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.
During my teen years, I had a 58 VW bug - all of 36 BHP, only got about 32 mpg. Fun car, but had little quirks - no gas gauge - used the motorcycle method of a fuel reserver valve, little heat during the winter, a lot of heat during the summer. I wouldn't consider it unsafe in a crash - the front end had enough distance between the front bumper and the driver's pedals to absorb impacts.
I also obtained a 58 VW Kombi - that was under powered beyond belief - 36 BHP, top speed of 60mph (down hill, wind at my back), up hill - 25 mph in 2nd gear. No heat, and no functional lights on the engine.
MG Miget 65 - all of 65 BHP, most fun to drive because you were next to the road when traveling - Unlike most British cars, started in all foul weather (rubber bootie on distributor), and during one artic blast of -10F, was the only car in my family that would start.
Austin America - used that British Leyland engine that the miget used only with the gear box acting as the the engine oil pan. Interesting air over hydraulic suspension, rode smoothly no matter what the road was like. It lost (while parked) to a drunk driver at 2 in the morning, still wish I had it longer.
If our military people are willing to risk getting shot or blown up in far off countries fighting for petroleum to power the present fleet of gas-hogs, I certainly am willing to take on a small incremental risk driving a microcar to reduce the need for such conflicts.
Beth, I took my first ride a Beetle sometime in the 1960s. One of my uncles, who owned a small factory, got one as a third car just for fun. It was an early one, of course, and only had a 1300cc engine, I think. He took my brother and I and a cousin out on the highway. It was a trip. Compare to the large American cars of the time the noise was deafening. The speed limit at the time was 75 MPH. We didn't get up to that speed. It was a wild ride.
Years later, I had a friend whose father gave her a Beetle. Then, one day, the car was hit while parked. The damage was not too bad, but he was concerned. So, he changed out the Beetle for a large Mercury. It was quite a switch.
Of course, it is easy to get good mileage when the engine is small and the weight of the car is low. I had a 1967 Austin Healey Sprite. It had an 1100cc version of the engine in the Nash and the Austin in the slide show. It was a very solid, but very low tech engine. Those things last forever. My Sprite could go over 100 MPH and got over 40 MPG on the highway. I think the city mileage was almost 30 MPG. The main reason was that the car barely weighed 1,400 lbs. This is the situation with most hybrids today. They tend to be smaller cars. With conventional internal combustion engines, tuned for gas mileage, I expect most of the vehicles could get mileage similar to, but not quite as good as, they get as hybrids. That would be an interesting experiment.
It certainly is true, "The dangers on the road come from lack of driving skills or common sense, not the vehicles. As a motorcyclist, I know that size doesn't matter and no waivers are needed.", and I think that is the problem.
Even the best driver is not much of a match for the really stupid driver who is not paying attention. On a motorcycle there is not much to do when some fool makes a left turn 30 feet ahead of you. Quickly laying the bike down and getting off doesn't make much difference at 45MPH, much less at 60. 20MPH it may reduce the damages.
So really, the first thing that should be done is to get rid of the really bad drivers, and simply not let them drive at all. Then the rest of us would be a bit safer, and as a bonus, automotive emissions and roadway crowding would both be reduced.
Given the success of the new Mini, Fiat 500 and SmartCar in the US, I think all or any would do well. VW introduced the New Beetle way back in 1997 because it was such a beloved car.
The biggest set back for today would be the lack of power. It's always tempting to get an old car and replace the engine. The designs that have survived over the years, like the Beetle or even the Citroen DS, have more personality.
The dangers on the road come from lack of driving skills or common sense, not the vehicles. As a motorcyclist, I know that size doesn't matter and no waivers are needed.
I have to admit, WilliamK, I wouldn't sign the agreement or buy one of these cars. Much as I enjoyed looking at them and photographing them, the lack of crash energy absorption would make me nervous. The Trident and the Fiat Multipla, in particular, have virtually no front end and require that the driver sit uncomfortably close to the windshield. Several of the vehicles -- the VW Bug, BMW Isetta, Trident and Multipla -- also have no engine in front to absorb energy.
Very interesting slideshow. Probably most of those cars could be upgraded to meet normal emmissions standards, as well. But I doubt that any of them would be able to meet any of our present safety standards. That is unfortunate indeed, since the amount of engineering and resources needed to meet current vehicle standards is huge, and growing every year.
It would be an interesting experiment to see how many of them would sell today, if buyers had to sign a waiver stating that they understood that the cars did not meet current safety standards, and thatbthey agreed to not attempt to sue over safety issues in the event of an accident. Would anybody besides me sign such an agreement? Would the cars sell? And how long would it be until somebody mounted a legal challenge to the terms of the waiver, based on it's totally unforgivingness toward personal irresponsibility?
Great slide show, Chuck. Loved the photo of the 70s Beetle as I had a yellow one in my later years of high school. Was definitely a beloved car, but really hard to shift!
I think some of the microcars we see today are definitely taking a page from these old models. The Smart Car looks like it could be an addition to this slide show in terms of appearance, albeit it is pretty next-generation car at least in terms of ride and safety, if not necessarily frills and electronics.
California’s plan to mandate an electric vehicle market isn’t the first such undertaking and certainly won’t be the last. But as the Golden State ratchets up for its next big step toward zero-emission vehicle status in 2018, it might be wise to consider a bit of history.
By now, most followers of the electric car market know that another Tesla Model S caught fire in early February. The blaze happened in a homeowner’s garage in Toronto. After parking the car, the owner left his garage. Moments later, the smoke detector blared, the fire department was called, and the car was ruined. To date, no one knows why.