Microcar MANIA! is now open at Lane Motor Museum with nearly 60 unusual microcars on display!
Microcars evolved out of the dire economic conditions that existed in Europe and Japan after World War II. With fuel, steel, and rubber being scarce and expensive, there was a huge opportunity for manufacturers that could produce a cheap, economical vehicle.
There are no concrete definitions of a microcar; for the purposes of this exhibit, we consider any small car with a 500cc or smaller engine to be a microcar. As a basis for comparison, most 22” push lawnmowers have a 200cc engine. A diverse array of microcars appeared because there was no consensus on how to build the cars. Designers and engineers had free reign to create cars that were not only cheap to produce and profitable, but were also inexpensive to purchase and operate.
With this new atmosphere of innovation, many ideas were tried, with varying degrees of success. The “Less is More” philosophy, as seen in Charles Mochet’s minimalist designs, among others, gave us simple yet functional cars. Microcars not only consume less fuel, they require less fuel for their construction and daily maintenance. The microcar also takes up a lot less room on the road and in parking spaces.
The term microcar has always been a bit nebulous, with different governments (then) and clubs (now) using different definitions of microcars. Lane Motor Museum’s belief is that microcars were manufactured for the sole purpose of being cheap to produce and cheap to operate and are almost exclusively one or two passenger urban cars. They were borne of the need to mobilize the population during periods of economic distress, oftentimes encouraged by protectionist governmental regulations related to the import of raw materials and the export of manufactured products. Most microcars were marketed as a step up from a motor scooter; therefore, microcars had to be priced only slightly above the price of a scooter. This led to many compromises that limited their appeal to the masses.
Hundreds of microcar manufacturers have come and gone over the years. Microcars were not only small, they often were produced in small numbers. For instance, only about 50 Peel P50s are known to have been produced – talk about “limited production”! At the other end of the spectrum, BMW produced over 160,000 Isettas before the microcar wave of the 1950s died out, making it by far the most popular microcar – so far.
Since WWII, the popularity of microcars has ebbed and flowed. Periodic fuel shortages, rationing and high prices are nothing new. We have seen this in the 1950s and 1970s, but the crisis has always passed and the interest in microcars has faded each time. Congestion changes and urban pollution in cities like London and Paris, paired with new advances in electric vehicles, may see a new wave of urban microcars emerge.
France has had a provision for “voitures sans permis”, or cars not needing licenses, since the 1920s and the heyday of the cycle car. Under this government exemption, pre-1980 sans permis cars could have engines with no more than 50cc displacement, and only single or two-passenger vehicles were allowed. Unusually, until 1979, sans permis cars had to have the ability to be moved forward by means of mechanical pedal in order to meet the requirements. In 1980, however, the regulations were changed; engine size limits increased, and creature comforts were added. The voitures sans permis class still exists to this day. Other European countries approached microcar regulation in different ways. Depending on country, the microcar could be regulated or taxed by its length or width, its engine displacement, or even if it had three or four wheels.
In Japan, in response to similar economic conditions after the war, the government established the kei jidōsha (or simply “kei”) class of small, inexpensive cars. Like the sans permis cars, kei cars were taxed and insured at a lower rate, and offered better fuel economy. Originally limited to only 150cc, the restriction gradually increased to 360cc in 1956, to 550cc in 1976, and finally to 660cc in 1990, where it remains today. Kei cars are also limited to their physical size due to parking concerns in larger cities like Tokyo, and they remain an affordable and quirky microcar; the enduring, “unofficial” automobile of Japan.