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Microcars' charm not lost on hobbyists
By Craig Fitzgerald, Globe Correspondent, 3/8/2003
In times of impending conflict, we do a lot of navel-gazing about how to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Hydrogen, electricity, gizmos that make our engines run more efficiently, the water engine: the kind of stuff that's been promised since Popular Mechanics advertised hernia trusses.
But the Europeans had it all figured out right after World War II. Unlike the United States, which enjoyed unprecedented prosperity following the war years, much of Europe was decimated. Young men came home disabled, yet still needed a way to get from place to place in order to keep their families fed and clothed.
Germany was especially devastated. According to New England's Microcar guru Charles Gould, the infrastructure and economy was in ruins. ''Citizens were in need of a cheap and economical means of transportation to resume travel and start the process of rebuilding.'' Several people set to work designing ''invalid cars'' for soldiers whose legs had been rendered useless during the war. A few used simple, proprietary engines.
Gould notes that a German named Fritz Fend designed a motorized invalid car called the Fend Flitzer.'' But when he offered them for sale,'' Gould says, '' he observed that many able-bodied people and shopkeepers were buying them as a cheap means of transportation. ''
Fend contacted industrialist Willy Messerschmitt whose company built warplanes for the Luftwaffe, and was prevented from doing so again due to the Reparations Act following the war. Fend wanted Messerschmitt to produce a more sophisticated and civilized version of the Flitzer in his idled aircraft factory. ''Messerschmitt realized that this would be an opportunity to activate his team of engineers and laborers,'' says Gould, ''and the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller, or `enclosed scooter,' was born.''
The Messerschmitt aircraft-style design, tandem seating and Plexiglas aircraft-style canopy were obviously inspired by the fighter planes that Messerschmitt built during the war. Other Microcars, like the BMW Isetta and 600, were similar automotive anachronisms. Gould notes that this was facilitated by the ''clean sheet of paper'' approach of engineers and designers uninfluenced by previous automotive design.
Today the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller is one of the world's most desired Microcars. Gould counts seven Messerschmitts among the many Microcars that he, his wife Nancy, and their daughters Monique and Tiana care for in their private collection.
''I had been collecting conventional antique cars since I was 12 years old,'' says Gould. But about 20 years ago, ''something changed in the hobby, and everyone was immediately concerned with impeccable restorations, flawless authenticity. Instead of asking about the car, or the mechanical aspects, or my work, everyone simply asked `How much is it worth? or Where can I buy one?'''
Gould explains that at static car shows around the region, there would be dozens of similar examples of perfectly restored Jaguars or Corvettes. ''People complained the lug nuts on my Corvette were not correct, or that the windshield washer fluid bottle on my Jaguar was mounted improperly. Nobody drove the cars, and there was more knowledge about wax and polish than about mechanical components.''
As Gould grew increasingly impatient with the hobby or more precisely, the hobbyists, he found his first Microcar, a 1957 BMW Isetta Sliding Window Coupe. Charles and Nancy drove to Rochester, N.Y., to purchase it, hauling it home on a snowmobile trailer behind a Ford EXP. ''We got it running, and when we started to take it to car shows, people would leave Jags and Bugattis to come and see this absurd little travel pod. And while the other owners were worrying about the spectators breathing on their paint, we would be buzzing around the show field giving rides to a pile of kids or their parents in our new Isetta. We realized that these little cars delivered more smiles per dollar than any other collector car.''
Today, the Goulds own more than 50 Microcars in various states of disrepair. They recently moved their collection to a more suitable facility in Hudson. Today, interested parties can contact the Goulds for a private tour of the facility. Their plans involve opening the collection as a private museum. One of the most fascinating cars in the collection is the Velorex, which was built by Czechoslovakian motorcycle manufacturer Jawa. Constructed of Naugahyde fabric stretched over a tubular frame, it resembles a brown raincoat draped over a swingset. ''They were all the same color,'' says Gould. ''They have a padlock for the doors and the control pedals, but all the padlock keys were identical. It was easy to take the wrong car by mistake - or on purpose - when you left a pub in the Czech Republic.''
So where did these cars go after the late 1950s? Gould says the original Morris Mini rung the death knell for most Microcars. ''It was a revolutionary design that could carry four occupants at a very fast speed almost 80 miles per hour in a conventionally designed automobile,'' says Gould. ''Volkswagens, Renaults, and other small cars also became serious competition, and the Microcars just couldnt compete with the larger, more powerful designs of the period.''
The ubiquitous SUV hasn't seemed to dampen enthusiasm in these charming little cars. There is a huge resurgence of interest in modern Microcar designs, and in every country except the United States, they're enjoying large popularity, according to Gould. ''The SMART [built by DaimlerChrysler] has a 3-cylinder turbocharged 600cc engine located in the rear of a tiny two-seater just under 9 feet long. I drove the coupe and the cabriolet, and they're a blast to drive,'' says Gould.
You have several opportunities to meet the Gould family's collection of tiny cars. Matchbox Motors can accommodate private tours in its Hudson facility. Contact Charles or Nancy Gould at 617-965-4848 to schedule an appointment.
The Eighth Annual Microcar Classic takes place on July 11, 12 and 13, with a public exhibition at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, and similar events throughout the weekend. E-mail Charles Gould at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or check out the website at www.bubbledrome.com.
Wear comfortable clothing. ''We offer rides in all of the Microcars and plenty of dynamic Microcar activity. This is not a park and polish type of show!'' says Gould.