July 25, 2009

If only they'd build a car that gets 60 miles per gallon...

Three Citroen 2CVs; In foreground, an '84 Club with 52,000 miles

In these days of $3 and $4/gallon gasoline, what would make more sense than a little car that gets more than 60 miles per gallon? Too bad nobody's making them.

Ah, but they usedta! The proof took over Monument Square on Saturday, as some two dozen micro cars, from the '50s to the '80s were on display: shiny, quirky, gas-efficient. And, yes, it must be admitted, mostly small and mostly pretty slow.

Still ... if any had displayed a "For Sale" sign, I'd have gladly taken 'em home! There were lots of interestingl cars -- a '58 Berkley, an original VW Bug, a '65 Trabant, a '42 Crosley -- and a few motorcycles, but without counting on my fingers, three iconic, beautiful makes seemed to dominate:
  • The Isetta, whose front door (yes, it is in front!) opens like a refrigerator -- not surprising, since the company that originally developed the car first made kitchen appliances.
  • The Messerschmitt, whose see-through bubble top is a great middle ground between a hard top and a convertible.
  • The Citroen 2CV, best known by its name in French, the Deux Chevaux, represented here by some stunning convertibles in bright colors -- a far cry from the utilitarian gray examples I remember on the roads of Europe.
Hardest task of the day: filling out DRC's ballot for the People's Choice Award. *Winner below!

Each car, and its owner, had a story to tell. Here are a couple of them.

Messerschmitts: A red '55 KR200 and a white '57 KR201

The red and white Messerschmitts above are owned by Jim Garbo of Franksville. (Yes, he is the husband of the DRC's Jean Garbo.) Garbo got interested in Messerschmitts early: the red one, a 1955 KR200, was bought by his father when Jim was just nine, in 1969. "I've been driving it since I was eleven," he said -- and we had the good grace not to ask where.

Jim's dad took it to Florida, where it remained for 30 years, until Jim bought it and brought it back here. More recently it gained a companion, the white 1957 Kabinenroller KR201, one of only 300 built. It has just 2,700 original miles. (What did it cost? Don't ask; Jim would only say that Messerschmitts range in price today from $20,000 to $60,000.)

What makes the Kabinenroller so special? Jim ticks off its attributes: It's a Roadster with no side windows, just side curtains; it has extra lights; engine port holes for cooling; a chrome shift lever; snakeskin piping around the interior. The engine is 191 cc ... 9.6 horsepower. "My lawn mower has twice as much power," he says. It gets 60 mpg and will do "60 miles an hour downhill, with a tailwind."

Oh, yes, two other things: First, almost all Messerschmitts, like the ones displayed here today, have just three wheels. And they also have a four-speed transmission ... but no reverse! To make the car go backwards, you stop the engine, "then you push the key in and turn it the other way ... and the engine runs backwards." That's what Jim told me, anyway. When I get time, I'll Google it and fully expect to find he's pulling my leg.

'57 BMW Isetta

Jerry Zabin of Skokie, IL, is the proud owner of this '57 BMW Isetta. He can't really explain his affinity for the little cars, but says, "My eyes just go to it. I just love it. I can't believe that one cylinder gets me to work." Jerry is a high school social worker, and loves to give students a ride.

He says the car is a never-ending source of conversation. "I go to gas stations, where people never talk to you, and constantly make new friends. It just brings people together." He's had three different Isettas over the past 20 years, "but this is my keeper," he says. How'd he find it? The owner called him -- having seen his name in a listing of Isetta owners -- and said, "I see you have an Isetta; would you like to buy another?" Actually, Jerry had recently sold his previous Isetta, so he and his wife went to see the car and found it "untouched... it had sat for 50 years in the owner's barn." (Note to anyone with a pristine car, preferably a 356 Porsche, sitting under a tarp in your barn for 50 years: CALL ME!!)

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Jerry said. It was a convertible; it even has the original 1959 and 1960 Wilmette registration stickers on the windshield, as well as the original vehicle break-in instructions from the factory. It even started! Yes, it needed brakes and some engine work, but still...!!

Isettas get 60 mpg from their 300 cc engines, and can reach speeds of 60 mph. Sorta. "You start on Monday and by Thursday it's up to 60 mph," Jerry says. His has a window sticker warning, "Get in, sit down, shut up... and hold on!" Isettas in top condition sell for $14,00 to $16,000.

'68 Velorex 16/350

The information sheet on this car describes its tubular construction, covered by vinyl panels. The car weighs 683 lbs and is powered by a 350 cc engine that develops 17 hp. Owner Glenn Bukac says the car has a maximum s0eed of 53 mph but the "amusement factor is off the charts."

Spec sheet from a '63 D.A.F. Daffodil from the Netherlands

A JZR Morgan reproduction, powered by a Honda motorcycle

Closer look at a '73 Fiat 500L

'55 Messerschmitt KR200

*People's Choice Award winner, "by a large margin," was Dr. Mac Jones' '55 Messerschmitt, KR200, painted an eye-popping Rosebud Pink (or is it Mary Kay pink?). The car hails from Somerville, TN.

For lots more information about microcars, visit -- online or in person -- the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum in Madison, GA. They even have some cars for sale: mostly marques we never heard of: a 1959 Goggomobil, a 1951 Kover, a 1953 Rovin D4, a 1951 Mochet CM 125 Luxe, a 1955 Kleinschnittger ... we could go on, but you get the picture! Be the first on your block to own a Kleinschnittger! It's a fully restored, pretty red convertible and only $35,000... (and has an engine the size of a weedwhacker -- 125cc).


  1. Great article guys! And yes, why isn't Obama's Government Motors turning out some of these highly efficient vehicles? Or maybe cars, trucks and busses fueled by LP, you can't get much greener than that. Maybe his big oil buddies wouldn't like it.

  2. $3 & $4 gas? Where are you buying your gas?

  3. "To make the car go backwards, you stop the engine, "then you push the key in and turn it the other way ... and the engine runs backwards." That's what Jim told me, anyway. When I get time, I'll Google it and fully expect to find he's pulling my leg."

    No, he's not. 2-cycle motors can run in reverse.

  4. Anon 6:47. How quickly you forget?

  5. This was a really fun event to attend. I hope they keep coming back.


  6. I saw the new Fiat 500 Friday at a CNH facility. It's a beautiful, solid car and it gets 50 mpg.