Many people consider small cars to be a modern evolution of the automobile, but tiny cars have been manufactured since the 1940s. The reasons manufacturers produce small cars are varied but satisfy public demand for a small, affordable, economical form of transportation. We will examine the types of small cars historically as well as their modern counterparts.
The classification of small cars ranges from microcars to mini cars, subcompacts, minicompacts, and compact cars. This genre of vehicles has spawned some iconic cars and offerings from manufacturers of modern luxury vehicles. These cars made motoring accessible to a wider range of the public.
Microcars have a longer history than most people expect and are the smallest car category currently still in production. These cars are in the modern transition zone between motorcycles and cars, replacing the historical cyclecar.
In many cases, microcars are powered by motorcycle engines, but some manufacturers engineered engines specifically for their microcars.
Since many of these cars are powered by motorcycle engines, they typically have less than 700cc engines, but modern versions can have around 1000cc.
Microcars gained popularity in post-war Europe due to the demand for cheap, personal transport in a time when many households were impoverished from the war. Larger cars were out of their price range, and budget for most people, and the microcar filled this niche nicely.
The microcar became a replacement for the motorcycle and provided better protection for commuters against inclement weather in Europe and the UK.
Many microcars were designed with a 3-wheel configuration rather than the standard 4-wheels we currently expect to see today’s automobile. Considered the smallest production car ever made, the Peel P50, originally produced on the Isle of Man between 1962 and 1965, is an example of the 3-wheel configuration car.
4-wheeled versions of the microcar around the same era as the Peel P50 include the German Champion 400, the Honda N360, the Mazda R360 Coupe, and the Australian Goggomobil Dart for the sportier look.
More modern microcars include the 1970s Mallalieu Microdot and the updated Fiat 500, a resurrection of the Fiat 500 model produced from 1957 to 1975.
Microcars have also been produced in the electric car category, where the lightweight body of the vehicle is ideal for lower-powered electric motors. The Renault Twizzy and the Tazzari Zero are prime examples in the electric category.
Microcars are economical to run and cheap to buy and maintain, but they have people and cargo-carrying capacity limitations. The production of minicars, such as the Mini Cooper, with more space at a lower price, resulted in the declining popularity of the microcar, although they have not disappeared completely.
2. Kei Cars
Kei cars are the Japanese equivalent of the microcar and is the smallest category of highway-legal cars allowed to carry passengers.
These cars did not find great popularity in the USA market but became popular in Europe.
These cars became a popular, cheaper alternative transport in Japan and are still produced due to the demand for these vehicles.
Modern Kei cars still produced and exported by Japan are the Daihatsu Cuore, the Suzuki Jimny, and the Toyota Pixis Joy.
3. Smart Cars
Smart cars are minicars produced by the auto-manufacturer Daimler AG. One of the most popular in the range was the Smart Fortwo hatchback, introduced in 1998.
This is a two-person vehicle with a rear-mounted 599cc petrol engine or a 799cc turbo-diesel motor. The smart car became popular with young people due to its affordability and fuel economy but was also popular among the retired demographic for the same reasons.
Smart cars have more space available in the interior than earlier microcars, making these cars a more versatile choice.
4. Minicars Or City Cars
Minicar is a name given to a variety of small cars, ranging from the iconic Mini Cooper to the European classification of the compact City Car.
The ubiquitous Mini covers a wide range of small-car sizes, from the Mini Cooper, originally produced in the UK, can be included in the microcar class. Subsequent versions of the Mini produced by BMW range in size from hatchback to subcompact. None of the German-made Minis are small enough to be classified as microcars.
Many of the European classifications of the City Car or A-segment are considered minicars. These cars range in length from 8.8 feet or 2.7 meters to 12 feet or 3.7 meters.
The design of these City Cars is most commonly in the form of a hatchback. The current trend is leaning toward a crossover SUV body style over the hatchback models.
These cars are designed to handle the confines of city driving and to make driving in city traffic easier and more economical than larger sedans. Minicars or City cars are larger than their microcar counterparts, making them more appropriate and versatile for small families.
The engine sizes of these vehicles can vary from just under 1000cc up to 1800cc for the more luxury or sporty models.
Examples of the hatchback style Minicar include the Volkswagen Up! and the Toyota Aygo, while the Suzuki Ignis represents the crossover style.
5. Compact Cars
A compact car is a USA automobile class classification that equates to the C-segment European car classification.
The modern, official definition describes these cars as having a maximum internal volume of 100 – 109 cubic feet, or 2.8 to 3.1 cubic meters, including passenger and cargo-carrying space in the vehicle.
This volume definition of a compact car means that the classification can include any car shape, from a hatchback to a sedan.
The classification also means that some car models can be classified into different classes in each model generation. An example of this is the Volkswagen Gold, where the 8th generation from 2019 onwards is classed as a compact car. Earlier generations, such as the 1st generation Golf, designed to replace the VW Beetle, were classed as City Cars.
Compact cars generally have larger motors, from 1600cc upwards, to better cope with the car’s larger body, chassis, and carrying capacity.
Compact cars gained popularity in the young family niche since they are affordable and have more space than City Cars but are not as expensive as mid-size cars. In the UK, these vehicles are known as “Small Family” cars as a result of the target market niche.
Other examples of compact cars are the Honda Civic, the 4th generation Ford Focus, the Audi A1, and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class from 2018 onwards.
6. Subcompact cars
The subcompact category of small cars is referred to as the B-segment in Europe and the supermini class in the UK.
The definition of the class is a combined interior volume of between 85 and 99 cubic feet or 2.4 and 2.8 cubic meters. This means these cars are slightly smaller than the compact car class but larger than the minicompact, or city car class.
As with the compact class, the volume definition allows for a range of body shapes within the classification.
Popular subcompact cars include the Mini Hatch, Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris, and the Opel Corsa.
The Minicompact is the name most commonly used in the USA for city cars or minicars in the UK and classified as A-segment cars in the rest of Europe.
Due to the compact size of these cars, the most common body shapes are the hatchback and crossover SUV styles. The size of these cars does not support a sedan body shape.
The hatchback is a term related more to the style of the car than the size. However, the hatchback design lends itself more to smaller-sized cars, which is why the term has become associated with small cars.
Cars designated as 3-door or 5-door usually include the hatchback at the additional door in the equation. Thus, a 3-door car has 2 passenger doors, with the hatchback making the 3rd door.
A hatchback design is essentially a tailgate that is hinged on the roof of the vehicle, and when opened, the hatchback swings upward. This creates a wide opening in the back-end of the car, making loading and unloading of the vehicle easy.
Since the term hatchback is a body style rather than size, hatchbacks can be found in a wide range of vehicle sizes, from microcars to compact cars.
9. Bubble Cars
Bubble car was the name given to a style of the microcar. The name is derived from the design of the upper part of the car, which resembled the canopy of a fighter aircraft, which was often called the bubble.
Some of these bubble cars also hand an unusual egg shape, which contributed to the bubble description of these vehicles.
Many of these vehicles were produced by companies that produced fighter aircraft during World War II, which may account for the fighter canopy style of these cars. Some of these included the Messerschmitt KR200 and the FMR Tg500.
Many of these cars were 3-wheeled vehicles to take advantage of more relaxed vehicle laws for 3-wheeled automobiles, particularly in the UK. The Peel Trident is a prime example of this type of automobile.
Famed car manufacturer BMW also had humble beginnings in the bubble car genre in the BMW Isetta, which was made under license from Italy. The Isetta was based on the design of the Iso Rivolta from Italy.
One of the unique features of the BMW Isetta was that the entrance and exit for the vehicle was a door at the front of the vehicle. The Isetta came in a 250cc model, a 300cc model, and a 600cc model, which also had a larger body.
Modern Bubble cars include the Danish CityEl, and the Myers Motors NmG Corbin Sparrow, both electric versions.
Cyclecars were manufactured in Europe and the United States as a crossover between the motorcycle and automobile. These cars were popular between 1910 and 1920 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cyclecars could typically only accommodate two people sitting in a tandem configuration, with the passenger directly behind the driver. This is similar to the arrangement of a motorcycle, from which the design of these cars was derived. Later models changed this configuration with the passenger positioned alongside the driver.
Motorcycle engines were often used to power cyclecars, resulting in many of the engines being air-cooled and between 750cc and 1100cc capacity.
The drive train for these vehicles was typically belt or chain drive to transmit the power from the engine to the drive axle.
Cycle cars were open to the environment, as were many cars of the day, and did not provide much benfit in the way of weather protection for drivers and passengers. However, these cyclecars were more affordable and could carry a larger payload than a motorcycle, increasing their popularity.
Cyclecars had a short role in automobile history, but during this time, they became popular in all types of motoring applications, including motor racing. Cyclecars participated in the 1920 Le Mans long-distance race.
The mass production for the Model T Ford saw the demise of the cyclecar in the USA since the Model T offered a larger vehicle at a more affordable price, causing the cyclecar to fade into history.
In Europe, the cyclecar was largely replaced by the advent of the microcar in the post-war era, which presented more versatility than the cyclecar.
An example of a cyclecar was the JPL or La Vigne, produced in Detroit, Michigan, in 1913.
The evolution of small cars is an interesting part of the history of automobiles, with some visually striking offerings from surprising manufacturers back in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Car manufacturers have built on these designs to produce the small modern cars that some of the market’s biggest sellers.
Small cars are here to stay and will always have a place in our society. The ever-increasing costs of fuel and new car prices ensure that there will always be a market for these smaller, fuel-efficient, economically priced cars.
Smaller engines result in lower carbon and fuel emission taxes levied on smaller cars by traffic authorities.
The congestion on our city roads also leads people to choose smaller, more agile cars that are more maneuverable in the traffic.
The designs of small cars have resulted in some interesting and innovative ideas for making the most use of the limited space in these tiny vehicles.