Micro cars were not confined to Europe in the 1950’s. Even in the USA, home of the land barge, there were US made micro cars One such was the King Midget, made by Midget Motors of Athens Ohio, between 1946 and 1970.

The original King Midget was a single seater kit set, designed to accommodate any single cylinder motor. However within a couple of years, Midget Motors were producing fully assembled cars.

In 1951 the Model 2 was introduced, a two seater convertible with 7.5 horsepower 400cc motor, and a top speed of about 45 mph (72 kph) It had a two speed automatic transmission, with reverse, that had been developed in-house by Midget Motors.

The Model 3 followed in 1957, with a 9.2 hp motor, and 4 wheel  hydraulic brakes.

In total  almost 5000 King Midgets were made

From a 1930 Chevrolet brochure showing the car on Oriental Parade, Wellington.

 

Looking through a 1935 Automobile Association Guide and Handbook provides some interesting details:

The main road north out of Wellington followed around the Paremata Inlet and over the Paekakariki hill road. There was a tearoom at the summit with access to an Emergency Telephone.

The road was probably gravel, in fact in 1935, less than 1% of roads were sealed, and that included urban streets.

In 1935 there were 50,000 miles of road in New Zealand – in 2015 there were 58,000 miles (94,000 km), which doesn’t seem a huge increase in 80 years. However in 2015 64% of roads were sealed.

By contrast, there were 128,000 cars in 1935 (1 car for every 9 people), compared to 3.9 million in 2015 (1 car for every 1.2 people!)

A car journey out of town back then probably would encounter few other vehicles, a good thing considering it was mostly on dusty gravel roads.

The open road speed limit in 1935 was 40 miles per hour ( 64 km/h) which was probably more than adequate given the state of roads. The town speed limit was 25 mph (40 km/h).

 

 

The 40 mph speed limit did not stop Chevrolet promoting their 80hp / 80 mph car. This ad was in the 1935 AA Handbook and Guide.

What were “knee action wheels” ?

A form of independent suspension used by General Motors at the time.

The Mochet K Type was one of the earliest post war micro cars, built in France from 1947 to 1949. The Mochet company began making childrens pedal cars and progressed to lightweight pedal powered cycle cars in the 1920s and 30s. A motor was available on some, but the pedal function was retained.

The K Type was the first Mochet vehicle without pedals. It was powered by a 100cc two stroke engine delivering 3.5 hp with top speed around 40k/h.

A brand new Mochet K Type cost 108,000 Francs (£100) or about $8,000 today. For the luxury of weather protection, a hood would cost an extra 6,000 francs (£5) – not sure if that included the fine wooden door seen in this picture,

Here’s a video of one of the few remaining K Types in action

The Biscuter was manufactured in Spain, between 1953 and 1960. Simple and cheap, it sold more than 10,000 units.

Although it had an aluminium body, rack & pinion steering and four wheels, it was very minimalist in design. There were no doors or windows or reverse gear, although these amenities became available from 1957.

It was powered by a single cylinder, 197cc two stroke 9hp engine, with drive to the right front wheel only. It was capable of about 70 km/hr

The BIscuter was a common sight on Spanish roads in the 50’s. It became part of local culture and was known as the Zapatilla, after a small shoe or clog worn by peasants. “Ugly as a Biscuter” was a popular joke of the time.

S E Opperman was an engineering company located at Boreham Wood, Herfordshire, England. They made a large range of engineering products including a popular small 3 wheeled tractor, the Opperman Motocart, produced from 1949 to 1961.

With the boom of micro cars in the 50’s, Opperman saw an opportunity to apply their expertise to this new market. In 1956 the Opperman Unicar appeared at the London Motor Show. With a 320cc 2 stroke engine and no bonnet or boot lid, it was the cheapest car at the show – although it did have four wheels. It was produced until 1959, a total of 200 sold.

No doubt buoyed by this success, in 1958 Opperman produced the Stirling, a larger more attractive vehicle, with a  500cc Steyr motor. This advertisement appeared to show considerable optimism for the new design, a “family speed saloon”

Unfortunately the advent of the Mini in 1959 killed the micro car market, and only two Opperman Stirlings were built.

 

The Velorex was a three wheel micro car, constructed on tubular steel space frame, The bodywork was made from vinyl, stretched over the frame and fixed with turn-button fasteners.  Power was from a two stroke Jawa motor cycle engine, with earlier cars having a 250cc single or twin cylinder engines, while later models boasted 350cc twins and were capable of about 85 km/h.

Built by the Velorex manufacturing company in Czechoslovakia, the design was apparently inspired by pre-war Morgan three wheelers. Post war car production in Czechoslovakia was very limited, so when the Velorex was released in 1950 at a quarter of the price of a standard car, it was much in demand. They remained popular for 20 years with production finally ceasing in 1971 when about 15,000 had been made. About half of that output was exported to other Eastern Bloc countries.

They appeared to drive reasonably well, particularly when compared to some other micro cars of the time. This no doubt explains the longevity of the model, along with the general shortage of motor vehicles behind the Iron Curtain – the people’s mobile tent!

 

Video

In February 1985 a Jaguar XJS rolled off the Browns Lane production line. The car was destined to come to New Zealand  11 years later, and ultimately  join the Classic Rides fleet.

During its first decade in the UK it was clearly a well used car, clocking up almost 10,000 miles a year. Not surprising if you consider the pleasure of driving it – in the opinion of Motor Magazine back then: “the finest means yet devised in which to travel by road.”  

That pleasure can still be experienced 35 years later, The Big Cat is available for hire from  Classic Rides.

 

Also February 1985 saw the passing of Sir William Lyons at age 83, founder of Jaguar Cars, and a giant of the British motor industry. With particular ability as a stylist, cars he personally supervised included the XK 120, E Type, 3.8 saloon and the original XJ6.

Toyota launched the MR2 in Europe at the beginning of the year. MotorSport magazine said: “Toyota has built an extraordinary motor car, the car MG or Triumph should have been allowed to build.”

1985 also saw the ultimate evolution of the Lamborghini Countach. The 5000 Quattrovalvole 5.2  litre V12 delivered  450 hp, 298 k/h, 0-100k/h in 4.8s. All for a mere $100,000 (US), about $250,000 today.

Other new cars launched in 1985 included: Holden Barina, Honda Legend, Subaru Vortex, Honda Integra, Fiat Chroma and Hyundai Excel.

At the other end of the motoring spectrum, the Sinclair C5 electric trike went on sale in the UK January 1985. It was sold by electrical appliance stores through a deal with Hoover who built it for Sinclair Vehicles. It initially cost £400 with 100,000 units a year planned. An idea before it’s time and not a great success, less than 9,000 were sold when production ceased 8 months later. Perhaps doing only 15 mph with a range of 24 miles was part of the problem.

In October 1985, the TWR Jaguar XJS team finished 1st and 3rd in the James Hardie 1000 on the Mount Panorama circuit

The 1885 Formula One championship was won by Alain Prost driving a McLaren. McLaren also won the constructors championship.

 

In 1954 BMW was struggling to survive and looking for a product to generate much needed cashflow. With the boom in micro cars underway, this looked like the answer.

A licence to build the Isetta was purchased from Iso in Italy, along with complete body tooling, enabling  a rapid start up. However BMW applied their own engineering expertise, replacing the noisy two stroke with a 250cc four stroke OHV BMW motorcycle motor, and an all-indirect four speed gearbox. This delivered 12 bhp and a top speed of 85 km/h (53 mph), although it took at least 40 seconds to get there from standstill.

It was launched in April 1955 and immediately proved very popular, with 13,000 units sold in the first year. In 1956 the engine size was increased to 300cc and 13 bhp.

Sales continued to be strong, making a considerable contribution to the company health. In Germany the BMW Isetta became affectionately known as “das rollende ei” the rolling egg. Production continued until 1962, by which time more than more than 160,000 had been sold. So it would be fair to say that without the intervention of a rolling egg, BMW might not exist today.

This is a publicity photo of the Friskysport, just prior to its debut at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1957. It was built by Henry Meadows Ltd in Wolverhampton, UK, with the body designed by Giovanni Micholotti – whose designs included various Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos, and the Triumph TR4, Spitfire, Stag and 2000. So the Friskysport was in classy company!
It was powered by a rear mounted Villiers 324cc two stoke engine, with top speed around 65 mph (105 k/h). Unlike many micro cars of the time, the Friskysport actually had 4 wheels, although the rear track was some 16 inches (40 cm) narrower than the front. By all accounts it was a reasonably competent vehicle, but the high price of 495 pounds was a factor in the low sales achieved. In 1957 the same amount would also buy a new Austin A35, or a good second hand MG or Morgan.
Production ceased in 1961; and according to the Frisky Register only about 12 are known to exist today.

The Edith

While it would appear that the micro car of the 50s was a European thing, there was an early attempt to build a micro car in Australia. The December 1956 issue of the Australian magazine Modern Motor contained a road test on a prototype three wheeler, which was about to be marketed as the Edith. It was built by Gray & Harper motor engineers of Melbourne, and was powered by a two stroke single cylinder 197cc Villiers motorcycle engine. This gave a cruising speed of about 30 mph (48 k/hr) with a top speed of about 40 mph (64 k/hr), although the road tester noted “40 mph feels a bit strenuous”

The Edith was constructed of tubular steel, with the skin welded directly to it and in every respect appeared very basic – although it did boast rack and pinion steering. One interesting “feature” was the starter – a folding kick start that protruded from the side of the vehicle just behind the driver. The thought of stalling in heavy traffic would seem a little perilous.

It is not clear how well the Edith sold. Apparently the first batch of eight vehicles were about to be released at a price of 450 pounds ($22,000 in todays money) That appears a lot when a reasonable second hand car could be bought for a similar sum. Overall only about 12 vehicles were made and there is no record of why it was called the Edith.

The remains of one can be seen in the Birdwood Mill National Motor Museum in Adelaide, as can be seen in this Youtube video:

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