Madrid, 29 June 2004
The Spanish Civil War was over, and the Second World War was looming. 80% of Spain’s motor-vehicle fleet had been destroyed in the fighting, the roads were in an awful state, and materials and fuel were scarce. To make matters worse, the few automotive companies that still existed, after having been redeployed during the fighting to make weapons, had been devastated in the bombing raids. With the economy and industry in a decrepit state, ingenuity came to the fore in seeking a means of locomotion that would be versatile, reliable, easy to use and economical. CosmoCaixa, the science museum of ”la Caixa” Foundation in Madrid, is staging its Microcars exhibition, retracing Spanish automotive history from 1940 to 1970. Its curator is Salvador Claret, who is the director of the Automóviles Salvador Claret collection (at the Sils Car Museum in Girona), and the exhibition brings together 13 microcars representing the main makes, along with numerous objects from the time (advertisements, engineering drawings for the cars, toy cars, parts ) that round off this in-depth venture into a special stage marked by specific circumstances in the history of the car here. Microcars can be visited in CosmoCaixa’s temporary-exhibition showrooms from 29 June 2004 to January 2005.
After the Civil War, the automotive scene in Spain was appalling: most of the vehicles available had been mobilised in the fighting, and largely destroyed in it; the incipient industry from before the war had practically disappeared, and both raw materials and fuel were in extremely short supply. In this precarious context, small-format cars were seen as a possible solution for getting people moving again. The first microcar initiatives were the fruit of ingenuity and craft skills. Their success and their usefulness, however, led the work in some cases to develop into full-blown industrial production.
An engineering challenge
The idea of making small-scale, simple cars has always been a challenge for great engineers. Balancing the conflicting factors of weight, power, habitability and a design compatible with minimalist bodywork was a complex task, and one to which men like Francisco Gaitán and Federico Saldaña in Spain, or Ettore Bugatti and Louis Renault elsewhere in Europe, managed to contribute outstanding solutions.
The low power output of the two-stroke engine the cornerstone of these projects posed a number of difficulties: more appropriate for motorcycles than cars, the use of those engines entailed making light vehicles of simple mechanical design. On that premise, microcars began to proliferate and to take on their own personality. In technical terms, their principal features were as follows:
– Externally, aluminium was to be the most characteristic feature of the bodywork. Its prevalence can be seen in models such as the Biscuter and the Gaitán. However, wood, cardboard, plastic and even canvas were brought into play in prototypes such as the Kapi, the Velorex and the Isetta.
– The two-stroke engine driven by a single cylinder the simplest, smallest, and lightest internal-combustion engine, and the one with the fewest mechanical parts was entrusted with the mission of powering the vehicle.
– Among the mechanical features were the chassis system, the worm steering, and a rudimentary suspension system, often all housed in a small tubular frame.
– As for the wheels, most Spanish microcars used small wheels with detachable rims fitted with eight-inch tyres. However, among imaginative solutions frequently encountered were vehicles resting on just three wheels and microcars built using motorcycle wheels.
Four companies accounted for over 95% of microcar sales in Spain: Auto Nacional S.A., Munguía Industrial, Automóviles Utilitarios S.A. and Iso Motor. The average price fluctuated around 35,000 pesetas of the time. The model that made the greatest impact of all in social and economic terms was the Biscuter, a veritable symbol of the times which, from a technical point of view, was the work of the famous French aeronautics engineer Gabriel Voisin. Other exported models included the Goggomobil and the Isetta.
Prominent among the microcars designed and produced in Spain and on show in this selection are:
– The Biscuter: This was the creation of the French engineer Gabriel Voisin, one of the pioneers of aviation, and it was soon the subject of an agreement between him and the Spanish company Auto Nacional, S.A. for manufacturing it at the company’s headquarters in Sant Adrià de Besòs, ready for marketing in Spain. Output reached 10,000 units. The purchase price of 25,000 pesetas amounted to three years’ salary in terms of the average salary of the time. Its monocoque chassis with exposed aluminium bodywork and canvas top made it a favourite among the people. It weighed 240 kilos, had a top speed of some 76 kilometres an hour, and had a petrol-consumption rating of 4.5 litres per 100 kilometres. Owing to its low weight, the first Biscuter vehicles had no reverse gear: parking was done by pushing the car.
– The Kapi: The brainchild of captain Federico Saldaña Ramos in Barcelona, the Kapiscooter model was registered as patent 194.762. Its advanced technical specifications with its AMC Fita 170 cc four-stroke single-cylinder engine delivering 8.5 horsepower (CV) at 6,000 rpm contrasted with a somewhat precarious general finish. Its bodywork combined such differing materials as wood and cardboard. In 1954, the Kapi cost 28,900 pesetas, and output reached some 200 vehicles.
– The David was a tricycle with a front-mounted engine and chain drive featuring great manoeuvrability thanks to its ingenious mechanical design. Its creation was due to the engineer José María Moré Comas. With its 345 cc two-stroke single-cylinder engine, the David could do 75 kilometres an hour, and its petrol consumption was 5 litres per 100 kilometres. The advertising slogan for it, which went “Not a car with a missing wheel but a motorcycle with an extra wheel”, contributed to its popularity. In 1957 a David cost 47,850 pesetas.
– The Barcelona motorcycle company Construcciones Metálicas Clua marketed its Clua model from 1955 to 1960, and it achieved a reputation as the sports option among microcars. The Clua featured a very bold look, with bodywork designed by Pedro Serra, who was from Barcelona, and its two seats were mounted on a strong frame member in the middle. It had a 247 cc twin-cylinder engine, later upgraded to over 400 cc, and producing 22 CV power. Its features, which also included front-wheel drive, independent suspension, electric starting, a four-speed gearbox with reverse, and a top speed of 80 kilometres an hour, together with the harmonious lines of its design, made it the sports microcar of choice.
The coming of the Seiscientos’ car and the twilight of the microcar
The 1960s marked the beginning of a period of economic upturn, and this, together with the emergence of new vehicle makers in the Spanish industry such as Seat, Renault and Citroën, enabled people to switch to buying higher-performing vehicles through hire-purchase agreements. This was also the time when Seat’s Seiscientos, a runabout that came to symbolise a new stage, was unleashed on the market.
The Seat Seiscientos was born in 1957 as a replica of the Italian model made by Fiat, intended to replace the popular Topolino (Fiat 500). It was made by Seat factory in Zona Franca, Barcelona, and the Spanish model soon proved itself to be tougher than the Italian original. At that time, a Seiscientos cost around 63,000 pesetas. It weighed 600 kilos, had a 633 cc engine, produced 21.5 CV at 4,500 rpm and ran on 72-octane petrol. Its top speed was in the region of 95 kilometres an hour. After powering an entire generation, the last of these mythical vehicles was made on 4 August 1973, though it can still be seen on the roads today, thirty years later, with the twenty-first century in full swing.
The launch of the Seiscientos, the coming of foreign makers into the Spanish market, and vehicle-making initiatives such as the one by the Galician entrepreneur Eduardo Barreiros opened up a new outlook for business in the automotive sphere. The microcar gave way to more pragmatic family-car options in which more room, bigger engines, better prices and greater reliability were the prime concerns.
The Microcars exhibition pays homage to dozens of hard-working entrepreneurs who, with more faith than resources in the context of a Spain lacking even the barest industrial base capable of meeting the most basic needs of the people, nonetheless strove to get a country that was shuttered up in autarky out on the roads again. The exhibition can be seen in the CosmoCaixa science museum’s temporary-exhibition showroom from 29 June 2004 to January 2005.
Opening: Tuesday 29 June 2004; 8:00 p.m.
Venue: CosmoCaixa Science Museum
Address: Pintor Velázquez, s/n. 28100 Alcobendas. Madrid
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Admission rates: 1 – 3 euros
Information telephone number: 91 484 52 00