The Mighty Microcar
Nancy Gould, a Newton, Massachusetts accountant, says she "never met a bad person while driving a microcar." That's important, because you meet a lot of people driving one of these bizarre contraptions that look like escapees from a Robert Crumb comic book. When confronted with what is basically a putt-putting metal egg on 10-inch wheels, most people shout out questions: "Is it electric?" "Is it a toy?" "Is it legal to drive?" "Can you take it on the highway?"
The microcar is definitely an acquired taste, one that so few Americans acquired back in the day that the cars still look like visitors from another planet, 50 years after they were introduced. The mostly two-passenger and often three-wheeled vehicles enjoyed a brief vogue from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, as pent-up postwar demand for private cars encountered a market in which "real" cars were in short supply. Cheerfully futuristic in design and priced at $500 to $1,000, microcars built in Germany, Italy, England and the U.S. found ready buyers in the years before interstates and equally cheap subcompacts made them obsolete. These days, tiny cars are making a comeback: Mercedes-Benz' two-seat, 66-mile-per-gallon "Smart" car is an obvious descendant.
Microcars were streamlined bubbles that could achieve 80 miles per gallon but struggled to reach 50 miles per hour--even downhill. To call them "green" cars is a stretch: despite up to 80 mile-per-gallon fuel economy, their two-stroke engines were determined polluters. Some even lacked reverse: owners enlisted a few friends and simply turned them around. Micros starred as "cars of the future" in movies like Brazil or as nerdmobiles on the TV show Family Matters. Even the names are funny: Goggomobil, Messerschmitt, Fuldamobil, Zundapp Janus, Brutsch Mopetta, King Midget, American Bantam, Frisky, Scootacar and Peel Trident.
To understand just how different microcars can be, consider the terminally cute BMW Isetta. The entire front of the car forms the only door, so the whole dashboard, including the steering wheel, swings out to admit passengers. Jim Janacek, a Chicago-based TV commercial producer, has his Isetta on the road regularly, and he says that people never fail to break into ribald laughter when encountering the car at stoplights. Nanci Maloney, a Kansas City art teacher, has six Isettas. "I saw an Isetta at a car show and I just started laughing hysterically," she says.
Microcar prices usually start around $1,500 for a "basket case" Isetta and zoom upwards to $40,000 for an ultra-rare four-stroke Messerschmitt Tiger, but hordes of running and driving cars are available in the $10,000 range. In terms of unpretentious affordability and laughs per mile, it's hard to beat a microcar. But watch out. As Maloney warns, "These cars are extremely addictive. When you find one that needs a good home you'll just have to buy it."
The Microcar & Minicar