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.
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.
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.
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.....
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?
@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.
OK, now add to your relevant facts that I was raised in a suburb of Detroit in the 1960s and its pretty clear why I never saw these models! Where I grew up everyone had either a Chrysler, Ford, GM or AMC vehicle; except the occasional VW, and very rarely, an aging Rambler. I never even saw a Mercedes until I moved away from home as an adult! No wonder these are "foreign" (literally) to me.
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.
"Iso, which built the Isetta for BMW, also manufactured refrigerators. The company's refrigerator experience is said to have contributed to the Isetta's unique front door design."
I always wondered about that door... When I was about 6 someone gave me a die cast collection of these types of cars and the Isetta was one of them.
In the 70s I owned just about every type VW, a 60' Karmin Ghia, various Beetles, micro-buses. I almost bought a mid-50s bug once. And I had a fiberglass dune buggy on a beetle chassis.
Also had a 65' beetle with huge tires, no doors... or fenders that was for woods cruzin, and when it died we took the body off the frame and hung it from a tree, upside down... and made a swing out of it... Best fun car ever.
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!
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 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.
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?
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.
Hi Chuck, great post again. Actually no engine in front would give more shock absorption as the front can crumble for longer before something hard gets in the way (like the engine) but of course having the fuel tank there is a bit more of a distraction :-( If the tank were in fornt of the engine and the right crumple design was implemented (it wasn't) and it had a well designed passenger cell (it didn't) it could have been very safe in a frontal. That said I agree, they were all (for various reasons) deathtraps, that Fiat minivan especially.
BTW, I had a 1200cc '65 beetle while living in Germany in the 70's and boy was that an experience. 135kphr with the pedal to the metal. In winter it often got down to -20C and because of all of the salt on the roads the heater wasn't isolated from the engine fumes (air cooled engine with a heat exchanger for cabin air) so I would drive with the little side window open to get fresh air and my breath would condense on the inside of the windscreen so I would scrape the ice off at every chance. It surprises me sometimes why I never got frost bitten or had an accident except that Europeans then used to do a good job of defensive driving -- No thanks I prefer modern safe cars with real heaters
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.
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.
Stupid drivers is exactly why I don't own a motorcycle. You need crash protection! Now that I'm later in life, and can see light at the end of the "work every day" tunnel, and I'd love to live long enough to enjoy some retirement. You can buy a Nissan Leaf, commute for pennies a day, and have 5 star crash protection. I live on a street that motorcycles love to travel, and while many bikers obey the speed limit, many also exceed the limit by about 30 to 50 MPH. It's nice to ride a bike I suppose, but my blind driveway will kill a speeding biker one of these days, regardless of how careful I am to look and listen. 5 star crash protection beats a helmet every time. Yes it stinks paying for all those air bags, but when one saves your life, it is priceless!
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.
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 ?
It is perfectly legal in USA to own a 2 or 3 wheeled motorcycle - which has absolutely no safety features, except for brakes and headlight.
To make car to US specifications in safety and emissions costs $18,000 to $23,000 in low volume ( uner 30,000 vehicles per annum production ) so effectively all small cars with the exception of few fancy versions on MINI are a loss on the balance sheet for the OEM.
FIAT 500 for example costs Chrysler $5,000 in advertising per vehicle and another $500 in incentives just to sell one of them im USA !!!
Car wihthout the safety features can be made for under $5,000 and nicely equipped for about $8,000.
There are EV's in NEV version for about that price, but people are not buying them in any significiant volume (ZENN, OKA NEV, ZAP, Wheego, GEM).
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.
You raise some really good points, William K. Maybe I'm a bit too timid about crash safety. The only accident I ever had was 29 years ago, while sitting at a traffic light. The driver -- a 16-year-old who had gotten her driver's license two weeks earlier -- plowed into the back of my car at about 35 mph without ever touching the brakes. I hit the car in front of me, which hit the car in front of it. My car was totaled. If I had had back-seat occupants, I don't know if they would have survived. Looking at the Isetta, it scares me to think about that crash. As you point out, getting rid of the bad drivers (like that one) is the key. In the meantime, I'll probably continue my timid ways. I like crash energy absorption.
"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."
@William- "Laying the bike down" is the wrong action if a crash is imminent. At that point the crash has started prematurely, there is no control of the direction and speed of rider and bike, the impact will usually be at a higher speed since sliding friction force is lower than braking force, you're more likely to go under a vehicle instead of over the top, and since the rider usually separates from the bike the small amount of impact absorption provided by the bike is not there. Rider safety courses and articles emphasize maximum effort braking to scrub off impact speed and energy. The one exception I can recall where "laying down the bike" is recommended is if you're going to go over a bridge rail or guardrail with a big drop on the other side.
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.
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......
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.
"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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
While the featured cars are all very interesting, where are the Asian microcars? Wikipedia lists several by Cony, Daihatsu, Fuji, Honda, Mazda, Mitsuoka, Subaru, and Mitsubishi. Obviously they weren't in the Studebaker Museum exhibit, but some of these were sold in the U.S. and would be interesting to compare to the Europeans.
@Manoffewwords, not many of those cars made it here: only the Honda 600 and Subaru 360 were imported in any "large" number. The majority of the other makes were minitrucks, often never licensed for road use but employed in factories, parks and estates. The Japanese microcars were mostly designed a decade after the European ones, so are often more sophisticated in construction, if not performance.
As others have surely noted, the selection at the Studebaker is hardly comprehensive, but "a good start". Of course the VW is not really a member of the class either - much too large!
One good selection in the US may be found at the Dezer Collection in Miami - they have an entire section devoted to the breed with several variants of each, and a good selection of some of the three-wheelers such as the Reliant Robin which offered not only a good tax dodge in the UK, but good economy as well.
My meaning of "lay the bike down" is an action intended to change the collision into one where the rider is still on the bike, and it hits with both wheels at the same time. YES, it is quite ugly. I only did it once, in 1972, when a police car pulled out of a driveway about 20 feet in front of me, in quite heavy traffic. I combined it with a swerve towards the shoulder of the road, and missed him. I did get some road-rash, but I was able to ride away after a while. It certainly did hurt, though. And the cop never stopped. I don't ride in that city any more.
I certainly agree that in most cases the best choice is avoidance and making the impact a glancing hit, instead of a straight impact. OF course, avoiding impacts is a lot easier on some bikes.
I have to agree that laying the bike down is not a good idea. I used to ride but quit when I had "the big one". I was a simple statistic, an oncoming driver that failed to yield while making a left turn. I stayed on the bike until impact and struck a brand new Lincoln Town car at the rear bumper, shearing the bumper off its mounts. I was hanging on to the brake so tight when I hit that I also sheared the anti-rotation pins off of the bike's front brake calipers when the bike attempted to rotate upwards over the front tire. As for me, I flew over the car and my initial impact with the ground was in a sitting position at about 25MPH. I bounced and then smashed face first into the pavement shattering my helmet, but not my pretty face, at the chin guard. I managed to slow down from 50 MPH to 25 by using every last inch of braking available. I can't imagine what an uncontrolled slide into the car would have been like, or would it would have been like to pick pieces of me out from under the car.
Tekochip, I also had an incident, but on a bicycle in traffic going about 18MPH. Everthing was fine until a police car pulled out right in front of me. To avouid hitting him I did lay the bike down, and slid up to his car and stopped. He looked at me and drove away, and nobody challenged him. I did have road rash and a few bumps. This was before bike helmet were common. It altered the way I think about the police in Madison Heights, Michigan.
Small cars are neat, but if they have to be built to our present safety standards theynare indeed not only too expensive, but also heavy enough to lose a lot of the advantage of being a small car. So I stick to my mountain bike, wear a helmet, and watch the cars very closely. WAY TO MANY people ignore bikes. They see them, but ignore them.
Interesting, but far from complete. Powell Crosley , Cincinnati, Ohio, built the Crosley automobile, sedans and wagons as I remember. The cars got 60 or so miles to the gallon. This was in the 1940's, but were not "needed" at that time, I suppose.
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