Owning a classic car is serious business. It requires money, space and time. We don’t all have plenty of that, do we? But if time and space are limited, you might want to consider getting a small classic car. There are plenty of them about, and they’re not all that expensive.
We picked the 8 smallest classic cars for you. They are all cars that are available in different parts of the world. You can buy them for fairly normal prices.
1. BMW Isetta – and other bubblecars
After World War 2 the mass motorisation in Europe got started. Not right away of course, but in the early 1950’s the economy got better, people had a bit of money and they wanted to invest that in transportation.
In those days there was still a shortage of materials. Also, there were lots of small auto manufacturers that figured that people were screaming for cheap and small cars. How wrong they were… Yes, people did want cheap cars indeed, but they did not want tiny cars that only two people would fit in. And they certainly did not want cars that looked as if they were taken off a merry-go-round.
Around 1954 the first bubble-cars were introduced. In 1953 the refrigerator-factory Iso in Italy developed the Isetta, a small three-wheeled car with the door in the front. BMW in Germany liked the design and got a license to produce the car. They even redesigned it and put in their own motorcycle engine. From 1955 to 1962 BMW produced more than 160.000 Isetta’s.
Curvy, cuddly and colourful
In the same period, German manufacturers like Heinkel and Messerschmitt, but also Maico and Champion, launched their minicars, scootmobiles or whatever they were called. Also in Italy and Spain such microcars were produced, and in the United Kingdom, they were a class of their own, for a few years.
And yes, for a few years they seemed to do well, selling thousands of cars. But it did not stick.
Many people who wanted a car, preferred borrowing a bit more money from the bank so they could buy a proper car, like a Volkswagen Beetle or a Ford Anglia. The heyday of bubblecars was between 1955 and 1960. In 1962 most of them were already out of production.
But today these tiny cars represent a remarkable phase in automobile history. Bubblecars from the fifties are curvy, cuddly and colourful. That is why people started collecting them in a very early stage, even in the 1960’s.
That is why there are still quite a few of them around, and mostly in very good condition. But watch out, prices for these cars are as high as USD 30,000 to 40,000. The mechanics are simple, but keep in mind that they are not really suited for driving on the public road anymore.
Alternatives: Velam Isetta, Heinkel Kabinenroller, Messerschmitt KR200, Friskey, Scootacar, Rovin, Fuldamobil.
2. Fiat 500 – the rucksack
It is remarkable that so many small cars have been produced for so many years. Take the little Fiat 500. It was introduced in 1957 as the successor of the pre-war Fiat Topolino.
The 500 was in many aspects the opposite of its predecessor. The Topolino had the engine in the front, the 500 has it in the back. The Topolino shows classic prewar styling with separate wings, the 500 is a representative of postwar pontoon-body with a unitary construction.
The biggest difference though is that the 500 has a back seat. That turns it into a little family car. And often it was loved by the entire family, and given petnames, like rucksack.
The 500 follows the technical design of the Fiat 600 that was introduced two years earlier. Like the 600 it has its engine in the back, but unlike the 600 it is an air cooled two cylinder engine.
The car had a foldable roof, which was not an option but standard equipment. The reason for this was that it was cheaper to produce, after all, Fiat needed to calculate very well to be able to sell this car at a low price.
From 1957 to 1975, there were 3.7 million Fiat 500’s produced. Of course, there have been several updates and facelifts, but the basic design of the car never changed.
Apart from Fiat itself, several other manufacturers built the 500, like NSU in Germany, that produced Fiats under the name Neckar.
And Steyr in Austria produced Puch 500’s in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Apart from that, there were several companies in and outside Italy that built all sorts of variations of the 500.
Giannini and Abarth made faster versions of the 500 and NSU built the charming NSU Weinsberg 500.
Because the Fiat 500 has been produced for such a long time, it was already outdated when its production finally stopped. But that also means that the fans of the little car very soon started collecting them.
That, plus the cuddly shape of the car, has made sure that there are still many Fiats 500 around.
They are for sale at all sorts of prices. Even the boxy looking Fiat 126, the successor of the Fiat 500, already has a value as a collector’s car.
Alternatives: Fiat 126, Autobianchi Quatroposti, Fiat 600.
3. Mini – the British one
No, we don’t mean that big, bulky thing that BMW produces. We mean the real Mini, the one that Sir Alec Issigonis designed for British Motor Corporation.
It was launched in 1959 and in the 1960’s it became a real lifestyle statement, embraced by celebrities in Britain and the rest of the world.
It’s true, you can have 4 people in a Mini, thanks to the transversally mounted engine and the tiny, 10-inch wheels that are positioned on the corners of the car.
The little car with its rubber suspension turned out to be a great car for races and rallies and over the years it has been very successful in motorsport.
In fact, Mini’s are still very popular in classic car racing.
Versions by Wolseley and Riley even had a proper boot
Mini’s have been produced from 1959 to 2000. By that time, the little car had 12-inch wheels and disc brakes and a 1.3 Mpi engine.
The first Mini’s came with Austin and Morris-labels in 1959, but badge-engineering would give us versions by Wolseley and Riley, that were even equipped with a proper boot.
There have been lots of variations of the Mini-theme, like the fast Cooper and even faster Cooper S, the Clubman with its bulky front and of course, there have been several stationwagons, vans and even a pick-up.
Mini’s are not difficult to find, although the original Mini’s with 10-inch wheels are harder to find, as the 12-inch wheels were introduced in 1984.
Mini’s have been built in several locations through the years, like in Greece, Australia, Italy, South Africa and the Netherlands, to name a few.
There are lots of clubs for Mini-owners, you can get parts for them all over the place and a Mini can still be driven on the road today. Come to think of it, there’s no reason not to buy a Mini!
Alternatives: Autobianchi A112.
4. Goggomobil – the survivor
The first Goggomobil had a 250 cc air-cooled engine in the back, later it was replaced by a 300 cc engine. Hans Glas of Dingolfing in Bavaria, Germany, started producing cars in 1955.
The company originally made farm machinery for more than half a century, but the automobile industry apparently was very tempting.
So Glas designed a platform that was used for various different models. The first one was the Goggomobil T250, with an air-cooled, two-stroke two-cylinder engine in the back. This first version had suicide doors, sliding windows in the doors and just one windshield wiper.
A definite sedan-shape
According to the dimensions of the car and the size of the engine, the Goggomobil is definitely a microcar or scootmobile. But while other cars in this class look all cuddly and bubbly, the Goggomobil has the looks of a real car, with a definite sedan-shape.
That shape may have contributed to the success of this little Bavarian car because the production of it went on when other cars from the bubblecar generation had long ceased production. The Goggomobil survived them all.
The T250, later named T300 because of a bigger engine, stayed in production until 1969. By that time almost 250,000 units had been built.
The Goggomobile brand was extended with the introduction of some new models. In 1956 the Goggomobil TL Transporter was introduced. This was designed at the request of the German Postal Service. Until 1965, around 3,500 of these tiny vans were produced and even a few pick-ups.
Then in 1957, the TS 250 Coupé was launched. This was practically just as big as the T-sedan, but it had a much more slick design, that even looked somewhat American. It had a bigger engine and better performance than the other model and of course, it was more expensive. But still, it was quite a successful car, as more than 65,000 were produced.
Goggomobil cars were highly successful in Germany and other European countries, but they were also exported to the USA. And in Australia Goggo’s were even produced under license by Buckle Motors in Sydney. This firm also created a little sports car, the Goggomobil Dart, with a sporty, fibreglass body.
In 1966, Hans Glas GmbH was bought by BMW. The last Goggomobiles were produced in 1969. Goggomobiles are now spread all over the globe.
Alternatives: Zündapp Janus, BMW 600, Lloyd LP300.
5. Suzuki Alto/Maruti 800 – the loveable Japanese mini
Japanese car manufacturer Suzuki started producing looms for the silk-industry in 1909. After World War 2 the company moved to producing two-stroke engines and later four-stroke.
In the 1950’s the produced motorcycles and even the odd car. The first Suzuki Fronte is launched in 1965, a little car with a two-stroke engine in the back. Three generations later, in 1978, the Suzuki Fronte is a stylish little fourdoor car, the four-stroke model receives the name Alto.
It is with this car that Suzuki’s success begins. The little car is introduced in Europe in 1982 and it is an immediate success.
There are a twodoor hatchback and a fourdoor version. This car has no boot (or trunk, as the Americans call it) but you can reach the luggage compartment by opening the rear window. The three-cylinder car has a four-speed manual gearbox, but an automatic transmission is optional.
In 1981 Suzuki started a joint-venture with Maruti in India. Over the years, Maruti became one of the largest auto manufacturers of the continent, in 2012 they produced their 10 millionth car. From the beginning, Maruti has been producing the Suzuki Fronte/Alto for markets in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The Maruti 800, as it was called, was later even exported to Europe. But in Pakistan there is joint-venture also, Pak Suzuki assembles Suzuki’s there since 1982.
When the Alto came to Europe in 1982, it was already four years on the market in Japan, where it had started life as a little Kei-car, with a two-cylinder engine. Therefore there are several names for this boxy little Suzuki: Fronte, FX, SS80, Hatch. But the best-known name is Alto.
Now the Suzuki Alto celebrates it’s 40th birthday this year, and it is on the market in Europe for 36 years now.
So is it a classic? That depends on where you are in the world. In India and Pakistan, people love their little Suzuki, simply because two generations have grown up with it. In Europe on the other hand, there is not much interest in little Japanese cars.
Most of the first generation Alto’s have been scrapped, but from time to time you bump into one that has been preserved well. It looks like the Suzuki Alto isn’t a classic yet. But in a few years from now, it will be.
Alternatives: Daihatsu Cuore, Subaru Rex/Mini Jumbo.
6. Crosley – the tiny American car
American entrepreneur Powel Crosley had built radio’s and refrigerators before he started producing cars in 1939. His idea was that a car should be as cheap as possible, so he built not only small cars but cars that had absolutely no luxury.
They were really tiny in comparison with the mainstream American cars, and they had good fuel efficiency. During World War 2 fuel was rationed in the USA and that drove prices of secondhand Crosleys up to three or four times their original prices.
After the war, the big industries like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were struggling to switch from producing tanks, guns and aeroplanes back to automobiles. That gave Crosley an advantage and for a few years, they sold thousands of cars. But in 1952 it was all over. Costs were getting too high and Crosley could no longer compete.
Crosley had the first overhead camshaft in a mass-produced engine
Crosley cars had a 720 cc two-cylinder engine which was turned out not so reliable. There were different bodystyles, like a twodoor sedan, a convertible and a station wagon. There was even a sporty looking little roadster by the name of Crosley Hotshot.
This even turned out to be the first postwar American sportscar, though not the most successful one. Other Crosley innovations are the first overhead camshaft in a mass-produced engine and the first ponton-style body in 1946, the Crosley CC sedan.
The Crosley cars have been sold briefly in Europe. Because there was already a Crossley (with double s) truck manufacturer in Britain, Crosleys in Europe got the name Crosmobile. As it seems, Crosleys have also made it to Cuba and to several countries in South America. But of course, you will find most Crosleys in the USA.
7. Reliant Regal – the plastic threewheeler
In the 1930’s, Reliant in Tamworth, UK, produced three-wheeled light commercial vehicles. In the early fifties, the company wanted its share in the mass motorisation and built its first three-wheeled passenger car, the Reliant Regal.
At first, it had an aluminium body, but over the years that was replaced, bit by bit, by fibreglass body parts.
The third generation Regal of 1963 had a unitary construction of the fibreglass body, combined with a steel chassis. A remarkable piece of styling was the reverse raked rear window, which was introduced earlier on the Ford Anglia and Citroën Ami. The Reliant Regal in this form would stay in production for ten years.
This was the car that made Reliant famous. It became part of the pop culture in the UK. Reliants like this became famous through the tv-series Only Fools and Horses. Later a Reliant Regal Supervan III appeared in the Mr Bean-series as the opponent of Rowan Atkinson’s yellow Mini.
The Regal became part of British pop-culture
Reliant turned out to be a prolific car manufacturer. They built some four-wheeled cars too, like the Rebel and the Kitten. In 1969, Reliant took over its main competitor on the Britsh market, Bond. This resulted in the launch of the iconic Bond Bug.
The 1960’s also saw the launch of the Reliant Scimitar sportscar. And apart from that, Reliant also designed and sometimes produced cars for manufacturers in other countries, like Sabra in Israel and Anadol in Turkey.
Robin and Rialto
In 1973 the Regal was succeeded by the Robin and in the ‘80’s we saw the arrival of the Rialto. But Reliant went downhill, in 2001 only 50 cars per week were built. That year, the management of the company decided to cease production and since then, Reliant is a dormant company.
As much as the fans like the three-wheeler Reliants, some people do hate them. After all, the main problem of these cars is of course that they tend to tip over when cornering fast. This is probably why the Reliants are so popular in British banger racing.
Alternatives: Bond Minicar, Bond Bug.
8. Smart City Coupé – the new bubble car
Introduced in 1998, the Smart City Coupé is only twenty years old, so it is not exactly an oldtimer But it definitely is a classic!
Like the bubblecars from the 1950’s, the Smart is small, curvy and colourful. But it gave a new meaning to the concept of small cars. Why? Because the purpose of its size is not to be cheap or simple, but to save fuel and most of all to save space in crowded cities.
In the 1980’s it was the Swiss watchmaker Swatch that started designing a compact car for use in big cities. Swatch was renowned for the colourful, playful designs of their watches and the fact that every Swatch could be adapted to the taste of the owner. CEO Nicholas Hayek of Swatch wanted that same concept to work for a city car too.
In the early 1990’s he started a cooperation with Volkswagen, but in 1993, that was ended. Then Daimler-Benz came along and showed serious interest. It was the start of the Smart-brand, Swatch Mercedes ART.
The first Smart was named City Coupé and was launched in 1998. A year later the name was changed into Smart Fortwo. The little car was 2.50 m long and had a 600 cc three-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels.
The so-called safety cell would dominate the looks
The car was designed to be safe with a so-called ‘safety cell’ that would dominate the looks of it. The bright coloured body panels could be easily replaced by other colours, just as designer Hayek had visioned it.
Over the years, the little Smart has been fairly successful. Sure, there were complaints at first about the quality of the engine and about the semi-automatic gearbox that would take ages to change gear. But the people loved the looks of the little car and made it their lifestyle accessory.
Over the years, the Smart-brand lost much of its original eccentricity. Lots of different models were launched that were not really successful. Or really not. But the original Smart City Coupé has survived and at this moment the second generation is being produced, even in a fully electric version.
This makes the original Smart City Coupé a true classic car. It represents a new way of designing cars and it is a landmark in the history of Mercedes-Benz.