History and histories

Microcars. Back to the future

Photo credit: RM Sotheby’s

It took seventy years to overturn the image of the microcar. In the early post-war period they were considered a step forward for those who did not want to ride a motorcycle – these were the Vespa years, small and refined with car curves, but they were still motorcycles – and also somewhat mortifying as vehicles. As if to say, I wish I could, but I can’t.

Italy. 1953 Iso Isetta. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 236cc 9.5hp

Today, microcars are rapidly becoming a sign of foresight and respect for our cities and the environment: the little Ami by Citroen, the upcoming Microlino by the Swiss company MMS which, in addition to scooters now adds a more comfortable, covered and… fun vehicle to its line-up, are just some of the first signs of a “micro” future.

Germany. Messerschmitt KR 200. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 191cc 9.7hp

And as a result of this growing trend, the ancestors are back in the limelight once again: we are quite ready to wager that very soon we will find classes in the Concours d’Elegance events and that sociologists and intellectuals will contribute to the Paean of “small is healthy”.

Ready to buy? Or just a little curious to discover the past?

UK. 1957 Scootacar. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 197 cc 8.5hp

The doyen of microcars is unquestionably the Isetta by Renzo Rivolta, who founded Iso Rivolta a few years later with its luxurious Granturismo cars with big American hearts. After the great commercial success of his motorcycles, in 1953 he presented his first car, the rear wheels were moved close together to avoid having to install a differential and it was powered by a very small 175 cc motorcycle engine. Developed by designers with aeronautical experience behind them, the Isetta was an instant success. Not only did it achieve mind-blowing averages at the 1000 Miglia, but it also attracted the attention of BMW’s senior management, which at the time was in great difficulty due to a lack of models, and they ended up producing 150,000 of them under license.

Germany. 1956 Fuldamobil S-6. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 191cc 9.5hp

Produced in both France and Brazil, the small egg-shaped cruiser opened a path that others decided to follow, often with far less functional solutions. This was the case of the Germans with the Messerschmitt KR200 and the Heinkel Kabine 153 (this too built under license by Trojan in England from 1960 to 1965), their design language clearly indicating the origin of the manufacturers: small wingless aircraft proposed by two companies specialized in the production of warplanes that were left without work. In Germany, The Fuldamobil also hit the streets, although this was far less well known.

France. 1957 Piaggio Acma Vespa 400. Twin-cylinder (two-stroke) 393cc 13hp

If we are to confine ourselves to Europe, we must also consider the British efforts: there are several examples of micro-cars built across the Channel. The 1957 Scootacar was built – paradoxically – by the Hunslet Engine Company which was specialized in railway locomotives! Even on the Isle of Man, a small car was built that was destined to remain in the history books: the 1963 Peel P50, which in 2010 was awarded the Guinness World Record as the smallest car ever produced.

Germany. 1956 Heinkel Kabine. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 204cc 10hp

In France the tiny Piaggio ACMA Vespa 400 tried to counter the runaway successes of Renault R4 and Citroen 2CV, but for reasons of space, we have limited ourselves to mentioning just some of the small microcars that animated the post-war period. We thoroughly recommend a visit to the PS Speicher Museum in Einbeck, near Hanover, where you can retrace the history of the evolution of personal mobility. It can teach you a lot as there is so much to learn.

UK. 1963 Peel P50. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 50cc 4.5hp

Unfortunately, the microcar paradise is no longer with us: in 2013, RM Sotheby’s auctioned off the two hundred examples that formed Bruce Weiner’s Microcar Museum in Georgia. We’ll just have wait and console ourselves with the Concours d’Elegance. Shouldn’t be long.

Germany. 1955 BMW Isetta. Single-cylinder (four-stroke) 295cc 13hp