Bubbling Along

First published January 2017.

BUBBLING ALONG by Nigel Raeburn.

When I was in my mid to late teens, some of my friends were bubble-car enthusiasts, particularly of Messerschmitts, so when I had passed my driving test at 17 and a bit I was lucky enough to acquire a new Messerschmitt KR200 Kabinroller, to give it its full and proper name.  At one time I think I had four friends who all had Messerschmitts.  Mine was in light grey with red seats and registered 4ALU (my father had a good contact for getting nice registration numbers).  This was in 1960, and bubble-cars were still quite popular, although the arrival of the Mini really spelled the end for bubble-cars as for not much more money the Mini offered a lot more comfort, space and performance.  Before the Mini’s introduction in 1959, the smallest cars were Austin A30s, Morris Minors, Standard 8s or Ford Anglias, Prefects and Populars – and bubble-cars and other 3-wheelers offered a cheaper way into the car ownership market – and were especially popular with former motor-cycle and sidecar combination owners (and there were lots of these after the war years) who wanted to move on to cars.  (When I was younger I had an Uncle who had a motor-cycle and sidecar and I was always eager to have a ride in it when we saw him!  He later moved on to a Reliant 3-wheeler – a typical ‘upgrade’).  They also liked the fact that some of the engineering like the engines often came from motor-cycles.  Most 3-wheelers were available as an option without a reverse gear which opened the door to a quirk in that a car driving licence was not required and a motor-cycle licence sufficed – which of course suited former motorcycle owners moving up to ‘cars’ – and also 16 year-olds.  A 3-wheeler with reverse gear required a car driving licence and for that you had to be at least 17 years old.

Messerschmitt bubbles were made between 1955 and 1964, in Germany, and although with the cockpit canopy they looked like an aircraft they were not recycled aircraft canopies as some thought – but they were made in the Messerschmitt aircraft factory.  They were the sports car of bubble-cars as with their tandem seating arrangements the frontal area was low and they were very aerodynamic as well as having a low and central centre of gravity and widely spaced front wheels – so they went and handled pretty well.  The KR200 had a one cylinder 191cc engine and could achieve a top speed of 65mph and could cruise at 60 mph quite easily as top (4th) gear was quite high.  I had mine for a year (before graduating to a Mini) and for part of that time I was usually doing a weekly commute between Wiltshire and London and my Messerschmitt dealt with that 100 mile journey each way with no trouble at all – mainly along the old A4 which was then a dangerous 3-lane A road where opposing traffic fought for the use of the centre overtaking lane – it was quite exciting at times especially in a small bubble-car!  The engineering of the Messerschmitt was pretty good and I had almost no reliability problems during that year – at a time when cars generally were not very reliable.

My very first memory of a Messerschmitt was in Glasgow – it must have been about 1958.  One of my slightly older Scout friends, John, had a KR175 Messerschmitt – a slightly less sophisticated earlier version – it had a motor-cycle style throttle on the handlebars and a smaller engine than the later KR200 among other differences.  We were having our senior and rover sections Scout summer camp north of Glasgow and John had driven up from London.  For some reason I came up later than everyone else on the train from London, and John met me at Glasgow station.  When we returned to his Messerschmitt parked in the street near Glasgow station, there was a crowd of about a hundred people round it!  They had never seen anything like it before (bubble-cars had not caught on in Scotland) and thought it had landed from space and were looking for the spacemen who came in it!

For those not familiar with the Messerschmitt, it did have some unusual features.  It had a tandem seating layout and the rear seat was actually wide enough for a small child alongside an adult.  The perspex cabin roof, looking like an aircraft canopy, was hinged along one side so lifted off to one side – later some versions were sold with a canvas convertible roof instead of the perspex.  Steering was by handlebars not a wheel, and very direct – it took some getting used to but was then very fast and reactive.  It had two widely spaced wheels at the front and a single wheel more or less directly under the engine at the rear.  Gears were sequential with a fast and short gear lever close to the drivers right hand – it worked very well.

A most unusual feature for the versions with reverse gear was that to reverse you stopped the engine and restarted it running in the opposite direction – being a two-stroke engine this was simply engineered.  An incidental side-effect of this was that you then had four reverse gears – if you were bold enough!  The handbook warned that the vehicle could be unstable if reversed too fast – and indeed it could – but it was fun demonstrating this (but I never turned it over!).

Bubble-cars did become more common soon after that, even in Scotland, and Messerschmitts, BMW Isettas and Heinkels were soon a common sight on the roads, as well as some slightly bigger 3-wheelers like Frisky, Bond, Berkeley and Reliant – all popular with ex-motor-cyclists – and they all sold quite well until the Mini established itself.  The generic name now used seems to be microcars.

For the first-time new car buyer there was another quirk which some of my friends took advantage of – you did not have to pay Purchase Tax (forerunner of VAT) on a new Minivan which made it quite a lot cheaper than the Mini saloon.  In many respects a Minivan was just as good as a saloon except that there was a blanket speed limit of 40 mph on all vans – so if you had a Minivan you were constantly running the gauntlet of police speed traps – the price of saving that Purchase Tax!  Nevertheless Minivans were quite popular as a way into the ‘proper’ car market and one friend of mine moved on from an Isetta to a Minivan.

I did tackle a few rallies in the Hertfordshire lanes in my Messerschmitt (driving) until we started to do too well and someone pointed out the fact that the RAC and its authorised events only catered for 4-wheelers so my 3-wheeler was not eligible!  That’s probably why I moved on to a Mini.  One tricky hazard in rallying a 3-wheeler was that many of the lanes in Hertfordshire in those days were ‘3-ply’ with grass growing down the middle – so where to place the single rear wheel?  There was no perfect answer so progress was rather like tacking a boat!

There was one notable person who rallied a Messerschmitt to great success – but that was the rare (only 360 were ever made) 4-wheeled version called the Messerschmitt Tg500 ‘Tiger’ – with a 494cc engine it had about twice the power of the 3-wheelers so must have gone very well.  Ken Piper was the man, from Hampshire, and he rallied and trialled (and maybe even raced) his Tiger to many wins in National status events.  I read he was still around quite recently in his late 80s as President of the Messerschmitt Owners Club.

Here are a few other things I can remember about my bubble times.  The brakes were cable operated so the direct steering came in handy to keep things in a straight line.  As a two-stroke you had to mix 2-stroke oil in with the petrol so had to carry cans around to be sure of having some.  A few petrol stations had hand-pumped two-stroke machines which provided the oil and did the mixing for you – I remember all Mobil stations had these but it was sporadic in other brands.  You also had to be aware of the need to keep the engine properly lubricated with the two-stroke oil mixture – I can remember descending the Kirkstone Pass in the Lakes and not blipping the throttle often enough and I felt the engine start to seize – I caught it just in time!

Finally, Messerschmitts did not have the potential problem some Isetta and Heinkel owners had with their front-opening doors and no reverse gear.  They could park nose to a wall and be unable to either get out nor reverse – they’d have to wait for a passer-by to help them out!

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