Like many collectors of micro cars, Byron Brill remembers the day he fell in love. He was driving down a road in Palo Alto in the 1970s when he saw the back end of a DKW car in a tow yard. Years later, when he was in a theater watching a spy movie, the bad guy jumped in a jeep to make his getaway and Brill could tell just by the sound of the engine what it was. “I couldn’t help myself. I shouted out in the theater, ‘Look, it’s a DKW!’”
A small but devout group of Americans shares Brill’s passion for the cars, tiny vehicles that were built in Europe in the 1950s with fuel efficiency and affordability in mind.
Exports to the United States ended in the early 1960s when companies like Toyota and Volkswagen introduced larger versions of small cars, but the minicar never lost its appeal. Today, they are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
In the 1970s, a fan club in the United States sprang up for owners to exchange cars parts and information about their rare little cars.
Today, the Microcar and Minicar Club has about 2,000 members, many of whom gathered in Eugene, Ore., in August for their annual car meet.
Sewing machines in high gear
In a testament to their charm, passers-by gawked and laughed in delight when the owners started their engines for a rally and the whimsical cars hit the road sounding like a bunch of sewing machines in high gear.
One of the most popular cars at the meet was the BMW Isetta, a car with just 13 horsepower and a 3.4-gallon gas tank.
The car is an example of the ingenuity and resourcefulness manufacturers needed after World War II, when many materials were scarce. The Isetta was designed by the Italian refrigerator company Iso, and to get in, drivers open a refrigerator door attached to the steering column.
Isettas are especially rare in the United States — of 160,000 made, only about 8,500 were imported.
George Bucquet owned an Isetta, but he became hooked on Messerschmitts, a mini car that was built by an airplane manufacturer and resembles an older fighter plane.
“They feel dangerous,” he said.
The cars are among the rarest and most expensive of mini cars. Bucquet, a glass designer from Trinidad, Calif., owns a 1959 TG 500 Messerschmitt, which he bought in Germany four years ago. He said it’s just one of 162 in the world.
Bucquet wouldn’t say how much he paid for the car but noted that two similar Messerschmitts were sold at an auction for $60,000 to $65,000.
An obessisive pursuit
Some minicar devotees grew up with them. Bill Darland, who organized the car meet, recalls being a kid in Baker, Ore., and seeing the owner of the Little Pig drive-in restaurant make deliveries in an Isetta with ears and a tail.
For Marty Loken, getting a minicar was an obsessive pursuit.
He saw a Fiat 500 Topolino when he was working in Italy and spent the next 12 years searching for one of his own. He finally found his car, which had been stored in a barn in Rhode Island for 52 years. It was one of just 300 shipped to the United States between 1936 and 1948, he said. He bought the car, made in 1937, for $6,000 and spent another $25,000 restoring it — $6,000 alone on the paint job.
“I just adored the body style,” said the boat designer from Whidbey Island, Wash.
However they found their microcars, most owners say it was love at first sight.
David Whetstone was stationed at an Air Force base north of Cambridge, England, when he saw a Mini Cooper parked outside his dormitory 12 years ago. He has been driving Mini Coopers ever since.
“I just have it purely for the joy of driving it,” said the Bay Area computer programmer. “It puts a big grin on your face.”
Bobbi Nodell is a general assignment reporter for MSNBC.com.