A Car Show on a Human Scale
A more intimate gathering
Those who attend the highly popular August Monterey Auto Weekend events like the Tour d’Elegance in Carmel, Concorso Italiano, and Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, may find themselves frustrated if they want photos, or a clear view of the cars. No doubt it gratifies the organizers to see their programs so well supported (The Pebble Beach Concours is for charity after all) but for the social anxiety-prone, it can be a challenge. To relax, on Wednesday there’s the Pacific Grove Little Car Show.
While the exhibitors for the big attractions have yet to put the first coat of Maguire’s on the nocciola Glasurit finish on their megabuck collector cars, the folks with the cars the rest of the world were driving back in the day are displaying their mini-treasures on Lighthouse Avenue to a more manageable crowd.
This is the show not only for the little guy or gal, but for their little cars. Most of these cars were conceived as either basic transportation or as sporting transportation on a budget, back when gas mileage was not on the radar screens of Detroit’s ad men.
Everybody’s Small Car
Creating an Industry
For decades, Americans’ definition of “small cars” began and ended with the ubiquitous Volkswagen “Beetle.” When I was in college in the ’60s, it seemed that three out of five cars parked at any curb were VW’s Type 1 sedan. With imported economy cars now as common as boy bands, those who were yet to be born then may have a hard time imagining what a weird phenomenon these cars were in a world before the expression “did not compute” had been coined, where “air cooled” and “rear engine” did not compute.
Do you really need four wheels?
The market for small cars is driven by economics. Small cars are almost synonymous with “cheap” (not always. See below.), so it’s no surprise that the ever-clever Brits found a way around onerous vehicle taxes with really small cars.
The vehicle tax system in Britain defines a three-wheeled vehicle as a motorcycle, and charges a lower tax rate than for a car. Some of the strangest forms of personal transportation known to man (or woman) have been spawned by that loophole.
Those who enjoy the British TV show Top Gear may recall the episode that featured co-host Jeremy Clarkson demon-strating three-wheel car manufacturer Reliant’s foolishness in putting the single wheel at the front, as he repeatedly laid the car on its side trying to execute a turn or negotiate a roundabout.
HFS (Henry Frederick Stanley) Morgan had a better idea. In 1911 he patented a design with the pair of wheels up front, where they could resist cornering forces and prevent the car from rolling. The single drive wheel in the back was sufficient for transmitting the power, typically from some V-twin motorcycle engine. JAP and Matchless were popular choices, the former with a blazing eleven horsepower, and eventually culminating with as much as 42 in the latter.
Small Does Not Equal Cheap
Quality in a Small Package
Although most small cars are intended for the budget-minded, there have been some that packed a lot of engineering, a high level of fit and finish, some style, and even a touch of luxury into a small package.
No one would accuse Porsches of being cheap, and with the more powerful ones now pushing 500 hp, it may seem strange that for their first decade, all their cars would have qualified for the Little Car Show, and you’d never feel out of place driving one in a road race, rally, or to a resort.
Less is More
Even with the normal allotment of wheels, sports cars are relatively lightweight. That means that the modest horsepower provided by small engines still offered a lot of fun.
From the beginning a small sports car usually consisted of a light “close-coupled” (car jargon for “short”) two-seat chassis with an engine derived from some tiny sedan, modified to increase power.
It was a Morris engine in those first MGs in 1924. MGs (from “Morris Garage”) were the first sports car many Americans became aware of. Built low, and more agile than almost any domestic iron of the day, it’s the car that introduced GIs returning from WWII to the concept of handling. Thus the MG name and look became synonymous with “sports car.”
Charming as they were though, Americans were used to big cars with big engines.
Jaguars and Ferraris were rare, so drivers of even a six-cylinder American family sedan soon learned they could beat a foreign sports car across an intersection, and owners complained that weak heaters, and “some assembly required” tops and side curtains provided primitive weather protection. Moreover, their dodgy electrical systems created an entire subcategory of humor about “the Prince of Darkness,” Joseph Lucas & Co.
So it was that the MG was the single most influential car in creating the reputation of the foreign sports car as a nimble handling and good-looking vehicle that offered mediocre acceleration, fair-weather-only accommodations, and gawdawful reliability.
Entry-level English Sports Cars
By 1952, many old British carmakers had been consolidated into BMC (British Motor Corporation). At the same time a joint venture between BMC’s Austin and Donald Healey’s engineering firm created the Austin-Healey brand.
The resulting cars had larger engines, and were bigger than MGs, representing an intermediate step up between the MG and the high-performance Jaguar XKs.
When the MG went to an envelope body for the MGA, the design of an entry level sports car below it was assigned to Austin Healey. The result was the Sprite.
While not yet adopting roll-up windows, these cars had some interesting features. For one thing, they had no hood (“bonnet” in Britspeak). Instead the entire front body section pivoted, allowing extraordinary access for servicing the engine.
Its signature feature though, was the upward-protruding headlamps, which gave the car its nicknames – “Bugeye” in the US, and “Frogeye” in the UK.
Triumph’s small sports cars were slightly larger than the MGs of their day, so to compete with the Sprite, they introduced the Spitfire in 1962. It benefitted from a more modern chassis based on their Herald, which had independent rear suspension and the tightest turning circle of any car on the road.
That rear suspension design was the old “swing axle” used in Volkswagens, Porsches, and in the Chevrolet Corvair, the subject of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. His indictment centered on that particular feature, but his criticism bordered on hysteria, and in the Spitfire it was not burdened by the weight of a rear engine.
Nevertheless, it was a bit twitchier than the solid axle competition, and later versions carried an improved trailing arm design, which pretty well eliminated the issue. A version of the car with the later GT6 coupe roofline grafted on won its class at the 1965 Le Mans 24 hour endurance classic.
Italian Small Sports Cars
Fiat 124 Spider Sports
The Italians have made some of the greatest small sports cars, but for some reason, no Alfa Romeos showed up for the Little Car Show. Nevertheless, the honor of the Italians was upheld by several lovely Fiat 124 Spiders.
Only the earliest cars, and those produced in 1973 qualified for the show, as the “1600s” of 1970 to 1973 were really 1608 cc, and later cars had up to 1998 cc. These cars have the distinction of having the first reinforced rubber belt-driven overhead camshafts, a feature common in many cars today.
Japanese Small Sports Cars
There was a Toyota Celica or two at the event, but the star entry from Japan came from Honda.
Honda started life as a motorcycle company, specializing in technically advanced engines that produced a lot of power for their size. So when they set their hands to producing a sports car it’s no surprise that it was small – very small – like with engines half the allowed displacement for the show.
One imagines Michael Malmut having a ball as he drove his 1970 S800 up from Thousand Oaks, presumably on Pacific Coast Highway where its short wheel base would make it right at home on the numerous tight curves.
Early Niche Marketing
American Austin Bantam
Sports cars are fun, but let’s face it. Most of the cars in this class were experiments in minimalism aimed at the working stiff on a tight budget.
Manufacturers of such cars as the American Austin (later Bantam) in the 30’s and the later Crosleys sought a niche neglected by the Detroit Big Three, producing cars that boasted a low price and high gas mileage, but at a sacrifice in performance and interior space few Americans would tolerate.
While Bantam cars will remain a footnote in America automotive history, the company’s legacy is secure. They produced the prototype of a genuine American original. When the Army solicited proposals for an all-terrain lightweight reconnaissance vehicle, Bantam submitted the winning design, and created the Jeep, one of the most universally recognized vehicles in the world.
About the time the Bantam was fading, the US Government was gearing up for war, and with gas rationing looming, a fuel efficient car seemed a good idea. So it was that for a while after other carmakers had shut down automobile production, the manufacturer of the tiny 50 mpg Crosley continued to build cars, creating a loyal following for after the war.
Many variations of the Crosley were produced, including the first all-steel station wagon, delivery vans, and a sports car called the Hotshot, which holds the distinction of being the first car to win the Sebring endurance race, under an index of performance formula that rewarded efficiency as well as outright speed.
Quirkiness and Charm
While small cars like the Bantam and Crosley were curiosities in the US, the class was solidly mainstream in England and on the Continent.
Italian Charm – Topolino to Cinquicento
The Austin Seven’s Italian counterpart, the Fiat 500 Topolino (“little mouse” – the Italian name for Mickey Mouse) was a luxurious alternative to a motorbike or scooter. The recently introduced 500 or Cinquicento is descended from the later car of the same name.
Leave it to the French! – The “Duck”
Of the working man’s (or woman’s) European cars, none is more quirky than the Citroën 2CV or deux chevaux (named for its two chevaux vapeur, or taxable horsepower).
An air cooled horizontally opposed two cylinder engine, none larger than 602 cc, provided enough power for local use and occasional short trips. The cooling fan was affixed to the end of the driveshaft, and the seats were initially hammocks.
2CVs are known affectionately as “Ducks” in mockery of critics who first called them “ugly ducklings.” They were wildly popular with the working class, with waiting lists years long as manufacturing slowly recovered after the war. Variations of the car such as the “Weekender” shown, perhaps the first camper van, and long suspension travel designed for negotiating plowed fields, added to the 2CV’s immense popular appeal.
The Brits – Or Is It The Germans Now?
One of the most successful small cars since the war was a brilliant conception by BMC’s Sir Alexander (Alec) Issigonis. He was the guy who conceived of a car that had tiny wheels and tires suspended on rubber donut springs, shoved to the extreme corners (so that the wheel wells did not intrude into the passenger compartment) and arrange the small four-cylinder engine sideways in the front with the transmission sharing its lubricating oil with the gearbox, and driving the front wheels.
The cars managed to accomodate an amazing amount of space within such a tiny footprint. Nearly all small cars today share the transverse-engine, front-wheel drive formula, but it was a revelation in its day, and was voted the second most influential car of the 2oth Century (after the Model T).
With everyone from dustmen (British for “garbage collector”) to rock stars and royalty driving them, they sold like fish and chips. Prominently featured in the 1969 caper film The Italian Job (the modern car reprising their role in the 2003 version), their narrow dimensions and rugged construction allowed them to drive on sidewalks and down stairs.
Modifications by Formula One Driver and Car Manufacturer John Cooper made them into formidable road racers, winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967.
The modern version (under BMW’s oversight) has too big an engine for the Show, but with as little as 850 cc (and never more that 1,275), the originals were so popular at one time that multiple iterations were produced with minimal sheet metal and grille changes, known as “badge engineering.”
Back Again Next Year?
A Qualified “I Hope So”
A car show is a good place to talk to people, but it could be the working-class nature of these cars lent an air of accessibility that is more latent in the Lamborghini and vintage Packard crowd. Everybody at the Little Car Show was having a great time, and the smaller crowd meant no one had to wait to take a picture, ask a question or tell a story about a similar car. I am pulling for a repeat next year. Maybe we’ll see some Alfas this time – but not too many. We don’t want to spoil a good thing.