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Bantam Buggies With Heavyweight Appeal

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Forget Mini Coopers and Smart Cars — the tiny vehicles in this Crystal Lake collection aren’t ordinary. Karla Nagy explores the world of microcars and the inventive prototypes of vehicles that never were.

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Crystal Lake resident Ken Weger admires one of the more than 130 cars in his Small Wonders Microcar Museum, which evolved from his passionate collecting of micro/minicars.

Ken Weger is a big man with a big passion for something rather small: micro/minicars.

The Crystal Lake resident has stockpiled about 150 of them, which he houses in his “Small Wonders Microcar Museum,” a warehouse-sized building just steps from his home.

Americans have become more familiar with this type of car recently, with the introduction of the electric Smart Car and energy-efficient models like the Scion iQ and Mini Cooper. “The Austin Mini changed the entire micro/minicar market,” Weger says.

Well, these aren’t those.

Anyone familiar with the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters” should remember Steve Urkel’s tiny car, which had no side doors but opened from the front. It was an Isetta. “That car came from an Italian designer named Iso, who made refrigerators,” Weger says. “So, the door opens like a fridge door.”

Weger has a few Isettas. Fiat, Vespa, Crosley, Goggomobil, Peugeot and Renault are a few of the prominent makers whose models are on display at Small Wonders.

“These cars became popular around the turn of the century, as an alternative to bicycles,” Weger says. “A minicar has an engine between 500 and 900cc’s. Anything from 500cc’s down is considered a microcar, and some go as low as 49cc’s, about the size of a weed whacker.”

Most were designed with two or three wheels and small engines (treated as motorcycles, they cost less in taxes and insurance). Most do not reverse (the rear end of the vehicle was light enough to lift). Most have only one gear and cable-operated hand brakes.

One of the oldest cars in the museum is a 1920 Briggs & Stratton Flyer, basically a buckboard with a fifth wheel mounted on back. “It’s a single-cylinder, with a simple clutch-lever to lower and raise the wheel,” Weger explains. “At the time it was built, it was twice the cost of a Model T.”

A.O. Smith bought the patent rights in 1914 from an engineer in England and brought the car to the U.S. He sold the technology to Briggs & Stratton in 1917, and the cars were manufactured until 1923.“This is how Briggs & Stratton got started building engines,” Weger adds. “Up to then, they had been building accessory hardware for the automotive industry.”

As the automotive industry took hold, cars became larger and faster, leaving most of the smaller models in the dust – one of the reasons that today, we relate Briggs & Stratton to lawn mower-size engines.

Weger, a veritable font of automotive information, has been fascinated with the small autos for decades. “I bought my first minicar in 1964,” he says. “I’ve restored other cars – Mustangs, Corvettes, Triumphs – but I really like the micro/minicars.”

The former businessman was one of five owners, as well as vice president of manufacturing and research & development, at Knaack LLC in Crystal Lake, a manufacturer of on-the-job storage equipment and truck toolboxes for contractors. He retired when the company was sold in 2000, but remains active as a consultant.

In the first few years of his hobby, Weger confined himself to restoring the small cars and then selling them.

“It was a way to keep my sanity in a high-pressure job,” he says with a grin. “About 20 years ago, I started to keep the cars, and this is the consequence.” He spreads his arms and looks around, and then adds, “Luckily, my wife, Sylvia, is very supportive. She’s a very important part of the museum.”

The couple spent three years searching for just the right property for the museum, which they found in 2000. The two buildings encompass 22,000 square feet. Building 1, about 6,000 square feet, was finished in 2008; Building 2, at about 15,000 square feet, opened in 2010. Both are climate controlled using heavy Rock Wool insulation, a massive air conditioning unit and concrete floors warmed with radiant heat. “It costs less than $400 a month to heat both buildings,” Weger says.

One of the jewels of the collection is a Reyonnah, an unusual and rare model. In 1951, Robert Hannoyer (the model name reversed), owner of a thriving auto repair shop in Paris, began manufacturing the three-wheel car in response to the city’s restrictive parking following World War II.

“It’s very narrow and lightweight, and the front wheels fold underneath, so that it could be carried through a gate or doorway for easy storage,” Weger says. “Hannoyer started with 17 automobiles, and only six were completed. This one is serial number 4. Serial number 1 is still owned by the family in France.”

According to Weger, the real minicar boom hit during the economic depression in postwar Europe, as manufacturers sought ways to compensate for the shortage of materials and fuel. That doesn’t mean the autos were poorly built, however. Many of the high-performance and luxury car manufacturers have produced their own versions. Urkel’s Isetta, for example, is a BMW.

“I’ve attended an invitation-only conference in Hilton Head, where the cars are absolutely beautiful,” says Weger. “You’ll see Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Ferraris – just incredible models.”

Microcar events are held all over the world, from the annual Unique Little Car Show in Las Vegas (now in its 33rd year), and the 18th Micro/Minicar Classic Event in Newton, Mass., to the XIV International Vintage Microcar Meeting in Manresa, Spain, and the 39th National Micro Car Rally in Belton, Norfolk, U.K.

These babies aren’t just about looks and economy, either. Microcar road rallies test the mettle of the tiny dynamos; many of the conferences and shows include some kind of road run.

Organized by Weger, the first-ever Micro/Minicar World Meet was held in 2010 at the University Center in Crystal Lake and hosted some 370 cars. “We had 700 people registered, and another 15,000 walked on,” Weger says. “Eight of the overseas owners had their cars shipped to California, and they drove to the event along Route 66.”

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From 1920, this Briggs & Stratton is one of the oldest cars in the museum, and represents the start of Briggs & Stratton’s work with small engines.

Another big name in three-wheel microcars is Messerschmitt – yes, the German aircraft manufacturer – most notably, the Tg500. “This was the second generation of Messerschmitt cars,” Weger explains. “The first was the KR175. After the war, German manufacturers were restricted from building anything war-related, and Messerschmitt switched to sewing machines and these cars. In England, this model is called ‘TIGGR’ [tigger].”

Weger’s TIGGR is from 1961, a sporty red job with four wheels instead of the standard three. “Three-wheelers were popular because owners didn’t have to pay the full MOT tax, which was £100,” says Weger. “It was only £15, the same for a motorcycle. The Tg500 was built primarily for racing, which the owners did on the weekend. This one has a 500cc engine and can go about 90 miles an hour.”

As a fighter pilot enters his plane, the Messerschmitt driver enters via a transparent acrylic hinged roof, which opens to the right side of the car. Appropriately, it resembles an airplane canopy, earning the nickname “bubble car.” The steering wheel even looks like an airplane yoke. Small Wonders obtained this one from a German museum.

A former Navy aviation metalsmith who served on an aircraft carrier, Weger is very detail-oriented. “I’m a stickler for accuracy,” he says. “I stay away from adding modern amenities, like radios or air conditioning, or using vinyl for the upholstery. Some people over-restore cars to the point that they aren’t original anymore. For this car, I want the exact tartan plaid fabric for the seat covers. If I can’t get original parts, I want parts that are fabricated to match the originals.” Easier said than done. As in the case of Weger’s Tg500, only 500 engines were actually completed, so parts can be very hard to find. Restoring its carburetor, for example, took one year, and in that time, the part traveled to a carburetor maker in Kansas City, Mo., across the U.S., overseas to London, then to France, and finally to Germany, where the original company fabricated the necessary pieces from the original schematics. Then, the part took the reverse route back to Crystal Lake.

Weger procures his cars from a variety of sources, and in every condition imaginable. The Briggs & Stratton Flyer came from the collection of a former Briggs & Stratton executive, who restored it himself.

Another of the museum’s Messerschmitts is one of the first-generation sports models, a KR201. As it sits, the car is a shell of its former self: gaping holes instead of headlights, a skeleton frame for the seat, a dangling convertible top. “This is a very limited sports model with quite a few special editions, including one more horsepower in the engine,” says Weger. “It had snakeskin seats, bearing in the wheels, lots of chrome trim. We were told that only 28 were produced for the American market, and this is one of the 28.”

Parts have been difficult to procure, but after 10 years of searching, Weger says he and his crew now have everything they need to restore the car. Much of the restoration work takes place in a building adjacent to the museum.

Among the Small Wonders Messerschmitts is a KR175, designed by Fritz Fend, who worked as the chief engineer at Messerschmitt for awhile and designed bombers. He quit shortly after the war started and built scooters, as well as carriages for invalids, which were operated by pushing the handlebars back and forth. Fend returned after the war to collaborate with Messerschmitt on his car designs, turning out the Kabinenroller (KR) until 1956, when Messerschmitt was once again allowed to build aircraft. The business was moved and the name changed to FMR, which manufactured the later models.

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According to Weger, the Corbin Raven is “an incredible car to drive.”

Weger points out another hard-to-find German microcar, a Heinkel. “Ernst Heinkel was a manufacturer of bombers for the Luftwaffe during the war, and he went into microcars afterward,” he explains. “He bought the rights to this from Iso [who designed Urkel’s car]. This is one of about 20 here in the states. It came in four different models, with three or four wheels, and a 175cc or 200cc engine. It was ahead of its time because of its unibody construction.”

Small Wonders encompasses two floors with just about every configuration of small vehicle imaginable, even motorcycles. And Weger can provide a detailed and fascinating backstory for every one. He and a group called Friends of the Museum are building what they intend to be the definitive micro/minicar library.

“We have schematics for cars and engines, owner’s manuals, point-of-sale materials, encyclopedia, designer and manufacturer histories, videos and film – everything we can find,” says Weger. “We’re different than most car collectors. Most aren’t willing to share. Micro people like to share, want to share. People at microcar events are there because they love what they do and love sharing it. It’s networking at its finest.”

Another prize acquisition is a 1934 Raleigh Super Safety 7, a two-seater that looks like it came right out of the film The Great Race. “This is one of just 13 that are known to exist,” he says. “Raleigh made motorcycles, and this is unique in that it incorporates the front of a motorcycle. You can see it through the front grill. The car also came with an electric start, which for 1934 is pretty incredible.”

Downstairs are two cars that look for all the world like rockets or jets; turns out, they were designed by an aeronautical engineer, Jim Bede. The first-generation example is the Litestar. “He built the prototype by hand, and completed it in Mundelein in 1985,” Weger explains. “That car has been disassembled and is gone, so this is – and has been for many years – the oldest survivor of the 21 made, serial No. 2. It has four wheels, but since only two touch the ground when you’re driving, it’s classified as a motorcycle, and holds the fuel economy record of 104 mpg.”

The second is the second-generation Pulse. With a bigger engine and radiator for cooling, the Pulse will hit 75 or 80 mph. “It really feels like you’re flying an airplane, which is what Jim was going for,” Weger says. Bede has visited Small Wonders and autographed the Litestar.

Weger is also proud of the museum’s collection of Corbin vehicles, which includes microcars and motorcycles. Mike Corbin set out to create a three-wheel, one-person electric car that could be used to run errands, and he hand-built a prototype in 1983, which resides at Small Wonders. Called the Sparrow, the car went into production in the early 1990s. He moved into gas engines when it became apparent that few consumers were interested in electric.

Weger has several electric Sparrows, but the Corbin model most visitors gravitate to is the Merlin Roadster. The one at Small Wonders is a striking pumpkin orange with black accents. It’s roofless, with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine mounted prominently in front like a grill. “Mike Corbin is the premier maker of high-quality motorcycle seats, and the upholstery in this car is amazing,” Weger says. “This was Corbin’s personal car. A total of 20 were made, and this is serial No. 6.”

Nearby is the Corbin Raven, a sleek silver and green model with several interior amenities and a unique door that rotates up to open.

“This is just an incredible car to drive,” Weger says. “It’s smooth and comfortable. The door design and other special features are patented. Corbin is an engineering genius.”

Every car but one at Small Wonders is drivable and street-legal. “To be legal, a car must have a serial number, and we have one car without a serial number,” Weger says. “It’s an A.T. Electric. Originally, cars under 50cc didn’t need a VIN, license or insurance. However, people who had lost their licenses because of drinking started using them, and it got too dangerous. So the rules changed.”

The collection attracts high-profile attention, from designers like Bede to collectors such as Jay Leno, who owns several mini cars himself.

Weger collects anything automotive-related, and display cases are filled with toy cars, oil cans, porcelain signs, pedal cars, neon signs, hood ornaments and more. “Those tools on the wall are from my grandfather, from the old country,” he says, adding that he’s of Norwegian and German descent.

Small Wonders is open for group tours from mid-April until late November. “We don’t charge admission, but we do ask for donations for the Crystal Lake Food Pantry,” says Weger. “Cash or checks made out to the food pantry are welcomed. Food items are always welcome as well.”

Weger didn’t open his museum to make money.

“I want to save the cars, and preserve them for the future,” he says. “Hopefully, some young person will visit here and decide to do the same thing.”

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