WorldWideFuture Weblog

the future of education, politics, science and art

Smaller is in!

I have just posted my images of the 2008 MicroCarNorth and Gould’s MicroCar events on my photographic website at, under Automotive World. Both events are where micro and mini car enthusiasts gather to celebrate their passion for these tiny orphaned cars…MicroCarNorth is held in Coldwater, Ontario, Canada and Gould’s annual event is held in Newton, Massachusetts (outside of Boston).

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

I am quite enamored now by the engineering aspects of micro and mini cars, and of the people who lovingly restore and maintain these orphans of the automotive world. There is a lot to be said of the future of transportation demonstrated by these cars in the past.

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

The media is filled with stories now about the rapidly diminishing business for the auto giants such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc. as consumers realize that oil is becoming a precious commodity in a rapidly expanding global marketplace. It is not a new story of course; witness the 1930s depression, the early postwar years in Europe and even the 1970s oil crises. What does the worldwide future hold? More people, rising global middle class, growing need for more oil can spell only one thing: the future is smaller.

The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

We here in North America of course have been pretty pampered by cheap gas. Most of us here can’t imagine what it has been like to live in Europe where gas has been much more expensive than we have been griping about. Many are oblivious to the changes in lifestyle that are about to slam us here. Already we have been experiencing the closing of plants and laying off of workers in the auto industry, as consumers begin to realize they need to abandon the 2-3 ton vehicles they are using to go to the convenience store. Of course, the auto industry has always experienced boom and bust cycling. I can attest to the cyclic nature of the auto industry as a previous autoworker myself (Chrysler Engine plant in Windsor Ontario, Canada’s Motor City across from Detroit). Back in the early 1970s I remember the farmers fields around the city filling with unsold cars. I never knew what became of those cars, (I heard they were shipped offshore) but what a symbol of excess and consumerism. The changing business model is as interesting…can’t sell big cars or trucks anymore, used prices dropping, profit margins skydiving. There must be a limit to growth, and eventually western consumers will be pitted against the growing middle class in Asia for limited resources. Perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. With the successful introduction of the Smart Car in the US, the impending flood of Nanos in India, and finally an announcement that low speed electric vehicles will be allowed in Canada (albeit with too many restrictions), we may be seeing a resurgence of the small car. Perhaps we will also see a resurgence of interesting engineering demonstrated by yesteryear’s microcar.

The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The microcar is generally a vehicle built in the years from the 1930s to 1960s with three or four wheels, with small single to four cylinder engines (some from motorcycles), with the overriding effort being to make cheaply to allow more consumers with limited budgets to obtain basic transportation. They were made in response to the Depression or in post war Europe where resources were difficult to obtain and fuel and taxes were excessively expensive to most. Nowadays, these cars are popular with car fanatics who like the contrarian, or quirky nature of these machines. Perhaps cars like the BMW Isetta or the Messerschmitt KR200 or the Fiat 500 or Bond Bug will give us a view into the future.

My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

The Bruce Weiner Museum has a great web presence listing many of these totally unique cars (the Peterson Museum in LA has a good description too). They are quite the sight on roads these days, especially now amongst the bland rolling boxes of today. It must have been quite a sight to see the streets filled with these things, as some folks have described to me. While they might not have the safety crash protection or the emissions standards we have legislated today, the lesson is that you don’t need much to get form A to B, really. Ralph Ranalli from the Boston Globe got it; he explains in his report of the Gould’s MicroCar Event in Newton Massachusetts that “mini and microcars might actually be relevant again in the once-SUV-crazed US”. He describes the Gould’s meet as “rare chance to glimpse both the past and the future in one place”.

A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

The ingenuity shown by these vintage cars is outstanding. What do we see today but each car virtually indistinguishable from each other. We see bloated sheet metal and plastic overpowered engines. Imagine, someone thought a BMW or a Mercedes SUV was a good idea! Nothing uglier. You ride in today’s cars, not drive. I am not saying that the vintage microcars are better than today’s, but when you drive something different, everyone else is just a citizen.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Netwon Mass.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Newton Mass.

What are the lessons we need to teach our youth? We need to teach them about ingenuity and engineering design focused on practical application of ideas to solve problems, not cosmetic design. We need to teach them that their world will require innovative thinking and unique solutions. We need to teach them enjoyable ways to solve engineering challenges. The world wide future is smaller, in more ways than one. And that will be a good thing.

(For more info on microcars, check out the Vintage MicroCar Club, Gould’s Bubbledrome, and Ralph Hough’s MicroCarNorth.)

August 8, 2008 Posted by | education, Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Zenn and the art of motor vehicle ownership

I just returned from the 13th annual Gould’s Micro Car Classic in Newton Mass., and it was a blast. We drove our 1991 Nissan Figaro down from Ottawa Ontario, about a 7-1/2 drive. My Figaro is not quite a microcar, but it is a minicar, powered by a one litre turbo. The Nissan Figaro was a one-off creation by the Pike Factory, a design division of Nissan, who created four different retro styled vehicles based on the dimunitive Micra platform. I always wanted something unique to drive, and this JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car is about unique in these here parts as you can get. The looks on people are wonderful to behold, and I have met many people who just have to come by and ask “what is that?!”

My Nissan figaro

My Nissan Figaro

Now even though the Figaro is unique, the MicroCar classic is quite a collection of unique vehicles. One has to be amazed at the engineering represented by these vintage cars, typically made from the 1930s up to present day (in the form of the Smart car or Mini-Cooper, though the majority was made from 1930s to 1960s). From Messerschmitts to Bantams to Goggomobiles to Isettas, these cars represent a time where affordability and gas mileage were the critical criteria. Sounds an awful like what we need to consider today. While you can’t say that some of these machines are easy on the environment, I think they do represent the world wide future. Consider…what do we really need to move about town, two tons of steel and a massive V8 engine or a small footprint automobile that gets 50mpg (2l/100km)?

A Messerschmitt and BMW Isetta

A Messerschmitt (fr) and BMW Isetta

There are many things to consider safety wise but I have a feeling that current regulations represent a massive hurdle to fostering innovation and allow for cheaper and greener alternatives. Consider that here in Canada we have the innovative Zenn Corporation (among others), building all electric vehicles for low speed inner city transportation. However, Transport Canada regulations prevent these from being sold in Canada! They are sold all over the world except for here in our own country. It is time to change regulations and breed innovation, because these times call for new ideas and radical departures from the way things were. The amount of testing that is currently required stops all but big money from getting into the market. Importation rules like an age limit (15 years or older in Canada, 25 years or older in the US for example) needs to change to allow importation of specialty cars (read green cars) for individual use.

I think that the Brand Credo from Zenn says it all:

Since we first began to walk, we have loved the feeling of movement.
To get around and see the world.
To be free.
Cars have given us mobility.
But with the heavy costs of pollution and oil dependency.
ZENN is about returning to the purity of that original feeling.
ZENN may look like a car, but it refuses to act like one.
You’ll experience the simple joy of moving freely.
With silent, exhilarating acceleration
ZENN will quietly change the way you think about getting from A to B.
The air is clean and your conscience is clear.
ZENN is a car that, while it runs on electricity, is fueled by optimism,
The belief that individuals can make a difference,
That we can do better.
ZENN is enlightened mobility

A call to arms perhaps, time for the people to demand that innovation be rewarded, that special rules make it allowable to try greener alternatives. On the education front, it would be ideal if more corporation and government help be offered to high schools and post secondary institutions to help boost engineering projects related to futurethink transportation. There are a number of interesting projects such as solar or electric car races that will no doubt bring some answers to the question of how we will move around in the future.

I have seen the future, and it is smaller.
-M.Scott 2008

July 16, 2008 Posted by | education | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment