America is a land of wide open spaces, wide roads, and wide…folks. So we love our big cars. A foreigner visiting our shores will often gawk in wonder at the gigantic trucks and sedans that ply our streets and highways, for transportation alone. But while this love of large motoring has produced some incredible cars, it has in many ways caused us to miss out on some equally incredible small cars from smaller places. But not all of us. At last weekend’s Kansas City Microcar Meet, I got a glimpse of this small but enthusiastic community, and I found myself a member of it.
It really all started last year, when some friends spotted a Sunday afternoon car show and alerted me on my way home from church. The small city hall parking lot was crammed with Minis, Isettas, Beetles, and Metropolitans, a greatest hits album of tiny cars from World War II to the present. We had a great time, took a bunch of crappy cell phone photos, and then resumed our Sunday of sitting on the couch and scrolling through the Netflix library.
Then, last Friday, I randomly wondered if the show was annual, so I Googled it. It was happening again this year, in two days. I would, of course, be going. But that’s when I realized that I own a car that might fit in: my beater-to-project 1987 Honda CRX. While not show-quality, I thought it was probably meet-quality, especially after the work I put into it, so I emailed Jack, the organizer, to find out if there would be a place for it. He quickly got back to me encouraging me to bring the old bucket out.
Now, the CRX is currently in a coma. After rusting a rear subframe element away from the unibody, it was unsafe to drive, so I had to garage it, and I bought a more modern (rust free) Civic to serve in the interim. But since the microcar meet was only two blocks from my house, I thought it would be fine to limp the car over. Spoiler alert: it was.
First, however, I had to put the phone dial wheels back on it. I’d been using them and their newer tires on my Civic, as they share a bolt pattern. But one with phone dials does not show his CRX with crappy old steelies, so I switched them. Of course, this meant painting the wretched steelies, which was a project in itself, but that’s a story for another time.
Sunday arrived, and attendees didn’t even let me get out of the car, or even stop, before they started talking to me about the CRX. One gentleman walked alongside my window as I backed in. “I’ve had a few of these,” he said through a wistful, remembering smile. They probably rusted in half, too. I slid back my sunroof so the other quirk-enthusiasts could inspect my time-chewed but freshly dusted interior and went to explore more interesting cars. I found them.
The king of any minicar event is the eponymous Mini Cooper. This appears to be a Mark VII, made from 1996-2000, or is built to look like one. It also appears to be perfect, exactly as I would build mine, complete with rally lights.
Often a motorsports competitor of the Mini, the Hillman Imp was another British subcompact, built from 1963 to 1976 under two different manufacturers. It was offered with 875cc and 1 liter 4 cylinder engines, situated, as you can see, in the back.
The BMW Isetta is one of the better known microcars. Birthed after World War II, it was designed to be cheap, simple transportation for war-fatigued Europeans. It was also designed to be as long as most cars are wide, so continentals could pull up perpendicular to the curb without sticking out into the street. No more parallel parking. Though the Isetta started out an Italian car made by Iso, it was later licensed by BMW, who fitted it with a 300 cc engine from their motorcycle division.
There were two examples at this show, and on the other, I noticed the unique windshield defogger, which must pump warm air in from the engine compartment. I wonder how that smelled.
Often confused with the Isetta is another postwar German bubble car, the Heinkel. It has a similar single front door and is also powered by a motorcycle engine. In the UK these were offered with a single rear wheel instead of two, in order to be classified as motorcycles, which didn’t require a driver’s license.
The Bug E is a three wheeled electric kit motorcycle with a fixed canopy. It has a top speed of about 50, but can go 30 miles at 30 mph.
A Geo Metro? Okay, it’s nothing terribly exciting, but you have to admit that the Metro convertible has aged pretty well as an example of early ‘90s styling. Plus, the tiny 1 liter Suzuki G10 3 cylinder is pretty neat.
That Cooper wasn’t the only Mini there. The Mini Moke was designed as a fun little beach car with Mini running gear. That seat back came up to my knee.
Though the Nash Metropolitan was an American design by an American company, the cars were assembled in England and used Austin and BMC engines.
Speaking of British cars, the Morris Minor was extremely popular in its day. There was even a pickup variant.
Everywhere I looked, it was the same story: An engine so small it made the tiny engine compartment look cavernous. This could definitely fit an SBC swap, right?
This Norsley Yellow Jacket is a custom one-off car made from a Norge refrigerator and Crosley running gear. The trailer is made out of a chest freezer. When I approached, the owner was sticking refrigerator magnets on it. The world needs more humorous microhotrods.
The Z600 was the first car Honda imported to the US. It’s memorable for its “TV screen” rear glass surround, which doubled as a bumper against taller vehicles. My favorite feature is that the rear leaf springs are visible at the back. Honda kept this car as short as possible.
One of my favorites at the show was this rear-engine 1961 NSU Prinz, since it’s the only NSU I’ve seen in person. The gelatinous mass of VW absorbed and digested NSU in 1969, but not before they could produce the Ro-80, the world’s first car with a rotary engine, making them the only company other than Mazda to sell a car with a Wankel. I enjoyed the Prinz’s dashing mustache.
I’m a sucker for a good race car, and this Fiat 850 Coupe fit the bill, kitted with a full cage and taped headlights. As the name suggests, it’s powered by a rear-mounted 850cc engine, which is worth about 47 horsepower. Really not bad for 1965.
Beetles aren’t the smallest cars, but they’re interesting enough to make the cut, especially these examples.
The first was a 1959, identified by the rectangular rear glass, twin chrome pipes, and most distinctively, Wolfsburg crest badge on the nose. That combination was only available for ’58 and ’59, and I used the license plate frame to cheat.
The second was immaculate, with a beautiful wooden roof rack and a classic VW flower vase on the dash.
Speaking of Beetles, here’s a Porsche 356 Speedster, or a very convincing replica. The 356 is closely related to the Beetle, sharing a designer and sporting a very similar engine.
Like the Beetle, the Citroen 2CV was designed to be a low-powered, low-cost people’s car that was impossible to kill. It succeeded. Nearly 4 million 2CVs were produced between 1948 and 1990. Power outputs ranged from 9 hp to a screaming 29.
A production parameter was that it could carry 4 adults and 110 lbs of farm goods across a muddy field, so it featured a very robust suspension. This example was beautifully restored, including a brand new roof.
The Smallest Car Award goes to this miniscule Divco. It technically had room enough for one adult. Danny, who restored the fiberglass buggy, told me that they originally came with with 1 hp engines, enough to get them to 4 mph. He replaced this with a Briggs and Stratton 5 hp. He also built this tiny model of what looks like a Ford Flathead V8. It has 116 pieces.
Though this was a micro/minicar meet, a few outliers showed up, strictly, I’m sure, for transportation, including the Curtain Rod, a hot rod hearse. The kooky pipes, bodiless front end, and macabre theme are all textbook examples of the Show Rod movement of the 1960s.
This third generation Ford Galaxie 500 with a 390 V8 was the perfect contrast to some of the diminutive cars on site.
Meanwhile the Dodge Dart was considered a small car in America.
The day was wearing on, and the couch was calling, so I rolled my sunroof back in and limped the CRX back home.
Keep an eye out for the wonderful and eccentric car events in your area. You never know what you’ll see.
What’s your favorite supermini?
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.