A microcar is an extremely small automobile. Various definitions are used, including "less than 3 metres in length" and "less than 85 cubic feet/2400 litres interior volume". Typically, microcars seat only the driver and a single passenger, and many have only three wheels. Microcars are usually designed and produced for economic purposes when materials and heavy equipment are scarce or fuel is scarce and expensive. Many microcar designs flourished in post-World War II Europe, particularly in Germany, where former military aircraft manufacturers such as Messerschmitt and Heinkel were prominent microcar makers. The Messerschmitt KR175, KR200 and TG500 even had aircraft-style bubble canopies, giving rise to the term bubble car to refer to all these post-war microcars. Isettas and others also had bubble-like appearance.
France also produced large numbers of similar tiny vehicles called voiturettes, but unlike the German makes, these were rarely sold abroad. Very small cars have also been popular in Japan, where again they attract various tax and insurance benefits when compared to other vehicles. These are known as keicars and differ from most of the European microcars in that they are typically designed and built as scaled-down versions of very traditional car configurations, while European microcar designs tend to be unorthodox and sometimes bizarre.
The Smart or "smart" (now called Fortwo) launched in 1998 could be seen as a successful re-invention of the microcar principle. Like the Japanese keicars, it is of relatively conventional design. Microcars built in Europe after World War I were often motorcycle based and referred to as "cycle cars".
Another name for microcar is Station Car, where the intended use is to travel from a suburban home to an interurban transit station or Park and Ride lot where the vehicle remains until the operator returns from the commute to and from the workplace. In some locations electric vehicle recharging is provided to encourage the use of electric vehicles. NEVs may also be used as station cars where the roadway speed limits permit such use.
Reasons for microcars
The economy of operating such a small car (mostly in fuel and tires) has often been helped by three-wheeled microcars or cars with very small engines being treated as motorcycles for tax and insurance purposes. In some countries (e.g. Austria) three-wheelers with a certain maximum weight were considered as motorcycles with side car and therefore no car drivers license was needed. This was assuring a certain market for elder people who did not want to pass a car drivers license. Three wheelers are a separate class of their own in Britain. In Germany, what could be driven with a motorcycle license depended only on engine displacement, so many of the microcars had four wheels. The Corbin Sparrow is licensed as a motorcycle and parked in motorcycle spaces in California, and probably in other places.
In some European countries, taxes used to depend on engine displacement and/or insurance on power. This has given rise to names of such cars as Citroën 2CV and Renault 4CV. This favorable treatment by governments is based on the benefits to a society of reducing use of such resources as minerals, parking space and foreign exchange, reduced noise and chemical pollution, reduced hazard to others and etc. Reduced global warming from carbon dioxide emission has now been added to this list.
Although microcars use much less fuel than the more common sizes do, they are still far from record and competition fuel economy, which is measured in thousands of miles per gallon (or in ml./100 km.).
Another advantage is the ease of parking. Some microcars can be parked perpendicular, where other cars park parallel, or be lifted by hand, like a motor scooter, to get into a tight spot. The Isetta and some others had forward entry, to facilitate perpendicular parking close to other vehicles.
The small size improves handling by reducing the angular inertia. The Messerschmitt and Spatz have been described as much better than ordinary cars on snow and ice. Spare room on the road and ease of missing obstacles are also improved. For the performance oriented, who prefer more than two wheels or a roof, the scaling laws show that one need not give up acceleration until the curb weight comes down to around the driver's weight, because power per weight of the car itself improves with small size, in an otherwise similar design. Top speed is lost with small scale, due to the decreased Reynolds number, but this is a small effect. The Messerschmitt TG500 had about a 90 mph (125 km/h) top speed with 20 horsepower (15 kW) and intuitive aerodynamics.
Microcars by country of origin
Some examples of battery electric microcars are:
- The Th!nk City, imported to the USA by Ford Motor Company to satisfy California Zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) requirements in the state of California. Removed from the market by Ford in a bargain with the California Air Resources Board. See PZEV for more information.
- The REVA electric vehicle as used in its home environment, India. This may soon be exported to the USA with speed electronically limited and sold as an NEV.
- The obstacle to adaptation of such vehicles in the United States is less technical than cultural and political. The mandates by regulatory powers that such vehicles to meet full U.S. safety regulations ensures the unavailability of vehicles suitable for use in mixed traffic conditions that predominate in U.S. suburban areas. To supporters of electric vehicles this appears not to be an accident.
- The Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum
- Microcar French website
- Microcar - English Website
- Bugatti, The Man and the Marque - by Jonathan Wood, 1992
- Kleinwagen, Small Cars, Petites Voitures - by Hans-Ulrich von Mende and Matthias Dietz, Benedikt Taschen, 1994