Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 26th March 2018

In the 1950s, many people couldn’t afford a regular car, and used cars were in short supply.

The solution came with a surplus of tiny cars – usually with glass-fibre frames and two-cylinder engines. The revolutionary glass-fibre made small scale production viable, although some microcars featured steel bodyshells.

Origins

As early as the 1920s, European manufacturers began to offer a diverse array of tiny cars. The very first of these used engines and transmissions designed for motorcycles, as well as utilising motorcycle brakes and wheels.  Until the 1940s these early models were known as cyclecars – the lightweight vehicles were considered a halfway point between motorcycles and cars.

Post World War 2

After the Second World War, poor economic conditions in Europe led to the evolution and demand of the small car. A new set of manufacturers appeared – with the intention of producing inexpensive cars, for the sole purpose of being cheap to produce and operate. The cyclecar name disappeared, and the new wave of vehicles were named microcars by car enthusiasts, or bubble cars by the general public.

Microcar manufacturers continued to grow in number, reaching into the hundreds – and often only produced their microcars in small numbers. A small amount of European microcars were imported to the U.S. up until the 1960s.

Designed to be small and affordable – most microcars had 500cc or smaller engines and many were electric powered. Despite their size a surprising number could still accommodate two passengers.  

Some Notable Models

The BMW IsettaWas one of the largest selling microcars of all time, from 1955-1962. It featured a steering wheel that turned outwards for easy access, three wheels, and a single door. The Italian designed small car was built by numerous manufacturers, including BMW, Velam and ISO.

The Goggomobil Dart – A German built sports car of Australian design, the Goggomobil was produced from 1959-1961. It was just over 3 metres in length, had a 393 cc engine and weighed 840 pounds.  

The Peel P50 – Originally manufactured from 1962-1965, the mini-car was listed in the 2010 Guinness World Records as the smallest production car ever made. With a length a fraction over 1.3 metres and a width of only 39 inches. Just 27 models are known to still exist worldwide.    

Microcars In The Modern Day

The appearance of the Mini in 1959, severely impacted many microcar makers – and the last major UK manufacturer of the vehicles, Reliant, ceased production of these vehicles in 1998.

However, microcars have made a comeback in the 21st century – with the arrival of the Smart Car, Elio, Wildfire, and others. The innovative and adaptive design is still popular in Europe and particularly Asia, where the majority of city streets are no wider than a modern American car.

These days, microcar models are better known as bubble cars due to their bubble-shaped appearance. There are many notable examples, like the Bond Bug, which still has a dedicated following to this day.

By sv1ambo (1964 Peel P50) [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

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