American Microcars of the 40s, 50s and 60s
It was the mid-1940s. America was emerging from a decade and a half of depression and war. The nation’s industrial might and its entrepreneurial spirit were focusing themselves on something they had not done in a long time…sell stuff. For the first time in years, Americans had money to spend. They wanted new suburban houses, washing machines, refrigerators and TV sets. Most of all they wanted cars. They wanted new cars to replace the old ones that for years they’d been holding together with spit and bailing wire. Demand was frenzied. Anyone making cars could sell cars…a lot of them. The great Seller’s Market was upon us.
And like wildflowers after a spring rain, strong demand brings forth entrepreneurs blooming with ideas to sate it. Not only were hungry consumers looking to replace their old clunkers, they wanted a second car as well. Women were entering the work force. Suburbia had spread out the nation's transportation needs. To many, one car was no longer sufficient. But after so many years of frugality and deprivation the idea of having two hulking machines was hard to fathom. Why not make that second car an economical little runabout that was cheap to buy and cheaper to operate? Thus was born the American microcar.
The IMP was made by International Motor Products of Glendale, CA from 1948 to 1951. It was a 2-seat runabout with a 1-cyl engine in back. It also had a one-piece fiberglass body, making it one of the very first cars to use this simple to make, light-weight material. That body was the IMP’s only claim to fame…if fame can be claimed by selling 7 cars in 3+ years.
The Towne Shopper, made by International Motor Car Co of San Diego CA, was an aluminum bodied, rear engined runabout that had 2 seats, no doors, and a front bonnet that could hold several grocery bags. Given its name, the envisioned target market was to be the suburban housewife. The Towne Shopper would get her 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 parking lot of the Grand Union in the diminutive Towne Shopper was not very appealing to suburban housewives of the late 1940s. 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 the Airway Town Traveler in 1949-50. This was the most “luxurious” of the microcars. It came in 2 passenger coupe or 3 passenger sedan, both with bodies that were fully enclosed and actually looked “styled.” The Town Traveler had a 10hp 1-cylinder engine and cost $750. That was about the same as a used Plymouth sporting an 85hp six. Predictably, the mid-century marketplace wasn’t terribly interested in miniature luxury cars. Only a hand full of Town Travelers were produced.
The second most successful of the post-war minicars may have been 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 truly tiny: A mini delivery van called the Package Car, and a runabout. Niether was much bigger than a motorized tricycle.
An unknown but very small number of slightly larger cars called Broganettes were made later. These had their 3rd wheel in back.
The Publix arrived in 1947. It was 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, New York 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.
Larger, but still pretty small, was the Martin Stationette built from 1949-50 by Martin Development Laboratories of Rochelle Park, NY. This aluminum bodied, 3-wheeled “woody” had an innovative automatic transmission that used a magnet to link it to the engine. Too bad the Martin could never link itself to any customers. Only two were built.
The C.L. Eshelman Co. of Baltimore, Maryland made lawnmowers, roto tillers and children’s pedal cars. They also built some actual cars…sort of. The Eshelman Sportabout looked like one of those things outside supermarkets that for a quarter kids can ride (In fact, the company made these as well) With its gangly proportions and protruding basket shaped grill, an Eshelman would have looked at home driven by some kooky old character in The Wacky Racers, that old Hanna Barbera cartoon from the 60s. A handful of cars were made from 1953-58.
Some 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 wheels and was driven by a 2-cylinder motorcycle engine.
By far the most successful microcar was the King Midget, made by Midget Motors of Athens, Ohio. The King Midget started off in 1946 as a 1-seat sportster that looked like a ½ scale version of the midget race cars that were blasting around the dirt tracks of the Midwest, hence the second part of its name. The first part of the name was meant as irony, but turned out to be prophecy. It truly was the king of the midgets. Five hundred of the first generation Model Is were sold from 1946-1950. The second generation Model II arrived in 1951 with 2 seats and a top. Total Model II sales tripled the Model I in its six years of production. In 1957 came the larger, but still tiny, Model III. Three thousand more were sold through 1969, bringing the final tally to 5,000 King Midgets.
Of all the American microcars, only the King Midget enjoyed any success. Over its nearly quarter century of existence, Midget Motors sold nearly 100 times more cars than all the rest of the makers in the category. King Midgets were also sold for a longer period of time than all the others put together. Indeed, King Midget lasted longer that than the combined tenure of Edsel, Tucker, DeLorean and Hummer.
The undisputed king of the microcars was ultimately deposed, as the others would have been had they survived long enough. With their diminutive size and air-cooled 2-stroke engines, the American microcar could never have met 1970s federal safety and emissions regulations. They were a product of their times and their time had passed. We are grateful for them, nonetheless.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading
Standard Catalog of American Cars, by Ron Kowalke. Krause Publications 1997 (Iola, WI)
3 Wheelers.com www.3Wheelers.com
All Car Index.com www.allcarindex.com