A Little Car Show – 2011

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.

2011 Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 8:30 am

Tired of elbowing your way through throngs of admirers to view that immaculately restored Best in Show contender? (I've harbored those thoughts myself.) Here's your cure! This is early - about 8:30 am - and all the entrants hadn't shown yet, but still . . .

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.

Dressed-up VW at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

The ads pushed it as no-frills transportation, but it was probably inevitable that Americans couldn't leave the Volkswagen Type 1 "Beetle" alone. This nicely turned-out mid-sixties sunroof version (only the VW-obsessed can spot the year of a particular car with any accuracy, but this one post-dates hand-flipped semaphore-type turn signals.) sports aftermarket touches like wheel pants, chrome stone guards, full wheel covers, running board lights, sunshades and spare wheel-mounted tool kit (Inset).

Define “Car”
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.

Reliant Rialto Estate at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

Steven Cooper managed to get from Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove while remaining upright in his 1984 Reliant Rialto "Estate."Jeremy Clarkson of TV's Top Gear had no such luck in a similar car, although one suspects he wasn't really trying very hard.

 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.

Morgan 3-Wheeler at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

If you should find Peter Sellers' 1968 movie "The Party" on cable sometime, you'll see his character driving a Morgan Three-wheeler. This one is powered by a JAP V-twin. These "cyclecars" had high power for their weight, and were successful in hillclimb competition.

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.

Porsche 1600 Super at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

One Cubic Centimeter under the limit, and probably the highest cost per cc, this Porsche 1600 Super would not have been out of place at a rally, road race, or resort. A Speedster version drew a winning bid of $225,000 at the Gooding & Co. Auction the following Saturday.

Pint-size Fun
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.”

MG TF 1500 at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

An upright grille with vertical slats flanked by protruding headlamps, sweeping wings (British for fenders), and a folding windscreen for true "wind in your face" motoring identify an early MG. This beautifully restored and presented example is the last of the breed, the TF 1500. The MGA that followed carried on most of the mechanical components in an "envelope" body that was more aerodynamic, but lost some charm in the modernization.

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.

MG TF 1500 Cockpit at Pacific Grove Little Car Show, - 2011

Proper Smiths gauges, organ-stop controls, and English leather exude charm in the classic MG tradition. Also period correct are sketchy weather protection. (Note there are no window winders.) If it rained (This is England, remember?) you'd scramble to assemble and raise the top ("hood" in Britspeak) and install vinyl side curtains.

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. 

MG TF 1500 Rear View - Pacific Grove Little Car Show, 2011

Wire wheel in saddle tank mount and clamshell rear fenders - further early MG cues.

Entry-level English Sports Cars

Austin-Healey Sprite

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.

Austin-Healey Sprite at Pacific Grove Little car Show - 2011

With its grinning radiator grill and raised headlights, the "Bugeye" ("Frogeye" in the UK) Austin Healey Sprite has an affordable appeal that's difficult to resist.

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 Spitfire

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.

Triumph Spitfire at Pacific grove Little Car Show - 2011

The Triumph Spitfire's independent rear suspension theoretically offered an advantage in lower unsprung weight (what's not carried by the springs, and needs to be controlled to keep the tires in contact with the road surface) compared to the Sprite's solid axle.

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.

Fiat 124 Sports Spider at Pacific Grove Little car Show - 2011

With its Pininfarina-designed coachwork (in Italian racing red, of course) this Fiat 124 Sport Spider has 90% of the style of a contemporary Ferrari 275 GTS by the same designer, without the six-figure price tag.

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

Honda S800

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.

Honda S800 at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

Michael Malamut's tiny (800cc) Honda S800 Coupe arrived fully equipped for a picnic party, with all the period accessories carried under the diminutive car's hatch.

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.

American Minimalism
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.

American Austin Bantam at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011
By the time the British overcame their Imperial attitude of “It’s good enough for us, so it should be good enough for them,” they’d just about destroyed their own auto industry.  They imported or built here what they drove, like the Austin Seven (inset lower right). The American Austin’s (Later Bantam – mascot inset upper left) British charm did not translate well into American English.

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.

1947 Crosley CC Sedan at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

It would be cynical to say that after WWII car-hungry people would buy anything with wheels and an engine, but the market did allow for tiny Crosley to succeed, with cars like Chuck Latty's 1947 CC Sedan.

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.

Crosley Station Wagon at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

Although Crosley built the first all-steel station wagon, tradition dies hard, and this could be one of the first station wagons with fake wood. Other innovations Crosley introduced to American production cars were single overhead cams and four-wheel disc brakes.

European Minimalism
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.

New and Old Fiat 500s at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

The difference in size between the newest incarnation of the Fiat 500 "Cinquicento" (right) and the original may be exaggerated by perspective here (shown at the Concorso Italiano on Friday), but there's no denying that although it's small by our standards, compared to the original, it's huge.

2 Fiat 500 Jitneys at the Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

They made Fiat 500s in all styles, and if they didn't, you could make one yourself.

 Leave it to the French! – The “Duck”

Citroën 2CV "Weekender" at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

"Larry" poses with his Citroën 2CV "Weekender," an example that probably represents a level of finish more "usable" than your typical concours-level car.

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).

Tools Under Seat of Citroën 2CV "Weekender" at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

The same economics that drove people to small cars created backyard mechanics, out of necessity. Note tools under passenger seat above, Vise-grips on camper bed, below.

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.

Citroën 2CV "Weekender" Accommodations at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

Intimate accommodations in the 2CV "Weekender" reinforce its "Frenchness."

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.

Green Citroën 2CV at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

Initially reviled as an "Ugly Duckling," the 2CV went on to cult status, turning the epithet around. Production eventually approach the Model T and VW Type 1, with some owners lavishing the kind of care on their cars represented by this "Duck."

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.”

Riley Elf at Pacific Grove Little Car Show - 2011

No small car show is complete without a Mini, or one badge-engineered as a Riley Elf. Along with the Woolsley Hornet, these were slightly upscale, with flashy chrome grilles like their large brethren, and more luxurious trim inside. Note the door hinges are concealed - a change incorporated into the Minis later.

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.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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One Response to A Little Car Show – 2011

  1. greg c says:

    i have a few mini cars that need restoration for sale 1959 ford 100e wagon,austin a40,1947 crosleywoody wagon all cars are complete ,email thugdad@msn.com

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