Around the second weekend in June, a parade of perky little cars on trailers sputters along bucolic Line 11 North, just outside of Barrie, Ontario. They’re headed to MicroCar North, an annual event hosted by Ralph and Wendy Hough on their lush green homestead.
Soon, the lawn is covered with the bright little cars in lively shades of blue, red, yellow, green, and orange. Like sparkling baubles on diminutive wheels, they’re oddly evocative of another time, right after the Second World War, when gas was scarce – but imagination and hope were rampant. With engines of 500 cc and under, and a curb weight less than 1,000 pounds, it seems impossible that grown adults could use these for legitimate transportation.
But in post-war Europe, microcars came to the salvation of a population struggling to get back on the road. It’s how you got to work, got your groceries and toured around town.
Nowadays, microcars – and minicars – are popular with car nerds that favour rarefied design over horsepower. They’re not so much a hobby as they are an addiction. And it requires a partnership to keep the little lovelies in pristine condition.
Wendy Hough knows all about it. She’s been co-hosting MicroCar North since 1992 with her retired policeman husband, Ralph, proud co-owner of a stable of Messerschmitts, Isettas, and other vehicular wonders. Every year, she opens up her beautifully turned out home to visitors from all over North America, and the talk flows easily from plant cuttings to microcar specs, over to her purse – which features a hand-pained Schmitt, with wallet to match. Wendy fondly remembers schlepping around England in a Schmitt back in the early 1960s, and she still harbours a soft spot for the elliptical cuties.
Nan Meyers from Ohio is partial to the 1984 Dominos Pizza Tritan A-2 delivery car she owns with her husband. “There were only 10 built as delivery vehicles,” she says. “There was an oven in the back seat to keep the pizzas warm, but they still got 80 miles per gallon. Its unique shape boasts one of the lowest drag co-efficients in the industry – and there are only eight in existence today.”
At around noon, a flotilla of amphicars comes rolling in, decked out with fishing nets, beach umbrellas and periscopes. Sheila de la Porte, who has also come from Ohio, says her turquoise 1962 Amphicar originally came from Michigan, and she loves taking it into the water. “You have to be in a dead stop to take it into the water,” she explains. “Then you start the propellers and gently drive it into the water. You put the car in neutral and steer with the steering wheel. It’s a remarkably fun thing to do.” The Amphicars have a rear engine, standard marine lights and bilge pump.
Marybeth Abramson from Niagara Falls, New York, has made a fleet of microcar cookies out of Snickers bars, teddy grahams and Smarties that are simply delicious. Outside, she talks about the 1957 Isetta she and her husband bought from Germany. “It was such a nuisance to register it with the DOT,” Marybeth recalls. “The serial number was too short, the weight was too light, and they didn’t have a classification for a one-door vehicle.” Her husband originally wanted a “wow” car like Mustang, but fell in love with the Isetta, which gets its share of attention.
Perhaps that’s why the microcar crowd differs from other car clubs. It’s not horsepower that makes their cars special, rather, it’s an attitude. Because a car should move you on a physical plane and an emotional plane, as well.
Charlene Hough, Ralph and Wendy’s daughter-in-law, steps inside a 1959 Isetta to get out of the sun. “They just make you smile,” she says, and flashes a grin to prove her point.