10 Classic Bubble Cars & Microcars of the Past (and Present)
By Morris M, Urban Ghosts Media, 17 August 2015.
By Morris M, Urban Ghosts Media, 17 August 2015.
It’s confession time: here at Urban Ghosts, we love bubble cars. It’s hard to explain why. It might be the wonderfully retro futuristic designs, the strangeness of sitting in something so bizarrely compact, or just the unshakeable feeling that you’re driving something out a sci-fi film. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying this short-lived craze left a delightfully strange mark not only on our subconscious, but on the entire automotive world. To celebrate, here are 10 of our favourite bubble cars and microcars of decades gone by.
1. Messerschmitt KR175
With a design that looked like the cockpit of a vintage fighter plane, and a turning circle of what felt like slightly over half a mile, the Messerschmitt KR175 was an instant classic. First released in 1952, it epitomized the very best and very worst of the micro-car revolution.
On the positive side, it was visually stunning. Produced at a time when Messerschmitt were no longer making aircraft, it took all the style of 1950s airplane and condensed it down to a human level. On the negative side, it was almost-laughably unsafe and surprisingly basic. The windscreen wipers were operated manually, and the only pedal was for breaks. There was no reverse gear. Nonetheless it was a delight to glimpse occasionally, trundling along the roads or (more realistically) idling at a car fair.
With only 15,000 ever built, the Messerschmitt KR175 is now something of a collectors’ item. And with good reason. It opened the door to a whole new range of microcars, some of them magnificently weird. Speaking of which…
2. Peel P50
Image: Philip Kromer
If we hadn’t built the Peel P50, someone would have had to make it up. The tiniest produced automobile in the entire world (as verified by Guinness), it was smaller than the average desk chair and so light a reasonably-fit adult human could comfortably pick the whole thing up.
Manufactured between 1962 and 1965 on the Isle of Man, the Peel P50 was considered ridiculous from the moment it first appeared. Early publicity stunts had one being driven around the observation balcony of Blackpool Tower. With its single headlamp, single door, and one windscreen wiper, it was almost absurdly impractical. Although today we’re fine with tiny smart cars that can park easily in central London, in the 1960s the P50 was a hard sell. Despite much publicity, only 50 were ever produced.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. Today, the P50 is fondly remembered as a bizarre retro classic; a source of amusement and nostalgia. Were they clogging up the roads with their shaky frames and inability to reverse, it’d be a very different story.
3. Messerschmitt KR200
The popular younger brother to Messerschmitt’s older KR175, the KR200 was an unexpected hit. Designed, as the KR175 was, by aeronautical engineer Fritz Fend, it was compact, powerful, and visually delightful.
The new model also overcame many of the problems its predecessor had. For the first time in a Messerschmitt microcar, drivers could actually go in reverse. Some versions even came with a heater, sun visor, and shock absorbers. At top speed, it could reach a full 56mph. Compared to the KR175, it was positively decadent.
These upgrades quickly translated in greater sales. Whereas the KR175 only had 15,000 models built in total, the KR200 nearly beat that in its first year. From 1955-1964, the German public seemingly couldn’t get enough of it. Although maintained models are a rarity today, for a brief period they ruled the roads of post-war Germany.
4. Myers Motors NmG (AKA Corbin Sparrow)
Of course, not every bubble or microcar existed in the bygone, halcyon days of “long ago.” In the late 1990s, a brand new kind began to emerge. Known as smart cars, they were eco-friendly, functional, and designed for city living. At the forefront was the popular Smart, alongside the electric, three-wheeled Corbin Sparrow.
First manufactured by Corbin Motors in 1999, the Sparrow was sleek, small and shiny; an otherworldly intruder on the roads of America. Looking almost like something out of a Sci-Fi film, it was the antithesis of what people thought a car should be…which was great if you were a confident city-driver, but less so if you were the unfortunate delivery guy stuck driving one while passing teenagers jeered.
Image: Jason Sullivan
When bankrupt Corbin was bought out by Myers Motors in 2003, the Sparrow was renamed as the more-futuristic NmG. It remains in production to this day.
5. Heinkel Kabine
Also known as the Trojan 200, the Heinkel Kabine was one of the most-popular family microcars ever put on the market. Despite being smaller than your average kitchen table, it could fit up to four people inside its cramped interior, a fact played up to in some old-school adverts of the period.
From a design point of view, one of the best (and simultaneously worst) things about the Heinkel Kabine was the door. Unlike other microcars that included normal doors or pop-off roofs, the Kabine had only one exit: through the front. Exiting meant unhooking the whole front bit of your car, then scrambling over pedals and the steering column in a frantic bid to get out. Quite what you did in the event of a headlong crash is a question the manufacturers never really got around to answering (died, probably).
One other notable feature of the Kabine was its popularity abroad, especially in Argentina. For five whole years, it was manufactured at the bottom of South America; an incongruous sight bouncing along Buenos Aires’ smog-choked roads.
6. Isetta ‘Bubble Car’
One of the earliest vehicles to get the nickname ‘bubble car,’ the tiny Isetta looked like it might burst at any moment. A miniature lump of brightly-coloured metal, it took the Italian reputation for cool and so thoroughly shredded it, it managed to come full-circle and become almost chic again.
The most-familiar version is probably the BMW Isetta. The one that pootled round the streets of Germany and the UK, it enjoyed a kind of heyday in the late 50s and early 60s. With its front-opening door (like the Kabine above), it could be connected to a tent, thus becoming a mainstay of camping holidays. In Germany, there was even a police version produced, which must have looked both adorable and spectacularly unthreatening.
For a brief while, the Isetta was astonishingly popular. In 1955, over 160,000 units were sold worldwide, more than many on this list. Surviving models still do the rounds at car shows.
7. Peel Trident
Image: David Hunter
Widely considered one of the worst cars ever created, the Peel Trident is absurd, pointless…and utterly marvellous. A tiny little bubble car with a pop-up top, painted bright glossy red and looking not unlike a flying saucer, it’s both wonderfully impractical and simply wonderful.
First produced on the Isle of Man in 1965, the Trident could uncomfortably seat two people inside its cosy bubble top. Once inside, you’d be transformed into an extra from the Jetsons. Pootling along with the wheels barely visible, it frequently looked as if drivers might reach the end of the road and just keep going, taking off into the sky.
As with many on this list, getting into and out of the Peel Trident was ridiculously difficult. Rather than having a door (even at the front), the whole top of the car simply lifted up on a hinge, just as a child’s toy might. In fact, the vibe was distinctly playground, and a million miles from the Isetta’s game attempts at cool. Perhaps not surprisingly, only 45 Tridents were ever produced.
8. Citroën Prototype C
Looking like something Roger Moore-era James Bond might leap into during a ridiculous chase scene, the Prototype C was Citroën’s attempt to produce a market-leading bubble car. Sleek, ultra-light and teardrop shaped, it ultimately didn’t take off, perhaps in part due to its weirdly intimidating appearance.
While most of the microcars on this list attempted to look either cool, funky or functional, the Prototype C range went for intimidating. With its angular front and high windows, it looked like a vast radiation-mutated bug trundling implacably across the nuclear-scarred wasteland after you. Although it never made it to market, it isn’t difficult to imagine that customers would have reacted with a mixture of suspicion and awe.
Today, only one model of the prototype series survives: a C-10 that’s still owned by Citroën.
Less compact than many of the microcars that came after it, the Fuldamobil was a German innovation that briefly caught on in a few European countries.
Seen today, one of the most-notable things about it is how ordinary it looks. While everything we associate with microcars is there (the teeny size, the three wheels), the front and doors have been deliberately designed to look like a regular American car that’s been hit by a shrinking ray.
Designed by a journalist in 1949, it was a cheap car for a continent still shattered by war. With the vast economic booms of the fifties not yet underway, many in continental Europe and in Britain needed affordable ways of getting around. Cars like the Fuldamobil were at the very forefront of this movement. But, more-importantly from the perspective of this article, they helped pave the way for all the awesome bubble cars still to come.
10. FMR Tg500
Image: Lothar Spurzem
Also known as the “Tiger,” the FMR Tg500 was delightfully eccentric by anyone’s standards. A proper four-wheeler (something of an oddity in this article), its boxy base, narrowing to an awkward curved top, and goggling eye-like headlights made it seem less like a car and more like an unusual beast.
It’s bizarre appearance was only complemented by its tandem seating arrangement. Rather than side by side, the driver and passenger would sit one behind the other, fighter jet-style. Combined with the long ‘tail’ at the back, and the overall effect was of something that might overbalance at any moment.
Image: Lothar Spurzem; tiny sports cars: racing the FMR Tg500 ‘Tiger’
Sadly, such an oddity couldn’t last long. Between 1958, when our old friend Fritz Fend (of Messerschmitt KR-fame) designed it, and 1961, when production finished, only 320 examples were ever made.
Top image: A restored Messerschmitt KR175 bubble car. Credit: Mytho88/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]