CONCORD, N.C. (March 17, 2001) –Proof that it really is a small world after all will be colorfully illustrated through a special international display of “microcars” during the Food Lion AutoFair, to be held April 5-8 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
The microcar phenomenon is largely unknown to Americans, who escaped the decades of economic depression and crushing fuel shortages that slammed most European and Asian countries immediately following World War II. Whereas our Big Three returned to full-scale production of full-size cars in 1945 with plenty of cheap fossil fuels to keep everything going, foreign producers such as Fiat in Italy, Germany’s BMW and Austin of Great Britain had to scrape by with diminished resources and customers with little or nothing to spend.
Microcars were highly efficient, with some models going as far as 70 miles on a gallon of gasoline. Tiny engines, often of single-cylinder construction displacing 100 to 250 cubic centimeters and originally intended for scooters and small motorcycles, limited top speed to the 30-to-40-mph range. Most microcars were driven over landscapes with rough or non-existent roadways, so horsepower was not a top priority for the engineers. As their over-stressed powerplants and crude suspensions wore out, microcars were generally abandoned behind farmhouses and in junkyards, being replaced with larger, more conventional autos.
Contrary to what common sense would suggest, Bruce Weiner, the vice president of marketing for the corporation that produces Dubble Bubble gum, has traveled to dozens of countries in order to assemble the world’s largest collection of these orphans of automotive history. He currently has more than 150 cars scattered between a restoration facility in Canada and a private museum on his property in Morgan County, Ga.
Weiner (pronounced “wi-ner”) has owned numerous “normal” cars — if you can call his various Ferraris, an Aston-Martin DB-7 and Porsche 911 Turbo normal — but a classified ad he saw in 1993 for a German-made Messerschmitt dampened his enthusiasm for everyday exotic cars.
“My first microcar was that Messerschmitt KR200,” Weiner remembers. “It had a clear canopy that makes people think of the glass coffin in the movie ‘Snow White.’ I bought it from the owner in Oklahoma for $8,000 and had Peter Svilans restore it. Peter has since become the curator of my collection.” By 1997, the bubble gum maker was warehousing a group of 44 microcars — 25 of which had been meticulously returned to factory condition or better — and decided that his little car phase had run its course. Family, work and travel considerations were making the hobby more effort than he could justify, so Weiner sent all but one to a Christie’s auction in London.
What he didn’t realize was how enthusiasm for microcar collecting had grown in the four years since he had bought his first model.
“World records were set at that auction for several of my cars,” Weiner said. “A ’61 Messerschmitt brought $45,000 — a price no one had ever even imagined before. My interest in these cars had nothing to do with making money; I would have collected musclecars or Italian sports cars if it were just about the money. Instead, I would buy what looked like a piece of junk for $2,000 to $5,000, have it shipped here from its original country and sometimes spend as much as $20,000 to $40,000 to restore it.”
Realizing that so many others shared his eccentric taste for the little autos sent Weiner into a buying frenzy that created the largest private collection of its kind in the world — 25 examples of which will be displayed during the Food Lion AutoFair. His oddball group of cars represents more than a dozen countries, with plans to add more as travel permits.
Just like a prolific father, Weiner is reluctant to claim a favorite, but can quickly point to 10 or 20 in his 15,000-square-foot, humidity-controlled, temperature-regulated Georgia warehouse that he would not want to part with. “I’ve got a soft spot for the Messerschmitts,” he said, nodding toward a cluster of six of the German micros. “I was extremely happy to find one of the rare Tiger models; those are four-wheelers as opposed to the three-wheeled KR series with smaller motors.”
The airplane-shaped Messerschmitts were produced from 1953-’64 by the same firm that turned out German fighter planes during WWII. Peacetime agreements restricted the company from building machines of war until 1956, so considerable resources were available for the “Kabinenroller’s” manufacture. The KR and later Tiger models sported the “Snow White” canopies, a very practical and striking design element that places the Messerschmitt in the “bubble car” category — a subset of the microcar world.
Unusual “fuselage” styling, the clear canopy and three-wheel stance have supported a legend that the cars were built from surplus aircraft parts — a bit of misinformation that’s still easy to believe.
BMW’s funky Isetta is another German bubble car with a revered place in the hearts of enthusiasts. Weiner’s collection includes a unique example of the rotund Isetta used by a police department in Germany, complete with flashing blue light and radio-telephone. To Americans, the Isetta is known popularly as “the Urkel car,” after its occasional appearance on the television program “Family Matters.” Motorcycle manufacturer BMW produced the three- and four-wheeled cars, with their unusual single-door entry, from 1955-’62.
Certain countries made fuel conservation mandatory following the war, with restrictions and heavy taxes applied to engine sizes and number of wheels. England, for example, was home to many three-wheeled microcars thanks to a tax advantage enjoyed by motorcycles. Weiner’s collection includes an English-built Frisky coupe, several Bond models, a Peel Trident, a Scootacar and a sporty Berkeley — all sitting on just three tires each.
As expected, the French contributed some unusual and quirky footnotes to microcar history — the most futuristic in terms of styling and design being the roundish Avolette. Built at a Paris airport by the French licensee for Cessna, the Avolette was available with either three or four wheels and a choice of engines that included a 200cc Sachs single or a 250cc Maico for extra pep. Although it had no roll-up windows or folding top, an Avolette made the rounds of the auto shows in the mid-’50s wearing a helmet-like removable hardtop. Other French offerings also represented in Weiner’s collection include the Rovin, a hugely successful car line that ran from 1946-’58; the Velocar, a lightweight model that was pedal-powered from inception in 1924 until a small engine was added in the ’40s; the Vespa, which was produced in France by Italian scooter maker Piaggio; and the Willam, a light-duty utility vehicle manufactured by the Lambretta scooter distributor.
Even the United States, a nation comparatively rich and full of resources, produced the occasionally successful run of microcars. The King Midget, built from 1947-’70 and advertised as the “World’s Number One Small Car,” evolved from its roots as a 5.0-horsepower midget race car replica to something that looked like a cross between a jeep and a golf cart. The Eshelman Child’s Sports Car, Adult’s Sports Car and Sportabout models were built along the line of a lawn tractor — no doubt due to the fact that Cheston L. Eshelman, of Baltimore, Md., made his fortune making lawn and garden machines. Ads claimed the Eshelman’s 6.0-horsepower Briggs and Stratton single-cylinder engine could travel 70 miles on a gallon of gas and reach 30 miles an hour.
Hindsight tells us that the clear winners of the postwar microcar race were the Japanese. Long before they were selling $50,000 sport utility vehicles and $40,000 luxury cars to doctors and lawyers in the United States, automakers Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Honda and Toyota struggled to provide basic transportation for financially strapped Japanese citizens. At a time when the term “Made in Japan” was applied by Americans only to cheaply made children’s toys, companies were provided financial aid in exchange for building high-efficiency cars. Engines displacing less than 360 cubic centimeters, a size range known as the “midget” class, benefited under the national tax code and owners of such cars were exempt from certain local regulations.
Weiner owns one of the finer midget-class Japanese cars, a 1960 R-360, the first Mazda production automobile. With a 356cc V-twin sitting in the rear, the R-360 barely squeaked in under the class engine size requirement and produced a healthy 16 horsepower. The factory claimed an incredible 94 miles per gallon, with a top speed of 65 mph. An independent suspension system and optional automatic transmission made the first Mazda a hit, with more than 23,000 units going to new homes in the first year.
History and technical specifications aside, why would anyone pay good money to own the world’s largest collection of cars built to be sold as cheaply as possible? “People are always asking me why I’m attracted to microcars and bubble cars,” Weiner said. “Usually I’m asked this by someone who is mesmerized by one of the cars in the collection, so I think the answer is obvious — everybody loves these little cars; I’m just smart enough to own and enjoy them.
“This trip to the Food Lion AutoFair with 25 cars will be my first chance to display them to the public in any number.”
Additional AutoFair displays include a look at the history of Dodge and a memorial tribute to seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the website at www.gospeedway.com.