Small, cheap and rare: a history of the microcar

Aurich Lawson

European automakers are currently stumbling over the idea of ​​what personal transportation and “last mile” solutions will look like in the coming years. The solutions are always electric and, furthermore, tiny. What most companies (except Citroën, Renault and Fiat) seem to have forgotten is that we have always had an answer to this problem: the microcar.

The microcar is a small, unique thing: its job is to frugally get one person (or maybe two) where they need to go while taking up as little space as possible. A few have made their way into the public gear Peel’s cars became a global megastar, BMW’s Isetta remains a design icon and the Messerschmitt KR200 is simply cool, but where did these little wonders come from? And do they have a future?

Well, without the predecessors of the microcar, we may not have the modern automobile as we know it. Something like.

Let’s go back to the genesis of the automobile: the Mercedes-Benz Patent Motorwagen. While it’s not a microcar by any means (although it only seats two people and has a small engine and only three wheels), it got a lot of people thinking.

While Karl Benz was inventing the automobile and his wife was driving around in 1885, a French inventor named Léon Bollée got to thinking. He was 15 at the time, but that gave her time to be with his thoughts. At that age, he had such a sharp brain that he invented a kind of pedal boat. Bollée was clever, to say the least: he built calculators to help his father’s business, one of which won a prize at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and was patented around the world.

In 1895, Bollée and his father created “La Novelle”, a steam-powered tricycle, and that same year, Bollée also created one powered by gasoline. A year later, Bollée founded Léon Bollée Automobiles to mass produce his small cars, calling them “Voiturette”, a combination of the French for automobile (voiture) and the suffix added to a word to make it small (ette). Small car, basically.

A few years later, Renault (maker of small hatchbacks and the gloriously silly Avantime and popularizer of the minivan in Europe) became a carmaker with the launch of its descriptively named Voiturette. Louis Renault’s little mechanical marvel was built in 1898, and the first one was sold on Christmas Eve of the same year to a friend of Louis’s father: he liked the fuel economy of his single-cylinder De Dion-Bouton, 273 cc, 1.75 hp (1.3 kW) and the fact that it could move around the city with ease.

That same night, the story goes, Renault sold another twelve cars. In just five years of production, the first Renault went from a two-seater convertible to a covered four-seater family car capable of reaching more than 56 km/h. Note that less than a century earlier, Stephenson’s rocket and its top speed of nearly 30 mph (48 km/h) caused widespread concern about whether human physiology could withstand such speeds. 35 mph was quite an achievement.

The Voiturettes and their less “ette” siblings were very successful, but they were too much for some people. That’s where the cycle car came in.

First appearing around 1910, cyclecars took small engines (single-cylinder, V-twin, the occasional four-cylinder) and attached them to simple, lightweight four-wheeled bodies. To be a cycle car, a vehicle had to have a gearbox and clutch. A huge industry sprang up around it, and for good reason: regular cars were expensive to tax and operate, while a cycle car was not.

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