I was walking through a small lane near Andheri, Mumbai inhabited by its denizens in typical Mumbai fashion. A small child was using his imagination and building something which resembled a motor car. He was letting his imagination loose and using almost everything the adults of the house had discarded. Paper, old card-board boxes, oil can’s all made up for this “little Henry Ford’s” imagination. I must confess, I was inspired to write this article by looking at the child.
Microcars is my interest area and I collect die-cast models of this theme. My interest in this subject made me study the origin & subsequent growth of this genre of motor vehicles.
Like most major inventions in the world, the origin & growth of microcars can also be attributed to times of conflict. The world war led to situations that made the citizens of these conflict driven countries think like the little child in Andheri.
In this article, I look at the three main reasons for the growth of microcars:
1. Economic reasons caused by availability of excess capacity
2. Shortages - both in materials & fuel
3. Geo-political reasons caused by geographic divides and political tensions
4. Policy regulations
I shall use the examples of a few popular microcars to elaborate the points, that I have stated above.
The end of the World-War II in 1945 led to a fall in demand for planes and also restrictions imposed on Germany for manufacturing war planes led them to think of ways of using their excess capacity.
Fritz Fend was an aeronautical engineer who had built a machine for transporting wounded soldiers from the war. Messerschmitt, a famous manufacturer of war planes during the war was fighting for survival after the war and barely surviving by manufacturing unrelated items like sewing machines, merely to utilise capacity and survive. They tied up with Fritz Fend leading to manufacture of the famous Messerschmitt range of microcars.
Heinkel another German aircraft manufacturer also facing similar situation tied up with another aircraft designer to come up with the Heinkel Kabine microcar. If you see both these cars the influence of aircraft design is unmistakable.
Italian Engineer Renzo Rivolta saw the potential of the growth in mobility modes after the world war and along with design engineer Pierluigi Raggi, created a microcar called Isetta. This car despite its advanced design did not do well in Italy and the company was fighting for survival. Meanwhile in Germany, BMW was fighting its own survival battle and facing the prospects of bankruptcy. BMW licenced the Isetta and thus was born the BMW-Isetta. It sold almost 100000 cars and saved BMW. The rest as they say is history….
Shortages in material & fuel
The German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany was established in 1949 from the parts of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union. The capital of East Germany was East Berlin and was separated from the more prosperous West by the Berlin Wall. The prosperous west had the Volkswagen Beetle as its people car but steel was a scarce commodity in the east with the commodity being rationed. Driven by a necessity to be mobile and to compete with the west, East Germany came up with its own 'people car' - Trabant P50. The “P” in the name stands for Plastic.
The body of the Trabant used Duroplast, a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by recycled wool & cotton. It’s a surprise that the Trabant got a Thumbs up in all the crash tests!!
The German forces had placed fuel restrictions on the various territories it had occupied during the war. In order to side-step these restrictions a microcar was manufactured by Peugeot called Peugeot VLV in 1942.
VLV stands for Voiture Légère de Ville (Light City Car). It was powered by a 12V battery and gave a mileage of 80 km and a top speed of 36km/h.
After the Soviet Union started exerting her influence in the Eastern part of Europe in 1940’s, several countries joined hands to set up the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) to co-ordinate economic relations within the Soviet bloc.
In line with Socialist planning, each country was allowed to manufacture certain things. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania for example were allowed to manufacture cars, but not Hungary. To have a national car was a matter of pride just like having a national airline. The Hungarians found a way to beat this system. They produced an enclosed geared vehicle that could transport people safely, but did not qualify to be a car as it was too small i.e. a microcar. Designers like Erno Rubik (Father of the inventor of the popular Rubik cube) were commissioned and the result was classic microcars like Alba Regia & the Balaton.
Kei car (meaning Light automobile) is the Japanese legal category for the smallest & most limited power passenger cars. These are cars that had engine volume below 660 cc and a length below 11ft 2in. They enjoyed tax & insurance benefits and in most rural areas exempted from certifying that adequate parking space was available. These tax breaks were created in post war Japan to stimulate motorization and also to develop the auto industry in Japan.
Many of these Kei cars were very successful and hence exported, including our very own Maruti 800 .