A microcar is the smallest automobile classification usually applied to standard small car (smaller than city cars). Such small cars were generally referred to as cyclecars until the 1940s. More recent models (1960 and later) are also called bubblecars due to their egg-shaped appearance.



The definition of a microcar has varied considerably in different countries. Since there are usually tax and/or licensing advantages to the classification, multiple restrictions are often imposed, starting with engine size. The Register of Unusual Microcars[1] in the UK says: "economy vehicles with either three or four wheels, powered by petrol engines of no more than 700cc or battery electric propulsion, and manufactured since 1945". The Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum (the world's largest collection of Microcars) says "Engine sizes of 700cc and less and 2 doors or less" and the US-based Vintage Microcar Club simply defines it as 1000cc or less.

Typical microcars usually have some of the following features:

  • seats only the driver and a single passenger
  • a 1 cylinder 49cc - 500cc engine
  • 1 wheel drive
  • cable operated brakes on 2 or 4 wheels (no longer permissible in countries such as the UK).
  • simple suspensions
  • 6" - 8" roadwheels

Many, but not all, microcars are also:

  • three wheeled.
  • Not fitted with a reverse gear (the weight of the car was light enough for parking to be achieved by lifting one end of the vehicle).
  • May have all gears operable in reverse as well as in forward gear such as the Messerschmitt KR200.
  • Fitted with lifting bodywork instead of doors.
  • Less than 3m in length (sometimes less than 8', 2.440m).
  • Less than 85 cubic feet/2400 litres interior volume.

There are also a variety of microcar trucks, usually of the "forward control" or van style to provide more cargo room. These might be used for local deliveries on narrow streets where standard small pickup trucks would be inconvenient, and full-sized delivery trucks would be impossible.


The 599-999 cc Smart car is considered by some as a microcar; with a weight of 730 kg (1,609 lb) (similar to a 4-seater 1980s hatchback), it is both too big-engined and too heavy to really fit the category.

Microcars built in Europe immediately after World War I were often motorcycle based and were referred to as cyclecars. These included, but were not limited to, the Amilcar and Bédélia from France and the GN and Morgan from the United Kingdom.

Many microcar designs flourished in post-World War II Europe, particularly in Germany, where prominent microcar makers were former military aircraft manufacturers such as Messerschmitt and Heinkel. The Messerschmitt KR175, KR200 and TG500 even had aircraft-style bubble canopies, giving rise to the term bubble car to refer to all these post-war microcars. Isettas and others also had bubble-like appearance.

In the 1960s, the smallest car ever, the Peel P50 was made.

France also produced large numbers of similar tiny vehicles called voiturettes, but unlike the German makes, these were rarely sold abroad. Very small cars have also been popular in Japan, where again they attract various tax and insurance benefits when compared to other vehicles. These are known as kei cars and differ from most of the European microcars in that they are typically designed and built as scaled-down versions of very traditional car configurations, while European microcar designs tend to be unorthodox and sometimes bizarre.

The Smart (model Fortwo launched in 1998 is not a re-invention of the microcar but does follow at least the city car principle. More conventional of design is the world's cheapest car, the Indian Tata Nano, launched in 2009 (to good reviews) at around £1400.

Legal position

The economy of operating such a small car (mostly in fuel and tires) has also often been helped by three-wheeled microcars or cars with very small engines being treated as motorcycles for tax and insurance purposes (quadricycle).

In some countries, microcars with a certain maximum weight are considered motorcycles and therefore no car driving licence is needed (Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Italy). This assures a certain market for elder people who do not want to or who cannot pass a car driving licence. More negatively, at least in Austria and France, such cars are sometimes derided as a solution for people who had their licence revoked because of drunk driving.

In some European countries, taxes used to depend on engine displacement and/or insurance on power. This has given rise to names of such cars as Citroën 2CV and Renault 4CV. This favourable treatment by governments is based on the benefits to a society of reducing use of such resources as minerals, parking space and foreign exchange, reduced noise and chemical pollution, reduced hazard to others (they are slow vehicles) etc. Reduced global warming from carbon dioxide emission has now been added to this list.

Another advantage is the ease of parking. Some microcars can be parked perpendicular, where other cars park parallel, or be lifted by hand, like a motor scooter, to get into a tight spot. The Isetta and some others had forward entry, to facilitate perpendicular parking close to other vehicles. The Myers Motors NmG (originally called the Corbin Sparrow) is licensed as a motorcycle and parked in motorcycle spaces in California, and probably in other places.[citation needed]

The small size improves handling by reducing the angular inertia. The Messerschmitt and Spatz have been described as much better than ordinary cars on snow and ice. Spare room on the road and ease of missing obstacles are also improved.

For the performance oriented, who prefer more than two wheels and a roof, the scaling laws show that one need not give up acceleration until the curb weight comes down to around the driver's weight, because power per weight of the car itself improves with small size, in an otherwise similar design. Top speed is lost with small scale, due to the decreased Reynolds number, but this is a small effect. The Messerschmitt TG500 had about a 78 mph (126 km/h) top speed with 15 kW (20 horsepower) and excellent aerodynamics.

In the UK before October 2000, a person who passed a motorcycle test was automatically granted a full sub-category B1 licence (lightweight car with an unladen weight of 550 kg or less, motor quadricycle, motor tricycle) as an additional entitlement with the full Category A (motorcycle) licence. Since 2000 a provisional car licence has to be requested.

The last major UK manufacturer, Reliant, ceased production of these vehicles in 1998.

Electric microcars

Some examples of battery electric microcars are:

  • The Think Nordic, imported to the USA by Ford Motor Company to satisfy California Zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) requirements in the state of California. Removed from the market by Ford in a bargain with the California Air Resources Board. See PZEV for more information.
  • The Global Electric Motorcars GEM, a 2- or 4-passenger "Golf car" style vehicle.
  • The REVA electric vehicle as used in its home environment, India. This may soon be exported to the USA with speed electronically limited and sold as an NEV.
  • The Corbin Sparrow, a single-seat electric microcar that can be licenced as a motorcycle.
  • The CityEl, a three-wheeled single-seat electric microcar built in Germany.

The obstacle to adaptation of such vehicles in the United States is less technical than cultural and political. The mandates by regulatory powers that such vehicles meet full U.S. safety regulations ensures the unavailability of vehicles suitable for use in the mixed traffic conditions that predominate in U.S. suburban areas.

  • The French company SECMA produces the so called scootcar FUN-ELEC.
  • The TWIKE is a microcar that is pedal assisted.
  • Electrocar is a small freight transporter typically used in enterprises or rail stations

Microcars by country of origin

Microcar makers

See the Kei car article for Kei car makers.

See also


  1. ^ The Register of Unusual Microcars - vehicles not eligible for membership of any existing one-make clubs or registers.


  • Hans-Ulrich von Mende, Matthias Dietz & Benedikt Taschen (Sep 1994), Kleinwagen, Small Cars, Petites Voitures, Taschen, ISBN 3-8228-8910-5

External links

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