Why I love microcars

Three years ago, I had no idea what I microcar was. I remember seeing them – most vividly on the streets of Italy when my family went there when I was 10. We traveled around Italy, Greece, and the then-Yugoslavia with another family with kids the same age as my brother and me. Our method of transportation was a large orange panel van affectionately named Le Grand Orange. While the van was a great way to transport eight people, it was not ideal for going up and down narrow cobblestone European streets. One prime example of this was when we tried to turn down an alley to get to a hotel, only to be thwarted by a Fiat parked too close to the corner so that we couldn’t make the turn, our mammoth vehicle not meant for centuries-old passageways. The solution was for the two dads to pick up the car and hoist it up on the curb.

Microcars have engines under 700 cc engines (as documented by Wikipedia) – though the shows I have been to allow engines up to 1000 cc. I can’t believe I know enough to write a sentence about engine size, though I admit I still don’t completely know what it means. I also can’t believe I have now gone to multiple car shows and am sad that this season is over. Still, it’s hard not to become fascinated by fully-functioning and useful automobiles that look like this:

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A spiffy Subaru 360 (nope, not a Volkswagen) I have had the pleasure of riding around in a couple of times. On Vashon Island.

Or vans and pickup trucks like this:

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Subaru van and pickup trucks. My friend Rex helps you grasp their size.

In a time when so many things are getting bigger and bigger, I find smaller cars so appealing. They challenge America’s general mentality that things need to be so huge – SUVs, McMansions, Super Size meals of epic proportions. Yes, here in Portland Smart cars are quite popular, and both the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 have been relaunched into the American market. But have you seen the size difference between those cars now and as they were in the 1960s? Today’s tiny cars aren’t so tiny after all.

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A new Fiat 500 parked next to an older model.

 

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The Fiat next to a Subaru pickup.

But real microcars fit nicely into my desire to simplify my life; their size challenge the assumption that more is better. However, I know that owning a microcar is not so simple; they are old cars and therefore not necessarily reliable. And when they break down, parts aren’t necessarily easy to come by, or aren’t available in the most obvious places. Dave and I once drove one of his NSU’s about 400 miles to transport it from its former owner to its new home in his parents’ yard, alongside others of its kind. As we reached the CA border, something went awry with the clutch and we had to pull over to figure out what was wrong. Not used to cars breaking down on road trips, I was concerned (OK, panicky), but Dave did his best to ignore me as he guided the failing car into a Home Depot parking lot, passing an auto supply store en route. Of course I was confused and annoyed as he assessed the damage in the middle of a sunbaked parking lot, no shade to be had. He peered into the workings of the car (a completely foreign arrangement of metal in my eyes), poked around, and emerged holding a split piece of ring-shaped rubber – only the split was the problem.

“Do you know where to find one of these?”

I did! In the plumbing department! Years of home reno brought intensive practice at finding weird objects in all corners of hardware box stores. Dave waited outside while I ran into Home Depot and got what we needed. It cost a buck twenty-nine, plus tax. He fixed the damn car with a part from a hardware store that cost no more than what you can find in an ashtray. I was amazed with, pissed off at, and in love with microcars all at the same time.

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Dave and the dang NSU. Yes, we stayed at a Tiki Motel. Why not?

We almost completed the journey without incident. The car broke down again less than a mile from his sister’s house. We pushed it the rest of the way in the Sacramento summer heat, reaching our destination tired, sweaty, and pissed. At least I was pissed; little seems to bother Dave. That’s because he’s been a proponent of microcars and other old vehicles forever and is used to them breaking down. I’m learning to be patient.

A Hillman Husky (photo credit for below) might be a great starter car for me – or maybe a Morris Minor.

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Dream car #1 — a Hillman Husky

 

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Dream car #2 — a Morris Minor I saw at the MPH Microcar show in Forest Grove, OR last month.

Hopefully, I will get one in time to bring to a show next summer. And if it breaks down along the way, I know where the nearest Home Depot is.

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