Market Watch: Silly Car – Serious Money

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Meyers Manx/Morris/Honda


Can you pay more for less? It’s easy in the car world.

Market Watch: Silly Car – Serious Money
Honda's bantamweight coupe might have been the go in the '60s if you were a few pennies short of a Jag.

A long time ago people bought tiny cars for many reasons, mainly price. Not any more. Today, the less one gets in a special interest car, the more it costs. Calculating the price per kilogram for some is horrific.

Small, basic cars have been here for more than a century, but gained prominence in the 1950s when the world had its first oil shortage and petrol was either unavailable or expensive. 

Buyers wanted transport that went further on a gallon and brands including Vespa, Isetta, Trojan and Messerschmitt made cars that often had three wheels and motorcycle engines. 

The miniature 1950s car the world embraced was Fiat’s 500 and its proper four-stroke engine with room for at least four occupants plus a bit of luggage.

Here it was joined by locally bodied Goggomobils before the Mini crushed the market. Japan also produced low-cost compacts like the Mazda 360 and Subaru R-2, which in the 1960s gave way to more modern designs like the Suzuki Fronte, Honda Scamp and Zot. 

Honda built tiny sports cars with chain drive and 660cc motorcycle engines. Later ones had 800cc, were more sophisticated but not much quieter.

Today we see ‘Kei’ cars arriving ex-Japan in an array of brands, body styles and intriguing prices. These vehicles are all limited to 0.7-litre engines to skate around local taxes on larger engines.They aren’t all cheap.

Nissan’s Figaro sports car has been seen at over $30,000, however the Honda Beat and Suzuki Copen are available at half that price. 

Worth a look before good ones exceed $50K are Mini Mokes, the peak being 1275cc Californians, but you can spend $30,000 on 998cc versions.

MINI COOPER S

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It measures 3.05 metres, weighs 690kg with both fuel tanks full, and on a good day will manage 160km/h.

Yet in top condition, a road-spec Mini Cooper S can bring $90,000 and a car with rally heritage sold recently in Britain for $280,000.  

The Mini was minimal by intent, and simplicity plays a significant role in soaring values.

During the past 15 years the number of available cars has remained consistent, however quality is improving as more cars are restored.

Basic Minis had 848cc engines and 25kW. For the Cooper S they scrounged 1275cc from the same basic block and with twin SUs, power hit 57kW.

Add lots of creative engineering and a supercharger and Coopers with 140kW were beating V8s in local speedway events.

Celebrity customers of coachbuilding firm Harold Radford would send them a bare bones Cooper S and get back a Bentley in miniature with leather and timber interiors and electric windows.

Actor Peter Sellers and Beatle Ringo Starr had theirs converted to hatchbacks – Ringo claiming it was so the Mini could carry his drum kit.

HONDA S600-800

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If you wanted during the 1960s to own an E-Type Jaguar but could only afford a half-sized Japanese knock-off, then Honda’s bantamweight coupe might have been the go.

Introduced in 1967 as a replacement for the chain driven S600, the 800 Coupe was very much an E Type Jaguar in miniature, complete with opening hatch to access its shallow luggage platform.

Not quite up to E-Type standards of performance either, but for a third of the E-Type’s cost Honda’s half-sized 800 still mounted a serious attack on 160km/h.

Convertible versions of the chain-driven 600 are the most common today, often without their original engines.

Back when these cars were too cheap to properly repair, a replacement Suzuki or Toyota engine was all that saved some from the wrecking yard. At the same time, chain drive could be replaced by a conventional prop shaft.

MEYERS MANX BUGGY

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The passing in 2021 of Bruce Meyers ended a 60-year association between the Californian boatbuilder and modified Volkswagens that were synonymous with his name. 

Lots of people since the 1960s have put fibreglass bodies on chopped VeeDub floorpans, but Meyers did it first and arguably did it best. 

Local efforts were headed by Sydney-based J&S Fibreglass which produced a kit for sale to anyone looking to rebody their squashed Beetle. However, the market still craved a genuine US import Manx and some did make their way here.

Shannons sold a tidy example a couple of years back for $35,000, then in mid-2023 a similar car in a summery shade of yellow apparently sold via Lloyds for under $25,000.

Manx are still an easy car to buy and jumping online to the USA will reveal lots of genuine Meyers buggies at US$20-60,000, with some down around US$10,000.

None, though, will match the Corvair-engined Manx driven by actor/racer Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. It, when auctioned in 2020, made a record-setting US$456,000.

MESSERSCHMITT KABINROLLER

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We live in interesting times and perhaps that might explain how the local auction market in the space of just a few weeks has managed to uncover not one but two of these extraordinary, German made micro-cars.

First up was the luminous black example that sold for $47,000 + charges by Lloyds in Queensland.

The best looking Kabinroller to enter the market in decades, it was likely the most expensive before Shannons at their Winter Timed Auction offered one with even greater shock value than the Lloyds' car and also with its own trailer. That one was a no-sale with a high bid of $73,000.

With a 197cc Fuchs & Sachs two-stroke engine in the back, acceleration was appalling and top speed around 90km/h. Just as well, as it had minimal suspension and tiny brakes.

Based around the outline of an ME109 fighter cockpit, the KR200 sat its occupants in tandem, with a set of handlebars for the driver and four-speed sequential shift lever poking out on the right-hand side.

The cabin roof was hinged for easy entry, but in Australia where lack of ventilation was a problem, some owners opted for a folding fabric top or simply unbolted the entire unit.

GOGGOMOBIL DART

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Yes indeed, the very famous, Aussie designed Dart which if you can find a really good one will cost about the same as a Honda S2000.

So don’t joke about the late Bill Buckle’s marketing masterstroke.

Buckle wanted to build a sports car for less than the cost of a Healey Sprite. He had all the mechanical and chassis parts from the Goggomobil 300 sedans he was building and a fibreglassing factory with spare capacity, so in 1958 the first Dart was built.

Weighing only 345kg it could carry two people (just) and with 11kW could reach 90km/h. Later models with a 14kW, 400cc motor were a little faster.

The Dart had no doors but was available with a clip-on soft-top which needed to be unclipped before anyone could get inside on wet days, kind of defeating the purpose of having a roof.

Fibreglass construction meant the bodies didn’t rust, but the frames did and some Goggos would survive as fishponds in suburban front yards.

Around 700 Darts are thought to have been built and not a lot remain running. Good ones cost over $40,000 and they will likely remain with us for decades, being easily converted to full electric operation.

From Unique Cars #483, Sept 2023

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