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Bubble Cars

Micro Management Published: 25th May 2011 - 1 Comments

Bubble Cars

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Messerschmitts
  • Worst model: Not one really, Peels are impractical
  • Budget buy: Bond Minicar
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes, most engines are two-strokes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): No problem
  • Spares situation: lesser known cars can be diffi cult
  • DIY ease?: Excellent
  • Club support: Very good for mainstream models
  • Appreciating asset?: Most models slowly rising
  • Good buy or good-bye?: You tell us…
Meadows Frisky built in Wolverhampton Meadows Frisky built in Wolverhampton
Very quirky Scootacar built by Hunslet in Leeds Very quirky Scootacar built by Hunslet in Leeds
World’s smallest production car: Peel P50 World’s smallest production car: Peel P50
Berkeley Berkeley
Goggomobil TS300 Coupe Goggomobil TS300 Coupe
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Pros & Cons

Quirky, alternative classic, miserly on fuel consumption, inexpensive to run, huge fun factor
Can be bloody noisy, spartan interiors and not the most comfortable in the world!
£500-£15,000+

Microcars, or Bubble Cars as they are often affectionately referred to, due to many of them being of round or oval shaped, have in recent years become very kitsch and extremely collectable. Ultimately they are so small in size that garaging is a cinch, they’re generally very economical with most returning at least 50mpg, cheap and relatively easy to maintain and insure, but above all they are weird, wacky, and immense fun! Microcars can be one of the least inexpensive ways to enter classic car ownership, depending on which marque you choose. They can also become hugely addictive, and researching individual marque history makes for fascinating reading. Welcome to the wonderful world of micros!

History

The heyday of the microcar was back in the mid 1950s through to the mid 1960s. Following the end of WW2 it was a time of great austerity for many. Fritz Fend a German aeronautical engineer started manufacturing a small single seat self propelled vehicle ostensibly for disabled servicemen. Later he fi tted an engine in the rear and called it the Flitzer. A further development became the Messerschmitt KR175 which evolved into the KR200, one of the most successful of all microcars. They were produced at the former Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg and powered by a 191cc single-cylinder Sachs two-stroke engine, and cable operated brakes. They were later produced by Fahrzeug-Maschinenbau GmbH Regensburg and between 1956-1964 approximately 40,000 were produced. They had a top speed of 65mph and could attain almost 90mpg. Top of the range was the FMR TG500 ‘Tiger’ a four-wheel version powered by a 500cc engine and offered a most spirited performance. The Suez Crisis of 1956 which lead to fuel shortages, panic buying and rationing of petrol meant that economical transport was a top priority. All manner of manufacturers, some large and numerous smaller ones took to designing and producing microcars. Some of the larger included BMW who produced ISOs Isetta under licence, which was also manufactured by Velum in France, Romi in Brazil, and by Isetta Cars of GB in the former railway buildings at Brighton, Sussex.. The Isetta featured a separate tubular chassis and steel body with the door opening at the front, and an ingenious mechanism that saw the steering column pivot on the door when it opened. Power came from a 300cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine. Due to vehicle taxation regulations at the time, three-wheel cars paid a lower duty than four-wheelers, hence most of the microcars were three-wheelers. If the reverse gear was blanked off making it inoperative, then microcars could also be driven on a motorcycle licence. The Heinkel cabin scooter was another very successful microcar from Germany, which later in life was produced under licence in Dundalk, Eire, and by Trojan based in Croydon, Surrey.

One of the most successful of British micro marques was the Bond Minicar, designed by Laurie Bond and produced by Sharps Commercials of Preston. Early models tended to be rather crude. A Villiers two-stroke engine was mounted on the fork of the front wheel and the car could turn around on a sixpence. There was a motorcycle type kick-start to get the engine running! Later models were slightly more refi ned, and they were a remarkable very tough little car. Laurie Bond also designed the Berkeley using a GRP body which was produced by caravan manufacturer Charles Panter at his Berkeley Caravan Coachworks at Biggleswade, Beds. The company produced three and four-wheeler models which utilized Excelsior and Royal Enfi eld engines. Some of the smaller manufacturers produced cars such as the Meadows Frisky, Opperman Unicar and the Nobel. The latter was offered by entrepreneur York Nobel with backing from textile magnate Cyril Lord (remember the carpet adverts on TV?-ed). It was made under licence and a derivative of the German Fuldamobil. It had a chassis built by Rubery Owen, some early GRP bodies were produced by the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and the cars were assembled by Short Brothers & Harland at Newtownards in Northern Ireland. Power came from a 191cc Sachs twostroke engine.One of the most bizarre of all microcars was the Scootacar, produced by locomotive builders Hunslet of Leeds. It featured tandem seating and was powered by a Villiers engine. Due to its rather tall ungainly GRP body, and when painted in red, it looked rather like a mobile post box! Defi nitely the smallest of all microcars was the Peel P50 single seater which measured 52.8-inches long and 39-inches wide. Designed by Cyril Cannell and built by Peel Engineering on the Isle of Man, it featured a 49cc DKW engine, 50 were built and they cost of £199 new. Peel also produced a twoseater called the Trident, of which the plexiglass dome looked rather like an inverted goldfi sh bowl! The arrival of the Mini effectively killed off the whole microcar industry in the mid 1960s as it was vastly superior to anything else on offer and very competitively priced too.

Driving

If you are of the very slightest nervous disposition, then microcars may not be for you! Whilst it’s true that you’re fairly vulnerable sitting in something as diminutive as a Messerschmitt, especially when being overtaken by a lorry, it’s no worse than if you’re riding a pushbike. Messerschmitts have handlebar steering which is extremely direct. Sudden snatched movements will induce swerving. They have a sequential gear shift mounted on the right hand side of the tubular frame which is easy to use.

The BMW Isetta has a conventional H shift pattern mounted on the side, depending if it’s LHD or RHD. The Goggomobil has a rather unusual shift pattern that features neutral in a vertical plane, with 1st top left, second top right, 3rd bottom left and 4th bottom right. Some cars also featured an electronic pre-select gearbox. Whatever micro car you drive, they all have drum brakes, so don’t expect braking power anything like modern servo assisted discs. Anticipation is the key to effective stopping here! Generally speaking micros can be noisy, it comes with the territory and two-strokes aren’t known for their torque. Comfort also has to be a tad compromised, seat design is pretty basic as is interior refi nement in general. Pot holes are to be avoided if possible! Above all, getting behind the wheel of a microcar is a complete antithesis from the normality of your daily hack. They are huge fun to drive, miserly on fuel consumption, and cruising at 40-50mph, there’s less stress, you see much more of the countryside glide by at a slower pace. Some of the fi nest handling and driving cars are the Messerschmitt KR200, FMR TG500 ‘Tiger’, Heinkel/Trojan and the Goggomobil, while Berkeleys are also noted for their good turn of speed.

Prices

Cheapest to purchase are the Bond Minicars, about £500 for a restoration project and £2000 - £2500+ for a superb example. Most expensive are Messerschmitts with a KR200 restoration project starting at £6500, and £10,000 - £12,000 for a good car and £15,000+ for an excellent example with the TG500 ‘Tiger’ £45,000+. An Isetta will be £4500 - £7000, and for the Heinkel/Trojan £4000 - £7500+. A Berkeley restoration project will be £200 - £500, a fi ne three-wheeler £2000 - £3000 and an excellent four-wheeler with a Royal Enfi eld engine £4000 - £5000. Goggomobils range between £3000 - £7000 and a Scootacar £1000 for a restoration project to £5000 for a mint example. A Nobel 200 ripe for restoration will be about £700 while a good example with MoT will be around £4000. There are no hard and fast rules with microcars and some have fetched far in excess of these guide prices so value with care.

What To Look For

  • The Isetta has a very sturdy tubular chassis, but check for signs of rot and poor previous repairs. Make sure that the floorpan is sound, it’s a known area for corrosion, though it’s common for new fl oorpans to have been fi tted. These cars are one of the easiest of micros to restore.
  • The Heinkel/Trojan has a monocoque body so the correct fi tment of a new fl oorpan is essential. Doors rotting out at the bottom is a common corrosion area on both the Isetta and Heinkel/Trojan, as is damage to the skin, so check for fi ller.
  • Messerschmitts may look easy to restore, but they are diffi cult to get absolutely right. The KR200 features a monocoque, so correct alignment and good rebuild integrity is essential. Floorpans on the KR200 rot where they join the sides, but fortunately replacement floors and side panels are readily available. Aluminium canopy frames can be diffi cult to source, and if you require a new dome, they are very expensive. Poor panel fitment and lifting sections that stand proud, indicate the car hasn’t been restored as well as it could have been. The Messerschmitt Owners’ Club offers one of the most comprehensive parts replacement service of all microcar clubs.
  • Goggomobils are very well built cars and generally reliable once properly set-up, but can be complex and time consuming to restore. Being all steel, rust can be a big issue, so look out for signs of rot around the areas of the sills, wheel arches and, especially the fl oorpan. The good news is that owners are well catered for, with Uwe Staufenberg in Germany holding a huge range of new parts and produces a glossy catalogue. Some remanufactured parts with a limited run, can work out to be expensive, but at least it’s reassuring to know that you can still obtain them.
  • The Bond Minicar was built using mainly aluminium panels though did feature some GRP on later cars. While aluminium enjoys a long life, it can corrode when it comes in contact with steel. The early MKA and B Bonds had no chassis, the MKC and D had steel chassis rails, while the later Bonds had a steel chassis under an aluminium fl oor. Replacement chassis sections are available and they are held in place by pop rivets, so no welding required. Also check the two steel cross-members underneath for signs of rot.
  • The door shuts at their lower extremity are covered over in aluminium, but underneath it’s steel and is susceptible to rotting away. Bonds are reasonably easy to restore, and there’s a good supply of new and secondhand parts for cars, and for the Villiers engine.
  • The Berkeley has a GRP body, so check for signs of stress, and crows feet cracking. King pins can be a week point on these cars, but nothing that can’t be remedied. Box sections and stiffeners are subject to corrosion that can lead to body fl exing.
  • Scootacars also feature a GRP body and there’s a good back-up spares service, though parts like the front windscreen are as rare as hens teeth.
  • The Nobel 200 also features a GRP body that has plywood fl oors that are subject to all the maladies of wood when it gets wet. Make sure the rear plexiglass window is unbroken, as these are diffi cult to replace. Ensure the car has the correct specifi cation Sachs engine, it’s similar, but not exactly the same as the Messerchmitt KR200. It will be cheaper to purchase a restored car than rebuild one yourself. There are around 75 Nobels known to the Register.
  • Generally speaking, sticking to the mainstream microcars will mean greater club support, technical advice and better replacement parts service than some of the more obscure marques. Cars that feature original fl oorpans can command a higher premium, as can those with a good and known history. Some cars can be bitsas, restored using a variety of secondhand and replacement panels and parts. Be aware of exactly what you are purchasing.
  • When looking at a car that’s a restoration project, it’s important to ascertain whether it comes complete, or if not, how much is missing, and are those parts readily available? With most of the microcars it’s the windscreens and side glass that are often the most diffi cult parts to source.

Verdict

Microcars are quintessentially quirky, but that’s often their most endearing feature. Many cars don’t get advertised for sale, they change hands through the grapevine of the club network, membership of which is highly recommended. Messerschmitt KR200s remain the most collectable, you need to be seriously well heeled to purchase a TG500 ‘Tiger’, the Heinkel/ Trojan offers the defi nitive ‘bubble car’ shape, while the Isetta is a good all round ‘plodder’ and could be deemed to be the Morris Minor of microcars. Some of the rarer obscure marques can be awful to drive, but that doesn’t stop enthusiasts collecting and restoring them. They are that addictive.



User Comments

This review has 1 comments

  • More information on the Meadows Frisky can be found at www.meadowsfrisky.co.uk

    John Meadows The Frisky Register

    Comment by: John Meadows     Posted on: 03 Dec 2011 at 07:54 PM

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