In 1959, the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernback (DDB) created an iconic ad for Volkswagen. The headline 'Think Small' has been rated by Ad Age magazine as number one in its top 100 advertisements of all time. The Volkswagen Type I (it was never officially called the Beetle) began proper production in 1945 and continued until July 30, 2003, when the last car was built in Mexico.
In the mid-'60s, it was powered by an air-cooled flat four displacing 1192cc. It was 13.4 feet long, 5.1 feet wide, 4.9 feet high and weighed around 1,800 pounds. It could carry four adults (or several dozen college students) when necessary, although it made a better fit with two adults and maybe a couple of kids. Compared to American contemporaries that were over 19 feet long and weighed well over 4,000 pounds, the Beetle was pretty small.
Like the Beetle, Citron's 2CV got its start before the Second World War, but went into full-scale production after hostilities ceased. It remained so until July 27, 1990, when the final one rolled out of the company's plant in Portugal. Originally, it had an air-cooled 375cc two-cylinder engine, superseded by a 425cc version in 1955. Later models built from 1968 had a larger, more powerful (if that's the right word for 28 hp) 602cc two-potter. The car was 12.4 feet long, 4.8 feet wide and 5.3 feet tall. It was a real lightweight at around 1,100 pounds. Clearly, it had the Beetle beat when it came to diminutive dimensions, but there were even smaller cars.
The original Mini was a sensation when it hit Britain in 1959. Alec Issigonis designed this minimalist two-box car to be the ultimate commuter machine, but it was soon pressed into service by the ultra-hip, and by racing and rally drivers, especially when John Cooper worked his magic. Equipped with an 850cc water-cooled inline four-cylinder, subsequent displacements went to 977, 970, 998, 1071, and 1275cc. Its length was 10 feet, width 4.6 feet and it sat 4.4 feet high. The Mini was another lightweight-one of the keys to its competition success-at around 1,400 pounds. The last classic-style Mini was built in 2000, the year BMW began building a much larger car by the same name.
Italy's equivalent was the Cinquecento (500 in Italian). Designed by Dante Giacosa, it debuted in 1957 with a two-cylinder air-cooled engine that displaced 479cc, followed by 499 and eventually 594cc. Although enthusiasts point to the hot Abarth versions as giant-killers, the car's real success was putting the average Italian on the road, as more than 3.7 million were sold. It was 9.7 feet long, 4.3 feet wide and as tall as it was broad, yet could seat four people at a stretch. It weighed about 1,100 pounds. The original ended production in 1975, but an all-new (and bigger) 500 is being built in Fiat's Poland plant.
Although the bubble-like BMW Isetta may appear foolish and toy-like, it's unlikely BMW would have survived without the sales generated by this tiny machine in the late 1950s. The Isetta had a single, side-hinged door, which was the entire front of the vehicle. Produced from 1956, it used a 298cc, single-cylinder, air-cooled motorcycle engine and a four-speed transmission. The Isetta was tiny: 7.5 feet long, 4.5 feet wide and 4.4 feet high. The car was so short that its total length would fit inside the Beetle's wheelbase. Even with only 770 pounds to push around, the tiny engine was pressed, and most people used the Isetta as an in-town commuter. It remained in production until 1962.
In the years after WWII, Messerschmitt was forbidden from building aircraft and so turned its talent toward automobiles. Sort of. Fend Flitzer designed the KR175 three-wheeler that went into production in 1953. It had tandem seating with a hinged 'bubble' canopy made from Plexiglas. Powered by a 174cc, two-stroke, single-cylinder motor-scooter engine, the first models had a kick-starter (later replaced with an electric starter). Relative to the micro-cars above, the KR175 was surprisingly long, at 9.1 feet, but incredibly narrow at four feet. It was also four feet high and weighed a mere 462 pounds. In 1955, the KR175 was replaced by a completely redesigned (but to the untrained eye, completely identical) KR200 model, also designed by Fend Flitzer. It remained in production until 1964, when it was finally driven off the market by the success of bigger cars like the Mini.
Although retro-styled models of the Beetle, Mini and Fiat 500 have been introduced, none have the DNA of a true micro-car. All that changes with the Smart, built by Daimler AG. Its history is a bit rocky. The notion of a modern microcar was pursued by Nicolas Hayek, head of the Swatch watch company. In 1994, he entered a joint venture with Daimler-Benz to create his vision of an eco-friendly commuter car. When it appeared in 1997, it didn't meet Hayek's expectations and he pulled out.
Daimler decided to develop the project itself and it has proved popular in Europe, especially in crowded cities where its tiny footprint makes it easy to park. The Smart Fortwo, now hitting the U.S. market, is 8.8 feet long, five feet wide and 5.1 feet high. Incredibly, the car's dimensions fall between the Fiat 500 and the BMW Isetta. In some cases, a Smart can park on the street by pulling in nose-to-curb, avoiding parallel parking altogether.
The Fortwo has a 999cc three-cylinder, water-cooled engine making 70 hp and a five-speed transmission. It weighs just 1,600 pounds-amazing given that it meets every U.S. and European crash standard, and comes with four airbags.
Back in 1973, E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, in which he challenged materialism and consumption, and espoused the virtues of the small in scale. He would have liked the Smart Fortwo.
We've come a long way toward more responsible personal transportation. But we still have further to go.