Motoring: The micro wave
Ridiculously minute, bizarrely styled and mostly out of production, microcars fetch a small fortune at auction. By Michael Booth. Photographs by Alexander Caminada
Saturday 22 August 1998
Having myself spent a day attending a meeting of the Microcar Club South & West, held in an exposed field somewhere outside Bath during a heavy storm (which did nothing to deter at least 60 die-hard microcar enthusiasts, I might add), Nick's indifference to transient modern pop icons comes as no surprise. As I discovered, microcar fanatics are not really of this world, or at least not of this decade. Perhaps all that time spent bent double like a downhill skier cuts off the oxygen supply to their brains, or maybe the deafening thrum of an over-stressed scooter engine reverberating inside an ovoid go-kart scrambles the senses. Whatever the cause, it soon became apparent that this is a group of people united by a uniquely British form of uninhibited eccentricity.
"You could call us eccentric, I suppose," concedes the 58-year-old secretary of the Microcar Club South & West, Michael Dan. "I got in to microcars in the Fifties when they were a natural progression from a scooter. These days I love the nostalgia. I mean, you can buy an old Jaguar or something, but you still see Jaguars being made now. You don't see these, they're so rare. I'm nostalgic generally, you see. I collect models and toy trains and that sort of thing."
Michael kindly invited me into his caravanette, behind which he tows his pride and joy, a 1960 Messerschmitt KR200, which he takes to events such as this around the country. He came out of retirement to earn money in order to restore his prized "Schmitt" (as the cognoscenti call them), one of 20 bubble cars and old scooters in his collection. "There was a time when you could choose from 60 different manufacturers of microcars," explains Michael. "They started after the war when German aircraft factories weren't allowed to make planes and decided to make a very little basic car for invalid servicemen. The very first one was pedal-operated and then the Messerschmitt aircraft company became involved and put an engine in. They're very fast, one of mine can do 70mph, but you have to remember that the brakes were designed for roads with lots of space."
Though it is a myth that the original Schmitts used aircraft parts, these, initially, three-wheeled dodgems shared many styling cues with fighter planes, notably the glass-domed "cockpit". Soon, other aviation companies, such as BMW (under licence from the Italian Isetta company) and Heinkel were producing their own budget cars, each marvels of packaging and economy, and each in their way helping put Germany back on its feet.
"I get people pulling up alongside me in these BMW 7-series cars and their electric window winds down and they say, 'Why on earth have you stuck BMW badges on that kit car?'" says an indignant Paul Rossiter, who cornered me in his microcaravan which (and it's a sight everyone should see before they die) he tows behind his bubble car. "So I say, 'This isn't a bloody kit car, this is a proper BMW, you're driving the crappy plastic BMW, and if it wasn't for me driving this you wouldn't be driving that!'"
Sadly, BMW and most of the other 60 microcar manufacturers either moved on to bigger things or folded. In the early Sixties, the Mini and Fiat 500 sounded their death knell as, for just pounds 100 more, they offered greater space, safety and comfort in almost as compact a package. Nevertheless, Paul remains passionate about microcars, claiming to have received envious glances from Rolls-Royce owners. He also says that the cars are "great bird pullers".
Incidentally, he could be right: at least two of the owners I met at Bath were, let's say, taking advantage of their wives' lack of interest in bubble cars for the weekend; another told me he had lost his virginity in one - an act of contortion Houdini would have balked at, while another said that his wife had married both him and his car.
Paul uses his rare and capacious four-wheeled Schmitt daily as well as for European holidays with his girlfriend and young son, and told me of his plans to fit a welsh dresser to his microcaravan (tragically, a high wind took its roof off later that day, so those plans may be on hold). He is also lobbying the Government to allow tax breaks and cheaper parking for microcars in cities, as happens in Japan. That, though, is where his sympathies with Japan end as, over recent years, countless microcars have headed east for scarcely plausible and ever-increasing prices. Messerschmitts are a blue-chip investment. One owner I met has bought five cars in need of restoration as an alternative to topping up his pension. Paul knows someone whose Schmitt went to Japan for pounds 39,000 recently and last year an Isle of Man-produced Peel Trident, little more than a fibreglass dome with a 50cc engine, was sold at Christie's for pounds 37,500. "They've got so ridiculously expensive that young people can't afford to buy them so the trend now is older people bringing big campers to the rallies and dragging the car behind them," says Paul.
Ian Brake, from Runcorn, does just that. Ian's pride and joy is a San Marino-built 1983 Decsalisa 125, essentially an invalid car, which he bought from a Rolls-Royce dealer for a sum he refuses to disclose. "I don't like talking about money, it's just a hobby," Ian told me. "I've always had one-off vehicles, I just like to go to these shows, you meet nice people. I only trailer it, never drive it." The car had done just 269 kilometres.
Of course I can't talk about microcars and three-wheelers without mentioning Reliant, whose products were well represented at Bath. "Everyone takes the piss, people call me Del Boy, but it just bounces off," Reliant 850 owner Roy Knight from Swindon told me, admitting later that he had tinted the windows so he couldn't be seen driving it, and that friends refuse to go in it. "But I'm partially deaf so the noise doesn't bother me, I save on tyres 'cos there's only three, and I can quite easily do 80mph in it."
Reliant, based in Tamworth, still manufactures at the rate of 15 a week and rumours abounded at the Bath meeting of plans for it to remake the Bond Bug (a brazenly absurd attempt to modernise the three-wheeler, from the Seventies) in four-wheel form to cash in on the recent Japanese craze and the resurgence of interest in smaller cars from major car companies.
The most unlikely of those manufacturers, Mercedes Benz, has signalled its intent to reinvent the microcar with its diddy Smart car, made by a subsidiary, Micro Compact Car. In fact it took a visionary from outside the motor industry to come up with the original design for the Smart. Several years ago, with his Swatch empire on a roll, owner Nikolas Hayek decided to turn his hand to creating a city car, using the funky design tenets that had made his watches an international phenomenon.
Mercedes came on board to help with the engineering and, following an unusually long gestation period, even by motor industry standards, the result, the Smart City-Coupe, is at last a reality. Though it almost certainly won't be sold in the UK in the foreseeable future, in Germany the car is already on sale with a 600cc, three-cylinder turbo-charged motor, for pounds 6,980, roughly the same price as a Fiesta. Whether people will be prepared to pay that for a car which Minnie Mouse would look at home in is questionable though. And there are other clouds over Stuttgart's new baby. Early road tests were not favourable ("Not so Smart," punned Autocar), and Mercedes' reputation as a maker of, by its standards, small cars had already hit the ground rolling last year when another vehicle, its mini-people-carrier, the A-Class, failed the infamous "Moose Test" to see how it coped with cornering at speed (it didn't). So, having spent a fortune re-engineering the A- Class, Mercedes noticed that the Smart had exactly the same problems and would also require pounds 100m worth of work. The microcar revolution is as far away as it ever was
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