In the 1950s a huge industry sprang up across Europe, building microcars.
Everyone wanted mobility but many couldn’t afford a ‘proper’ car, while used cars were in short supply. The answer was a glut of tiny vehicles, usually powered by two-cylinder engines and clothed in glassfibre – the new wonder material of the age. Glassfibre made small-scale production viable, although some microcars featured steel bodyshells.
Throughout the fifties many of these companies flourished, but when the Mini appeared in 1959 it killed off many microcar makers at a stroke, although some continued into the 1960s. Some microcars were ingenious while many were shockingly bad – we’ll leave you to work out which is which over the next 36 slides.
Peel P50 (1962)
We might as well start with the smallest production car ever made – at least according to the Guinness Book of Records. Made by the Peel Engineering Company on the Isle of Man, the three-wheeled P50 came in red, white or blue. Originally built between 1962 and 1965 (50 were made), the P50 is now back in production in both petrol and electric forms, and we've just driven it. Our verdict? "A 4.8bhp happiness generator."
Incredibly, around 10,000 of these Spanish-built torture devices were made, between 1953 and 1960. Even more incredibly, the Biscuter’s origins lay in the Biscooter, an economy car created by Gabriel Voisin, who built some of the most luxurious and expensive cars of the 1930s.
Brutsch Mopetta (1956)
Making the Peel P50 look luxurious (at least it had a roof), the Brutsch Mopetta took minimalism to extremes. Capable of seating just one, and with a pull-start 50cc engine, just 14 examples were made between 1956 and 1958.
Brutsch V2 (1956)
Even rarer than the Mopetta was the V2, of which just a dozen were made. This time there was a full complement of wheels and seating for two, while power came from a 98cc engine – enough to give a 40mph top speed.
Dornier Delta (1956)
Dornier was best known for building aircraft, but in the post-war era times were tough so the company tried its hand at building cars instead. The Delta was the result, but even before the car had gone into production it was clear that the sums didn’t add up, so the project was sold on. Interestingly, today the firm focuses on medical devices and still makes a product under the Dornier Delta name, though it is a 'semi-integrated lithotripter', a device to treat kidney stones.
Zundapp Janus (1957)
Dornier sold the Delta microcar project to German motorcycle builder Zundapp, as it was keen to expand its operations. Renamed the Janus, this four-seater microcar was powered by a mid-mounted two-stroke 245cc single-cylinder engine. Almost 7,000 cars were made in a year.
Vespa 400 (1957)
Zundapp wasn’t the only motorbike maker keen to get into building cars; Vespa did the same thing. Production ran from 1957 until 1961, with all cars powered by a 393cc two-cylinder air-cooled engine.
You’d buy one of these just for the name! Initially built in Wolverhampton by Henry Meadows, the Frisky came with an array of identities including the Friskysport, Coupé and Family Three, with production lasting from 1958 until 1961. Motive power was courtesy of various two-stroke engines, with either one cylinder or two.
Iso Isetta (1953)
The Isetta was originally developed by Italian company Iso in 1953, and it even took part in the famed Mille Miglia race in 1954 (pictured).
BMW Isetta (1955)
Within a year it was being made under licence by VELAM in France, there was a Spanish commercial version called the Autocarro, Romi made the car in Brazil and BMW bought the rights for German and British production. Its Isetta was in production from 1955 until 1962, with more than 160,000 examples built, making it one of the most prolific of all microcars.
Trojan 200 (1960)
Trojan started building cars just after World War 1; the 200 was its last model before it shut up shop in 1965. One of the quintessential bubble cars of the 1960s, the 200 was developed in the mid '50s by former German aircraft maker Heinkel, which originally sold it as the Kabine.
In common with several other companies listed in this feature that seem familiar from World War 2, it was banned from its former activity and to expand its energies into more peaceful work, in its case the making of bicycles and motor scooters as well as microcars.
Berkeley B95 (1959)
Not all microcars were about ultimate economy; some provided a healthy dose of fun too. Caravan manufacturer Berkeley teamed up with Lawrie Bond (of Bond Cars) to create a series of three- and four-wheeled microcars powered by air-cooled two-stroke engines with two or three cylinders. This is a B95; also offered were the SA322, SE328 and SE492, the number denoting the engine’s displacement.
Bond Minicar (1949-66)
Lawrie Bond was behind a string of economy cars marketed as the Minicar. The first came in 1949 and the last in 1966, each one powered by a single-cylinder air-cooled engine mounted over the single front wheel. This displaced just 122cc in the earliest cars, but grew to 249cc to offer a frightening 60mph potential with the final cars.
JARC Little Horse (1953)
The microcar world was unbelievably complicated, with projects constantly changing hands. JARC developed the Little Horse then sold the project to Astra in 1954. Later the car would become the Gill Getabout as well as the Lightburn Zeta, which survived until 1966 in Australia.
Astra Utility (1955)
And here is the JARC in Astra guise, as seen in a contemporary Autocar advert. Just 9.5 feet (2896mm) long and less than 4.5 feet (1372mm) wide, the 322cc two-cylinder 15bhp engine provided a very healthy (and possibly scary) 58mph top speed.
If you were a dashing man about town and looking for a girlfriend, then this was the car to have in in 1954. Driving a Rodley you were guaranteed to get lucky; just look at that styling. Made between 1954 and 1956, the Rodley was unusual in that it featured steel body panels and a relatively large 750cc engine – which was prone to overheating and catching fire. Which might have made your first date memorable at least.
Kleinschnittger F125 (1950)
Looking more like a fairground dodgem than a proper road-legal car, the Kleinschnittger F125 was made between 1950 and 1957 and was powered by a 125cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine.
Opperman Unicar (1958)
British company Opperman was a tractor maker that decided to move into microcar production in the mid-1950s. Its first product was the glassibre-bodied Unicar with a 328cc two-cylinder engine. To cut production costs the rear wheels were close to each other so a differential wasn’t required. About 200 Unicars were made.
Opperman Stirling (1959)
Opperman decided to move upmarket in 1958 with the Stirling. It wasn’t a good plan as BMC's Mini came out in 1959 and single-handedly wiped out much of the microcar market. As a result just two Stirlings were made, at least one of which survives.
Rovin D3 (1948)
French microcar maker Rovin appeared in 1946 with its 260cc D1. The D2 followed a year later then in 1948 came the D3, with a 423cc flat-twin engine. Around 800 D3s were made between 1948 and 1950, when the D4 arrived. For some reason the D3 was advertised as a two-seater – although three people are pictured. Brought to you from a pre-health and safety era...
From this advert you could be forgiven for thinking that the three-wheeled Powerdrive was the size of a 1959 Cadillac; it was actually well under nine feet (2743 mm) long. It was bigger than many of its rivals though, but power came from a 322cc Anzani two-stroke engine – the same as many of its contemporaries.
Mochet CM-125 Luxe (1951)
Frenchman George Mochet was a keen fan of minimalism; something that’s evident as soon as you see his CM-125 Luxe of 1951. Power (all 3.5bhp of it) came from a 125cc single-cylinder engine and while the Mochet was basic, it was very cheap to buy and run which is why around 1,250 were built.
Mochet CM 125 Y (1954)
The success of Mochet’s earlier microcars led him to move upmarket and by 1954 the company had introduced the CM 125 Y. Now with fully enclosed bodywork, the 125cc engine was breathed on to produce a monster 5bhp. More than 1,100 of these cars were made before production was wound up in 1958.
Glas Goggomobil (1955)
One of the most popular microcars of all time, it’s easy to see the appeal of the Glas Goggomobil when you look at those sleek, sexy lines. Launched in 1955, more than 200,000 of these quirky German saloons were built, initially with a 250cc engine but later with a choice of 300cc or 400cc units. In the UK the Goggomobil saloon was sold as the Regent.
Goggomobil Coupé (1957)
Buoyed by the success of his saloons, Hans Glas decided to introduce something more sporty, using the same platform and mechanicals. The result was the coupé, sold as the Mayfair in the UK. There were TS300 and TS400 options, depending on the engine chosen.
Goggomobil Dart (1959)
Bill Buckle was the Glas distributor in Australia and he reckoned there was a market for something even sportier than the Coupé, which was also offered in cabriolet form. He came up with this; the Goggomobil Dart which used the saloon’s platform, complete with 300cc or 400cc engine. Around 700 were made between 1959 and 1961.
Fairthorpe Atom (1955)
Set up just outside London in 1954 by the former World War 2 RAF hero DC Bennett, Fairthorpe specialised in plastic-bodied sportscars rather than microcars, but its first offering was this two-seater with just two cylinders and a glassfibre bodyshell, such as it was. Luxury was not on the menu.
In production for just two seasons (1951 and 1952), the British-built Russon featured comically under-sized wheels, a 250cc two-cylinder Excelsior engine and an alloy-panelled body. But a high price tag of almost £500 meant the Russon was never going to be a winner and production didn’t even get into double figures. The project was bought by Fairthorpe's DC Bennett.
Lightburn Zeta (1963)
Australian company Lightburn was a manufacturer of cement mixers and washing machines, but in 1963 it decided to branch out into making affordable small cars. The first product was the front-wheel drive Zeta, with a 324cc two-cylinder Villiers engine. Around 400 were made between 1963 and 1965, including a handful of Zeta Utility commercial editions.
Lightburn Zeta Sports (1964)
In a bid to sex things up a bit, Lightburn introduced the Zeta Sports in 1964, with a throbbing 498cc two-stroke engine rated at a heady 21bhp. It clearly proved too much for the Australian market and just 48 were built.
FMR TG500 (1957)
Messerschmitt started out as an aircraft manufacturer, but once World War 2 had ended it moved into making microcars, teaming up with established microcar builder Fritz Fend. Messerschmitt’s first cars were three-wheelers but in 1957 came the four-wheeled TG500, or Tiger. Sold under the FMR brand, the 493cc TG500 was supposedly capable of 85mph. Open and closed versions were offered, with around 450 made in all.
The original Spatz (German for Sparrow) was a three-wheeler deemed too unsafe for sale because of its flimsy construction; it was the brainchild of Egon Brutsch, creator of the Mopetta. Hans Ledwinka of Tatra fame turned the car into a four-wheeler which sold between 1956 and 1958, with around 1600 made.
Aixam (1983 to date)
The microcar isn’t dead. Indeed, for years it’s been thriving in France thanks to the country’s quadricycle market. Known as voiture sans permis (cars without a licence), such vehicles can be driven by 14-year olds, but predictably they’re restricted in terms of engine capacity and performance. The biggest player in this market is Aixam; its latest Coupé is shown here.
Ligier Ambra (2008)
Another major contender in the quadricycle market is Ligier. The company started out making sports cars in the 1970s but since 2008 it has focused on making voitures sans permis; shown here is a Ligier Ambra. Fast, it is not...
Smart ForTwo (1998)
Is the Smart ForTwo really a microcar? Compared with the original models from the 1950s it’s probably too safe, fast and luxurious to qualify. But as one of the titchiest cars on sale today, we’re going to include it here as an honorary member of the microcar club.
Reva G-Whiz (2001)
The Reva G-Whiz was closer in spirit to the microcars of old thanks to its terrible performace and dynamics, questionable safety levels and shoddy styling. This Indian-made battery-powered contraption was built from 2001 until 2012 and proved popular for a while in the UK, especially in London. But its successor (the Mahindra e2o) didn’t enjoy the same success.
Bringing the microcar story up to date is the Renault Twizy, an electric two-seater that’s just the job for intra-urban trips. It looks great and is great fun to drive, but it’s not cheap enough – something that killed off the microcar market the first time round. How many Twizys will survive in 50 years’ time?