Small cars are currently out of vogue. In a market dominated by ever-growing SUVs, major automakers like Ford, Fiat, VW, and Mercedes (through its hapless Smart subsidiary) are giving up on the category—at least in the U.S. market. Even Minis no longer live up to their name, with the smallest one cresting 3000 pounds. But once a car category departs the commonplace, interest tends to pick up among enthusiasts and collectors. How else to explain the current fascination with personal luxury coupes of the ’70s and ’80s?
To slake our growing thirst for subcompacts, British automotive writer Russell Hayes has written a new book about them, The Big Book of Tiny Cars: A Century of Diminutive Automotive Oddities (Motorbooks, $40), that will be available electronically on Nov. 30. The hardcover will be released on Dec. 21.
“Dennis Pernu, my editor at Motorbooks, thought the concept would be my kind of book, and I leaped at it,” Hayes told Car and Driver. “Tiny cars are often fascinating—sometimes very good, sometimes very bad, or sometimes just plain bonkers.”
As the book beautifully explicates and illustrates, automotive history is literally littered with littleness. This big book covers it all. From the earliest mass-produced automobiles, like the Curved Dash Oldsmobile from 1901, through prewar littleness like the Austin Seven, into the heyday of the European tiny car in the scrappy, material-poor post-WWII era, the Japanese Kei car boom of the ’60s and ’70s (and ’80s and ’90s and on and on), the attempts to make small cars happen in an OPEC-oil-crisis America, and on through the more recent efforts to increase electric-car range by decreasing mass and scale.
Of course, Hayes has his favorites. He points to the 1957 Zündapp Janus, the mid-engine bubble car with back-to-back seats and a door at each end, named for the two-faced Roman guard god, who looked forward and backward simultaneously. He mentions the 1942 L’Oeuf Electrique from Parisian artist Paul Arzens that was also featured in Lost Beauties, another of our recent car book picks. “And the forever orange Bond Bug never fails to please,” he says, referring to a ridiculous, wedge-shaped, three-wheeled, canopy-topped death trap.
Sadly, a few of Hayes’s favorites didn’t make the final cut. “Apologies to the air-cooled Rover 8 from 1920, the tiny people-carrying Fiat 600 Multipla of 1956, the 1970 Invacar three-wheeler, and the aluminum 1999 Audi A2,” he says.
Although much of the book was produced during lockdown, Hayes was able to make a research trip to the excellent Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands. For lovers of microcars in America, we can recommend the equally amazing, and totally bonkers, Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. It never disappoints and constantly yields new treasures.
This book isn’t just for car lovers. People have long been fascinated with tiny things. What else can explain the current rage for tiny homes, or those tiny lending libraries people mount in wooden cabinets on street corners—or even the ongoing and infantilizing interest many grownups have in Legos and Hot Wheels? As Steve Martin famously said, “Let’s get small.” Start with this book.
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