The World’s First Smart Car?
Messerschmitt is perhaps best known for producing German fighter aircraft during the Second World War. However, immediately after WWII the company were forbidden from making any more planes, so to make use of their resources they turned to producing other commodities, like pre-fabricated houses and three-wheeled motorcycle-cars known as the Kabinenroller KR175 and KR200. Kabinenroller simply means ‘scooter with cabin’.
History of the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller
In 1948 as Germany was coming to terms with the aftermath of WWII, Fritz Fend, an aeronautical engineer and former Luftwaffe officer designed a three-wheeled ‘invalid carriage’, now known by the more politically correct name ‘mobility scooter’. It sold in very modest numbers (about 250) and many were bought by able-bodied citizens looking for ultra-cheap and ultra-basic but reliable, no-frills personal transport. This gave Fend an idea.
In 1952 he approached Messerschmitt with the idea to build very small cars based on his Fend Flitzer scooter. A year later in February 1953, the Kabinenroller KR175 hit the shelves but it wasn’t without its problems, resulting in 70 design modifications in the first few months of production.
The KR175 had tandem seating which is accessed by a fighter plane canopy-style hatch. It had a 173cc air-cooled one-cylinder two-stroke engine manufactured by Fichtel & Sachs (now known as ZF Sachs AG) that sat forward of the rear wheel and the engine started with a pull rope – an electric starter was on the options list until 1954 when it was offered as standard. In two years, they made 15,000 before it was replaced.
In 1955, the KR175 was replaced with the altogether more advanced KR200. It was based on its predecessor but was almost totally redesigned. The canopy design was improved and there were bodywork alterations, most obviously the wheel cut-outs in the front fenders. Steering was via a set of motorbike-style handlebars.
To prove the durability of the KR200 at the start of its production run in 1955, a highly-modified version was prepared (single-seat low drag body styling and uprated engine) to attempt the 24-hour speed record for three-wheeled vehicles under 250cc. On the 22-23 August at the Hockenheimring, the plucky little ‘Schmitt’ broke 22 international speed records which included the 24-hour speed record at 64mph.
Retailing for DM2,500, the KR200 had a pokey little 191cc Fichtel & Sachs one-cylinder, two-stroke engine churning out a colossal 10bhp but it was oddly quick given that it weighed about 230kg and it was aerodynamically outstanding. It had a top speed of about 60mph with cable operated brakes so this was seat-of-your-pants driving at its most bonkers – there was even a convertible version offered in 1957, the KR200 Kabrio and then a KR201 Roadster followed by a Sport Roadster with no top and a fixed canopy so the driver had to clamber in from the top of the car.
By the early 1960s, the German economy was getting back on its feet and the need for such cheap cars was on the way down. In addition, in 1956 Messerschmitt were allowed to make planes again and lost interest in the project and they sold the works to Fend who collaborated with a brake and hub supplier to continue production.
Also by then, the VW Beetle and the Mini were taking the world by storm and by 1962 production of the KR200 was slowing considerably until the run stopped forever in 1964. Messerschmitt made a little over 41,000 of the cutesy bubble cars that served a very real purpose and got a county moving again after what can generously be described as a tough few years after the war ended.
Long gone but most certainly not forgotten, the Messerschmitt KR175 and KR200 still enjoy a cult following throughout Europe and the US. Valued more for their quirky nature rather than as sound investments, there are some that have changed hands for upwards of $20,000.