onto a boaty car out of the 60's in an attempt to set a speed record. (ball of flame)isnt that encapsulated in one person's folly, a clear and obvious display of the world industrial system's headlong quest for prosperity, success, now and in the future ?
get out those envelope backs and pencils. figure out whatever you're figuring times 7 to 9 billion: smart cars, micro cars, electric cars. get 'em out on the freeways, drive 'em fast and hard. from suburbs, malls , and office parks.
am i wrong here ? there really is clean and safe energy ?
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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