In a world where bigger is often viewed as better, we decided to take an alternative approach in admiring the tiny classic cars of yesterday year. A lot of the cars on our list were overlooked in their day, with the exception of the Smart Car and the Fiat 500. But, they are now valuable nuggets of car history and amazing additions to classic collections. Do you have a favourite tiny car that springs to mind? One which you may have admired for its novelty or seen more recently at a classic car show? We start our round up with the BMW Isetta, enjoy!
One of the officially classified Microcars on this list, built under license in a number of different European countries. Because of its egg-shape and rounded windows it became known as a Bubble Car, which caught on with other, similar vehicles. In 1955, the Isetta became the world’s first mass production car to achieve a fuel consumption of 94mpg / 3L/100km. Initially manufactured by Italian Firm Iso SpA, the name Isetta is a modified form of Iso, meaning Little Iso.
Featured heavily in popular culture, such as in Funny Face where Fred Astaire drives one, the TV show storage wars one is found in a unit, Depeche Mode features one in their music video Never Let Me Down Again and one is restored in one of the 9th series episodes of Wheelers Dealers by Edd China & Mike Brewer.
This specific Invacar is situated at the Manchester museum of Transport. The Invacar was a specialised vehicle created mainly for disabled drivers in 1948, by Bert Greeves, who adapted a motorbike with the aid of his paralysed cousin Derry Preston-Cobb. With the increase of injured servicemen returning from WWII, they saw it as an opportunity to help and to improve business, so approached the UK Government for help leading to the creation of Invacar Ltd. The early models were powered by a 147cc Villiers engine, but due to production on that engine ceasing in the early 1970s, it was replaced by a much more powerful 4-stroke 500 Steyr-Puch engine, giving the Invacar an 82mph top speed. The ice-blue colouring was named Ministry Blue, inspired by the Ministry of Health. More than 50 variants were produced, such as some using an extended wheelbase or Austin-Mini wheels.
In March 2003 all Invacars owned by the Government were recalled and scrapped due to safety concerns, due to it not meeting modern day regulations. Only a few are known to remain today by museums and private collectors. Surprisingly, Invacars can still be used on UK roads, due to the scrappage scheme only applying to the Invacars owned by the government.
Technical issues aside, it was based on the successful design of the C type and with careful maintenance could stand the test of time, which is why a lot of the time you can spot them at retro car meets to this day.
1960 Fiat 600
The fiat 600 is a rear-engine, water cooled city car marketed by fiat from 1955 – 1969, and is the only 4-door small vehicle featured on this list. Measuring only 10ft 7in long, this short car was designed to carry passengers around the tight streets of Italy. Mirroring the layout of a Volkswagen Beetle, and aiming at being economical but capable, its design allowed it to carry 4 people and luggage, and had a cruising speed 68mph. A year after its debut, a soft top was introduced, as well as a 6-seater variant subtitled the Multipla. As of Mid-2017, there are 78 registered for road use, and 44 as SORN in the uk.
1959 Vespa 400
The Vespa 400 is another Microcar, and three different versions were sold – the Luxe, Tourisme and GT. Produced by ACMA in Fourchambault in France from 1957 – 1961, it made its high profile first appearance at a press presentation in Monaco, inviting 3 celebrity racing drivers to attend the launch to drive up attendance. The 400 is a two-seater vehicle, with room behind the seats to accommodate shopping or possibly two small children. The cabriolet fabric roof could be rolled back from the windscreen header to the rear engine cover leaving metal sides above the door. 12,130 cars were produced during the high-profile launch in 1958, and fell to 8,717 in 1959 despite the 2-seater coupe model launching the same year. Although the Vespa cultivated a cute, soft image, commentators spoke of its awkward floor-mounted gear change and poor sound proofing as betraying this image. Due to its motorbike roots in Vespa, it ran on a two-stroke engine that required oil to be added every refuel, and ran a top speed of 52 mph.
1933 MG J2
This road-going two-seater, not quite qualifying as a microcar due to its long bonnet, was the most common car in the J-Type range of MG cars. The J2 was produced from 1932-1933, and earlier types had cycle wings, which were replaced by 1933. Unfortunately, although this small car is good-looking, it had a few technical failings, one of which being its two-bearing crank shaft meaning it would break if over revved. Its camshaft is also driven by a vertical shaft through the bevel gears, meaning any oil leak from the cambox would go into the brush gear, presenting a fire hazard.
Technical issues aside, it was based on the successful design of the C type & with careful maintenance could stand the test of time, which is why a lot of the time you can spot them at retro car meets to this day.
The Mini Moke made its 1964 debut with a Mini-based look, designed for the British Motor Corporation (BMC). Sitting at 120in in length and 51in in width, it’s not quite a microcar, but its small stature and smaller fanbase has earned it a place on this list. Its initial conception was a prototype for a light military vehicle inspired by America’s love of the Jeep, but its small wheels and low floor made it’s dreams of an off-road career end before it started. Instead making its name in cult circles as a Beach Buggy, mainly in the Seychelles, Australia, the US and certain Caribbean islands. 14,518 were built at Longbridge, Birmingham between 1964 – 1968, 26,000 in Australia between ‘69 and ’81, and then 10,000 in Portugal between ’80 and ’93, which is where production of the Moke ended. Interestingly, the Moke got its name from an old-fashioned term meaning Donkey, which is one of its many names in its circles. In 2012, Moke International teamed up with designer Michael Young to design a ‘MOKE’ rerelease, debuting in Thailand, Australia, the Caribbean, the Seychelles and Mauritius in 2016.
The Corbin Sparrow, now known as the Myers Motors NmG from 2014, is a single passenger, three wheeled electric vehicles designed for commuting in cities. Two models of the Sparrow exist, the ‘Jelly bean’ model and then the ‘Pizza Butt’ – named such due to its use by Dominoes Pizza. Several sparrows were featured in Austin Powers Goldmember, and Looper. Halting production under the marque of Corbin Motors in 2003, then picking back up in 2005 as Myers Motors, these funky little cars have quite a cult following, and as of 2006 their new lithium batteries can take them 60 miles before recharging. Quite possibly the smallest in width (48in) on this list, and one of the shortest (96in) this skinny personal electric vehicle earned its place on this list by having an iconic and memorable appearance.
M-505 Adams Brother Probe 16
The Probe 16 makes its way as an honourable mention only on this list, due to its very distinctive, almost-flat appearance. Built in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, England in 1969 as an investigation extreme of styling, it was powered by a tuned Austin 800, and stood only 86cm in height. It has 10” wheels at the front and 13” at the back, giving it a slanted, flat and beautiful but strange appearance. The only way to access the interior of the car is via the single sliding glass roof, giving it an interesting and unique entryway. One of the three Probes known to exist was featured in the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. Its predecessor, the Probe 15, has only one model made, which is believed to be intact somewhere in Switzerland.
This single-headlight city car was advertised as seating “One adult & A shopping bag.” And in the 2010 Guinness book of world records, was named the smallest production car ever made. It only had a left-side door, and it had a single windscreen wiper, and most intriguingly lacked a reverse gear, instead featuring a handle at the back to allow physically turning the light car around. The 1963 retailed for £199 when new, which equals about £1,400 in 2010. They were assembled at the Isle of Man. Peel produced 50 and only 27 are known to exist, one being sold for $176,000 at Sotheby’s in March 2016.
In 2010, Peel Engineering in England started re-manufacturing the p50 and Trident models from its premises in Sutton-in-Ashfield. Externally the car is very similar, but there are mechanical differences in the suspension, steering and drive-train, as well as a functioning reverse gear.
More Classic Car Lists
If you enjoyed this list or learnt anything new try Heritage’s other lists:
Greg Gjerdingen – Flickr
Mikey – Flickr
Rex Gray – Flickr
Dustin May – Flickr
Greg Gjerdingen – Flickr
Brian Snelson – Flickr
Robert Couse-Baker – Flickr
Ozzy Delaney – Wikepedia Commons