The world of the microcar

The world of the microcar
The world of the microcar

In the 1950s the tiny microcar was big business

By the 1950s everyone was heartily sick of wartime austerity still dragging on – rationing didn’t stop until 1954, nine years after the war ended. Everyone wanted ‘stuff’ and everyone wanted transport. Since many households just didn’t have the budget for a full-on car, manufacturers responded with an imaginative array of microcars with a suitably small budget.

Many used small two-cylinder engines and small-scale production was now possible thanks to that high-tech new wonder material, glassfibre. Some of the cars were very clever, while some were hideously bad. Nearly all of them were killed off at once or soon after by the arrival of the Mini in 1959. Here’s what you missed.

1. Peel P50 (1962)

This is officially the smallest production car ever made – that lady is normal size. Made in the Isle of Man, the P50 was a three-wheeler available in flag-waving red, white or blue. Suitably, they made 50 of them before production ceased in 1965, but now production has started up again, with either a petrol or an electric motor.

2. Biscuter (1953)

In the 1930s Gabriel Voisin built some of the most expensive, luxurious cars on the road, but by the 1950s he’d moved into the Spanish-made devices at the far end of the motoring scale. They built 10,000 of them, surviving into the 1960s.

3. Brutsch Mopetta (1956)

The numbers here are small. It had three wheels, but just one seat. The engine was a single-cylinder 50cc that needed starting with a pull-starter. They made 14. And yet, is it just me, or is this somehow cool looking?

4. Brutsch V2 (1956)

Now this is more like it. Four wheels, a 98cc engine and even two seats. Top speed was a giddy 40mph but they only made about 12.

5. Dornier Delta (1956)

Dornier made some very excellent bombers – who can forget the Do17? – but peacetime was a tougher gig for the factory, which turned to making microcars like the Delta. However, the maths didn’t work and the project was sold on, Dornier instead focusing on medical devices.

6. Zundapp Janus (1957)

Dornier sold the project to the motorcycle manufacturer, Zundapp. With four seats and a 245cc two-stroke engine mounted amidships, the renamed Janus was a huge success, selling nearly 7000.

7. Vespa 400 (1957)

Vespa, like Zundapp, was another two-wheeler company getting into the microcar market. Naturally, the engine in the 400 was a 393cc two-stroke air-cooled engine, and production managed to carry on until 1961.

8. Frisky (1957)

Look at the car, ponder that it had either a single cylinder or twin cylinder two-stroke engine under the weedy bonnet, ponder further that it was built in Wolverhampton and then ponder that name. Perhaps you were meant to read something into the model line-up which started with the Friskysport and ended with the Family Three.

9. Iso Isetta (1953)

If you believe the photo, this little three-wheeler was a boy-magnet. In fact, the photo shows the Isetta competing in the prestigious Mille Miglia race in 1954, as a high point for this successful little number.

10. BMW Isetta (1955)

Iso had a winner on their hands, with other manufacturers hustling to get a licence to make the car in their market, from Europe to Brazil. BMW bought the rights for Germany and the UK, and ramped up production of this little front-loading microcar. Altogether there were over 160,000 made around the world.

11. Trojan 200 (1960)

Trojan’s journey in carmaking began just after World War 1 and finished in 1965 with the 200. Developed in the mid 1950s by the German aircraft company Heinkel (who also went into bicycle and scooter manufacture after the second war), it was a classic 1960s bubble car.

12. Bond Minicar (1949-66)

Lawrie Bond created a range of Minicar economy cars between 1949 and 1966. In every case the same single-cylinder air-cooled engine format was used. Positioned over the single front wheel, these engines grew from 122cc to 249cc, the final ones giving a slightly scary-sounding 60mph top speed.

13. Berkeley B95 (1959)

A liaison between Lawrie Bond and caravan manufacturer Berkeley resulted in a succession of three- and four-wheeled microcars aimed at fun rather than economy. This B95 sportster was one of them. Their engines were air-cooled two-strokes with two or three cylinders.

14. JARC Little Horse (1953)

There was a remarkable amount of collaboration between microcar manufacturers. Projects were passed around. After developing the Little Horse van, JARC shifted it on to Astra in 1954. It went on to become the Gill Getabout, then the Lightburn Zeta, which carried on in Australia until 1966.

15. Astra Utility (1955)

This is what the JARC Little Horse looked like when Astra took it on. It was only 9.5 feet long and under 4.5 feet wide, so even though it only had a 322cc two-cylinder 15bhp engine, that was enough to give it an unlikely-sounding 58mph top speed.

16. Rodley (1954)

Who needed design when you could have a Rodley? Built between 1954 and 1956, the Rodley was the sort of car a child might have used a crayon to draw. Instead of the microcar’s usual fibreglass bodywork, it had steel body panels. That extra weight required a larger 750cc engine, which unfortunately had the occasional tendency to burst into flames.

17. Kleinschnittger F125 (1950)

Big name, small car: the Kleinschnittger F125 wasn’t much bigger than a fairground dodgem car. It was powered by a 125cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine and, somewhat amazingly, was on sale for seven years.

18. Opperman Unicar (1958)

British tractor builders Opperman branched out into microcars in the mid-1950s. The glassfibre-bodied 328cc two-cylinder Unicar was its first project. Cunningly, they reduced the space between the rear wheels to do away with the need for a differential, allowing them to keep costs down. Around 200 Unicars were sold.

19. Opperman Stirling (1959)

How do you follow a Unicar? Why, with a Sterling of course. That’s was Opperman’s upmarket successor which came out in 1958. Unfortunately for them, BMC’s Mini was released one year later, killing the microcar market stone dead. Only two Stirlings were made, but at least one of them is still around.

20. Rovin D3 (1948)

From the ‘upturned bath’ school of design, the French Rovin first arrived in 1946 in 260cc D1 form. In 1947, it became the D2. Guess what the 1948 model was called? That’s right, the Antelope. No, it was the D3, and it had a 423cc flat-twin engine. About 800 D3s were built between 1948 and 1950, when the (surprise, surprise) D4 came out. Despite the ad image, it was supposed to be a two-seater.

21. Powerdrive (1955)

Without a sense of scale, you might mistake this three-wheeler for a late ‘50s Cadillac. In reality, you could almost get a Powerdrive into the Caddy’s boot. It was under nine feet long and used the popular 322cc Anzani two-stroke engine.

22. Mochet CM-125 Luxe (1951)

French comedian Jacques Tati used something like this in his classic movie Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. George Mochet’s minimalist CM-125 Luxe had a 3.5bhp 125cc single-cylinder engine and not much in the way of equipment, but its cheapness appealed to 1,250 buyers.

23. Goggomobil Dart (1959)

Not every microcar was eye-poppingly ugly. Australian Glas distributor Bill Buckle reckoned the market could support an even sportier (sic) version of the Glas Coupé cabriolet. His idea, with which 700 customers agreed, was the boatlike but oddly appealing Goggomobil Dart, complete with 300cc or 400cc engine.

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