Looking back on all the strange trends in the history of the automobile, the popularity of “mini-cars” (what we now call micro-cars) in Europe after WWII has to rank up there as one of the most capricious and fun. Now that spring has finally come and another fun, summer season of driving is well on its way, now seems the perfect time to bring you our picks for five of these tiny classics that always bring a smile to our faces.
Isetta may have been born in Italy, but it took the Germans at BMW to make it one the most coveted names in classic mini-cars. Soon after debuting their little egg-shaped auto in Turin in 1953, the Italian firm Iso SpA began licensing the design to car companies in Brazil and throughout Europe. Spain, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom all produced various versions of the Isetta. But none were known better for reliability and, surprisingly, speed quite like the 1956 Isetta 300 from BMW. The Isetta 300 had a 1-cylinder, 13-HP engine that could push the car to 50 MPH on the open road.
Heinkel Trojan 200
Mini-cars were also known as “bubble cars” back in the 1950s and 1960s, and none were more “bubbly” looking than Heinkel Trojan 200. Maybe it’s the puttering, teardrop shape or that rounded glass, but the British version of the Heinkel—originally a German company that produced the cars from 1956 to 1958—is one of the most cartoonish looking mini-cars of all time. Marketed as the “Better Isetta” from 1960 to 1964, Trojans featured a similar fabric sunroof that doubled as an escape hatch in the event of a crash and a frontend door for driver/passenger entry.
Advertised in the 1960s as capable of seating “one adult and a shopping bag,” the Peel P50 holds the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest production car ever made. The Peel Engineering Company on the Isle of Man manufactured the still street-legal P50 from 1962 to 1965. So small and lightweight, the P50 could supposedly get around 100 mpg. It also came without a reverse gear; instead, drivers trying to extricate themselves from a tight spot simply picked up the car by a sturdy, rear-mounted handle.
Fiat 500 Jolly Ghia
Today when you think of tiny cars, Fiat is one of the first that comes to mind. That connection started over 70 years ago when, in response to a strapped WWII economy, the Italian company debuted the first Fiat 500 in 1949. Higher overseas fuel prices caused by the Suez Crisis of 1956 continued to make the 500 a practical choice for European buyers, many of whom remained loyal to the brand/model even after most other mini-car makers were finding themselves out of business thanks to the British introduced the Austin Mini in 1959. The Fiat 500 had many versions until Italian production ceased in 1975, but the Jolly Ghia is arguably the most eye-catching and fun. “Made for use on large yachts of the wealthy,” the Jolly Ghia featured comfy wicker seats and jaunty canopy instead of a solid roof.
Despite a short production run and coming relatively late in to the micro-car scene (1970 to 1974), the British-made Bond Bug remains one of the most prized classic mini-cars of all time. For starters, there’s that crazy color (bright orange tangerine), unique wedge-shape and lift-up canopy. Bond Bugs were marketed to drivers looking for fun. And they were fast—capable of speeds over 70 MPH. And, of course, there’s that super cool Star Wars connection: designers for Luke Skywalker’s land-speeder actually built the futuristic craft on the chassis of a Bond Bug.
Reliant, Messerschmitt, Goggomobil, Nobel and Berkeley. So many mini-car makers, so little space. To tell us about your favorite, old mini-car, just go to the comment section below or head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page and post a picture. We look forward to hearing from you!