Feature Story

HAGIN'S LITTLE CARS

by Bob Hagin

August 29, 1997

It is with regret that we must inform our readers of the demise of the tiny three-cylinder Geo Metro. While it is in reality a Suzuki- engineered minicar built in Canada, it is still considered American.

The reason I'm lamenting the passing of the Geo Metro is because it is tiny, and I like small cars - and I mean really small. I've owned several different brands, (all now defunct or deported) and I think perhaps the reason I'm so enamored by small autos is a practical one. When they broke down, I could easy push them off to the side of the road where I could either fix their ills or await outside help. In my younger days, I was faced with the task of pushing a mammoth Jaguar MK VII off the street and into a safer location and found that it was more a task for Hercules than a lightweight solo driver.

The passing of the Geo Metro got me thinking about the little machines that I've owned during my 50 years as a motorist and I've listed them, along with some of their attributes and shortcomings:

ISETTA - I had a couple of Isettas and they were really little. They were so little, they didn't have room for side doors, so they were designed in such a way that the whole front of the car (including the steering wheel and column) swung forward from the left side. The placement of the engine didn't present a problem for this design feature because it was located just behind the front (and only) seat. It was a tiny 300 c.c. one-cylinder unit that got super fuel mileage, but it was short on power - so much so that I was reluctant to drive on anything that even resembled a highway. At seven feet in length, though, it was easy to park. The driver simply nosed into a street-side parking spot and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The irony of the Isetta was that it was built from '54 to '63 by BMW but please don't tell the current crop of upscale "Bimmer" owners that their mighty V12 powered 750iL luxosedan is descended from a car so small that two strong men could lift it.

MINI - As I look out of the window of my garret, I can see the top of my British-built Mini sedan, a car that is virtually a two-door metal box on wheels. The original 1959 Mini was an inspired design by Alex Issigonis and the car was the minimalist dream come true. It was just 10 feet long, its suspension system amounted to rubber blocks at each corner rather than springs and a minuscule (848 c.c.) transverse engine was mounted up front where it drove tiny 10-inch wheels via a gearbox located in its oil pan. The Mini was sold as an Austin and a Morris (both brand names were owned by British Leyland, a now-defunct English car company) and was brought over here in small numbers until the mid-'60s. It wasn't long before British speed merchants discovered that the Mini could be hopped-up with amazing and embarrassing (to owners of prestigious sports car) results. Like the Isetta, it was small enough to push off the road when things went wrong - as they often did in the case of British cars. My own Mini (a Cooper version) is awaiting restoration by my son Matt.

FIAT 600 - While strolling the downtown streets of Monterey, California, during the annual vintage automotive extravaganza (consisting of races for veteran race cars at Laguna Seca Raceway, a world-class concours d'elegance at the Pebble Beach Lodge, and several auctions where veteran iron sells for great amounts of money), I came across a 1960 Fiat 600 mini-car of the same vintage as the one that I had owned for a brief time in 1962. The Fiat 600 was almost as small as the Mini, but much more conventional in design. The 633 c.c. four- cylinder water-cooled engine was mounted behind the rear axle, much like the VW Bug, and although the car was purported to have been designed for high-speed cruising on the Italian Autostrad, the cylinder head of my Fiat 600 would blow its gasket at anything over 50 MPH. The example in Monterey was beautifully restored, but I was glad it was owned by someone other than myself.

CROSLEY - The post-war Crosley was a tiny American-built car that could seat four adults and transport them in abject misery. The car was cramped, crude and underpowered, despite its technically-advanced 722 c.c. engine. I owned a '48 station wagon version until I could find someone to take it off my hands. I drove it around Oakland for several months and although I like small cars, I learned to draw the line at Crosleys. But it was, indeed, small and during its short stay with me, I had to push it often.

And now the diminutive three-cylinder Geo Metro is gone too. But take heart: only the name has been changed and the little three-cylinder Metro will return in 1998 carrying the bow-tie of Chevrolet.

I wonder if it's any harder to push than the Geo version?

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