New Zealand Classic Car 163, July 2004

Muscle cars, sports cars, big-bangers, exotics ... we all love them but sometimes you just want to read about cars that derive their unique characteristics from something other than massive, rubber flaying performance. This month we look at some rather more unusual classic cars Bubble cars – or micro cars – we once an important fact of motoring life. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s not everyone could afford full-sized cars and so some manufacturers began to play with the idea of downsizing. Of course, it had all been done before in the ‘vintage’ era with the cheap and cheerful cycle-cars of the day, but bubble-cars took advantage of some odd licensing laws and lost a wheel on the way to the showroom.

This month we investigate micro cars of the past and also take a look at how they have evolved into the current day. We start off with the Messerschmitt KR200 – the fabled Kabenroller reputedly manufactured from surplus ME109 cockpits. That story isn’t true but, as the intrepid Tim Nevinson soon discovered, fighter pilot experience is handy when navigating a KR200 around Auckland’s busy streets.

From the ‘50s we move into the ‘70s and road-test the infamous Bond Bug – once described as looking like an orange-coloured chunk of Toblerone chocolate. This remarkable, wedge-shaped three-wheeler sprang from the creative mind of Lawrie Bond, but was assembled by the three-wheeling gurus at Reliant.

Just to prove that the micro car is alive and well in the 21st century, we finish off with the current Smart – a car originally conceived by the Swiss watchmaker, Swatch, but completed by Mercedes-Benz. How does the Smart compare to the KR200 and the Bug? Grab this month’s copy and find out for yourself.

Special Kei Kei class cars were conceived to take advantage of Japan’s engine capacity taxation issue and, as well, to allow Japanese drivers to travel into main cities without proof of a parking spot – regulation which, fortunately, we don’t have in New Zealand. The introduction of the Kei class brought about a surge in odd, matchboxes on wheels – cars that no self-respecting car enthusiast would be seen dead in. However, some auto-makers decided to apply the same rules to sports cars. The result was a series of diminutive sporsters powered by tiny, sub-1000cc engines – some were even turbocharged.

We check out two of the best loved Kei class sports cars – the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Cappuccino. Suzuki and Honda both took different roads to producing their sports cars – the Cappuccino was traditional, with a front-mounted engine, while Honda favoured a mid-engine configuration for their Beat. We road-test these sports cars alongside the latest addition to the Kei class fleet – the equally tiny Daihatsu Copen.

Sports Car Special:  This month we go a little bit sports car crazy – and we road-test four cars that are equally at home on the race-track as they are on the road. First up, we check out the exotic Ariel Atom 2, a British-made sports car which is now available in New Zealand. With its Spartan looks, exposed chassis members, minimalist bodywork and F1-looks, the Atom is a real head-turner. Exploit the power of its mid-mounted Honda VTEC engine (164kW) and you’ll also turn your own head – right around! With a set of acceleration figures that’d make a Lamborghini Gallardo blush, the Atom is truly a pocket-rocket.

But, of course, this kind of minimalist motoring pleasure can also be gained from NZ-built sports cars – and we prove it when we ‘nicked’ the boss’ car (Neil Fraser of Fraser Cars). Fitted out with a 2.5-litre V6, this road/race Fraser clubman is an absolute beast – and more than capable of keeping up with the rapid Atom. This month we also took the opportunity to test a Christchurch built McGregor Clubman – a Lotus 7 replica with real charm (and a very capacious cockpit) and real performance. Not as wickedly fast as the Ariel Atom, the McGregor is designed for rapid thrills on a budget – you’ll be amazed how cheaply one can be built for, and how good it looks.

Finally, we couldn’t do a sports car special without using it as an excuse to road-test the latest version of the Lotus Elise. The 111R comes with twin-cam Toyota power and is without a doubt the quickest production Elise so far. Allied to nimble handling, this is one Elise that can contend with virtually any car on our roads. Present it with a series of demanding corners and very few sports cars will be able to match the 111R’s blistering pace.

Classic Motorsport:  If you like your classic action to be fast, we have plenty to keep you interested with reports from the closing classic racing events of the season, Steve Holmes concludes his history of F5000 racing in New Zealand and Michael Clark relives the 1964 Grand Priz season. This month’s Spotter’s Guide looks at the popular Ford Zephyr/Zodiac of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

All this and stories on the Holden Torana LX, Chrysler 70, Rolls-Royce and up to date GT News, classic events, news and, of course, all our usual columns and workshop advice