September 1, 2010
Little Engines That Could: A Meeting of Microcars
By TUDOR VAN HAMPTON
CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. - UWE STAUFENBERG just got his kicks on Route 66, and he did it at less than 30 miles an hour.
The microcar enthusiast from Stuttgart, Germany shipped his 2-cylinder 1962 Goggomobil pickup truck from Germany to the Port of Los Angeles last month. Leaving from the Santa Monica Pier he made the 2,600-mile pilgrimage to the Navy Pier in Chicago in the 13-horsepower truck, arriving in time for an international meet here, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.
"It was the dream of a lifetime," said Mr. Staufenberg, 51. "Even in Germany, people dream about doing Route 66 in a classic car."
For other owners who joined Mr. Staufenberg en route to the microcar show, the trek was at times more of a nightmare. But not because the caravan puttered along at a top speed of just 45 m.p.h. or drove through 100-degree heat without air-conditioning.
"When we got to Kingman, Ariz., we ended up having to tear a motor down and completely rebuild it," said Larry Newberry, an enthusiast and parts dealer from Knoxville, Tenn. He organized the rally of eight tiny vintage cars, which included two Goggomobils, three Vespa 400s, two Fiat 500s and a BMW Isetta. It was a motley band of misfits, far from the classic Detroit machines, all tailfins and booming V-8s, that one imagines bounding down the historic highway.
One of the Vespas broke down first. "The gentleman who built that engine put the pistons in backwards and caused a catastrophic failure," Mr. Newberry said.
Another glitch involved an old Fiat 500, whose transaxle blew up near Joplin, Mo. Fortunately, the owner lived not too far away, in Kansas City, and a family member quickly delivered a replacement. "We did all the repairs at night and drove at day," Mr. Newberry said. "So there were several nights I didn't get any sleep."
Before the adventure got under way, even avid microcar collectors said that driving the historic route a 12-day trek that started on Aug. 8 couldn't be done in such austerity.
"Everybody said I'd lost my mind," Mr. Newberry said. "Of course, that just added fuel to the fire, so I had to do it."
His determination typifies this eccentric corner of the collector-car hobby, perhaps reflecting the can-do attitude that brought fuel economy, ingenuity and cheap wheels to the people of postwar Europe. Collectors today generally define microcars as those vehicles with engines smaller than 500 cc of engine displacement, while minicars sit in the range between 500 cc and 1,000 cc.
Mr. Staufenberg, who sells microcar parts online, gained an interest in the tiny vehicles at a young age, when they were commonplace in Europe. However, his first attempts to buy one were unsuccessful: his parents did not approve because of the microcars' reputation for breaking down and crumpling in accidents.
"They said, `No way, boy. You're going to have a real car.'"
Mr. Staufenberg proudly displayed his Goggomobil pickup, wearing victory stickers and waving an American flag, at the Microcar/Minicar World Meet on Aug. 21-22. The meet showcased more than 300 tiny cars and had an estimated 10,000 visitors.
Roughly 280,000 Goggomobils sedans, coupes, vans and pickups were produced in Germany, making the brand one of the more successful entries among microcars. They are now sought-after collectibles, though they don't command as much spectator attention as the funkier models from the bubble-car genre.
"The Messerschmitts and the Isetta tend to be the most expensive models," said Larry Claypool, a mechanic and orphan-car collector in Frankfort, Ill.
Only a handful of Goggomobil pickups are known to exist. "I've only seen one other," said Ken Weger, a local collector and microcar museum owner who sponsored the Crystal Lake meet. Last month in Monterey, Calif., RM Auctions sold a Goggomobil Transporter a utility van on which the pickup is based for $88,000. The seller was Bruce Weiner, who owns a large microcar museum in Madison, Ga.
Not all of these teensy cars command such huge prices. "There are so many different brands of microcars," Mr. Claypool said. "For instance, a nice Subaru 360 sedan it would have to be really off the end of the scale to be worth more than 5,000 bucks."
More than 400 makes of microcars and minicars are thought to exist, enthusiasts say and they look forward to a day when small, simple, fuel-efficient cars make a comeback.
"They realize that you don't need an Escalade or an Explorer to drive back and forth to the grocery store," Mr. Claypool said.