back to article Messerschmitts, Sinclairs and a '50s living room: The Bubblecar Museum

Sir Alec Issigonis' Mini may, perhaps, be the most famous of British small cars, and the Fiat 500 one of the most well known continental ones, but before either of those appeared, came plenty of other tiny vehicles, aimed at providing transport on a budget to people across Europe. With engines as small as 122cc, often only …

  1. Alister Silver badge

    Not really a correction, but if you want the phrase to fit the meter of the original song, then the caption on the last photo should be:

    "Have you ever seen a bubblecar that's pink? Think!"

  2. Dapprman
    Thumb Up

    Shame they would never pass modern safety requirements

    I remember as a young kid a Bond Buggy near me and thinking it looked really sporty. It was another 5-10 years before I discovered the truth.

    For me Kei cars have been closer to the mark and (until they almost got taxed out of existence) almost followed the same origins. Was tempted by a Honda Beat once, and I'd still be tempted if I saw a Mazda/Autozam AZ1 in this country going for reasonable money and in good condition.

  3. Anonymous John

    The Peel P50 is back in production.

    http://www.peelengineering.com/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The Peel P50 is back in production.

      A £13000 vehicle with a 50cc engine and a top speed of 28mph? I know the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but I find it hard to imagine even the most eccentric billionaire buying one for the kids.

      1. Steve Evans

        Re: The Peel P50 is back in production.

        I wonder if they took any tips from the P45, like a reverse gear?

  4. Neil 44

    The really bubble shaped ones were Heinkels (looks like they were later branded BMW / Isetta...) - the cigar shaped ones were Messerschmitts

    (Not particularly an enthusiast, but I remember being taken out for a ride in my cousin's Messerschmitt when I was little!)

    OK, its Wikipedia, but this seems reasonably accurate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubble_car

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      One of our teachers had an Isetta. As I recall - the door was the front of the car. It had an ingenious linkage to allow the driver to get in and out.

      Another teacher shoe-horned himself into a Messerschmitt - but on other days drove a large black funeral hearse.

    2. Richard Plinston Silver badge

      > The really bubble shaped ones were Heinkels (looks like they were later branded BMW / Isetta...)

      Rivolta in Milan started making the Isetta (meaning 'little iso (automobile)' ) in 1953. They sold the rights to that car to BMW in 1955.

      The Heinkel Kabinen, started in 1955, was a completely different vehicle though similar in layout. Heinkel-Is were made in Northern Ireland, Trojan in England also manufactured them under its own band.

  5. linicks

    What is needed...

    ...is one of them old invalid cars - big blue things - used to give me the shits when I was a kid in the early 60's.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/AC_Invalid_Carriage_1976.JPG

    1. Matthew 3

      Re: What is needed...

      They were banned from the roads in 2003 and all bar a handful were crushed.

      BBC article

  6. Chris G Silver badge

    Bond Mini

    A mate had what I think was called a Bond Mini in the '60s, it had I think a 198cc Villiers two stroke in it and to start the thing you had to lift the bonnet, put your foot into the engine bay and kick start it.

    Aye, them were the days! Especially if it was hammering down with rain and the bloody thing was being temperamental.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bond Mini

      My dad had one of them. I well remember having to sit inside tweaking the choke and throttle while he kick-started it.

      One morning he was driving to work along the A30, approaching the level crossing at Sunningdale, when for some reason (I never did sort out why) he got caught by the barriers closing and trapped on the line. The train was fast approaching. Quick as a flash he turned and drover straight up the ramp onto the platform, scattering bowler-hattd commuters, and got a blocking from the Station Master before they finally opened the gate and let him out.

      1968 or thereabouts.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More photos please

    Because some of us don't know what an Isetta is or looks like.

    Sounds like the museum is in need of lottery funds, a stairlift, and is there a C5 there ?

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: More photos please

      There are some more photos on my flickr.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: More photos please

        Thanks, interesting (potentially) the Messerschmitt had no reverse gear, you'd turn the engine off and then reverse it's direction. He claims he got it to 50 mph backwards before bottling out at an RAF base during his national service.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messerschmitt_KR200#Engine_and_transmission

        The blue disabled vehicles were Invacars and banned from the road in 2003 due to safety concerns

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invacar

        1. Nigel Whitfield.

          Re: More photos please

          Yep, I can't find the museum leaflet here right now, but I do recall that on some of them there was no reverse.

          There was also one that could be bought as either a three wheel of a four wheel version. I'm intrigued as to whether you could 'upgrade' so you could treat yourself to an extra wheel when you had a bit more cash.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: More photos please

          My dad had one of them, too, after the Bond was totalled by being side-swiped by something or other which suffered no harm at all.That prang rather bent my dad's back out of shape and he had a spell lying on boards and visiting osteopaths.

          The Messerschmitt had a sideways-opening canopy, and because the engine was in the back, the heating at the back was really good. Dead toasty, especially on miserable wet nights. The driver got frozen feet, though.

          My dad was a classic '60's commuter, looking to minimise his commuting costs. There was no viable public transport between where we lived and where he worked; a private vehicle was the only option.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    video for "never let me down"

    Which one was in this Depeche Mode video?

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: video for "never let me down"

      Looks like the Isetta to me, or one of the similar ones mentioned by someone else. The Isetta wiki page also suggests that's what it is.

  9. Ketlan
    Happy

    Memories...

    Back in the late Sixties, my stepfather used to pick me up from school (much to my humiliation) in his Bond Bug, which everyone thought was the stupidest car they'd ever seen. Still carried five of us though, and fairly comfortably.

    In 1971, I responded to an ad to buy either an old but pristine Vauxhall Victor or a Messerschmitt (I thought there was a 'd' in there) bubble car for nine quid. Due to girlfriend pressure (and the fact that the former had a FULL tank) I chose the Victor. That wild little bubble bar would be worth a bomb now!

    1. John Sager

      Re: Memories...

      I remember at school in the 60s, one of our teachers had an Isetta. We thought he was a bit strange, as they weren't too common on the streets there (Rossendale). A schoolmate's dad had one of those blue invalid carriages - hideous & unsafe, I thought, but there were quite a lot about. I dunno what make it was but I went with a friend to see a lad who had just acquired one of those 3-wheeler sports cars - single wheel at the back. We though that was quite cool, but it did seem he had rather a lot of trouble getting it to go and then to stay running!

      Off topic a bit, our next-door neighbour then had *two* Armstrong-Siddley Sapphires. Sadly he died and the one with the preselector gearbox was sold quickly. However the other (automatic) sat outside the back of their house for a year or so, until his widow let me see if I could get it going. Even though the battery had by this time lost one cell, I eventually got it going (it had a starting handle), and drove it up & down the moorland lane we lived on. She offered it to my dad for £50 but he wasn't prepared to pay - he couldn't drive, didn't want to learn, and I was only 14. She sold it to some other guy who I helped to get it street-legal again. An opportunity missed:(

    2. Steven Jones

      Re: Memories...

      In the 1960s, that would have been a Bond Minicar, not a Bond Bug. That latter was a 1970s bright-orange wedge of a two seater powered by a Reliant engine driving the rear wheels. The Bond Minicar was powered by a Villiers two-stroke engine to the front wheel and was unrelated. A friend at school managed to have two of them in succession, and I recall helping to spray paint it. Some models of the Bond Minicar could, indeed, seat five, although it wouldn't have taken them anywhere very fast.

      The Villiers engine was mounted on a vertical, swivelling post driving the front wheel (on a trailing arm system) via a chain. There was no reverse, but some models were equipped with a starter motor and two sets of points such that the engine could be started in the opposite direction.

  10. captain veg

    history

    Both Issigonis' Mini and the generation of Fiat 500 alluded to were children of the 1950s and so predated quite a lot of these oddities. Moreover, the "Nuovo 500" was a re-imagination of a previous 500, commonly known as "Topolino", which saw the light of day in 1936. And before that were the "voiturettes".

    Not only does a new Mini "dwarf some of of the original microcars", the largest of the range is bigger than the Austin Maxi! Alec must be spinning.

    -A.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: history

      "Not only does a new Mini "dwarf some of of the original microcars""

      The largest "Mini" is, I think, bigger than a C3 Picasso. "Mini" now just seems to be BMW-speak for "front wheel drive, don't want any brand dilution."

      I found the original mini utterly terrifying, and how anybody could travel in a microcar I cannot imagine. Mind you I am a bit claustrophobic...the thing about these versus a motorcycle is that you are more likely to be in a collision (bigger frontal area and very little acceleration), and if you are you are perhaps more likely to die trapped in a burning vehicle. At least with the Aero Morgan you had a chance of baling out.

      The original mini is considerably smaller than a Toyota IQ and I think its volume is less than the current Smart (though the Smart is shorter it is wider and taller). I remember remarking to a Mini driver that each cylinder of my bike produced nearly as much power as his whole engine, and now that Bonneville would be considered very underpowered. As I say, the thought of a micro car with a Villiers engine is quite terrifying.

      1. Nigel Whitfield.

        Re: history

        When we had a mini (an N registered clubman, in lime green - it was the 1970s; my grandmother had a rust-orange K reg) they just seemed perfectly normal (and the mini was a definite improvement in many ways on the Hillman Imp we had before).

        I remember driving up the motorway in it to the Lake District, probably 1977, and various other places. But I suspect now, it would feel rather scarier as so many of the other vehicles on the road have grown in size, not least the juggernauts.

        (A neighbour had an even older mini, with the wire cord to open the door, and sliding windows; there were a lot of them about in those days).

        1. captain veg

          Re: history

          The most extraordinary comparison, in my view, is the weight. That wheezy A-series engine had just 600kg to punt around. Not many modern motors are less than twice that.

          -A.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: history - @captain veg

            The Toyota IQ, the nearest equivalent to the original mini (and no longer sold in this country) is 930kg. Which is more than many family cars of the 1970s.

            All the improvements in economy seem to have gone into making cars heavier and fatter.

  11. Oldfogey

    Bond Bug

    The Bond Bug built by Reliant (the orange wedge) was a bit of a wolf in sheeps clothing. Most had the Reliant 600 engine, which was a nice reliable lump made in aliminium. Some had the 700 version - same but a bit pokier. few had the version that was commonly used in small single seater racers - high compression, etc etc.

    That last was distinctly lively, and Reliant never published performance figures, for the simple reason that insurance companies would have had a heart attack. Top speed was 115mph, could have been faster off the line, due to lack of weight, but picked up like a motorbike once rolling. I got a ride in one with the test driver on their track, and the really terrifying thing was that because the centre of gravity was barely above the axles, it could do a 3-wheel power drift on the corners.

    A quite extraordinary vehicle.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bond Bug

      I had a Reliant Rialto (the angular one) which was great fun because it weighed stuff all and had the 848cc / 40bhp version of the Reliant engine. I am told that nobody knows their top speed because nobody, even the factory test driver, has ever had the nerve to find out when they stop accelerating. I managed an indicated 96mph in mine before I chickened out.

      1. ukgnome Silver badge

        Re: Bond Bug

        I always wanted a bug - heck I still do.

        Although I did have a bright yellow robin estate - clocked at 97MPH on the M1 by the old bill. Simply one of the scariest things I had ever done.

        The reliant A series block was a think of simplistic beauty, I would love to own another one, although wifey says no. Properly wise woman that one!

  12. Ole Juul Silver badge

    Side by side

    I'm not really a quad fan, but I can't help but notice the proliferation of side by's of all different configurations buzzing around here. They're certainly not intended as "economy cars" but you can put plates on them and they'll be street legal. Many do. They're not all two seaters either. There's 4 and 6 passenger versions as well. Some open, some closed. So, in a funny kind of way, we're seeing a resurgence of the bike turned car.

  13. David 132 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Obscure TV references 'r' Us

    +1 (heck, plus several thousand) for the reference to A Very Peculiar Practice.

    I was starting to think no-one else remembered it.

    "Would that be marmalade you'd be smearing on your crotch, Bob?"

    I once saw a convoy of Bond Bugs driving through Swindon. It's an exciting place like that.

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: Obscure TV references 'r' Us

      It was a brilliant series, wasn't it? And the song was too good an opportunity not to squeeze in, frankly.

  14. Winkypop Silver badge
    Stop

    For the Love of Cars - Series 2 Ep4

    This episode is about a Fiat 500 but features a tour of the Bubble Car Museum.

  15. Tom 7 Silver badge

    A few years ago

    you could get a kit for an Isetta that with a BMW850 engine and Mini wheels would do 60 in less than 3.4 and over 140 flat out. Cant find em now - guess they tank slapped themselves into tomato soup!

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now then, now then

    When I visited it a few years ago, pride of place was Jimmy Savile's bubblecar.

    Is that still there?

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: Now then, now then

      If it is, they're keeping quiet about it!

      The museum actually moved a few years back - I first visited when I was covering a Car PC rally held there, for Personal Computer World, around May 2008. Sometime between then and now it moved to the current location (it was, if I recall correctly, in a slightly more accessible part of Lincolnshire).

  17. Chz

    Smuggling

    "nine people were smuggled from East to West Germany, one at a time, hidden in an Isetta that had had its battery and cooling system removed."

    I just had to click on that link. Aha! Nine in total. I was picturing a clown-car Isetta and how they explained their way past the border police. :)

  18. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    Recollections

    One of the striking things about bubble cars in the 1950s was that two of them bore names familiar from wartime German planes. In the case of the Messerschmitt you could easily imagine that they'd just removed the wings and tail (assuming you were 11 years old and had only ever seen Me109s in comics). They should have produced a Stuka, too.

    There was a rumour that people could get trapped in the Isetta because it had a front-opening door and no reverse gear.

    I used to own an original Mini, with the pre-Hydrolastic rubber suspension. It had an 1100 engine dropped in, which didn't actually seem to make it go any faster (though repeated incompetent attempts to "tune" the SU carburettor may have been a factor). I also used to ride a James, though mine was a 250 twin.

  19. Hardrada

    Those of you in the UK might not associate the redneck US south with bubble cars, but there used to be a wonderful micro car museum in Madison, Georgia:

    http://www.microcarmuseum.com/tourindex.html

    Unfortunately, the museum closed in 2013 and the cars were all auctioned off, but their photographic collection is still online (link above).

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When I was a kid, the scrapyard in my town had two isettas. My dad wanted to buy them as a restoration project but the owner wasn't willing to do a deal. He just kept them until they were rusted beyond any hope of repair and then he crushed them. :-(

    I wanted to buy my wife a suzuki cappuccino a few years back. It was a very cool little car, but she wasn't keen on it, she had her heart set on an impreza.

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