Automotive History: 1946-70 King Midget – “World’s Most Exciting Small Car.”

mod11-backAll images courtesy of The International King Midget Car club: kingmidgetcarclub.org

I know the sight of this vehicle causes about a third of you to say “that’s a lawnmower!” while still another third of you are ogling that panther police car.  The remainder of you for whom that does not apply can read on.

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King Midget was started in 1946 by Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt in Athens, Ohio. Their dream, like many of the time, was to build a car that anyone could afford to buy.  Their first attempt, the Model One, was offered only as a kit car, which contained  the frame, axles, and steering mechanism, along with plans for bending your own sheet metal. The resulting vehicle was as simple as it was small, having beam axles and no differential with only one wheel being driven. The  partners also published a bi-monthly catalog with government surplus wheels, engines, bearings, and other things that purchasers of the kits would need to complete their cars, in addition to their main business at the time, motor scooters. Eventually, they began to offer complete cars with a six horsepower Wisconsin engine.

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After nine prototypes were built, the Model Two was released in 1951. It grew to resemble more of a “normal” car in form, if not in size. Powered by a seven and half horsepower Wisconsin engine, it still lacked a reverse gear and a starter motor, although it did offer an automatic transmission, and like the Model T was only available in a single color purchased from Ford’s suppliers. $500 got you a 500 pound car, either as a kit or fully assembled. Options included such luxury items as the previously mentioned starter, reverse gear, a choice of Philippine mahogany or steel doors, and other options designed to make it seem like a more typical American automobile. In the era where safety equated to bigger being better, it seemed most of the excitement that the slogan promised consisted of avoiding accidents (“Hey lady, get a real car!”).  Its 102 inch body rode on a seventy-two inch wheelbase, compared to an eighty-inch wheelbase and 145 inch body for a Crosley or the 115 inch wheelbase of a chassis supporting a Chevrolet’s 197.5 inch body.

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Perhaps sensing this, the owners began to diversify. A golf model was offered, as well as the ‘junior’ models  to help indoctrinate youngsters into the wonderful world of motoring.

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In 1957, the third and final King Midget was offered.  This generation gained unit body construction, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and a nine and half horsepower Wisconsin engine. Like most cars of the time,  it grew with a 76.5 inch wheelbase and a 117 inch body that retailed for $900. This body style remained in production until the end in 1970, albeit with improvements such as metal doors, a twelve horsepower Kohler engine, and a vinyl folding top.

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Things pretty much kept on as is until 1966, when Mr. Orcutt and Mr. Dry wanted to retire and sold the business to group of investors, who promptly turned the production line to full tilt, heedless of the fact that they had purchased a niche business. The red ink flowed  and the investors headed to the door to collect their golden parachutes. The plant’s manager, Vernon Eads, tired to revive the business with a trendy fiberglass dune buggy-style body and a new plant in Florida, but a fire destroyed the mold, bringing production to a halt after twenty-five years. One wonders how much longer they could have continued with the increasing emphasis on safety that the 1970s brought.

The spare-parts business has survived to the present day with several changes in ownership. That, and an enthusiastic owners’ club guarantee that the King Midget will be a part of the American automotive landscape for years to come.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6ndZE1fLq0&w=640&h=360]

links : The International King Midget Car Club  Midget Motors Supply