Micros come back to the future

Soaring gas prices accelerate interest in new, classic minicars

By Ralph Ranalli
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

NEWTON - I had been test-driving a 2008 Smart micro cabriolet for less than 24 hours, but after just a few minutes behind the wheel of a 1963 Fiat Multipla taxi, I was already nostalgic for it.

Built to accommodate a maximum number of passengers while using a minimum amount of gasoline, the diminutive green-and-black Fiat passenger van was a marvel for its era, featuring innovations like fold-into-the-floor rear seats decades before American minivan marketers claimed to have invented them. Just 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide with a 29 horsepower engine, the Multipla could carry six adults while getting more than 40 miles to the gallon.

That was the good news. The bad news was that so much of that extra space was borrowed from the drivers' compartment that squeezing my 6-foot-2-inch frame behind the wheel required a series of movements that must have looked like interpretive dance performed by a rusty lawn chair. Once inside, I had to bend my neck forward and down just to see through the windshield, placing my forehead perilously close to the front of the Multipla's roof, and turning every clumsy gear change into its own Motrin moment.

Clutch, shift, whack. Clutch, shift, whack. Ow.

"Unfortunately, this car isn't very friendly to the driver," said my passenger and the Fiat's owner, Newton lawyer and auto collector Charles Gould, in a considerable understatement. "Italian cab drivers then must have all been pretty short."

Gould had invited me to drive the Fiat as a guest at his annual Microcar Event, which he holds at his home in Newton Centre. Participants come from as far away as California and Western Canada, bringing mostly tiny European models built in the two decades after World War II, when postwar economies were still rebuilding and fuel and other resources were expensive and scarce.

"These cars really changed the socioeconomic landscape, because in addition to giving people cheap transportation, it taught them to venture out of their own little villages," Gould told me. "It's ironic now that they are becoming significant again with our current fuel crisis. We've gotten kind of wasteful and extravagant . . . and sometimes these personal, small vehicles make more sense than the kind of vehicles that we drive today."

I accepted the invitation because I had a hunch that with $4.25-a-gallon gas and growing concerns about global warming and resource consumption, Gould might be right. Mini and microcars might actually be relevant again in the once-SUV-crazed US. And if that was so, then Gould's event would be a rare chance to glimpse both the past and the future in one place.

But first things first. It seemed too embarrassing to show up to the event in my personal car, a black 1993 Mercedes-Benz 300E luxury sedan.

Purchased for me as a 40th birthday present by my wife at a time when gas cost a little less than half of what it does now, it gets about 14 miles to the gallon on a good day. According to the original sales sticker, the IRS hit up the original owner for $1,000 under the federal gas guzzler tax.

Maybe the new Smart is Mercedes-Benz's penance for building cars like mine.

A three-cylinder two-seater that measures only about 2 feet more in length (106 inches) than a Chevy Suburban is wide, the French-built Smart is relatively cheap, economical (EPA estimated 40 miles per gallon highway), and the certifiable new "it" car among urban and suburban hipsters.

Francia Macias, a "brand specialist" at Smart Center Boston, said she would be glad to sell me a car exactly like my electric blue 2008 Passion convertible loaner for a mere $18,500 - provided that I was willing to sign up on the online waiting list and be patient for about 15 months.

Given the reaction I got while driving through Newton on my way to the event, I was actually tempted.

Even though I was just driving from Newtonville to the city's south side, I might just as well have been pushing a stroller full of identical quintuplets or carrying the Red Sox 2007 World Series trophy. People gawked and smiled. They offered unsolicited comments and upturned thumbs.

"That's what I'm talking about!" a used car salesmen standing in a lot full of unsold SUVs and full-size trucks near the Waltham border yelled. (I swear I am not making this up.)

The interest continued unabated even after I pulled up to the microcar event.

Parked next to bullet-like Messerschmitt KR-200s and cuddly Nash Metropolitans, my Smart, with its six-CD changer and climate control, received just as much attention as a neighboring BMW Isetta, a two-seater that the driver and passenger enter by opening a hatch that consists of the entire front of the car, steering wheel and all.

"Are heated seats standard?" one woman asked (No, they're an option). "What's the mileage?" asked another (EPA 40 highway, 33 city).

Minicar owners, as it turned out, saw the Smart as more of a vindication of their love of tiny cars rather than a Johnny-come-lately. Gould, in fact, has had one for two years already, and several other collectors said they had Smarts on order.

Ken Lemoine, a healthy 6-footer from Framingham who came to the event with a 1965 Morris Mini Minor Traveller (sort of a shrunken version of a 1950s-era woody station wagon), said he liked the Smart's full-sized leg room and head room and thought a car like it - perhaps incorporating new battery technologies - was part of the automotive future.

"I think that something between a crossover and the Smart will become very popular," he said. "All those Tonka trucks out there right now I think are going to cease to exist as a daily transportation alternative."

Lemoine and a few others aside, though, there was less gloating among the minicar owners than I had expected. For one thing, many own some sort of truck or tow vehicle that they use to trailer their delicate little antique vehicles from one show or meet to another.

Mostly though, it's just that by and large, they are a humble group. It's hard not to be humble, they said, when you drive a car that would be a big loser in virtually any collision.

When a Canadian from Ontario named Jeff Upton gave me a ride in his Messerschmitt, I learned all I needed to know about the safety factor for mini and microcars.

There basically isn't one.

"Ever been in an accident in this thing?" I yelled to him over the roar of the Kabinenroller (Cabin Scooter) 200's one-cylinder, two-stroke engine.

"Nope. And I wouldn't want to, either," he yelled back.

"And do me a favor, lean into the turns," he added, in what was perhaps the last thing I wanted to hear.

And that was pretty much how it went. While mini and microcars may be relevant again, it turns out that their owners are subject to the same sorts of tough choices and compromises that most other drivers face these days.

SUVs and minivans may be safe in a crash, but promise no relief from sticker shock at the gas pump any time soon. A new Prius hybrid might be nice - if you can afford the $23,000 price tag. A microcar might get great mileage, but would you feel safe?

Even my Smart - which has a hardened steel safety cage and excellent crash test scores - had a frustrating limitation. With two seats and four air bags, you can't put a young child in one. Ever.

Given that I have three daughters under the age of 8, that meant my Smart experience would end when I dropped the car back at the dealer.

But it was fun while it lasted, and as I enjoyed the last few waves from passersby, I felt that I had gotten answers to virtually all of my questions about minicars. Except one.

How can you name a car a Passion when it has no back seat?