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Small Cars, Big Collectors

The microcar is tiny, as the name implies, but it can fit one or two adults and go pretty fast. It's similar in size and efficiency to the European 'Smart Car' that'll be coming to the US next year.

But this weekend dozens of vintage microcars will own the roads between Newton and Brookline as part of the Twelfth Annual Microcar and Minicar Classic.

The event's organizer is Newton collector Charles Gould, who owns a large number of small vehicles. WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on his trove of microcars and explains why they're more than just cute.

ANDREA SHEA: The microcars parked on Charles Gould's lawn look like their gas tanks could be filled with that shrinking potion from 'Alice in Wonderland.'

CHARLES GOULD: They're like rabbits you put one in your garage and they tend to multiply.

ANDREA SHEA: One of Gould's cutest...and most bizarre...is a red, British-made fiber glass number called the Bond Bug. Its one and only door lifts open like a hatch. Gould elaborates from the front seat.

CHARLES GOULD: We call it a cheese wedge or a door stop, because it's triangulated in shape and it has a single wheel in the front center and two wheels in the back and it was very much designed as a cult car.

ANDREA SHEA: Gould, a lawyer, readily admits that he and his wife Nancy who's an accountant are card-carrying members of the microcar cult, along with their two young daughters.

CHARLES GOULD: Everybody asks us how many we have and I typically tell them that my therapist won't allow me to discuss actual numbers but we're seriously obsessed and we actually purchased quite a few and I think we're over ninety microcars at this point.

ANDREA SHEA: At this point Gould asks this reporter the question she's been waiting for.

CHARLES GOULD: Want to go for a ride?

ANDREA SHEA: Who could refuse? In his garage Gould points to a low-riding, narrow car that looks more like an airplane cockpit than a land vehicle.

CHARLES GOULD: This is the '61 Messerschmitt Tiger. It's called the TG 500. The TG stands for Tiger, 500 is the size of the engine and displacement and its 500 cubic centimeters.

ANDREA SHEA: It has a clear acrylic dome and, like a cockpit, it hinges from the top.

CHARLES GOULD: And when you close the dome you'll feel that you're not claustrophobic at all because you can see out the roof. Okay, you ready to start? I'm ready (reporter). Clear prop.

ENGINE REVS

ANDREA SHEA: This Messerschmitt is for racing, but Gould says the story behind its earliest incarnation is the story behind the microcar genre in Europe after World War II.

CHARLES GOULD: The first Messerschmitts were designed by a German individual by the name of Fritz Fend, and they were designed originally as a car for people that were disabled or had become handicapped during the war, and they were a three-wheeled, hand pedal powered car that was supposed to help get them around. And what happened was it sold pretty well so he put a small engine in it and made them powered three-wheeled cars for people that were disabled, and he noticed the people that were buying them were actually able-bodied families and individuals and actually shop keepers and owners.

ANDREA SHEA: Farmers, too. The cars were cheap, fast and incredibly efficient with their two-stroke motor scooter engines. To keep up with demand Fend partnered with Messerschmitt Aircraft Works, one of the many factories that sat idle under the reparations act. Other manufacturers, such as BMW, followed suit. Eventually 'Bubble Cars,' as they soon came to be known.., were riding the roads all over war-torn Europe. This archival sound is from a car show in London.

ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: (announcer) But from several countries come evidence of the trend for smaller and smaller cars, like those increasingly popular newcomers, the Bubble Car.

MUSIC

ANDREA SHEA: The Bubble Car fad burst after about ten years, according to Charles Gould. His collection focuses on their hey day.

CHARLES GOULD: This here is a BMW Isetta, which is the consummate Bubble Car or microcar. If you talk to anybody about microcars this is the image that comes to mind because it was just so bizarre.

ANDREA SHEA: Isetta is Italian for 'tiny little egg,' and that's just what it looks like. The door is in the front and you climb into it like some sort of carnival ride. Gould's wife Nancy says their very first microcar was an Isetta. Before that they collected 'normal' sized cars such as Jaguars and Corvettes. But the little egg changed all that.

NANCY GOULD: It was a blue one, and we took the first ride in it and all of these spare parts came tumbling out of it, we trailed it home on a snow mobile trailer behind my Ford EXP and everybody was looking at it on the way home.

CHARLES GOULD: And when we took it to car meets we realized that people were leaving Bugattis to come and see it and they were worried about you breathing on the paint and we were buzzing kids around the field giving them rides.

ENGINE REVS

ELLEN HAGNEY: They remind you of something, I often say, that Dr. Seuss would draw. You expect to see the Lorax pop out of it . Or the Grinch.

ANDREA SHEA: Ellen Hagney curates up to thirty summertime car shows at the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. This weekend's microcar event is one of the most popular after the Italian Car and Motorcycle Day in August. At that show, and most expensive collectible car shows, Hagney says the rule is 'look but don't touch.'

ELLEN HAGNEY: If you were to say to the Porsche club you know let's have a Porsche petting zoo they might say no, absolutely not, we can't do that. But with the microcars it's expected and it's enjoyed.

ANDREA SHEA: Traditional collectors laughed at the Gould's microcars for years, which he says was great because many were given to him for free or for a few hundred dollars. Now they're worth much more, and the collecting world is catching on. Gould says he and his wife are planning to open a microcar museum here in Hudson.

SOUND OF GARAGE DOOR OPENING

CHARLES GOULD: So we refer to this as Matchbox Motors Microcar Museum.

ANDREA SHEA: About forty five cars are crammed into this warehouse space.

CHARLES GOULD: 'This is a 1961 Renault Dauphine.'

ENGINE STARTS UP

ANDREA SHEA: The room is full of history and stories. My favorite is about the Peel Trident, one of the few cars ever to have been built on the Isle of Man off the coast of England.

CHARLES GOULD: Their slogan was 'The Peel Trident, almost cheaper than walking.'

ANDREA SHEA: Gould says the factory built fifty of this peculiar, space-age looking model.

CHARLES GOULD: And they sold so poorly that thirty five of them were buried in a land fill in an insurance scam and they told the insurance company that they were stolen. So there's really only sixteen or seventeen that hit the marketplace so it's extremely rare and nobody's ever found the ones that were buried.

ANDREA SHEA: Just recently the Goulds scored another rare find: a micro caravan camper they found in the Netherlands. It's the only one like it in the world and this weekend it makes its U.S. debut at the Microcar Classic in Newton and also the show at Lars Anderson in Brookline.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

END with vintage microcar radio jingle in German.

The Microcar and Minicar Classic is a registered event hosted by Charles and Nancy Gould's in Newton.

The Micro Mini Car Day at the Lars Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline is Saturday, July 14, 2007 between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. It's open to the public. More than seventy vehicles will be on view and rides will be given.

This program aired on July 13, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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