|Shake, Rattle and Roll; Bubble Cars - Part 2|
|Written by Andrew Lawrence|
An aptly-scaled account of bubble-cars and micro-motoring
Last time we talked about the circumstances that led to the most famous Bubble of all, the Isetta, and explored the history and evolution of that noble carriage. This week we'll learn more about the many other micro-motoring species, the demise of the Bubble, and the inevitable resurgence of tiny transport.
The German company Heinkel, owned by a certain Professor Ernst Heinkel, had up until the end of the second World War been best known for producing aircraft.
Post-war the company had its wings clipped, and workforce numbers dropped from 30,000 to just 200! It diversified—like so many other German companies—for its very survival. Heinkel began producing small scooters in place of heavy bombers.
When the concept of the Isetta became public, Heinkel looked carefully at Iso's design and saw a concept which it could seize upon—a small car powered by its range of scooter engines.
With Heinkels aircraft background, the company's engineers knew they could produce a car which was both lighter, more spacious and more fuel efficient than the little Iso. They were good to their word.
By 1955 Heinkel had a design outlined. It used the same single front door as the Isetta, but this time the steering column remained fixed to the shell of the car. It also had the same teardrop styling, although it was somewhat more graceful in appearance and even more 'bubbly' than the Isetta.
It was the named the Heinkel Kabine 150.
If the styling was similar to the Isetta, there the similarities ended. Whereas the Isetta had a conventional (for the time) separate chassis and shell design, the Heinkel was much more advanced—it featured a design technique pioneered in aircraft design, known as monocoque, which is French for 'single shell'.
This meant the chassis and shell were built as a single unit and resulted in a huge reduction in weight. Today, almost every car produced uses monocoque construction, but back in the early fifties it was very advanced, and certainly unheard of in a car of such tiny dimensions and low price.
The Kabine 150 was a foot larger than the Isetta, had more interior space, yet weighed almost 100KG less!
Under the skin there were more changes. The engine was a single cylinder 174cc(10.6cu.in.) four stroke unit- a much smaller unit. This produced a meagre 9 bhp, but performance was roughly equal with that of the Isetta—the lighter weight of the car paying dividends. Economy was also much improved.
The gearbox was very different from the Isetta as well. This was pure motorcycle technology, and the gearchange was sequential.
This car was capable of a genuine 100 miles per gallon—quite an achievement for 1950s automobile engineering. Top speed was about 56mph.
Other improvements included rear seats—although only suitable for children (or very small adults)—more front legroom, and rack-and-pinion steering. Strangely, the car was initially designed as a trike, and later converted to a four-wheeler—a complete reversal of the Isetta development.
By the time the Heinkel was ready for production, BMW had acquired their license from Iso to build the Isetta. It would be mere understatement to say BMW were more than a little concerned that a later—and in many ways better—design was about to launch at the same time as their re-engineered Isetta and eat into their market share.
An agreement was struck between Heinkel and BMW. Production of the Kabine 150 bubble would not begin until 1956—this gave BMW a 12 month head start.
BMW needn't have worried. Although the Heinkel sold reasonably well, it never came close to the volume of sales of the Isetta. It is also claimed that Heinkel lost money on every car sold, which even the novice entrepreneur knows is not good for business.
Other models of the car were developed, including the aforementioned four-wheeler, a van, and also models with larger capacity engines.
Cars were built under license in Argentina. The shells were specially reinforced to cope with the rough dirt roads, and the cars also were equipped with heavy duty air filters to deal with the dust.
By 1959 Ernst Heinkel had acquired his very own personal set of wings and was on his way to the great aircraft hanger in the sky. The company, now able to build aircraft once more, decided to sell the little car to an outfit in Dundalk, Ireland. This left Heinkel still manufacturing and supplying engine and gearbox components from its scooter division.
Henceforth, the name of the car was badged as the Heinkel Ireland.
Quality control was considerably poorer in the Irish factory, with it's dirt flooring and outside storage for components. Cars were built here until 1961.
From 1961, production was transferred to a South London factory in Croydon, UK, and the little Heinkel Ireland became known as the Trojan. Cars were built for a further two years, before finally ceasing production in 1964.
Final production figures stood in the region of 25,000-30,000 cars.
Flirtation with a Flitzer
Fritz Fend was a German aircraft designer. Shortly after WWII, he developed a small vehicle for disabled pilots and other ex-servicemen maimed in combat. He named this vehicle the Flitzer.
The aircraft lineage of the Flitzer design can be easily spotted when you realise the method of entry is like that of a fighter plane—a hinged cockpit.
The Flitzer was available with a pedal drive, or with a small two-stroke petrol engine. The controls could be modified to suit the driver's special requirements—however, direct handlebar steering and pedals were generally the order of the day.
The design met with some success, not only from the disabled, but others looking for cheap and simple transport. Fend developed it further, increasing the size of the engine and refining other aspects of the vehicle.
By 1953, Fend had developed a new car based on the Flitzer, called the KR175. The KR stood for kabinroller and the numerals indicated the engine capacity in cubic centimetres.
Fend had also allied himself with a famous aircraft manufacturer—Messerschmitt.
Willi Messerschmitt had seen promise in Fend's Flitzer design, and saw commercial interest for his ideas outside of vehicles solely aimed at disabled ex-servicemen.
The KR175 featured tandem seating, handlebar steering, and cable-operated brakes. Early models were kick-started—later, an electric starter was introduced. Clutch was engaged via a small lever on the gear stick, throttle controlled by a twist-grip on one handlebar.
Motive power was a small rear mounted Sachs 175cc (10.7cu.in.) two-stroke single-cylinder engine producing 9bhp. Suspension was a mixture of coil spring and a novel rubber band type springing. A motorcycle-style sequential gearbox was fitted—reverse gear was extra! Power to the rear wheel was via chain drive.
The lines of the car were much more stylish than it's smaller predecessor. The car still looks futuristic today.
Although the engine was tiny, the car was very lightweight. The car featured monocouque construction techniques, another hangover from aircraft design practice, so even though the power on hand was meagre, performance was very respectable.
Construction was all steel, with a Perspex dome and side windows and a glass windscreen. The Germans nicknamed the car "Snow White's coffin"'—not difficult to see why.
By 1955 Fend had developed the KR175 into the KR200.
Here was a very much more refined design. The suspension was revised, and everything mounted on rubber to damp out vibration and noise. The car still featured a two-stroke single cylinder engine, albeit of larger capacity. Power was up by two gee-gee's to 11bhp!
This was coupled to a four speed sequential gearbox—still with no reverse—but now the engine had a dual points ignition set-up. This ingenious feature enabled the engine to be stopped and started in the opposite direction. The driver now had four reverse gears to play with! Theoretically it was possible to go just as fast in reverse as forwards, but it wasn't a very wise thing to do.
Gone was the gearstick-mounted clutch lever and motorcycle-like handlebar throttle—these controls were now floor mounted—however the directly-coupled handlebar steering, cable-operated brakes and rubber suspension were still much in evidence.
Styling-wise, the KR200 was a more purposeful looking beast. A new wraparound windshield improved forward visibility. Front wing cut-outs squared the lines off somewhat. The pod shaped wings of the KR175 had led to a poor steering lock, resulting in a wide turning circle&mdashpracticality won over style in the new model.
Additional KR200 models included a convertible, a speedster, and a roadster.
By the late fifties Fend had parted company with Messerschmitt and set up his own company, FMR (Fend moteren roller). 1957 was the year in which he was to introduce his premier model—the Messerschmitt TG500, better known in micro-car circles as the Tiger.
This was, to all intents, as close as you can get to a sporty bubble. Although from the outside it looks like a four-wheeled KR200, under the skin things were very different.
Gone were the cable brakes, crude gearbox and single cylinder engine. In their place a 500cc (30.5cu.in) twin-cylinder two-stroke engine was inserted, along with coil-over-shock independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. The Tiger had a sporty performance, with top-end speed close to 90 mph!
The gearbox had a proper reverse fitted as standard, and had a more conventional H-plan arrangement.
Despite this technical tour de force, the Tiger was expensive and temperamental, and therefore appealed chiefly to enthusiasts. 320 were produced alongside the more popular KR200 until Fend called it a day in 1961.
Out of all the bubble cars on the road today, the Tiger is probably the most expensive. Cars, when they do exchange, sell for well in excess of £20,000. Rarity is part of the reason—only about 150 cars are known to still exist.
Production of Messerschmitts continued until 1964. By this time about 25,000 cars had rolled out of the gates. Primary exports were the UK, USA and Australia.
Whatever happened to the bubble?
By the 1960s bubble car production was down to a trickle. Although they continued to be produced until the mid 60s, demand was much lower than it had been in the previous decade.
So what caused this shift in fortune for the humble bubble?
Well, there were a few factors.
By the 1960s European economies were starting to lift, and people were getting richer. As a result consumer spending rose, and people started to look at bigger and brighter things.
Oil prices were also lower, so people weren't as concerned with fuel economy.
Also, by the end of the fifties a whole raft of small cars had been developed by large companies—well experienced in car design—which were superior and more practical than the bubble cars.
Italy had the Fiat 500 and 600, France had the 2CV, for Germans the Beetle was now affordable, and Britain had the Mini. All these cars offered four seats and luggage space, combined with reasonable speed and fuel economy.
The Mini was a car developed by Sir Alec Issigonis under the brief "I want you to design something that'll wipe those bloody bubble cars off the road!"
Issigonis fulfilled his brief. Within the first four years of Mini production, bubble car production was consigned to the history books, and the Mini went on to legendry status and a 40 year production run.
Bubble cars, however, continued to be a regular site on European roads throughout the 60s. They were very popular with young motorists, often on tight budgets or only holding motorcycle licenses*.
By the 1970s bubbles were disappearing from the roads, and from the public consciousness. Worn out, rusted and worthless, they got slung into the back of barns, gardens and scrap heaps.
A few forward-thinking enthusiasts began to form clubs, and buy up old stocks of spares from suppliers that no longer wanted to stock them through lack of demand.
In the majority of cases the parts were given up for scrap value. This enabled enthusiasts to keep their cars on the road until such time as new spares could be remanufactured—still a far off dream at that time.
Bubbling in the 21st century
Today, bubble cars have become collector's items. Still economic transport, even compared with today's computer-controlled cars, their concept remains as logical as ever.
Now though, people buy and own them for novelty value, an expensive toy, rather than A-to-B transport. Folk cosset and pamper them, keep them garaged—and in better condition than when they were new.
Spares availability is first class. Thanks to the dedication of club members finding companies to remanufacture parts, almost anything and everything is available for these cars. Cars which 20 years ago would have been considered un-restorable are being rebuilt by enthusiasts.
Value-wise, most bubble cars have exceeded the prices more exotic machinery fetches on today's classic car market. A concours Isetta can fetch upwards of £6000. A Heinkel £5000. Messerschmitts start from around £5000, and can go as high as £30,000 for a Tiger!
Of course to get these prices, a car has to be superb in every respect—but remember that these vehicles were once considered the lowest end of the car market!
Micro Cars have also made a comeback. The Mercedes built MCC Smart Car has a small 699cc three-cylinder turbocharged engine. Capable of modern day motorway cruising speeds, it combines good fuel economy—the diesel version can return 90mpg—with decent performance and modern refinement, all in a tiny package of just over 8'.
Very much a present day bubble...but perhaps minus the curves.
In a strange twist of fate, BMW—whose Isetta was outclassed by the British Mini (originally badged as the Austin 7)—started building cars by purchasing a license to build an Austin 7 badged as the BMW Dixi.
Today, the new Mini is owned by—you guessed it—BMW!
What a reversal of fortune.
Tell me more
I've barely scratched the surface with this article. There were literally dozens of different marques and models of cars, to cover them all would fill and encyclopaedia, and bore the uninitiated to tears. So for those who would like to delve deeper, here are a few links to some great websites with lots of pictures and info.
In case you missed it, check out part 1 of our exclusive bubble-car retrospective!