Small is (Mostly) Beautiful - Side Glances
Sampling the quirky, fun world of small-displacement microcars.
By Peter Egan, Editor-at-Large, Road and Track
October 12, 2010
When Barb and I woke up last Saturday morning, we had every intention of driving our Lotus Elan from our Wisconsin home down to Crystal Lake, Illinois, for an event called Microcar-Minicar World Meet 2010.
Our friends Burt Richmond and Diane Fitzgerald, who helped organize the event, had invited us and said they already had 316 cars registered, literally from all over the world. They said the only rule for entering your car was that the engine displacement had to be 1600 cc or smaller.
I'd gotten our Lotus (1558 cc) all repaired from our slightly troubled trip to Alabama the previous
month and it was running beautifully, so I thought it would be fun to drive down and maybe even enter it in the show.
Then I walked outside.
The humid summer air hit me in the face like a pail of white steam and my socks began to curl and shrink. This has been an exceptionally hot summer here in Wisconsin, as it has in much of the country. The water in Lake Superiorwhich used to be so cold you cramped up and drowned in a couple of minutesis now a quite swimmable 71 degrees. Malaria is moving northward, and the ruins of Angkor Wat have appeared in the woods near our house.
Anyway, I decided it was too hot to have fun in a convertible so we wimped out and took our air-conditioned Mustang. Which pumps more heat into the atmosphere and makes us turn up the a/c another notch, etc., etc.
Meanwhile, our hardy next-door neighbor Chris Beebe hopped into one of his four Citroën 2CVs (yes, four of them) and by-God drove down there, with nothing but a tin roof to keep him cool. Sort of like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai.
Hot or cool, we couldn't miss this event, as Chris and Barb and I all have a disturbing history of making long cross-country trips in small carsBugeye Sprites (948 cc), Westfield Lotus 11 replicas (1275 cc), Citroën 2CVs (300 cc) and Lotus Sevens (1500 cc). Chris and I even took a trip from Madison, Wisconsin, to Memphis in a 1958 BMW Isetta (295 cc).
We did that trip about 17 years ago. Chris did a full restoration on this little 2-seater, with its single-cylinder motorcycle engine, and I helped him with the project. He painted the body a pleasing shade of aubergine, which, in fact, made it look very much like an upright eggplant on four small donuts.
The only door was the entire front of the car, which opened like a vertical clamshell, with the steering wheel and column articulating up and out of the way so you could climb in. Right before our trip, Chris said, "Do you think we should install seatbelts?"
I said, "No, if we crash, I'd like my body found as far as possible from the scene of the accident."
On the road, the Isetta wasas you might expectlimited in its power and acceleration, but actually quite pleasant to drive and it would hum along at 45 mph (on level ground) with nice steering and a remarkably comfortable and supple ride, like a small 356 Porsche.
There was lots of interest in the car and at every gas stop or restaurant, at least one person would walk up to us and say, "Boy, I sure would hate to hit a semi head-on in that thing!"
About the 20th time Chris heard this, he began to ask people, "What car, exactly, would you like to be driving when you hit a semi head-on?"
No one had a really good answer for that one.
These people didn't realize that semis held no special terror for us because when you're driving an Isetta you really don't want to hit anything head-on, not even a stray shopping cart at the supermarket. You travel in a charmed world of cheerful fatalism and karmic trust. Microcars are really a form of vehicular sainthood. The lilies of the field toil not, nor do they have seatbelts.
And now, 17 years later, we pulled into Crystal Lake on a warm summer morning and beheld an entire city park full of Cars in Which You Would Least Like to Hit a Semi Head-On. They were everywhere.
We parked our Mustang in the nearly overflowing parking lot, chatted with Burt and Diane at the registration trailer (admission free to the public!) and then began to wander the green and nicely shaded grounds. In the first clearing was a large circle of Isettas in all colors, mixed in with a few other brands. Among them we spottedof all thingsa Cyclops.
Older R&T readers will remember the Cyclops as a hilariously minimalistic 2-seater with a single large headlight in the center, designed by madcap cartoonist Stan Mott and Robert Cumberford. Our Cyclops road test, with specs, was first published in the September 1957 issue, and we still have a complete car in the foyer of the R&T office in Newport Beach, California.
Well, Glenn Thomas and his son Matt, of Beaver Creek, Ohio, found the plans and built themselves a Cyclops last winter. The car is beautifully constructed and finished, and it uses a 250-cc Robin go-kart engine for power. Mott's vision lives!
We drifted into another area of the park and found ourselves in the midst of a group of Germans (and one Polish-American from Chicago) who had shipped their eight microcars to California and driven the entire length of Route 66, from the Santa Monica Pier to Chicago. The cars included two Fiat 500s, two Goggomobiles, three Vespa cars and one Isetta, and they made the trip in 12 days.
They drove 4045 mph on the highway and had a little inconvenience with the "very big temperatures" in the California desert and the long climb over the Rockies, but five of the cars made it with no trouble. The Fiat 500 needed a new gearbox, the Isetta had gearbox and ignition problems and one Vespa needed ignition and brake work, but they all finished the trip. A chase trailer brought the casualties into the next motel each night when serious repairs were needed. Their spare parts were carried in a 1962 Goggomobile Transporter Pickup from Frankfurt.
After that, Barb and I wandered past the longest row of Nash Metropolitans I've ever seen in one place, a gaggle of Wolsley Hornets and Minis, two Amphicars, the only Mikrus (a 300-cc Polish car) in the U.S., a row of Fiat 500s, a Lotus Europa Twin-Cam, an MGA, a whole clearing full of Citroen 2CVsincluding Chris'sand a clump of 14 Messerschmitts.
What else? A dozen Crosleys including a Good Humor truck that got the People's Choice award in the 6001000-cc class. Some beautiful Bantams (Best of Show to a 1938 Bantam Roadster) and Austin Sevens, a cluster of black antique British hand-propelled cars for invalids, Reliant Robins and a large number of Freeway HMVs. King Midgets
one for sale, and I waited around to find the owner but never did. I need one of these cars.
Burt and Diane (who own seven microcars themselves) told us the final tally was 362 cars registered. This event started as a national microcar meet in 2006, the brainchild of Ken and Sylvia Weger, who own the Small Wonder Car Museum in Crystal Lake. A surprising 216 cars showed up for that show, so they decided to do a World Meet this year, and ended up with entrants from Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, England, Germany and 38 of the United States.
Besides Burt and Diane, just two other couples helped organize this huge gatheringArnie and Lena Press, and Larry and Marybeth Claypool. These folks don't even have an organizational name for themselvesthey just did it.
On the way home in our Mustang, I got thinking about our day in Crystal Lake and realized I'd probably had more fun at this car meet than at any concours, car show or cruise night I'd been to in years.
Part of the appeal, no doubt, was the mood. No investment-driven seriousness here, just a lot of people grinning and having fun with cars. And yet the majority of these small wonders were beautifully restored, giving nothing away in paint quality or mechanical finish to classic cars costing 10 timesor even 100 timesas much. It's almost as if the small, jewel-like proportions of the microcars tend to intensify and concentrate the desire for perfection, like ships in a bottle.
Some microcars look better than others, of course. The heyday for design seems to have been the mid-'50s, with Italy leading the way (as usual) in the beauty of shape and exquisiteness of detailand the Germans adding a deep sense of craft to some of those designs, such as the Isetta. Cars that are 3- and 4-wheeled interpretations of the Vespa and Lambretta post-war scooter esthetic are really the best-looking, to my eye, while some of the fiberglass lunar landing pod shapes that came later are not so endearing.
The Fiat 500 and the Messerschmitt, on the other hand, are genuinely charming cars, with hardly an awkward angle anywhere, and the Citroën 2CV (styled by Italian Flaminio Bertoni while he was living in France) wins you over on sheer utilitarian funkiness that somehow looks spirited and fun, rather than just silly. Americans may have laughed at these cars for their un-'50s smallness during our age of land yachts and tailfins, but there's still a lesson in them for us.
Efficiency doesn't have to be dreary or bland. Done right, it can be about twice as much fun as excess.