If you know the name Messerschmitt, the image that may jump to mind is of a screaming World War II aircraft engaged in a vicious dogfight high over battle-torn Europe. While it is true the German company produced countless numbers of these agile Luftwaffe machines, after the war, it also produced the tiny road-going KR200 Kabinenroller micro car.
After the war, Messerschmitt was temporarily restricted from producing airplanes and turned to manufacturing other products for the consumer market. That's why when an aircraft engineer named Fritz Fend approached corporate executives in 1952 about making a small vehicle, his first generation KR175 was given the green light.
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After two model years, a more fully refined second generation called the KR200 was rolled out and was met with favorable consumer reaction. One such enthusiast was Jim Garbo's father, who in 1959 purchased this red and crème 1955 example from a foreign car repair shop in Winthrop Harbor. The shop had a lien on the completely dissembled car and was anxious to sell.
"Dad's interest was piqued and I remember bringing the car home in bushel baskets," Garbo said.
A two-year build commenced on the new "family go-cart."
"My brother and I drove it around the yard when we were just young boys,' said Garbo, who now lives in Franksville, Wis. This fond early memory instilled in him a love for pint-size vehicles.
"Ever since then I've been very interested in micro cars."
Garbo's father retained ownership of the KR200 for 30 years, finally passing the keys and title to his son in 1999. Several years later in 2002, Garbo restored the family treasure from the ground up in just six short months.
Powering the three-wheeler is a rear-mounted, 191-cubic-centimeter, two-stroke single cylinder engine, which is able to muster a humble 9.2 horsepower. Those petite ponies get put to the pavement via an enclosed chain drive to a single rear wheel. Four forward gears are selected with a manual transmission, although going the other way requires an additional step.
"There's no reverse gear, so backing up requires the engine to be stopped and restarted in the opposite direction," Garbo said. Tan upholstery, complemented with red striping, gives the cabin a regal appearance.
Fend's aviation influence on the KR200 can most clearly be seen in its layout and styling. The narrow fuselage cockpit accommodates two passengers, sitting one behind the other. The flying theme carries over to the steering wheel, which has an airplane 'yoke' look and feel to it.
Because of their ultralow center of gravity, the miniature machines had decent handling, although Garbo does confess piloting it down the road can be a jolting experience. "Let's just say it's not fast and it's almost impossible to miss a bump in the road, given that the three-wheeled setup."
While getting somewhere can be quite a chore, Garbo says trips are well worth the effort. "Spectators love micro cars! From the youngest who have never seen one, to the oldest war veteran who remembers seeing them while being stationed overseas -- they're always a crowd pleaser," he said.
And the positive reactions are not just with other motorists because micro cars, such as Garbo's KR200, are having their public perception radically changed.
"For too long micro cars were seen as quirky toys and not legitimate collector cars," he said. "It's only been in the last few years that micro cars have been accepted as a vital part of the automotive hobby."