Why was I not surprised to find a Messerschmitt in Tokyo? That old Axis connection, perhaps. And the well-known local penchant for everything exotic, unusual and left-field, at least in automotive terms (and barring anything called Kia or Hyundai – there are still a few taboos here). Nevertheless, I did do a double take when I saw this sitting in front of someone’s house, because even back when these were made, they looked positively alien.
Finding one of these machines in England could have also made sense, for folks there revere the three-wheeler as much if not more than the Japanese do. And it seems the Brits really took to this car, though how many of these were made with handlebars on the right remains unclear.
The folks who imported Messerschmitts in Japan at the time also imported Lotus, apparently – a wiser pick, though in terms of raw numbers, the Kabinenroller was nothing to sniff at. No idea whether these were all that popular in Japan. I doubt it, as they must have seemed very expensive compared to local kei cars.
This contraption was originally designed by aeronautical engineer Fritz Fend (1920-2000) as the Fend 150. Lacking production facilities, Fend teamed up with Willy Messerschmitt, whose facilities now lacked a product. They created RSM (Regensburger Stahl- und Metallbau) to put the trike into production under the Messerschmitt KR175 name, which began in early 1953. Though there were still many changes made to the design for the first few months, the tiny tandem trike was a success.
The KR175 design was even licensed in Italy to Mivalino, a joint-venture of gun-maker Beretta and motorcycle-maker Benelli. By 1955, Fend had reworked the design pretty extensively – the canopy, front end and the single-cylinder Fichtel & Sachs two-stroke engine were revised, resulting the KR200.
At the same time, the Messerschmitt works were kept busy thanks to the Mokuli, another Fend-engineered trike. The year 1955 was a good one for the company: 15,000 KR175s and KR200s were sold — an all-time record. However, Willy Messerschmitt saw that the time was ripe to cash in his chips.
By mid-1956, aircraft production could now be resumed in West Germany and BMW had launched the Isetta. Messerschmitt sold his RSM shares to Fend, who created FMR (Fahrzeug- und Maschinenbau Regensburg) to continue vehicle production. The KR200 kept its legendary birthname and, by January 1957, gained an FMR logo (missing on our feature car) and a soft-top option.
The proliferation of bubble cars (BMW, Glas, Heinkel, etc.) in Germany and the competition of cheaper “proper” cars like VW, NSU and Lloyd turned the bottom of the market into a shark tank. Ultimately, only BMW and VW survived. FMR fought gamely, launching the KR201 roadster and the sporty four-wheeled 2-cyl. Tiger in 1958.
The Tiger was quite a spirited little thing, but it was far too expensive to be successful – only around 300 were made until 1961. The KR200 held on until 1964, though production numbers after 1960 were dismal. Just about 28,000 of those were made in ten model years – half of which were actually built during the first year of production, i.e. before FMR came to be.
Though not insignificant, this production run is a far cry from the (much cheaper) Isetta’s numbers. However, those who tested both bubble cars usually much preferred the Messerschmitt, whose low centre of gravity made for a far more secure road manners than the fridge-on-roller-skates BMW. Going up to the 90kph maximum speed in the KR200 was nonetheless not for the faint of heart.
Although not inexpensive, the Messerschmitt was decently-built, reliable and extremely economical: up to 75mpg (3 litres / 100km), though that’s not counting the oil, two-stroke oblige. Styling-wise, it could also be said that the Messerschmitt at least attempted to look like a comprehensive whole. It’s no oil painting, but it has a certain oddball streamlined chic. The taillights poking out the rear are especially neat.
Having read a couple of period tests, I would be interested in trying one of these out for myself. Journos who took these for a spin say that these take a little getting used to, but become lots of fun once the mix of bike and car controls are assimilated. Arriving anywhere in one of these would also be a genuinely fun experience. It’s difficult not to smile when seeing a Messerschmitt and even non-enthusiasts would find this vehicle noteworthy, with that tah-dah moment when you open the canopy…
On the down side, proper care needs to be taken to keep the recommended tyre pressures: suspension, speed and stability all depend on it, much more so than on a four-wheeler. Additionally, the idea of sitting in this thing in the middle of Tokyo’s stifling summer heat does not really appeal (though that’s not a problem right now). Lastly, if you happen to find an engaging lady passenger, she’ll be sitting behind you. There’s a price to pay to pilot a Messerschmitt.