There is something wonderful about finding the most efficient path to an objective, finding the simplest solution to a problem. I have a substantial fascination with things being done in small ways; tiny houses are amazing to me, taking a space large enough for a small studio and turning it into a multi-use living area is fantastic, but even more outstanding are the houses so small they wouldn’t even be closets in a large country home. Multi-use tools that cram two or three uses into a single item are great examples of efficient design; like a coffee cup with a French press built right in, or surge protectors with built in USB ports, or a ring that doubles as a bottle opener. I’d say having lived off and on in a big city for the past twenty years has forced me to look at getting by with the smallest, most minimal object for every task, but that wouldn’t be true; I’ve found these small things fascinating since I was a kid. Living in the city certainly made me look at it from a more utilitarian perspective, instead of just an entertaining one.
Here in the city, it bugs me whenever I see a huge SUV, trundling through the city streets, barely able to stay inside its lane. I like SUV’s, they have their place, but downtown during rush hour isn’t one of them. And parking one in the city? We could use that as an interrogation technique… keep parking until you tell us all your secrets!
Small cars have been making a comeback here in the states. There have always been small cars here, little crappy econoboxes designed solely to get someone from point A to point B in the cheapest way possible. Bad engines, mediocre fuel economy, terrible ride, worse handling, and zero noise insulation were their trademark attributes. A few of them had the potential to be better, like the old Honda CR-X. It was sporty, had decent enough handling, but was still cheaply made and targeted towards 16-25 year olds. There really hadn’t been a solid, well-made small car for people who wanted better but smaller in decades.
It probably germinated with the introduction of the New Beetle back in 1997, though even that was more of a nostalgia vehicle than an intentional small car movement. The two cars that really started the movement are the Smart ForTwo, introduced in 1998. And, of course, the new Mini Cooper, introduced in 2001. Again a nostalgia vehicle, with the Cooper they focused on the mini of the Mini, highlighting the size, or lack of size. However, outside dimensions were deceiving, as inside there was more than enough space to comfortably fit a driver and three passengers. The Smart focused on size to an even greater degree, but to the detriment of some trim quality. Where the Cooper had a solid, sporty engine, the Smart… didn’t. But they each had their place, and with those cars the new generation of small, well-made city cars was born.
Looking back though, small cars aren’t a new idea. Not at all. Over sixty years ago in the 1950’s, there was an explosion of tiny cars that would make today’s cars look morbidly obese by comparison. Size, or lack of size, was the single, defining characteristic of these cars. Almost unbelievably small, with engines significantly weaker than a modern riding lawn mower and zero creature comforts, these vehicles served a single purpose… get post World War II Europeans back on the roads.
One of the first of these was the Messerschmitt KR175. Messerschmitt, once the scourge of the skies over Europe, was banned from producing airplanes after the war, so they turned their attention to the general public and made the KR175. Practically an airplane in design, the passenger sat behind the driver, and the two occupants closed the canopy over them in much the same way a Me109’s canopy closed. That bubble-shaped canopy gave rise to the term “bubble car”, which stuck to all the tiny microcars of the post-war era. Fifteen thousand KR175’s were built, and then another forty thousand of its successor the KR200, which was of very similar design.
The KR175 had a single cylinder, 9 hp engine mated to a 4-speed transmission that powered the single rear wheel. Control of the vehicle was through glorified bicycle handlebars that you pushed right or left to steer, instead of actually turning the handlebars. The KR175 only weighed 490 pounds, and had brakes on all three wheels, which the driver used by stamping on the only pedal; the throttle was a twisty motorcycle-style grip on the handlebar.
Tell me this thing doesn’t look like a fighter plane.
In all, this tiny car was just over nine feet long, but only four feet wide. Which is very similar to the modern day Smart ForTwo, just a foot longer and a foot narrower. Its height though was a solid two feet shorter, making the Smart look like an NBA star by comparison.
But, still relatively large. What then am I going on (and on) about? What car puts all other cars to shame? What car can you park literally inside an office cubicle?
A decade after the KR175, some plucky, and likely drunk, engineers on the Isle of Man in the British Isles designed a microcar to end all microcars. The Peel P50.
Tada! I’m tiny!
A staggering four feet four inches long, and just over 3 feet wide, with a 4 hp engine mated to a 3-speed transmission, the P50 could do a blistering 37 mph. If you dared. That same engine also managed around 80 miles to the gallon. It was, like the KR175, a three-wheeled vehicle, but it had no reverse gear. That was no problem however, as the vehicle only weighed 125 lbs. and could easily be picked up by the built-in handle and repositioned as needed.
Sadly, this triumph of ingenuity was originally only produced for a few short years and in very small numbers. Of the fifty that were built in the ‘60’s, only 27 remain. But don’t despair, exact replicas are still being built today in England, and are street legal here in the USA. You only need to shell out a measly $16,000 to own one.
Well worth it.