October 08, 2004

Good Things in Small Packages (as published in New Design magazine)

Writing about web page http://www.newdesignmagazine.co.uk/

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Zoë Brigley considers the resurgence of the microcar in relation to the new book, The Macro World of Micro Cars

The era of the microcar was fleeting and transitory. Sold as an economic alternative in the 1950s, microcars vanished when the emerging new economy of the 1960s was able to supply the needs of demand more efficiently. However, a confident resurgence in small cars particularly in Europe has resurrected the microcar as a ‘city car’. This is due in part to an EEC directive allowing most European member states to drive microcars in some restricted form without a licence. The UK has chosen not to implement the full content of this law, but it is possible to drive a microcar with a full motorcycle licence.

A powerful symbol of this resurgence is the Smart, which was launched in Germany in 1998 with much success. The Smart embraces many of the earliest microcar characteristics and the car’s marketing emphasises a sense of fun. “Welcome home, fun lovers”, reads its slogan. The car is two and a half metres long with a turning circle of less than nine metres. The three-cylinder engine of 698cc is combined with economical fuel consumption and safety conscious design. The precision design is an integral part of Smart’s branding and marketing as belonging to a design-conscious lifestyle. To personalise their cars, owners can purchase a wide range of accessories from fire extinguishers to sound systems.

In response to the rejuvenation of microcars, Kate Trant and Austin Williams have written The Macro World of Microcars. Trant is a research advisor for the Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment, while Williams is technical editor of The Architect’s Journal, but both have affection for microcars. “I was rumoured to have been conceived in the back of a Baby Austin”, jokes Williams. “I guess that my name was a foregone conclusion and I regularly thank god that we didn’t have a Cortina or a Minx or a Messerschmitt.”

Although the book is light-hearted, there is some serious analysis of the microcar. Trant and Williams avoid the focus of most critiques, which simply consider microcars from the perspective of consumption and specifically in relation to shortages. Rather than concentrating on trends reflected by microcars, Trant and Williams are concerned with what microcars represent and what they communicate about us.

Micro-History

Trant and Williams embark on this journey by studying the microcar’s rise and fall. The authors explain the growth of the microcar industry in the aftermath of World War Two, when economies and industries were in the process of reconstruction and manufacturers had to be aware of the associated restrictions as a result of rebuilding. Trant and Williams rightly highlight that manufacturers had to think big, but start small.

Economical issues were a high priority in post-war Germany. Trant and Williams use the Messerscmitt as a case study of a car that represented an emergent Germany. The company was previously synonymous with the aerospace industry, but it later adapted their experience of the aircraft to provide a cheap, small car with an excellent road handling. The car was based on a design for an invalid carriage by German engineer, Fritz Fend, but emerged as an internationally popular microcar. The first model, the KR175, was a three-wheeler steered by handlebars. The passenger sat behind the driver protected by a domed canopy. The Messerschmitt was marketed as “Fast, reliable, economical: the incomparable Messerschmitt”. It was certainly a curious design, but as Trant and Williams rightly note, the need for efficient transport in post-war Europe overcame drivers’ embarrassment.

The Heinkel 3-wheeler had its debut around the same time as the Messerschmitt KR200. The Heinkel 150 had three wheels and a 174cc engine. Models followed with increased engine size and three or four wheels. The Glas Goggomobil was produced in Germany during the 1950s and 60s, but rather than adopting a unique design, the styling was disguised with modelling designed to give a look similar to bigger models.

Both Heinkel and Glas exploited the UK market. The Glas Goggomobil T300 was exported to the UK as the Regent. Heinkel set up a production plants in Northern Ireland and later London. Larger cars in Britain were out of reach for masses. Some purchased microcars as a way of fulfilling a frustrated ambition – to drive, to have quick and efficient transport. The marketing of such cars focussed on independence and mobility. Glas boasted, “For those who wish to buy a small car with safety as well as economy, and a certain character, a Goggo would make a first-class buy.” Heinkel’s punchy jingle stated, “Travel in style for a penny a mile.”

The Rolling Egg

‘The rolling egg’ has earned substantial discussion in Trant’s and Williams’ study. The Italian Iso Isetta is the quintessential ‘bubble-car’. Engineered by Ermenegildo Preti and backed by Rezo Rivolta’s refrigerator company, the Isetta was first presented to the public at the Turin Motor Show in 1953. The model was four and a half feet wide, seven and a half feet long and had a single door at the front. The rear wheels were only 19 inches apart. The Isetta had a gas mileage of over 50 miles per gallon due to its two-cylinder two-stroke engine. Its top speed was 45mph and it could run to 30mph in 36 seconds.

In 1954, four or five Isettas were entered into the storied Mile Miglia race. Isetta finished first, second and third on the index of performance. Isetta was licensed to BMW the following year and also to Isetta Automobiles of Brazil. Under BMW’s influence, the power plant was redesigned and a one cylinder, four-stroke motorcycle engine was fitted. Much of the car was reengineered. Trant and Williams state that the changes in the car design are illustrated by the difficulties for Isetta collectors today in obtaining parts, since components of Isetta Moto Coupe and Iso Isetta can’t be interchanged.

BMW Isetta produced cars at Brighton and the BMW Isetta’s price in addition to its 250cc engine and capacity for 60mpg at 50mph increased the car’s popularity in the UK. The Suez Canal Crisis had dictated rationing and belts were being tightened. The Isetta was a good economical choice of transport.

One of the most interesting sections of Trant’s and Williams’ account of the microcar is devoted to its marketing and this is particularly interesting in the case of the Isetta. The marketing of the Isetta highlighted the positive characteristics associated with microcars such as motorcycle economy, comfort, safety and the lack of maintenance. However, product placement was also important. For example, the Isetta was photographed with Elvis to emphasise its fun factor. Also in 1958, Cary Grant featured in the BMW Isetta 300’s advertising. The star image of Cary Grant had associations of elegance, sophistication and suavity and these were all qualities that the microcar needed to symbolise if it was to survive.

This kind of marketing was more successful in Europe than the US. “It was a David and Goliath approach to marketing”, explains Trant, “since the microcar was being pitched alongside its larger competitors”. At the end of 1950s, styling became a major driver particularly in the US. The choice of car was no longer associated with practical factors but with how much status it could confer on the owner. The microcar could not deliver this status and eventually the Isetta was phased out.

Micro-Club

In spite of the microcar’s decline, Trant and Williams end the book on a positive note. A number of 21st century microcars have been launched on Europe including the Smart, the Microcar Virgo, the Ligier Ambra 505 and even a new model of the Reliant Robin. The designs focus on minimal environmental impact and Trant and Williams are right to note that ownership of a modern microcar represents a renunciation of the demand for mobility. Microcars are not so much a motorised liberation, but a guilty apology for the environmental damage inherent in an automobile culture. “The original microcars were small cars for people who were thinking big”, writes Williams. “Today the equivalent small car is justified less by aspirational mobility questions but by moral restraint.”

A collection of accounts by microcar owners is another optimistic and enjoyable section of The Macro World of Microcars. A positive collector culture is another symptom of the resurgence of microcars. Many collectors scour the country and beyond for specific models and this niche is also being filled by companies like the UK-based Tri-Tech, which replicates Isettas and Messaschmitts using modern motorcycle or scooter engines. Trant and Williams linger on the stories of microcar owners. “Anecdotes are a way of being close to the truth”, says Trant. “Hearing and telling stories surrounding a design object is valuable. The cars begin to speak for themselves and the support for microcars proves that they are not only an alternative. Instead they can become a greater part of car culture.”

Kate Trant and Austin Williams The Macro World of Micro Cars Black Dog Publishing £19.95 175 pages ~ ISBN: 1 904772 04 8


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