Microcar Mania at the Lane Motor Museum

Tiny cars are huge fun

It’s not hyperbole to call the Lane Motor Museum the world’s greatest collection of eccentric and oddball automobiles. Located in a warehouse district of southeastern Nashville inside what was once a Sunbeam Bread bakery, the Lane is delightfully free of glossy floors and garish automobilia. It’s a place where Tatras, Alpines, DKWs, and a cornucopia of other cars you’ve probably never heard of can shine.

We’ve come to this glorious celebration of automotive obscura to sample the museum’s extensive collection of microcars. As part of its annual media drive, the Lane graciously allowed us behind the wheel of some of its strangest, rarest, and most interesting pint-sized wonders. To be clear, we’re not talking about the contemporary Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, or Smart Fortwo here. These cars will redefine your idea of small.

Too Big to Fail: The LARC is very much operational. Jeff Lane will sometimes crank the four diesel engines over and crush a few derelict cars for visitors.

Despite the categorical implication of the term microcar, the segment is nebulous and hardly definitive. Although the vast majority of these tiny terrors are motivated by engines less than 1.0 liter in size, the Lane considers any small car with an engine checking in at 0.4 liters or so to be part of the microcar family.

Wee stature and microscopic engine displacement aren’t their only unconventional aspects. Some microcars even sport fewer than four wheels, thanks to some clever legislation. In Great Britain, three-wheelers aren’t considered cars at all; you need only a motorcycle license to operate them. In several European countries, vehicles that fall under the legal microcar definition—no heavier than 937 pounds, a 50cc engine with no more than roughly 5.4 horsepower, a top speed not exceeding 28 mph—do not require a license to operate, earning a reputation for attracting the elderly, the young, and in some cases, the serial drunken drivers with revoked licenses. These so-called voitures sans permis (cars without permit) are particularly popular in France, where an entire industry supplies these machines to city dwellers, penny pinchers, and barflies.

After almost dislocating a joint or two climbing inside, the P50 proved as gleeful to drive as it is to look at.

Not only were classic microcars cheap to buy, they were inherently thrifty to operate. Fuel, brake, and tire consumption were minimal, and the engines were usually two-stroke, one-cylinder thumpers ripped out of scooters or motorcycles. To manage what little power there is, you’ll find a potpourri of transmissions in microcars, including manual, sequential, continuously variable, and automatic.

My tiny-car tour began on the Lane museum’s grounds, where I snacked on a selection of cars too fragile, temperamental, or short-legged for the open road. These vehicular hors d’oeuvres began with a pair of bright red Peels, a brand that’s recently become the face of rising microcar popularity.

If The Guinness Book of World Records is to be believed, production cars don’t get smaller than the Peel P50. Born in 1962 on the Isle of Man, the Peel P50 sought to mobilize locals and get them out of the inclement weather on the cheap, offering motorized transport for just 199 British pounds sterling, the equivalent of $2,500 in today’s rates. This was not a lot of money for not a lot of car, but Peel claimed the goofy P50 offered enough interior space for “one adult and one shopping bag.” If you had to drag along a passenger, you upgraded to the bubble-topped Trident, offering a mildly (some might say wildly) uncomfortable space for two adults.

1980 Subaru Fastrack II

After almost dislocating a joint or two climbing inside, the P50 proved as gleeful to drive as it is to look at. As I buzzed around the complex, the brat-brat-brat-brat of the one-cylinder engine echoed off the brick walls, gassing the local urban Nashville wildlife with an azure plume of exhaust smoke. The Trident was next, entered by lifting its clamshell, bubble-top canopy. Aside from the scooter-esque racket, the Peel Trident was the most retrofuturistic experience I’ve ever had behind the wheel. Its plexiglass dome turns you into a rolling exhibition, allowing interaction with the local human population without having to leave the (relative) comfort of your bubble car.

Comfort is indeed relative when it comes to microcars, as I was reminded time and again throughout the day. Although I drove the Trident early in the morning while temperatures hovered around the 70-degree mark, within minutes I was a hard-breathing lump of sweat, overheated thanks to its glaring lack of ventilation and shade. After a failed U-turn, I found myself face to face with the museum’s gargantuan 1959 LARC-LX amphibious vehicle. Like the P50, the Trident has no reverse gear, necessitating a push from a friendly staff member of the museum. Had I been in the smaller P50, I could have climbed out and picked the car up by the rear end.

1956 Heinkel Kabine

Due in part to starring in an episode of “Top Gear” in 2007, the P50 and Trident have enjoyed increasing attention on the auction circuit. Collectors are snapping up original and recreation Peels for frightening sums, searching for a novelty vehicle to park in between their blue-chip classics. Given that only 27 of the original 50 still exist, real P50s are claiming more than six figures at auction. In 2016, RM Sotheby’s sold a P50 for a whopping $176,000.

Of the other microcars the Lane offered me to test drive, the 1959 Berkeley SE328 wore familiar sports-car proportions, albeit on a shrunken scale. As much as I loved its light, quick steering and eager handling, my 5-foot-11-inch frame was folded to full constriction, requiring Pilates to actuate anything in the pedal box.

Ligier JS4: It might have a Formula 1 pedigree, but the Ligier is about as fast as your average gas-powered golf cart.

I climbed into the 1978 SEAB Flipper for my next tiny wheel time. This unwieldy, upright sans permis was Societe d’Exploitation et d’Application des Brevet’s attempt at innovation, incorporating a rotating engine and drive assembly in place of a reverse gear. If you need to scooch backward, just keep turning the steering wheel until the wheels and engine have rotated 180 degrees. Reverse, unwind the wheel, and repeat as necessary. Just be careful you don’t turn the driveline too far, lest you shear the sleeve loaded with critical wires and tubes.

After sampling a few more not-quite-roadworthy vehicular oddballs, our photographer and I piled into a red 1956 Heinkel Kabine for a short caravan to the second drive location. At first glance, this appears as an elongated, off-brand BMW Isetta, especially given its hinged front portal. Jeff Lane, the owner, founder, and namesake of the museum, says the Heinkel is an upscale, comfortable alternative to the Isetta. He should know: Ten years ago, he drove one 1,200 miles on a round trip between Belgium and Italy.

1958 Vespa 400: With light steering, a dogleg three-speed transmission, and a scooter engine in the rear, the Vespa 400 was one of our favorites.

Aside from a tricky column-mounted shifter that wasn’t keen on third gear, the Heinkel is the first microcar that almost makes sense. Power is adequate for low-speed romps around town, and there’s plenty of storage space behind the front seat. We weren’t exactly comfortable, but my passenger wasn’t unduly broken after a 15-minute ride to Fairgrounds Speedway, the second-oldest continually operating oval track in the States. There awaited a larger group of slightly bigger, faster, and ostensibly better-built microcars, ready for exercise on the venue’s banked oval course.

I chose the Messerschmitt KR200, one of the most iconic and enduring microcars next to the Peel, for my first trip around the track. Built by the same engineers who designed and developed Messerschmitt aircraft, this two-seat fuselage packed a more potent Honda motorcycle engine, replacing its original 10-odd horsepower two-stroke, giving the Messerschmitt a worrying amount of straightline speed. The KR200’s front track width being greater than the rear makes canting the deliciously aeronautical two-prong steering “wheel” an exercise in bravery.

You’ll see all manner of automotive obscura at the Lane, including this 1945 Erickson Streamliner. Built in the garage of a local metalworker, it’s the only one in existence.

Back in the staging area, a drag race was being held between the Teilhol Simply and the Ligier JS4, two delightful little cubes that truly embrace the term “box on wheels.” Despite a more aerodynamic profile and featherweight plastic body, the Teilhol was left for dead by the rackety Ligier. The JS4 likely found extra motivation from the Ligier Formula 1 racing team signatures adorning its roof—one from each member of the team that used this particular box for runs down pit lane.

The banana yellow 1980 Subaru 360 FasTrack II was the best drive of the event, despite being critically impractical to the point of uselessness. The FasTrack was Subaru importer and auto industry megamind Malcom Bricklin’s way of ridding himself of excess Subaru 360 inventory, inviting interested parties to drive these fiberglass roadsters to destruction on a custom race circuit for $1. The FasTrack might ride on the bones of a humble 360, but a turbocharged engine, traditional manual transmission, and extremely lightweight body returned the most smiles of the day.

In reality, I had a smile on my face all day long. Despite their challenges, I found the Lane’s microcars to be a tiny slice of automotive history that proved to be big fun.

See for Yourself

If you want to get up close and personal with these cars, make sure to head to the Lane Motor Museum before May 21, when Microcar Mania will pack up. If you can’t make the deadline, there are still more than 150 cars to check out, including one of the largest collections of Tatras outside of the Czech Republic. Don’t forget to explore the side garage where the Lane stuffs its ambulances, industrial trucks, and oversized vehicles. Most importantly, don’t forget your camera.