By Design

1980 KV Mini 1

By Design

Automotive journalist and impresario Jay Lamm is a comic genius who sees all motoring manifestations in terms of their potential ridiculousness and then invents brilliant ways to share his skewed points of view. His absurd racing series for $500 clunkers, the 24 Hours of LeMons, has been a huge success, so he decided to expand his bad-car concept to include a pointed parody of the stuffed-shirt, big-bucks automotive potlatches known as concours (contests) of elegance. Held last August on Saturday afternoon between Friday’s Concorso Italiano and Sunday’s Pebble Beach lawn party, the Concours d’LeMons drew the expected coterie of Pacers, Pintos, Peugeots, and other horrors, but the runaway winner of Worst in Show was this 1980 KV Mini 1.

The cool confidence of its owner, Michael D. Harrell, Ph.D., of the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, who towed the flimsy tin box all the way from Seattle – behind his MGB – specifically and uniquely for this event, was justified when nothing else could measure down to its near-subterranean level. Between 1970 and 1984, 2000 of these single-cylinder city cars were built by Les Equipements Eléctriques KV in Chassieu, France. Dr. Harrell has two KVs, both 125-cc coupes, the second as a parts car (KV also made a station wagon, believe it or not, and an “economy” 50-cc model). Licensed in Washington, the fright-pig winner is often driven on Seattle streets.

Styling might be characterized as “origami,” albeit paper-folding as practiced by an especially slow Japanese child of, say, three years. There is virtually no structural integrity, so a collision with a Smart would probably totally flatten the angular Mini 1. On the other hand, the chassis elements are quite sophisticated, in a touchingly naive way. Suspension is independent on all four wheels, with a lot of travel for the Citroën-like front arms but relatively little for the rear wheels, so as to keep the industrial grinding wheels that serve as final-drive torque transmitters in touch with the tires.

Yes, really. Those rugous cylinders are held against the top of the rear tires to force them to turn by friction. The direction of travel is determined by the rotation of the two-stroke engine. To back up, one stops the engine, switches an electronic control box under the driver’s seat, then restarts the engine in the opposite direction of rotation (amid clouds of smoke). The KV goes as fast backward as forward – all of 37 mph (60 kph).

Think about that. When the KV was built, 60 kph was the maximum speed allowed within French city limits. And remember that we all marveled at the first Lexus LS400, some twenty years ago, because it reached the gentleman’s-agreement 250-kph (155-mph) top speed respected by European sedan manufacturers without any electronic limiters; it simply ran out of power at the statutory velocity. As does the KV. QED, engineering mastery. Magnifique.

1 The front wheelhouse opening suggests the rear shapes favored by Marcello Gandini, minus all artfulness or style, of course.

2 The fabric top slides sideways out of the header bar after three attachments above the backlight have been undone. Unlike Dodge Viper or Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder roofs, it will stay attached at top speed.

3 Bad ergonomic design: plastic door handles seem to suggest twisting to open. Instead, they pull away from the body side, thus ensuring constant breakages. Only one of four in Harrell’s fleet remains intact, and there are no spares.

4 The single hint of style on the whole car is the forward-slanting door cut, recapitulated at the trailing edge of the door and the front of the lift-up engine-compartment cover.

5 These louvers follow that slant line, but instead of running parallel to the sills, the baseline awkwardly runs uphill.

6 Harrell’s vanity license plate repeats the French registration characters that are blocked by its presence, so the original 5921 PX 94 sequence can still be read, should anyone actually care.

7 The mighty two-stroke, 125-cc single-cylinder engine tucks in behind the driver.

8 The infamous grinding wheel that provides the friction final drive.

9 The intermediate belt drive comes off the centrifugal clutch at the engine output shaft.

10 The extreme minimalism of the welded tube rim, spokes, and shaft recalls the earliest Citroën 2CVs. Inelegant and unsafe . . . but effective. And cheap.

11 Two-pedal control is permitted by the belt-and-pulley transmission. There is no parking gear and no need to select reverse: just make the engine run backward.

12 Probably a scooter part, this tiny speedometer tells the driver that he’s really not going as fast as it probably feels like he is.

13 Convenient placement of the spare wheel in the passenger compartment guarantees a sloppy mess for the passenger after changing a tire in constantly wet Seattle.

14 None of that effete designer tumblehome here. The windshield is a perfectly regular rectangle.

15 Bevels on both sides of each front fender form mitigate the severe boxiness of the body, without providing any trace of
visual charm.

16 The diminutive 4.00-8 tires can be sourced from suppliers of Cushman motor scooters.

17 If the styling department had any sense of organization, these two lamps might have been aligned on the vertical axis, not offset haphazardly.

18 This is actually the dome light out of some other (probably French) car – used as a turn signal by KV – complete with on/off/automatic tumbler switch on the bottom.