BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

The timeless allure of microcars

  • Outsize personality

    Microcars have held the limelight of late. The world’s largest privately held collection went under the hammer in the Southeastern US state of Georgia in February, bringing more than $8 million in total sales. The heyday of these cars was surely in the mid- to late 1950s, when post-war Europe turned to creating mobility solutions for the masses. The original Mini and Fiat 500 may be the most recognisable machines from this era, but these four-seaters were downright behemoths compared to the two-seat, low-displacement conveyances surveyed here. Powered by everything from tiny two-stroke engines to advanced electric motors, these microcars are the banner-flyers for the breed. (BMW Group)

  • Isetta

    The BMW Isetta, pictured, is among the most iconic microcars, but was not developed by the German automaker. Refrigeration magnate Renzo Rivola saw an opportunity to create the small economical car he yearned for, acquiring the patents for a design that would become the Isetta – diminutive of Iso, the name of his company. At just over two metres long, the egg-shaped Iso Isetta was unique in having a single door on its front, to which the steering column and instrument panel were attached. Early models were three-wheelers, but a fourth wheel was later added for stability. Its 236cc two-stroke engine produced all of 9.5 horsepower, comparable to the output of riding lawnmowers of today.

    Pictured, four Isettas await buyers in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, in 1958. (Al Moldvay/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

  • Fiat Topolino

    Widely considered the microcar pioneer, the Fiat 500A was the precursor to the later Nuova 500. It earned the nickname Topolino (“little mouse”), thanks in part to its tall grille and stalk-mounted headlamps. Created by Dante Giancosa, the Topolino was a packaging marvel, capable of transporting two adults and their luggage while reaching speeds of 85kph. Sliding windows and a canvas roof were the only amenities to speak of, but it fulfilled its objective so beautifully that it remained in production for nearly 20 years. (Fiat Group)

  • Messerschmitt

    The brainchild of Fritz Fend, an aeronautical engineer who worked at Germany’s Rechlin test centre, the car was developed by airplane manufacturer Messerschmitt after World War II. The three-wheeled KR175 (and later KR200) was powered by a single-cylinder two-stroke engine and coined the bubble car because of its jet-like canopy. Officially known as the Kabinenroller, it sat two in tandem and featured an oversize steering wheel more suited to aircraft than passenger cars. Its interior was rudimentary at best – the only instrumentation was a speedometer. (Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

  • Peel P50

    Contemporary audiences know the Peel P50 for when Jeremy Clarkson drove one around London and into the BBC’s on-air newsroom during filming of Top Gear. The P50 is not only the smallest production car ever built, it is also one of only two cars created on the Isle of Man by the Peel Engineering Company. Driven by a one-cylinder two-stroke motor, the single-seat three-wheeler was initially devised as an experiment to gauge the minimum size for a vehicle. At 4ft 6in long, the P50 features a handle at the rear of its fibreglass body in lieu of a reverse gear.

    Pictured here, model Karen Burch in a P50 outside Earl's Court Exhibition Centre in London, 1962. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Inter 175A Berline

    With its strong avionic design cues, it shouldn’t surprise that this microcar was actually built by the national aeronautic society of northern France. Arguably the most attractive of the three-wheelers, the Inter featured a single headlamp in its fuselage-inspired body and a hinged canopy that included glass windows. It also introduced a number of innovations, such as a folding front suspension and a Gyrostarter system, which employed a small electric motor and a flywheel to crank-start the engine. Only 280 were built, and no two cars were ever exactly alike. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

  • Scootacar

    If the BMW Isetta is a well-engineered functional design with an iconic aesthetic, the Scootacar is its British counterpart. Hailing from Leeds, the Scootacar had a cult following in the UK. Essentially an enclosed scooter with handlebars to match, the three-wheeled Scootacar’s angelfish-like design was derived from a sketch of its creator sitting on a box. This was the foundation for the car’s blueprint as well: the single-cylinder 197cc engine was located beneath the seat, which two passengers would sit atop in tandem. Its lightweight fibreglass body, welded to a steel floor pan, optimised weight distribution and enabled good handling.

    Pictured, a couple in a Scootacar in 1959. (Howell Evans/BIPs/Getty Images)

  • Reyonnah

    This French-built oddity was unveiled three years before the Messerschmitt and Inter tandem microcars. Brimming with innovation, its front suspension and flexible hydraulic brake hoses meant its front wheels could be folded under the car should its owner wish to move it off the street and into a house. They could also be lowered to widen the car’s front track and improve cornering stability. Fitted with an aircraft-style roof canopy and solid disc wheels from the Simca Cinq, the French equivalent to the Fiat Topolino, the Reyonnah was powered by a four-stroke single-cylinder 175cc engine producing 8.5hp. It is estimated that just 12 to 17 examples were built.

    Pictured, French model Suzette Clairy in a Reyonnah with her boyfriend in Paris, 1955. (Serge Berton/Getty Images)

  • Goggomobil Dart

    Perhaps best known for creating a microvan which was adopted by the German postal service in the late 1950s, Goggomobil also produced a sedan and coupe. Australian Bill Buckle became a distributor for the company and began importing chassis and parts for the cars, sidestepping import taxes by creating his own near-identical fibreglass bodies. In 1958 he consigned the design of a compact roadster to racecar designer Stan Brown. Devoid of doors, the rear-engine Dart used the sedan’s lights and badges and the rear window of a Renault Dauphine as a windscreen. It weighed in at a scant 345kg. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

  • Paul Vallée

    Built by Paul Vallée, a wealthy industrialist who foresaw the need for scooters in post-war Europe, this three-wheeled microcar was cloaked in a streamlined, teardrop-shaped fibreglass body created by the founder of the Ecurie France racing team. The interior featured a bench seat and a D-shaped steering wheel to ease access. Equipped with an inertial Gyrostarter system derived from helicopters to start the two-stroke, single-cylinder 125cc engine, the car was mercifully less successful than Vallée had hoped. Only 200 were built before he turned his attention toward a more profitable venture – buying into a Rolls-Royce and Ferrari dealership. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

  • Champion 400

    This German-engineered two-seater was fitted with a 398cc two-cylinder engine and a canvas roof. Gorgeous in its simplicity, the Champion 400 was devoid of extraneous detailing; its rotating semi-circular side windows and louvered decklid were a nod to its functional aesthetic. The rounded, symmetrical body was fashioned from steel and its rear engine layout borrowed from a particular German people’s car being built at the time – the Volkswagen. Though the Champion was much smaller than the VW, the cost of manufacturing continued to escalate and German engineering know-how did little to save the ailing company. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

  • Smart

    Originally devised by the makers of the Swatch watch and subsequently developed by Daimler-Benz in the mid-1990s, the Smart car’s design is so enduring that it holds a space in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Measuring just over 8ft long, the Smart owes its one-box design to a Tridion safety cell – a steel exoskeleton visible between the car’s interchangeable plastic body panels. With its short wheelbase, the Smart suffered instability in initial testing. Engineers responded by adding ballast to the car’s front end, retaining its compact dimensions to ensure it could easily park facing the kerb and fit into spaces other cars couldn’t. (Mercedes-Benz USA)

  • Tango EV

    Devised by American entrepreneur Rick Woodbury, the purely electric Tango effectively invents a new vehicle typology: the narrow commuter vehicle (NCV). Though its slab bodysides and 14-inch wheels do little to give it stance, it is actually a formidable performer. Thanks to its electric powertrain, the Tango generates an earth-twisting 3,000 lb-ft of torque and can blast to 60mph from a standstill in 3.2 seconds. That is Lamborghini Aventador-calibre acceleration. And while the Tango’s high body and narrow track seem unstable, the car has the same static rollover threshold as a Porsche 911, given the dead-weight qualities of its low battery placement. (Commuter Cars)