Microcars, or bubblecars or whatever you call them, were very much a product of their time, an era that came and went quickly, but has left the world with some unique, and strangely loveable collectors items. Soon after their demise, bubblecars became status symbols for people who love quirky things. Ironically, the reasons for their latter-day popularity is what caused consumers at large in the 1950s to turn their back on them.
Microcars had their origins in the years following World War II, when motorcycles were common. To provide better weather protection, three-wheeled microcars began increasing in popularity in the United Kingdom, where they could be driven using a motorcycle licence. Microcars also became popular in Europe, due to their greater fuel efficiency than larger cars. The advent of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which led to the rationing of fuel and soaring prices due to a worldwide shortage of petroleum products, greatly boosted the microcar trade.
Several microcars of the 1950s and 1960s - mostly produced in Germany - were nicknamed bubble cars. This was due to the aircraft-style bubble canopies of cars like the Messerschmitt KR175, Messerschmitt KR200 and the FMR Tg500. Other microcars, such as the Isetta, also had a bubble-like appearance.
German manufacturers of bubble cars included former military aircraft manufacturers Messerschmitt and Heinkel. BMW manufactured the Italian Iso Rivolta Isetta under licence, using an engine from one of their own motorcycles. Other examples from Germany and other European countries include the Citroen Prototype C, FMR Tg500, Fuldamobil, Heinkel Kabine, Isetta, Messerschmitt KR175, Messerschmitt KR200, Peel P50, Peel Trident, Trojan 200 and Kleinschnittger F 125. Microcar designers popped up all over Europe - most were home-based engineers who hoped their hand-built prototypes could be sold to manufacturers and make them millions.
One of the first microcars was the British built 1949 Bond Minicar. Joining the Bond in United Kingdom marketplace were licence-built right-hand drive versions of the Heinkel Kabine and the Isetta. The British version of the Isetta was built with only one rear wheel instead of the narrow-tracked pair of wheels in the normal Isetta design in order to take advantage of the three-wheel vehicle laws in the United Kingdom. There were also indigenous British three-wheeled microcars, including the Peel Trident.
The introduction of the Fiat 500 in 1957 and the Mini by UK manufacturer BMC two years later heralded the end of the age of the bubble car - both were inexpensive, frugal vehicles that could seat more than one at not much more money than the bubble cars. Furthermore they looked like real cars, and not something that had landed from another planet. The Mini in particular could seat four adults and was a much more comfortable way of covering longer distances at comparable running costs.
Other European manfacturers introduced new baseline models - the Citroen 2CV, Renault 4, Hillman Imp etc. - and by the end of the 1960s, production of microcars had largely ceased.
One of the few microcar success stories was the BMW Isetta. So successful was this novel vehicle, it singlehandly saved BMW from bankruptcy! It was the Isetta's bubble shape that led not only to it being nicknamed the "bubble car" - but that nickname being applied to the whole microcar genre. Initially manufactured by the Italian firm Iso SpA, the name Isetta is the Italian diminutive form of Iso, meaning "little Iso". Iso's owner, Renzo Rivolta, was one pioneers of the microcar revolution. By 1952 his engineers Ermenegildo Preti and Pierluigi Raggi had designed a small car that used the motorcycle engine of the Iso Moto 200.
The Isetta caused a sensation when it was introduced to the motoring press in Turin in November 1953. It was unlike anything seen before. Small (only 2.29 m long by 1.37 m wide) and egg-shaped, with bubble-type windows, the entire front end of the car hinged outwards to allow entry. In the event of a crash, the driver and passenger were to exit through the canvas sunroof. The steering wheel and instrument panel swung out with the single door, simplifying access to the single bench seat. The seat provided reasonable comfort for two occupants, and perhaps a small child. Behind the seat was a large parcel shelf with a spare wheel located below. A heater was optional, and ventilation was provided by opening the fabric sunroof. Power came from a 236 cc, 7.1 kW (9.5 hp) split-single two-stroke motorcycle engine.
Renzo Rivolta wanted to concentrate on his new Iso Rivolta sports car, and set about establishing licensing deals. Plants in Spain and Belgium were already assembling Isettas and Autocarros using Italian-made Iso components when BMW began talking with Rivolta. In mid-1954 BMW bought not just a license but the complete Isetta body tooling as well. After constructing some 1000 units, production of the Italian built cars ceased in 1955. In that year, the BMW Isetta became the world's first mass-production car to achieve a fuel consumption of 3 L/100 km (94 mpg‑imp; 78 mpg‑US). At a time when BMW’s business was teetering on the edge, the tiny ISO was just the right car at the right time.
BMW made the Isetta its own. BMW redesigned the powerplant around a BMW one-cylinder, four-stroke, 247 cc motorcycle engine which generated 10 kW (13 hp). Although the major elements of the Italian design remained intact, BMW re-engineered much of the car, so much so that none of the parts between a BMW Isetta Moto Coupe and an Iso Isetta are interchangeable. The first BMW Isetta appeared in April 1955 and remained in production until May 1962, three years after launch the conventionally modern-looking BMW 700. A total of 161,728 units had been built, making it the top-selling single-cylinder car in the world, a record it still holds today.
Messerschmitt, a Gemman aircraft manufacturer before and during World war II, was temporarily not allowed to manufacture aircraft after the war, had turned its resources to making other products. In 1952, Prof. Willy Messerschmitt was searching for a project to keep his RSM division busy, and a timely visit by his former employee Fritz Fend with a concept for a tandem two-seat vehicle resulted in a deal being struck.
By the summer of 1952 a prototype was ready. Called Fend Kabinenroller FK-150, it was based on his Fend Flitzer invalid carriage. It included all the elements of the first production the 150cc motor and the plexi dome. The latter was added my Messerschmitt as a way to initially use up left-over pilot canopies from the company's fighter aircraft.
Production began in February 1953, but early feedback indicated that the car was far from perfect: the suspension was very hard, it was noisy and rattled, and the hand clutch didn't come off well in practice. By June of 1953 some 70 modifications had been made. In 1956, around a year after West Germany joined NATO, Messerschmitt was allowed to manufacture aircraft again and lost interest in Fend's microcars. Messerschmitt sold the Regensburg works to Fend who took over manufacture of the car under the name FMR.
Around that time, the demand for basic economical transport in Germany was rapidly diminishing as the German economy boomed. A similar situation developed in other parts of Europe such as in the manufacturer's biggest export destination, the United Kingdom, where sales were particularly affected by the increasing popularity of the Mini. A total of 30,286 units of the KR200 were built Production of the KR200 was heavily reduced in 1962 and ceased in 1964.
Introduced in 1953 as the 'Fend', after its co-designer Fritz Fend, the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller microcar was soon being marketed under its manufacturer's name. Later models carried the diamond-shaped FMR badge, standing for Fahrzeug und Maschienenbau GmbH Regensburg. The four-wheeled TG500 cabriolet offered is closely related to the more frequently encountered Messerschmitt KR200 three-wheeler, albeit endowed with considerably greater performance courtesy of its 490cc twin-cylinder two-stroke engine. Only some 60 or thereabouts TG500s are believed to survive.
Heinkel was chiefly an German aircraft manufacturing company, which was founded in Warnemünde in 1922. Heinkel briefly turned to making cars after World War II, and was responsible for the iconic “Kabine” bubble car.
Heinkel began building aeroplanes shortly after the restrictions in place following World War I were relaxed. Their first commercial success came with the construction of a mail plane and airliner in 1932. Heinkel is primarly known as one of the aircraft companies in Germany to have supplied aeroplanes to the Luftwaffe during World War II and managed to build jet fighters, which saw action in the very much latter stages of the war.
Due to new aircraft building restrictions in place after World War II had ended, Heinkel turned its attention to producing cars, bicycles and motor scooters, returning to the skies soon after, building fighter planes, this time for West Germany. Heinkel's demise came in 1965, merged into Vereinigte Flugtechnische Werke, eventually becoming part of European aerospace giant EADS.
The Heinkel Kabine bubble car was built by Heinkel for two years between 1956 and 1958, the only car made by Heinkel, featuring a 1-cylinder air-cooled 4-stroke engine. It was an iconic design of its time, comparable to the BMW Isetta in appearance, accessible via a front door hatch, with the engine situated in the rear. Models came in 3- or 4-wheel designs, engine sizes varying from 174cc (using the same engine as their Tourist brand of scooter) to 204cc. The design was licenced to other manufacturers, namely Trojan Cars Ltd. in the UK and Los Cedros S.A. in Argentina, both continuing to produce Kabine design cars right up until the mid 1960s.
Fuldamobil cars were produced in Fulda, Germany,between 1950 and 1969. Various designated versions of the car were produced. Though overall numbers produced were relatively small, the cars attracted sufficient attention to see licensed construction on four continents including Europe. The car underwent significant development, modification and changes in appearance throughout its production life. In its ultimate configuration it is said to have inspired the term "bubble car". It is acknowledged as the first car in the world to feature a negative scrub radius, now recognised as a major advance in driving safety.
Series production began in February 1951 using a wooden framework for the bodies. Material used for the external panelling varied from car to car, the majority used plywood sheets covered with a synthetic leather fabric. Fabric car bodies were common in the 1920s, and in post-war Germany the scarcity of sheet steel, coupled with low manufacturing cost and light weight, briefly countered more negative factors such as an old-fashioned appearance and relatively poor durability.
At the start of 1957, work began on developing a new, lighter fibreglass body for the Fuldamobil.It made its first public appearance at the Swedish motorcycle show in March 1957. As it now required no wooden framework underneath, the bodies for this model were much simpler to mass produce and it quickly became the most successful type in attracting licensed manufacture in other countries, where the number of cars produced would ultimately be significantly higher than at the Fulda works, even if most of this licensed production was very short-lived in comparison.
Cars were sold under a variety of names, such as the Nobel in Chile, UK and Turkey, the Bambi in Argentina, the Bambino in the Netherlands, Fram King Fulda (Usually abbreviated to FKF and later shortened to King) in Sweden, Attica and also Alta A200 in Greece, and Hans Vahaar in India. It was also manufactured in South Africa under the original German name, also Zimbabwe then Rhodesia. A pickup version called "Sporty" based on the coupé was also available in Argentina.
There were minor detail changes throughout its production life, but the most significant was forced upon it when Fitchel and Sachs ceased production of their 200cc engine in 1965.
Peel Trident (left) and P50
The Peel Trident is the second three-wheeled microcar made by the Peel Engineering Company on the Isle of Man. An all-new design from its one-seat counterpart the Peel P50, the Trident has two seats. The Trident was launched at the 1964 British Motorcycle Show held at Earls Court. The Trident was manufactured in 1965 and 1966.
The seat, stated as being 79 cm wide, was intended to provide for use as an occasional two-seater. The glass-fibre shell was a monocoque with coil-sprung, undamped wheels. It featured a clear bubble top and either two seats or one seat with a detachable shopping basket. Li.ke its predecessor, it was marketed as a "shopping car" or a "Saloon Scooter". Like the P50, it uses a 49 cc (3.0 cu in) DKW engine which generates 4.2 hp (3.1 kW), and a top speed of 28 mph (45 km/h).
In 2011, Peel Engineering Ltd. started re-manufacturing the Peel Trident once again in Sutton-in-Ashfield, near Nottingham, England. All vehicles are hand-built to order in petrol and electric form.
Kleinschnittger was a German company that produced microcars between 1950 and 1957. They were powered by a 125 cc single cylinder two-stroke engine that produced 4 kW and a top speed of 70 km/h. It was very fuel efficient and consumed less than 3 litres per 100 km. The body was in aluminium. The car was also made in Belgium under the name Kleinstwagen and in the Netherlands as the Alco.
A more powerful model, the F250 (above), was fitted with a 250 cc engine from ILO giving 11 kW (14.8 hp).
Peel Trident (left) and P50
Citroen Prototype C
The Citroen Prototype C was a planned range of vehicles created by Citroen from 1955 to 1956 under the direction of Andre Lefebvre. The idea was to produce a water drop-shaped, very lightweight vehicle, which would be more modern and smaller than the 2CV. One of the prototypes, the Citroen C-10 has survived and is still owned by Citroen. The vehicle, also nicknamed Citroën Coccinelle (Ladybird in French), was equipped with the same 425 cc engine as the 2CV. The car was abandoned in favor of the Citroën Ami 6.
1951 Bond Minicar
The pioneer of the minicar phenomenon, the Bond Minicar is a series of economical three-wheeled microcars manufactured by the British car manufacturer Sharp's Commercials Ltd (renamed Bond Cars Limited in 1964), in Preston, Lancashire, between 1949 and 1966. The basic concept for the minicar was derived from a prototype built by Lawrence "Lawrie" Bond, an engineer from Preston. During the war, Bond had worked as an aeronautical designer for the Blackburn Aircraft Company. In the early part of 1948, he revealed the prototype. It and early models utilised stressed skin aluminium bodywork, though later models incorporated chassis members of steel.The Minicar was amongst the first British cars to use fibreglass body panels.
The cars were powered initially by a single-cylinder two-stroke Villiers engine of 122 cc (7 cu in). In December 1949 this was upgraded to a 197 cc (12 cu in) unit. The engine was further upgraded in 1958, first to a single-cylinder 247 cc (15 cu in) and then to a 247 cc (15 cu in) twin-cylinder Villiers 4T. These air-cooled engines were developed principally as motorcycle units and therefore had no reverse gear. However, this was a minimal inconvenience, because the engine, gearbox and front wheel were mounted as a single unit and could be turned by the steering wheel up to 90 degrees either side of the straight-ahead position, enabling the car to turn within its own length.
The Bond Bug is a small British two-seat, three-wheeled automobile which was built from 1970 to 1974, initially by Bond Cars Ltd, but subsequently by the Reliant Motor Company. It is a wedge-shaped microcar, with a lift-up canopy and side screens instead of conventional doors.
The 1964 Reliant Supervan which became a star of the BBC-TV series, "Only Fools And Horses".
Not quite a minicar but built with the same idea in mind, the Reliant Regal was a small three-wheeled car and van manufactured from 1953 to 1973 by the Reliant Motor Company in Tamworth, England, replacing the earlier Reliant Regent three-wheeled cyclecar van. A light-commercial version with a side-hinged rear door was marketed as the Reliant Supervan.
Built to be as lightweight and economical as possible, the Reliant Regal and Supervan were a hit in Great Britain, and have grown to become the automotive equivalent of a cult classic. The Regal (and successor the Robin) were made famous by the likes of the BBC’s “Mr. Bean” and “Top Gear” (and Newton’s “Laws of Motion” for its uncanny ability to topple over at will), the latter being a quaint little tribute to a minimalist approach.
Goggomobil was a series of microcars produced by Hans Glas GmbH in the Bavarian town Dingolfing between 1955 and 1969. Glas produced three models on the Goggomobil platform: the Goggomobil T sedan, the Goggomobil TS coupe, and the Goggomobil TL van. The engine was an air-cooled, two-stroke, two-cylinder unit originally displacing 250 cc, but later available in increased sizes of 300 cc and 400 cc.
Goggomobil TS coupe
The Goggomobil had an electric pre-selective transmission built by Getrag and a manual clutch. The engine was behind the rear wheels. Suspension was independent all round using coil springs with swing axles. 214,313 sedans, 66,511 coupés, and 3,667 Transporter vans and pickups were built from 1955 to 1969.
Between 1957 and 1961 some 700 sports cars called Goggomobil Darts were produced by Buckle Motors Pty Ltd in Sydney, Australia. Other Goggomobil models were also produced under licence, including saloon, coupe, coupe-convertible and light van variants. These were fitted with Australian produced fibreglass bodies in place of the steel bodies of their German counterparts. Australian production totalled approximately 5,000 units.
The Stuttgart-based German manufactuer Brütsch were best known for producing a large number of different microcar designs, but only produced small numbers of each design and the primary function of the company appears to have been that of the development and promotion of each design to sell licences to manufacture to other companies.
Between 1952 and 1958, eleven different models of car were manufactured by Brütsch, but the total production of all models by the company is believed to be only eighty-one cars. Many of the bodywork designs were simple two-piece mouldings of polyester reinforced with fiberglass, bonded at a waistline join, which was then covered by a protective strip. Chassis and suspension design was very rudimentary and after a misguided court action in 1956 by Brütsch against a licensee, at least one of Brütsch's designs was condemned as dangerous.
Produced from 1956 to 1958, the Brustch Mopetta is the most well known of the company's vehicles. It is a single seat, 3-wheeled roadster, powered by a single cylinder 49 cc engine driving through a three speed gearbox. Top speed was around 45 km/h (28 mph) and fourteen cars were produced. Production was licensed to former Opel dealer Georg von Opel, who planned to build the Mopetta at a former Horex motorcycle factory, however this plan appears to have resulted in nothing more than the production of sales literature. Due to its unusual design and rarity, the Mopetta has been subject to many replicas.
The Brütsch V2 (1956-1958) (above) was a 2-seater, 4-wheeled roadster. Powered by either a single cylinder 98 cc Fichtel & Sachs engine giving a top speed around 65 km/h (40 mph) or a single cylinder 247 cc Maico engine giving a top speed around 99 km/h (62 mph). Both versions had a four speed gearbox and in total twelve cars were produced.
The Brütsch Zwerg (1955-1957) was a 2-seater, 3-wheeled roadster, powered by a single cylinder 191 cc Fichtel & Sachs engine driving through a four speed gearbox. Top speed was around 85 km/h (53 mph) and twelve cars were produced. Also built under licence by Air Tourist Sàrl of France with minor changes and sold as the Avolette. Only four examples of the 2-seat Zwerg is known to still exist in England and are currently awaiting restoration.
Similar in shape to the Zwerg, the Brütsch 200 Spatz (German for sparrow) was a 3-seater, 3-wheeled roadster, powered by a single cylinder 191 cc Fichtel & Sachs engine driving through a four speed gearbox. Top speed was around 90 km/h (56 mph) and about five cars were produced. Also built under licence by A. Grünhut & Co of Switzerland with minor changes and sold as the Belcar. Another licence was sold to Alzmetall for production by Harald Friedrich GmbH of Germany, but so many faults were found with the original design that their production model, the Spatz Kabinenroller was fundamentally a different car. Because of this Brütsch took Alzmetall to court to ensure payment of his licence fees but lost the case.
The Victoria 250 is a four-wheeled microcar that was built between 1956 and 1958. The car was originally conceived by Egon Brütsch as the Brütsch 200 "Spatz" (see above), a Fiberglass three-wheeler with the suspension of the front wheels and the rear wheel attached directly to the body shell. As such the car's engineering proved unsound and trial runs on rough roads led to severe cracks in the bodywork.
In 1955, German engineer Harald Friedrich transformed the Brutsch 200 Spatz from an egg-shaped, flimsily-built, unsalable three-wheeler to a strong, elegant, mid-engined four-wheeler with an excellent frame and modern car suspension and brakes. The first examples were delivered in June 1957, to a cheering public and press, but at the Auto Show in September, there already was too much competition from other makers, thus initializing the writing on the wall for the small microcar manufacturing firms. Victoria decided to quit, and their last car was delivered in February 1958. 1,588 were built between 1956 and 1958, 859 as "Spatz", 729 as "Victoria 250".
This prototype was built by Otto Daus in Hamburg, Germany in 1954. Daus was the chief engineer for Tempo, a German three-wheeled truck manufacturer. This car uses a 197cc single-cylinder making 9.5 horsepower. It can do 46 mph and was never registered for the road in Germany when it was built and it never entered production.
Champion launched its 250 in 1948 to provide low-cost transport, with power provided by a supercharged single-cylinder 200cc rear-mounted two-stroke engine. In 1951 the 400 joined the 250, with a 398cc two-cylinder engine, roll-back cloth roof and improved suspension. Inspired by the VW Beetle, it was the Wolfsburg-built car that would prove the Champion's undoing as it was much more usable and cost much the same.
When Champion went bust for the last time in 1955, its assets were available at a knock-down price, so motorcycle manufacturer Maico waded in to continue production of the two-seater 400; a four-seater version of this car arrived soon after. Next came a 452cc version of the 400, now called the Maico 500 (pictured), but the car couldn't compete with more mainstream rivals. A last-ditch attempt to continue with car production led to 10 examples of the 500 Sport Cabriolet prototype being made but the money ran out. Maico managed to stave off bankruptcy and stuck with motorcycle production until the brand's demise in 1986.
Wilhelm Meyer started to make three-wheeled invalid carriages in 1948, but in 1953 he moved up a gear with the 200, a bubble car-style model with a single wheel at the back powered by a 197cc single-cylinder engine. Bizarrely, the 200 featured just a single door on its front, much like the Isetta, but this door was just half the width of the car, preventing larger passengers from getting in at all. Production ran to 530 units by the time the company went broke in 1956.
As with so many of the companies here, Gutbrod began by making motorbikes (in 1926). Set up by Wilhelm Gutbrod, his son Walter took over the business after his father's death in 1948, by which point the company had moved into manufacturing small two-stroke cars, most notably the Superior. Gutbrod closed down in 1954 but between 1975 and 1990 an identically named company set up shop in Germany, to build small four-wheel drive farm vehicles.
Gustav Kroboth had two stints at building cars. Between 1931 and 1932 his company made about 150 two-stroke two-seaters but it's the post-war stint that he's best known for – not that Kroboth is what you could call a high-profile brand. That's largely because between 1954 and 1955 he made just 55 or so Allwetter-Roller three-wheelers, each powered by a 197cc single-cylinder engine – there were a few four-wheelers made too, with a 174cc engine, but by the mid-1950s Kroboth ceased manufacturing cars.
The U1 prototype was built in 1953 by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Steyr, (after 1955 car production in Graz), Austria and designed by Erich Ledwinka. This was the first prototype for a Steyr passenger car, two others (U2 and U3) were built before it was decided in 1957 to use the Fiat 500 bodyshell. The entry into the U1 was only possible after the folding back the roof. The two-seater microcar had a motorcycle-derived two stroke engine. The later prototypes U2 and U3 had four stroke engines.
Tempo, a German automobile manufacturer based in Hamburg, experimented with microcars in the early 1950s. Three and four-wheeled sedan prototypes were unveiled, but neither entered production. Powered by a 400cc Heinkel engine, the Tempo microcar (1954) swas neither better nor worse than its contemporaries, such as the Champion 400 and Maico 400 (with which it shared an engine). But with a range of vans, the Hanseat, Boy, two versions of the Matador, and two versions of the Viking in production simultaneously, there really wasn't capacity to produce other vehicles.
Not made in heaven, as the picture suggests, but by Max Curt Gick of West-Germany and presented at the Motor Show in 1950 in Berlin. This small 3-wheeler had no doors, externally mounted headlights and a fin on the rear. Drum brake acted only on the rear wheels. The Gnom was powered by a 123cc single-cylinder two-stroke Ilo engine, to be started with a rope.Top speed was 60kmh. No sponser could be find. Gick only built 3 copies and could not find a backer to put the car into production.
Polish engineer Josef Przybylski looked happy with his Brütsch-like creation, built in 1958. There were production plans for this 250cc 3-wheeler at the WFM-factory in Warsaw, but the Polish authorities withheld funds to finance the tooling.
Twenty Jerry cars with diverse bodyworks were made by the Argentinian manufacturer Rolmar in 1958. The car was initially called Convert. It was powered by a 150cc 2-stroke Siambreta (Vespa) engine. Picture found on Dynastart.
Autobianchi Bianchina Transformabile
Released in 1957 by the Italian automaker Autobianchi, the Transformabile (convertible) was one of five versions of the same vehicle, the Bianchina, which was based on the Fiat 500. Each had a 0.479-litre engine that turned out 18 hp; some versions were capable of 21 hp. They were just big enough for a quick trip to the market or a Sunday jaunt across the countryside. The 1966 movie "How to Steal a Million" with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole features Audrey driving a red Autobianchi Bianchina cabriolet.
The Zündapp Janus was a microcar model made by Zündapp in Germany between 1957 and 1958, the only car ever built by the company. Zündapp was a motorcycle maker, but in 1954 decided to make a more weatherproof vehicle. They looked for partners who could design such a vehicle, and approached Kroboth, Brütsch, and Fuldamobil before settling on the ready-developed vehicle from Dornier, an aircraft manufacturer.
The novel developed design featured a front-opening door for access to the front seat, as well as a rear-opening door for access to the rear-facing rear seat. This "coming or going" design was given the name of the Roman god, Janus, usually pictured having two faces: one looks forward while the other one looks back. The car was powered by a mid-mounted two-stroke, single-cylinder, 245 cubic centimetres (15.0 cu in) engine unique to the Janus, developing 14 hp (10 kW), enabling a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph).
Production started in June 1957. However, whilst in racing and sports cars the mid-engine configuration leads to optimal car handling, the engine in the Janus was much lighter than the rear passengers, leading to a variable centre of gravity. The car was not low priced, and only 1,731 examples were made in the first six months. By mid-1958, having made only a total of 6,902 cars, Zündapp abandoned the project and sold the factory to Bosch.
The Dornier Delta, Dornier's original design
The Kei Car
While Europe was developing the minicar or bubble car, Japan was developing its own version of the miniature road-legal passenger car, the Keijidosha ("light car") or Kei car. The kei car category was created by the Japanese government in 1949, and continues to this day. The regulations have been revised several times since but the princple has remained the same. These regulations specify a maximum vehicle size, engine capacity of 660cc and power output, so that owners may enjoy both tax and insurance benefits. In most rural areas they are also exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle.
The Kei-car legal class originated in the era following the end of the Second World War, when most Japanese could not afford a full-sized car, but many had enough money to buy a motorcycle. To promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer an alternative delivery method to small business and shop owners, the kei car category and standards were created. Originally limited to a displacement of only 150 cc (9 cu in) (or just 100 cc for two-stroke engines) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually expanded (in 1950, 1951, and 1955) to tempt more manufacturers to produce kei cars.
Similar Japanese categories exist for microvans, and Kei trucks. These vehicles are most often the Japanese equivalent of today's Western/European A-segment, commonly known as "city cars". Kei cars have always been very successful in Japan - consisting of over one third of domestic new car sales in 2016. The vehicles featured here are limited to those produced during the same era as Europe's minicars - 1940s to 1960s, known in as the Kei Car's 360-cc era.
The Subaru 360 is a rear-engined, two-door city car manufactured and marketed from 1958 to 1971 by Subaru. As the company's first automobile, production reached 392,000 over its 12-year model run. Noted for its small overall size, 1,000 lb curb weight, monocoque construction, swing axle rear suspension, fiberglass roof panel, and rear-hinged doors, the inexpensive car was designed to comply with Japan's Kei car regulations. Nicknamed the "ladybug" in Japan, the 360 was one of Japan's most popular cars and was available in a single generation in two-door, station wagon, "convertible" (coupe with roll-back fabric roof) and sport model variants.
The Honda N360 is a small front-engine, front-wheel drive, two-passenger two-box automobile manufactured and marketed by Honda from March 1967 through 1970. After a January 1970 facelift, the N360 became the NIII360 and continued in production until June 1972. A larger-engined variant, the N600, was marketed through 1973.
The N360 was the first model Honda to be sold in Australia. Honda used the "N" prefix in its model name, designating "norimono" (translating from Japanese to English as "vehicle" ) — to distinguish the car from its motorcycle range.
The Mazda R360 is not only a kei car but the company's first automobile — a two-door, four-seat coupé. Introduced in 1960, the R360 featured a 69 inch (1753 mm) wheelbase, weighed 838 lb (380 kg) and was powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled 356 cc V-twin engine producing 16 hp (12 kW) and 16 lb·ft (22 Nm) of torque. The car was capable of 52 mph (84 km/h) and featured a 4-speed manual or two-speed automatic transmission. The suspension, front and rear, was rubber "springs" and torsion bars. A Mazda B360 Pickup that was sold in Japan in 1961. Mazda put an R360 on display at the 1960 Sydney Motor Show, and sent one to Western Australia to test and evaluate under Australian road conditions in 1962.
Within a few years of introducing the R360, Mazda had captured much of the lightweight (kei car) market in Japan. The R360 was augmented by the Mazda-Carol Mazda P360 Carol in 1962, as well as a convertible version in 1964. Production of the R360 lasted for six years. Both cars had one of the smallest four-cylinder automobile engines in history, only Honda's 356 cc DOHC alloy inline-four unit (used in the T360 truck) was smaller.
Daihatsu Fellow Max
The Daihatsu Fellow Max began life as the 2-door, 4-seat Daihatsu Fellow, which was introduced on 9 November 1966. Originally only available in DeLuxe and Super DeLuxe equipment levels, a Standard version joined in February 1967. Also available with a wagon body (Fellow Van), as a mini-pickup truck and as a panel van. It was built with a front-mounted 356 cc, water-cooled two-cylinder two-stroke engine already seen in the Hijet minivan, a four-speed manual transmission and rear wheel drive.
The first Hijet received a 360 cc two-stroke engine, as was dictated by the kei car laws of the time. The first generation Hijet used a conventional front engine, rear-wheel-drive format with the driver sitting behind the engine, in a similar pickup fashion. In 1964, the Hijet received a facelift, replacing its cheerful body-colored grille with a more conventional chromed unit.
Suzuki Suzulight SF
Designed to look like a much larger conventional vehicle than it actually was, the Suzuki Suzulight SF was a true Kei car. It was Suzuki's first entry into automotive manufacturing, having previously only produced motorcycles. The Suzulight sedans and light vans all had transversely mounted engines and front-wheel drive. The Suzulight Carry trucks and vans were the first to use the Carry label, which the company still uses today.
Introduced in April 1955, "SF" stood for "Suzuki Four-wheel car". The first model was closely based on the Lloyd 400, chosen after Suzuki also having considered the Citroen 2CV and Renault 4CV. The Suzulight SF shared the Lloyd's transversely mounted, front-wheel drive layout and the two-cylinder, two-stroke engine was a narrow-bored copy of the Lloyd's. Because of the smaller bore and resulting 359.66 cc (21.9 cu in) engine, it met the Japanese Keijidosha ("light car") legislation.
Small-scale series production began in October 1955, with 3-4 cars being built per month. By February 1956, however, monthly production had jumped to about 30 cars. In January 1958, after sluggish sales and to take advantage of economies of scale, the range was whittled down to a single model. In October 1959 , the new Suzulight TL was released, replacing the SF. Only available with a split folding rear seat and a large tailgate opening to the side, its layout was far ahead of its time.
In March 1962, the TL-based Fronte TLA passenger was released. The name was meant to symbolize Suzuki's position at the front of Kei car development, as well as alluding to its FF (front-engine, front-wheel-drive) layout. The first four-wheeled Suzuki sold under the company's own name rather than as a Suzulight was the Suzuki Fronte 800, presented in August 1965.
The Cony Guppy is a small pickup truck manufactured by Aichi, a Japanese aircraft manufacturer which produced several designs for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The vehicle had suicide doors and rotating amber beacons on the B-pillar. The brake lights were tiny and circular. The engine, which rests behind the seats, is a two-valve, 199 cc single-cylinder unit that produces 11 horsepower. Aichi rated the Guppy's fuel economy at 50 km/l and top speed at 80 k/hr. Its low price made it attractive to small business owners and cargo transporters. Other features include a four-wheel independent suspension and a torque converter for clutchless driving.
Nissan donated 100 cars based on the Guppy to the Kodomo no Kuni Children's Park in Hazu, Aichi, in 1965. This was long after the Guppy had been taken out of production; Nissan built them from leftover parts acquired as a result of their gradual takeover of the Aichi company. Called the "Datsun Baby" they had a speed limiter, limiting top speed to 30 km/h (18.6 mph). Otherwise they were mechanically identical to the Guppy, but with different bodywork.
The Suzuki CV1 is a microcar first presented at the 24th Tokyo Motor Show in 1981. Displayed under the banner of Suzuki community vehicle, the CV1 was a single-seat, four-wheeler, with a narrower track at the rear. It had a single door in its fiberglass body and had a claimed maximum speed of 20 mph (32 km/h). The vehicle could be driven on a moped licence in Japan and was sold in very limited numbers on a trial basis at a price of 300,000 Yen. The car had windows on either side that could be slid upwards and early versions had a single headlamp. Production ended in 1985 when Japanese licensing laws were changed.