Micro Cars for the Masses

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the November 2007 issue of Classic Motorsports. Some information may be different today. The new Fiat 500 is also not included in this list because it was not available in North America until 2010]

America is obsessed with big things. Skyscrapers are fighting to blot out the sun. Televisions now rival sliding glass doors in size. Übersized fast-food drink cups have gotten so massive that they will barely fit into any of the umpteen cup holders in an 18.5-foot long Chevy Suburban.

And while said Suburban used to stand out as a true titan of the road, these days Chevy’s family bus is lost in a crowd of equally massive beasts. Auto makers spend lots of money trying to figure out what the people want, and it turns out the people want big—and they’ll spend big money for it. Not surprisingly, the manufacturers oblige them.

Notable exceptions from the past 20 years include the Mazda Miata and the BMW-designed MINI Cooper. Unfortunately for lovers of the Lilliputian, all designs evolve. It’s extraordinarily rare for a new car model not to take up more space than the design it’s replacing. Even the Miata and MINI have ballooned with each evolution—big just keeps seeping in.

Dire situations like the fuel crisis of the 1970s have been able to ratchet this growth back a few steps on a broad scale, but as engineers find new ways to increase efficiency we inevitably end up wondering how our garages got so small. Doesn’t anyone appreciate the little things in life?

Just Look Closer

Huge might hold sway here among the masses in the States, but look carefully and you’ll find a plucky band of rebellious drivers who stick to the supremely small. Armed with oddly styled and extraordinarily fuel-efficient cars from across the seas, these microcar enthusiasts have discovered something: an absurdly tiny car will eclipse even the most monstrous of machines in a popularity contest.

When you’re at the wheel of a microcar—a vehicle less than 11 feet long with less than a liter of engine displacement, generally speaking—impromptu critics are everywhere. Those with a penchant for the concise stick to the usual list of microcar-appropriate adjectives, calling it cute, silly, adorable or—not surprisingly—tiny. Inquisitive folks want to know what the heck it is, if it’s safe and how fast it can go. More than one microcar owner has noticed that the default reaction for onlookers is to drop their jaws in disbelief or to simply grin uncontrollably. Microcars are the automotive equivalent of wearing a gorilla suit to a formal gala.

Wondering if a microcar is for you? To get a taste we rounded up a nice sampler platter. First, we needed some cars. While the two Minis came from our own fleet, we needed a few more makes and models.

First, we got in touch with Rich Campbell, editor of the Microcar & Minicar Club newsletter. He suggested that we contact local microcar owner Don Becker, and in just a few days Don had rounded up as delightful a mix of microcars as we could have hoped for. We were truly surprised by how many of these cars resided in our own county, and we suspect the same is true just about anywhere. Here’s a peek at what you’re missing if you’ve never experienced a microcar firsthand.

Micro History

Very small cars have been around for many decades, but their success has waxed and waned dramatically. Around the time of the First World War there was a boom in the cyclecar industry, though these crude contraptions offered little more than weather protection and a bit more stability compared to a standard motorcycle. It wasn’t until the 1930s that fully realized small cars started finding a market.

Most of the early microcars came from small manufacturing firms or even brave individuals. Ardex, Plus Petit and OTO are but a few of the companies that attempted to sell truly tiny cars before WWII. Production numbers were low, and it was a niche market. The general perception was that microcars were for poor people, and few wanted to embrace that particular fashion statement.

The years immediately following the Second World War were an ideal environment for the success of the microcar concept. Most people in Europe had limited budgets, and natural resources like petroleum and steel were extremely scarce. The majority of European countries came up with laws that allowed automobiles with very small engines to be driven on a less expensive restricted or motorcycle license, or with no license at all. Microcars also typically enjoyed tax relief compared to their full-fledged siblings.

The majority of the first round of postwar microcars were not up to par and failed to gain much momentum; names like Gnom, Russon and Reyonnah have since faded from view. By the 1950s several designs had hit a stride with production numbers in the thousands; Crosley, Berkeley and Champion were among these early success stories.

In the mid- to late-1950s there was a shift in the general perception of the microcar. What had been seen as an embarrassing admission of one’s own poverty became an expression of style and savvy in certain countries. Because they were simple, the well designed ones tended to be reliable and easy to repair.

The egg-shaped BMW Isetta even went so far as to save the company from certain bankruptcy with more than 150,000 sold. Other companies boomed, as the original Mini and its peers were immensely popular. The success of the true microcar was short-lived, however, and they once again fell from popularity. By the mid 1960s the microcar boom was over.

Across a different ocean, the Japanese government also created an environment favorable for microcars. Following WWII, they introduced a new class of cars called kei cars. These vehicles are limited by maximum length, width, height and engine displacement. In the late 1940s the government regulation limited four-stroke engines to 150cc, but that has evolved through the years to the current limit of 660cc. A power cap of approximately 63 horsepower was also implemented in 1990.

Thanks to their convenience in crowded cities and the many financial benefits they provide to their drivers, kei cars are still popular in Japan, especially within the crowded confines of Tokyo. The distinctive yellow license plates assigned to kei cars are a popular sight in Japan these days.

Not all kei cars are the same, however, as manufacturers only have to meet the required dimensions. As a result, body styles range from sedans to vans to tall wagons to SUVs to sports cars. These also aren’t stripped-down econoboxes, as some kei cars can be found packing intercooled turbos, continuously-variable transmissions, all-wheel-drive systems and other technological gizmos.

Kei cars also have their own legions of enthusiasts. Some have transformed modern kei cars into scaled-down versions of classic American party vans, while others can be found participating in track events. Each winter, all of the major car manufacturers show off track-tuned versions of their latest kei cars at the Tokyo Auto Salon.

BMW Isetta

The Isetta is unusual for a microcar in that it was a tremendous success story for a major manufacturer. Introduced in 1953 by Italian manufacturer Iso, the teardrop-shaped microcar was also produced in limited numbers by VELAM in France and Romi in Brazil, but it was German builder BMW that would reap the most benefits from the Isetta.

BMW started by mating the avant-garde Italian design to a single cylinder, four-stroke BMW motorcycle engine. Then the marque reengineered so many components that it’s just about impossible to swap parts between the Iso and BMW Isettas.

They debuted the BMW Isetta 250 in 1955, and it was welcomed by the German press and public. In a time when BMW’s larger, more prestigious automobiles were a strain on the company, the Isetta moved plenty of units and helped Bayerische Motoren Werke keep its doors open through a difficult financial period.

Nearly 13,000 were built in 1955, and production peaked in 1957 at around 40,000 Isettas. In all, more than 150,000 of these odd bubble cars were produced through 1962. Pretty serious stuff for a car that would look at home in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Doors are expensive to produce, and that resulted in one of the Isetta’s more unusual traits; the entire front of the car—including the windshield—is the one and only door.

This design reduced production costs, and it also allowed owners to park the short Isetta nose-forward in a parallel parking spot and then safely open the door out onto the sidewalk. As an added bonus, unlike some microcars, getting into an Isetta is as easy as sitting on a couch.

Inside, there’s a good amount of room even for a larger driver. It’s not very wide, though, so if you don’t know your passenger well before getting into an Isetta, you will shortly thereafter.

The 250 engine has very little power, so it needs to be revved out quite a bit to even get going; the 300cc mill provides more in the way of very useful torque. The left hand shift lever feels extraordinarily dainty and takes a while to get used to, as it’s mounted essentially on the A-pillar in close proximity to the skinny, large diameter wheel. If care is taken during shifts, the four-speed does the job.

Braking is far from stellar, so it’s important to keep your eyes forward and think ahead. Also, for such a small car the Isetta has a terrible turning radius—it might be easier to make a three-point turn in a mammoth SUV. Then again, the Isetta is small enough to fit through most gaps.

The Isetta is an evolutionary branch of the automotive kingdom that ultimately failed to grow, but it’s a fantastic piece of engineering that deserves a close look whenever the opportunity arises. And thanks to its German engineering, Italian styling and microcar quirkiness, you’ll be a welcome hit at any car show you attend.

Owner Opinion: “The Isetta is one of more than 10 classic cars that I own and is by far the most fun to take to car shows. You get to meet almost every passerby because of its uniqueness. It’s one of the few cars that generates smiles from everyone who sees it.”—Dan Shaw

Mini Cooper

We knew we were dealing with small cars when the diminutive Mini was one of the larger and more powerful automobiles in our lineup. It might live on the upper fringe of microcardom, but with millions of Minis sold around the planet in various forms it is perhaps the worldwide definition of a small car.

Unveiled in 1959 as an answer to the 1956-’57 Suez Canal crisis, the first Minis were the least powerful, but they were still fully realized small cars with 37-horsepower, four-cylinder 848cc engines.

When a car is successful, the engineers are given a chance to upgrade it. Because the Mini was a smash hit, a slew of changes were made through the years. New body styles included off-roaders, commercial vans, convertibles and long-wheelbase woody wagons. Production finally ceased in the year 2000.

Racing is also a big part of the Mini story, and that’s where the Cooper and Cooper S come into play. Packing serious power into the nose of the durable little front-wheel-drive Mini resulted in a remarkably potent race car. Mini enthusiasts still cherish their marque’s Rallye Monte Carlo wins, and the cars can be found vintage racing in droves to this day.

Finding a local Mini Cooper for our gathering was a matter of yelling across the office, as Editorial Director David S. Wallens owns one of the Mini Coopers built by Italian manufacturer Innocenti. With a top speed higher than any current U.S. speed limit, the 1-liter Cooper is tiny, but it’s every bit a real car.

It can seat four, carry a good bit of cargo and, thanks to its low weight, it goes, stops and corners better than many full-sized cars from its vintage. With so many built, finding replacement parts or upgrades for a Mini is comparatively easy, too. You can read much more about the Mini in Issue 121 of Classic Motorsports.

Owner Opinion: “As far as microcars go, the Mini is fairly mainstream. Still, it turns heads wherever it goes and never fails to start a conversation. It also has enough power and brakes to run with traffic—it just about drives like a real car, yet it’s small enough to fit sideways in the back corner of our garage. While some of the Innocenti-specific items are rare, everything needed to rebuild or restore the common British-spec Minis is only a phone call away.”—David S. Wallens

Citroën 2CV

Like the Isetta, the Citroën 2CV was designed and engineered according to a different set of rules than the average car. When work began on the 2CV in the 1930s, most of France was farmland. In order to attract farmers to a newfangled contraption such as the automobile, Citroen chief Pierre-Jules Boulanger knew that it would have to meet their specific needs.

Farmers weren’t terribly wealthy, so the car would have to be inexpensive and fuel efficient. The roads in France ranged from modern to nonexistent, so the new Citroën had to be able to carry eggs over a rough plowed field without breaking them. In fact, the car was designed precisely to carry two farmers and 100 kilograms of produce safely to the market at about 35 miles per hour. They even made sure the roof was tall enough to accommodate a farmer’s hat.

Prototypes were completed in 1939, but the onset of World War II put the project on hold. It would take nearly a decade before the Citroën 2CV reached production. The name 2CV stands for “deux cheveaux,” French for “two horses,” a description of its moneysaving tax class. When it debuted in Paris in 1948, the press was merciless in its ridicule of the oddly shaped new car.

Citroën got the last laugh, though, as the 2CV was a huge success—production couldn’t keep up with demand for several years. The odd design, which has been compared to everything from a duck to a snail to a sardine can, eventually became chic to the point where the wealthy bought 2CVs simply for the fashion statement. The car was produced in various countries until 1990, at which point the final 2CV rolled out of a Portuguese factory. (Today, even though the 2CV is longer than 11 feet, it’s still generally accepted as a microcar.)

Despite its small size, the 2CV is a remarkably comfortable cruiser; call it the Cadillac of microcars, or maybe the Toyota Avalon. The suspension is as supple as can be, and when the owner insisted that we do some offroading in her car we were delighted to find that it could pull double duty as a dune buggy. It was hard not to grin as puzzled onlookers watched this funky French fandangle go places their SUVs only dream of.

We weren’t wearing our farmer’s hats, so there was ample headroom. With the canvas roof rolled back the 2CV is almost like a convertible, and there are clever vents everywhere to keep the occupants comfortable even on a hot summer day. Also, we didn’t expect the engine to be as quiet as it was.

 The large shift knob is attached to a rod that extends horizontally from the dash; gear selection is achieved by twisting the knob and then sliding the rod into or out of the dash. Although the 28 horsepower of the later 602cc cars isn’t that impressive on paper, we got the impression that all 28 horses were very healthy and eager to get the car down the road, or up a mountain—frankly, wherever we wanted to go.

Of all the cars in our group, the Citroën 2CV surprised us the most. It was far more refined and comfortable than it had any right to be for its size, and it really was a pleasure to cruise in.

Owner Opinion: “It’s not something that can be babied. You have to drive a Citroën in anger, much harder than you’d believe. It’s like an airplane; you run at nearly its maximum speed.”—John Weiser

Owner Opinion: “This particular car is one of the last produced by Citroën in 1990—actually manufactured in Portugal. I fell in love with the 2CV as a student in Europe in the ’70s—[it was] the cheapest transportation you could lay your hands on and an artistic palette for anyone interested in personalizing their transportation. Streets in neighborhoods where young people lived were lined with these ugly ducklings—you couldn’t help but smile when you saw them!”—Patty Schwarze


Germany’s Goggomobil was another microcar success story from Bavaria. While many other microcars employed radical design elements to cut costs or meet certain needs, the Goggomobil was basically a regular four-passenger car at two-thirds scale. Nearly 300,000 Goggomobils were produced between 1955 and 1969, making this company the top seller among true microcars.

Produced by Hans Glas GmbH, the majority of Goggomobils came equipped with two-cylinder, two-stroke engines displacing either 239, 296 or 392cc that were mounted in the rear and powered the rear wheels. The two-stroke was a step down from competing four-stroke engines in refinement, but it offered decent horsepower for the displacement.

The Goggomobil’s tidy design was surely one of the keys to its success.

The Coupe in particular has the look of a big American cruiser that’s been hit with some kind of sci-fi shrink ray to make it fun-sized.

Unless you’re two-thirds the size of the average human, squeezing into a Goggomobil is a bit tricky, but once inside you’ll be right at home. The interior is very attractive, with bold colors and surprisingly good fit and finish.

Again, nothing radical here, just a regular car made small.

The lever shifter is precise, although the H pattern has been rotated 90 degrees from the usual layout. The small two-stroke in the TS250 thrives on revs and isn’t really happy until you wind it out.

It doesn’t quite have the guts for American highway use, however.

The example we drove was prone to wandering on the road, but the owner suspected that the tire pressures were low and assured us that stability isn’t usually an issue in a Goggomobil.

If you become an owner, the rarity of these cars in the U.S. means you’ll be answering lots of questions wherever you go.

Owner Opinion: “I love the Goggomobil styling. They are essentially real cars in miniature. If you don’t like talking to people, do not buy a microcar. Microcars seem to bridge all of the gaps in the hobby. Everyone seems to love them because of and in spite of what they are.”—Billy Pau


If the Goggomobil is a shrunken American sedan, the Berkeley is a micro-sized front-wheel-drive Ferrari. With its long hood, convertible top and wide-mouth grille, the Berkeley Sports models actually look quite racy. And thanks to fiberglass monocoque construction with aluminum reinforcement, they tip the scales at just over 600 pounds—a healthy individual can lift the rear of the car off the ground without assistance.

Berkeleys were produced in the United Kingdom from 1956 until 1961, and many of the approximately 3000 built were sold in the U.S. The earliest engine options were two-cylinder two-strokes from Anzani (SA 322, indicating the displacement in cubic centimeters) or Excelsior (SE 328). Many of the early Anzani cars were converted to the more powerful Excelsior-spec powerplant, as was the case with the car depicted here.

As the years marched on, several other engines became available for the Berkeley, with the pinnacle being a 50-horsepower Royal Enfield 692cc four-stroke. So equipped, the tiny sports car could exceed 100 mph, assuming the driver was brave enough.

The Berkeley found quite a lot of success in racing, as its sporty design, low weight and engine class made it a remarkably nimble weapon for timed competition. Overtaking maneuvers were no doubt easier; the Berkeley is small enough that drivers about to be passed could look in their mirrors and be deceived by the illusion that the Berk was still many car lengths away. 

The interior of the Berkeley is insanely small and quite difficult to get into, particularly for drivers over six feet tall. The bench seat is little more than a thin cushion on the floor of the chassis.

Assuming that you do manage to squeeze yourself into place, if your legs are long you’ll find that your knees block your access to the shifter. The wheel is right in your chest, too. (Inexplicably, many of the people we know who have owned Berkeleys are big guys; our own Publisher Tim Suddard is over 220 pounds and six feet tall, and he loved his.)

Underway, the Berkeley has enough charm to negate its ergonomic shortcomings. It turns in very eagerly, likes to rev out, and thanks to its low weight has admirable performance in all categories. Just make sure you do a fitment test before you sign the check.

Owner Opinion: “The first time I saw a Berkeley I wanted one. I was struck by the styling, a miniature AC Cobra. I rather enjoy the looks and questions the car generates wherever it goes. Right after ‘What is it?’ comes ‘How fast will it go?’ and ‘It’s so cute!’ The girls all seem to love it, the guys are more interested in the engine.”—Don Becker

Honda Beat

The Honda Beat is a perfect example of a fun Japanese kei car. It has all the makings of a proper sports car, with two seats, a high-revving mid-mounted engine, a low curb weight, rear-wheel drive, disc brakes and an optional convertible top. And it’s a Honda, so it’s comfortable, well built and dead-nuts reliable.

At the heart of this tiny sports car is a three-cylinder, 656cc engine that cranks out 63 horsepower at a free-spinning 8100 revolutions per minute; it’s no coincidence that the maximum horsepower allowed in a kei car is also 63. At nearly 1700 pounds, that engine output doesn’t make the Beat a tire-scorching monster, but the engine lives to rev and working it through its five gears is quite a joy at any speed.

The Beat’s interior is very much like an early 1990s Honda Civic, but due to the reduced size everything is a little bit cozier. The optional convertible top gives the driver a good deal of comfort control, and standard air conditioning sets the Beat apart from the more vintage microcars (particularly during our sweltering Florida drive). The seats were very sporty and comfortable. 


The first model year of the Beat was 1991, and production ceased in 1996 after nearly 35,000 were produced. There were several different versions of the car, with the best-equipped models receiving antilock brakes and limited-slip differentials. The Beat was never officially sold in the U.S., but cars are starting to creep into the States via Canada’s more lax laws on gray market imports.

Owner Opinion: “It is a fun car to drive, and it’s so unique, people are always talking to me about it. The two parades I drove in were fun—the spectators just loved it. When driving Thunderbirds in parades I never had people stand in front of the car to stop me so they could take pictures.”—Charlie Kidd

smart fortwo

The smart fortwo (lower case is intentional—it’s a small car, after all) is a thoroughly modern evolution of the classic microcar. Designed and built in Germany with strong ties to Mercedes-Benz, the pint-sized smart packs many of the amenities found in a modern full-sized car into a package that can still park nose-first into a standard parallel parking spot.

The smart fortwo passion we drove came equipped with a/c, power windows, a CD player and a number of other comfort features. To meet federal safety standards, the panoramic glass roof was covered on the inside with some foam-like headlining, and the A-pillars were covered with similar Nerf-like inserts. Perhaps our government feels that people in the U.S. have more delicate heads than the Europeans.

One of the most peculiar aspects of the smart is its drivetrain. The three-cylinder turbocharged engine isn’t that radical, but it’s mated to what smart describes as an automated five-speed manual transmission.

The driver gets two pedals: gas on the right and brake on the left. A computer decides when to engage and disengage the clutch, and which gear to select.

It might sound like a conventional automatic, but make no mistake; underway, it’s like driving part of the car while a robot works the clutch and the gear lever without your input. It’s actually kind of fun, and there are paddle shifters on the wheel should you want to encourage the robot to pick a higher or lower ratio. Don’t expect lightning-quick shifts akin to a Ferrari F1 car, though, as the robot learned how to shift from transmission engineers who were looking to prolong the life of their creation.

The driver sits very high off the ground in a smart, so it feels bigger than it is and affords an excellent view of the road. Braking, handling and comfort are all very modern, if not exactly inspiring. It will manage on the highway, but the smart’s comfort zone would be in a crowded city hunting down those coveted parking spots. The gasoline variants of the smart get about 50 miles per gallon.

Owner Opinion: “I first became interested in these cars in 1999 when visiting Switzerland. In late 2004 it was announced that a California company would be bringing them into this country and making the necessary alterations [for U.S. legality]—I got mine through a Pittsburgh dealer. My biggest fear is to have problems with electronics that might require specialized knowledge or equipment that might be very difficult to find.”—Walt McKeehan

2007 MINI Cooper S

Although it’s not really a microcar, the new MINI Cooper is the smallest car sold in the U.S. on a large scale. And though it might be dwarfed by modern SUVs on the highway, in this crowd it was the one doing the towering.

The BMW-designed MINI is now in its second generation, and sure enough the newest version is a bit larger than its predecessor. Thankfully, they kept the weight gain to a minimum, although it still tips the scales at more than 2500 pounds, a half ton more than any of the other cars in our group. Jam-packed with airbags, crumple zones, computerized doodads, steel and glass, modern cars are simply more dense than their forebears.

By sticking to the successful formula of the original Mini, the new MINI is a surprisingly large car inside. Four people can fit comfortably, as can two people and a whole lot of their stuff. The two-box design keeps all the mechanical stuff up front and gives the occupants lots of space to stretch out. Even tall folks can fit with a helmet on for sporty work.

And sporty work is what the MINI Cooper S is all about. The newest model has replaced the 1.6-liter supercharged engine with an even more potent turbocharged lump.

The model shown here belongs to our own tech editor, Per Schroeder, who is using it to great effect on the local autocross scene—he hopes for a good showing at the nationals. Although it came rated from the factory at 172 horsepower at the crank, Per’s MINI put down 174 at the wheels, along with nearly 200 lb.-ft. of torque. To say it’s really fast is an understatement considering the small displacement.

We know that technically this isn’t a microcar, but it’s an interesting twist on the theme. We also didn’t let this one sway our judgments of the other cars.

Owner Opinion: “Our new MINI Cooper S captures a lot of the essence of the microcars in that it’s chock full of personality.  And by personality, I don’t mean unreliability or marking its spot on my garage floor with a drop of oil like a puppy.  It means having a chuckable chassis, a willing (very) engine and an engaging physical appearance.  The new MINI is a car that I pat on the nose gently with my hand as I walk past it in my garage.”—Per Schroeder

Fiat Fanatic

The Fiat 600 is one popular microcar that was notably absent from our lineup. Local racer and friend of the magazine Steven Piantieri has both a 1959 Fiat 600 Jolly and a 1960 Fiat Multipla, but unfortunately both of the cars picked an inopportune time to become immobile and were therefore unable to participate in our photo shoot.

Like the Mini, the Fiat 600 came in several shapes and sizes and was produced from the mid-1950s until almost 1970. With as much as 30 horsepower, the Fiat 600 isn’t the perfect cruiser for the modern highway, but it has more grunt than many other microcars and interior space similar to a Mini.

Small Plans for the Future

Although the peak of their popularity is now some 40 years behind us, a microcar resurgence isn’t totally out of the question. In the past few years, rising fuel prices in the U.S. have spurred a dramatic increase in the sale of revolutionary fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids, indicating that the general public might be willing to give another radical idea—the microcar—another chance.

Modern vehicles like the smart and the Japanese kei cars are already showing the world the viability of the concept. It will only help the cause if classic microcar owners do their part by driving them around, introducing the small-car concept to people who never realized that a full-fledged car could come up to their waist.

Besides, they’re just so infectiously fun. It’s hard to get road rage with everyone smiling and waving at you.

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Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
7/17/19 2:10 p.m.

It's good to see a Berkeley again. 

runningman48103 New Reader
4/13/20 12:21 p.m.

What? No '73-'79 Honda Civics? My 1974 at 139.8 in. wheelbase and 1500# is probably too fat. 

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