And Other Post-War American Microcars
Midget Motors of Athens, Ohio made the King Midget micro car from 1946 to 1969. It was the most successful independent car maker of the last 75 years, though few have ever heard of it. How is that possible? Well, It depends on how one defines success. The measure of Midget was certainly not volume. The well-funded Kaiser Motors – which began the same year as King Midget - built over half a million cars over 10 years – 100 times Midget’s total sales. Of course, Kaiser lost the modern equivalent of over $1000 on each car it sold, while Midget Motors made money on every one of its. Is success gaged by notoriety? The drama surrounding the amazing Tucker played out loudly and tragically on magazine covers and in period newspapers. Even though Tucker’s production was 1/100th that of Midget’s, its story was so compelling that 40 years after the fact, Frances Ford Coppola made a movie about it. No one is ever going to make movie about the King Midget. The car business is not for the faint of heart. Henry J. Kaiser lost tens of millions of dollars on his Last Onslaught on Detroit. Preston Tucker lost his shirt and his reputation on his Tucker Torpedo. Midget Motors’ owners, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt on the other hand, carried no debt when they sold their company after two decades of profitable operations. It seems that succeeding small can be pretty dull stuff when compared to failing big.
The part of the King Midget story that wasn’t dull were the cars. The first King Midget was introduced in 1946. It was essentially a cross between a go-cart and a lawnmower and cost just $133. Why so cheap? The car seated one person, had a wooden frame, a 1 speed transmission and no reverse gear. Oh, and you had to assemble it yourself. You also had to supply the engine, wheels and tires. That wasn’t a problem since Midget Motors operated a catalogue that sold all the accessories, new or used, needed to complete your King Midget. In fact, that very profitable little catalogue generated nearly all the funds needed to get automobile production started. A hand full of the roughly 500 Model Is produced were factory-built, but this was for the most part a kit car.
What separated Midget Motors from every other post-war startup auto company was that it made money making cars. Founders Dry and Orcutt achieved this feat by way of sound management (which to the others must have seemed like an esoteric form of magic) They kept costs to an absolute minimum. No car was built until an order was in hand, which meant no inventory carrying costs. When enough orders were collected, cars would then be built - usually in batches of about 25. King Midget had no dealers - nor any dealer mark-ups. Orders were generated from advertisements in DIY magazines like Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science, as well as those Midget Motors catalogues. Cars were shipped to the customer’s door. Service could be performed by anyone who knew how to fix a lawnmower.
Early on in the Model I’s run, Dry and Orcutt realized if they wanted to expand their market, a bigger car was needed. But not much bigger. The King Midget Model II was introduced in 1951. It now sported a tubular steel frame, brakes on all 4 wheels, a 7.5hp Wisconsin engine (later bumped to 9.25hp), a 2-speed automatic transmission (with reverse!) It also had 2 seats and room for a couple of grocery bags. Model IIs weighed 500lbs and cost $500.
The Model II was a huge risk for Midget Motors. It took on a $35,000 bank loan to build a new 11,000 sq ft factory set up to produce fully assembled cars. The risk paid off. About 1500 Model IIs were sold from 1951-56.
In 1957 the motoring world was again treated to an all-new pint-sized delight. The King Midget Model III now had a unit-body frame, hydraulic brakes, and a bit more room for passengers and storage. The Model III was heavier than the Model II but it used the same 9.25hp engine. The power deficit would be remedied in a few years when that old Wisconsin engine was replaced with a 12hp Kohler unit, though it is still unlikely that many King Midget drivers got speeding tickets.
By the mid-1960s, Midget Motors partners, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt were getting on in years. They didn’t feel the spark they once had for the rigors of day-to–day management. They put the company up for sale. Joe Stehlin was the national sales manager for the U.S. arm of Britain’s Rootes Group, makers of Hillman automobiles. As the story goes, while doing testing on a new Hillman Minx, Stehlin had come across a couple of King Midget owners out for a spin. He was impressed by what he saw and heard. Not long after that he was in Athens touring the factory with Claud Dry. By early 1966, he had assembled a group of investors to buy Midget Motors.
That’s where the trouble began. With the investors came debt, along with the pressure to grow the business. The new Midget Motors quickly expanded, doubling production capacity. Stehlin abandoned Dry and Orcutt’s build-to-order policy. Inventory swelled. Sales, however, did not. America’s automotive tastes were changing. Even though updated Model IIIs now had a folding vinyl top, 12-volt electrical system and was offered in many more colors, more customers were not forthcoming.
By 1969, the King Midget had reached the end of the line. Debt, expansion, and the need to satisfy shareholders pushed the once conservative firm into making unsound decisions. But those decisions did not cause Midget Motor’s demise, they only pushed it forward by a few years. Federal safety and emissions regulations loomed. Midget Motors would not have been able to afford the investment needed to meet them. There could never have been a 1974 King Midget. A total of about 3000 Model IIIs were sold.
It was Claud Dry’s wife, Helen, who reportedly came up with the name King Midget. She proved prophetic. Midget Motors was the undisputed king of America’s tiniest transports. It was, however, not the only microcar manufacturer to sprout during the immediate post war boom. The idea of selling car hungry consumers little runabouts at equally little prices proved irresistible to entrepreneurial America. Here is a sampling of some of the more notable offerings.
The second most successful of the post-war minicars after the King Midget was the Brogan. Made by B & B Specialty Co. of Rossmoyne, OH, about 30 Brogan 3-wheelers were built from 1946 to 1950. Most of them were the 2-seat runabout and a mini delivery van called the Package Car. An unknown but very small number of 4-seaters were made later. These had their 3rd wheel in back.
There was the Publix in 1947, a 3-wheeled 300lb aluminum bodied runabout with a steering wheel that could be adjusted for left or right hand driving. Publix could be tipped on its rear for efficient shipping. These two features indicated that export possibilities were envisioned by its Buffalo, NY manufacturer. Information about the Publix is sketchy, and what there is has a bit of a smell to it. Legitimate or not, few if any Publix were sold to the American Public.
The Towne Shopper, made by International Motor Car Co of San Diego CA, was a little bigger and heavier than the King Midget but used essentially the same engine. This aluminum bodied, rear engined runabout had 2 seats, no doors, and a front bonnet that could hold several grocery bags. Given its name, the target market was envisioned as a second car for the “little women” to get about on her errands while hubby was off at work with the real car. Trouble was, the idea of doing battle with full sized Chevy’s in the Grand Union parking lot with the diminutive Towne Shopper was not very appealing to suburban housewives of 1948. It is not known how many Towne Shoppers were made, but least one still exists. It is part of the Lane Museum collection and in a state of disrepair.
Hall Engineering, also of San Diego, made a 2 passenger coupe and 3 passenger sedan in 1949-50 called the Airway Town Traveler. Each had a 10hp engine and cost $750. That’s not even 20% less weight than a larger Crosley subcompact, but with only 1/3rd the power. Predictably, only a hand full of Town Travelers were produced.
The IMP was made by International Motor Products of Glendale, CA from 1948 to 1951. It was yet another would-be King Midget competitor, a 2-seat runabout with a 1-cyl engine in back. The IMP’s one-piece fiberglass body was its claim to fame…if fame can be claimed selling only 7 cars in 3+ years.
A little larger, but still pretty small, was the Martin Stationette built by Martin Development Laboratories of Rochelle Park, NY between 1948-50. The Stationette was an aluminum bodied 3-wheeled “woody.” It had an innovative automatic transmission that used a magnet to link it to the engine. Too bad the unique Martin could never link itself to any customers. Only two were built.
In addition to making children’s peddle cars, the C.L. Eshelman Co of Baltimore, MD made some real cars…sort of. They looked like those stationary rides outside supermarkets where kids can be entertained for a quarter. In fact, Eshelman made those, too. With their gangly proportions and protruding basket shaped grill, they would have looked at home driven by some kooky old character in The Wacky Racers, that old Hanna Barbera cartoon from the 1960s. A handful were made over from 1953-58.
Some American microcars had 4 wheels, others had 3. The 1955-56 Bearcat, built by American Buckboard Co of Los Angeles was the only one to have five. That 5th wheel was located between and behind the other 2 rear ones and was driven by a 2-cylinder motorcycle engine.
Hail to the King
Of all these crazy little machines, only the King Midget's reign was one of longevity and success. Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt’s conservative and methodical management principles were an important contributor, of course. But the cars, too, played a big roll. Those other wheeled American midgets were positioned mostly as in-town commuters or runabouts, practical instruments of suburbia…like dishwashers. With the King Midget there was something more than that. Listen to or read about King Midget owners talk lovingly of their cars. Scroll through the International King Midget Car Club website and see pictures from past jamborees. Everyone is smiling. Why? I think it is because King Midgets have souls, they’re fun. Dry and Ocrutt created not a microcar but a micro sports car. With a King Midget, one didn’t have to empty their bank accounts to buy one. They didn’t have to wait months for parts to arrive from a distant land that only could be installed by well-paid technicians wearing linen overalls. They were the everyman’s sports car.
Five thousand King Midgets found loving homes over 24 years. It is estimated that over a thousand still roam the roads today, putting smiles on faces of their owners. Joy; the ultimate definition of success.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading
Bob Vahsholtz, King Midget: The Story of America’s Smallest Dream Car. (King Midgets West, Arroyo Grande, CA 2007)
Ron Kowalke, Standard Catalogue of American Cars: 1946-1975. (Krause Publications, Iola, WI 1997)
International King Midget Car Club www.kingmidgetcarclub.org
King Midget Parts and Restoration www.kingmidgetworks.com
Old Cars Weekly, April 15, 2010. Hail to the King, by Brian Earnest
Hemmings Classic Car, April 2018. America’s Microcar, by Patrick Foster