Car Show Classics: Some Major Microcars At Motorclassica

One of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Motorclassica show was a tightly-packed display on the upper level of the Royal Exhibition Building.  Just look at the variety – Goggomobil Dart, Peel P50, a couple of Messerschmitts plus more.  There are some really interesting stories amongst this lot.

The Goggomobil Dart was a local effort, built by Bill Buckle in Sydney to add some pizazz to the local Goggomobil assembly operation.  It had the ‘big’ 400cc engine (instead of 300 in other models), and a 0-50 mph time of 27 seconds which depending on your definition may or may not have lived up to the advertised claim of “vivid acceleration”!

Here is another Dart from last year’s show, that was on display as an art object in addition to its interest as a car.  Re-named D’ART, it was done by realist painter Robert Clinch with his signature paper planes.  It is certainly impressively done, no matter whether you ‘get it’ or not.

Here is the interior – emphasising the low cost, light weight aspect of the car.  They only weighed 345 kg or 760 lb!  Depending on what source you read they made 500 or 700 of them from 1958 to 1961, and apparently couldn’t keep up with demand.

One of the more common microcars was the Isetta.  This one is a BMW Isetta 300, built under licence alongside their grand luxury cars that were so out of place in post-war Europe.

Here is another car showing the front-opening door with its attached steering wheel.  The arrangement is really quite ingenious, even if it is barely conceivable as a car by today’s standards.  Next door is a Heinkel, which came out shortly after the Isetta, or it might be a UK-built Trojan.

This 1963 Mazda R360 coupe is an example of Mazda’s first car, that was introduced in 1960.  It had a 356cc v-twin engine in the back, with 16 hp and a top speed of 52 mph.  A small number were brought to Australia prior to the introduction of the more mainstream 800 Familia.  It is interesting that weight is just 380 kg (840 lb) – not much more than the fibreglass Dart roadster.

This car was used as a daily driver in Sydney until at least the 1970’s, before it was exhumed from long-term storage and restored about 15 years ago.  It is used regularly but is usually seen in a small museum in Portland where this photo was taken.  It looks like it should be in a Disney Cars movie!

Next is something you might not associate with microcars, but there is no doubt that the Steyr-Puch Haflinger is a micro off-roader with its 643 cc rear-mounted flat-twin engine and 600 kg weight (1320 lb).  They are a real mountain goat of a machine.

You can see where the engine lives underneath the rear load bed – carrying capacity is an impressive 500 kg (1100 lb).  I had not realised that while over 40% of the 16,647 produced went into military use, some of these were used by the Australian Army.  They had 46 delivered in August 1966, each with a small trailer, and were disposed of between 1972-1979.  It seems that they were mainly used on-base by supply battalions.

This shot of the driving compartment is poor, but I thought it was worth including.  While cars usually have intrusion bars in their doors, I suppose you could say the chains here are used to prevent extrusion – ie falling out!

Here is a Vespa 400, with its roll-back canvas roof.  Again there is a spot in the Cars movies to be had surely?  It had a two-stroke 2-cylinder engine, with top seed of about 50-55 mph.  An interesting quirk is they were actually built in France, not Italy!  The car was designed by the famous Italian scooter manufacturer, but built by ACMA of Fourchambault near Dijon who had also previously built scooters.

Next we come across a unique Australian car, the Lightburn Zeta.  Lightburn were an engineering company in Adelaide who manufactured a range of products as diverse as boats, concrete mixers, wheelbarrows, trailers, hydraulic jacks, washing machines and dryers.  The Zeta was powered by a 324cc Villiers two-stroke engine and 4-speed gearbox, and had a steel frame (74″ wheelbase) and fibreglass body just 121″ long.  The intention was to sell the cars across Asia, while in the Australian market they were marketed as a second car – something that was not common at the time.

There wasn’t a rear door or hatch, which limited practicality, but one infamous feature was that with optional rails the seats could be mounted on the roof to act as an impromptu grandstand.  Or perhaps get away from Australia’s deadly wildlife?  Whatever, it certainly puts the Honda CRV’s picnic table in the shade!  This was perhaps an attempt to make a feature out of a flaw – the seats had to be quickly removable to access the rear compartment.  Surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be any photos on the web of the seats on the roof.

The Zeta Sports was released soon after, based on the 1957 Frisky Sprint from the UK; surely one of the most inaccurately-named cars ever?  There were some changes such as the doors being eliminated to simplify and strengthen the body, and it had a Sachs 498cc 2-cylinder engine which increased power from 16 to 21 horsepower.

The design is more elegant from the rear, and sleeker than the Goggomobil Dart – which had gone out of production more than 2 years previously.  It was fair to say that the market had moved on – just 28 of the Sports roadsters were built.

The interior is a little more conventional than the Dart, in that it has an instrument panel, but it was still pretty minimally-equipped.

But the roadster pales into insignificance when compared to the Zeta ute!  Perhaps that is overstating things, but yes everything can be made into a ute in Australia.  You can also see what the front of the vehicle looks like in this shot.  Not the best-looking car of 1963’s class really, if I’m honest.

The tray on the back of this one has metal drop sides on a flat-bed tray while others basically had the roof removed, opening back seat area for load carrying as seen below.  At least the utes had an opening tail gate…  Only around 8 utes were built altogether, and the highest number were sold to the Sydney City Council and used in the Hyde Park.

Note the advertisement seen on the windscreen above is boasting of 1,000 miles non-stop!  The Zeta cost only 10% less than a Mini, so it is not hard to see why few were sold – just 363 cars or at least body shells were built in about 2 years, and it seems that around 80 of them were not built up into complete cars.  Lightburn quietly went back to their other operations.

These Suez Canal oil crisis-inspired cars weren’t the first microcars though, they had first emerged in the very early days of motoring as a more attainable way of getting yourself on four wheels.  The Peugeot Bébé BP1 cyclecar, as they were known then, first appeared in 1913, replacing an earlier Type 69 model that originated in 1904.

There were a trio of the cars on display.  I had not realised that these were actually designed by Ettore Bugatti no less, who sold the design to Peugeot.  It was a more ‘grown-up’ design than many, with a 844cc 4-cylinder T-head engine (ie with side valves, but intake and exhaust on opposite sides of the engine) and a conventional drive shaft where others had chain drive.  Like others, the car weighed 350 kg (770 lb), and could reach 60 km/h (37 mph) which seems like plenty on what are almost bicycle tyres.

This car was owned by the Griswold family from 1913 when they purchased the car in New York City, and drove it 300 km to Lenox Massachusetts and subsequently Old Lyme Connecticut.  The family enjoyed the car until 2014.

This one is even more remarkable.  It is one of few that were sold new to Australia, and ended up in the 1940’s as a landmark in a wrecking or car sales yard on Parramatta Road, the main road in western Sydney as “the car up a tree”.  Many years later it was rescued but the body was not salvageable.  The search for replacement panels turned up a car in Scotland that was bought by a young man who dismantled and stored it before signing up for World War 1.  Unfortunately he never came home, and the car sat for 60-70 years before becoming the source of a new body for the car from Sydney, then in New Zealand.

Next time I will delve into either the Art Deco cars, or the American muscle cars.


Further Reading:

Car Show Classics: Motorclassica Outdoor Display

Car Show Classics: Motorclassica’s Cadillac Collection

Car Show Classic: 2018 Tourclassica – Quick Observations