The Strange Tale of Two Quirky Rides & Their Inventors

As you know Quirky Rides has a fascination for, well ..… quirky rides. It’s partly about the unusual design, mechanical or visual characteristics of the strange vehicles we encounter, but it’s often also about the “back story”; the people and the circumstances that led to these strange vehicles coming into being.

In this blog post we focus on two examples of interesting quirky rides and the stories behind them.

The Davis Divan

1947 Davis Divan is one such example of an interesting car with an equally interesting story sitting behind it.

The Davis Divan 1947

The Davis Divan is a three wheeled car that can seat four adults in line across, has a 13 foot turning circle and (according to its inventor Gary Davis) could do a U-turn at 55 mph. Most Divans were powered by a 2.6 L engine and could reach greater than 100 mph. Its design was based on the Kurtis Californian, which Davis bought from its owner for a pittance after allegedly deliberately crashing it on a test drive.

Gary Davis was expert in selling the idea of the Divan and managed to raise a large amount of money from investors for production and sales costs. He spared no expense in promoting it using the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to launch it and recruiting high-profile figures to help him to develop and market it.

Davis wasn’t so good at actually producing cars though. He claimed he could build 50 a day for $995 each. In fact he only managed to make 13 cars between 1948 to 1949 and was promptly sued by the dealerships he’d secured to sell the cars and by his workforce, which he hadn’t paid. Davis was sentenced to hard labour for fraud and grand theft in 1951.

However, you can’t keep a good man down, or even a not so good man, and Davis later invented the “Dodge ‘Em” bumper cars of Fairground fame, which gave him a comfortable retirement in Palm Springs.

The Aurora Safety Car

Another quirky ride with a not dissimilar story is the Aurora Safety Car of 1957. Popularly, or perhaps not so popularly, known as “the ugliest car in the world” it was conceived and developed by an American Catholic priest, Father Alfred Juliano.

Father Juliano had a passion for car design but chose a higher calling, if there is one, in the form of the priesthood. But he never lost his love for car design and he chose to combine it with a concern for road safety at a time when fatalities and injuries on American roads (and elsewhere) were endemic as a consequence of negligible safety considerations in car design.

Father Juliano salvaged a 1953 Buick chassis and used it as the basis for the fibreglass bodied Aurora, which took two years to design and another three years to build.

The Aurora Safety Car 1957

The Aurora was apparently a masterpiece of build quality and incorporated a number of safety “firsts” that would become standard in cars of the future. These include seat belts, side impact bars, a roll cage, a collapsible steering column and a padded instrument panel. The seats could be swivelled rearwards in the event of an impending collision. The distinctively different/ugly foam filled front-end was designed to minimise harm to any errant pedestrians who might get hit by the Aurora.

Rather like Gary Davis, Father Juliano was better at conceiving car designs than he was at managing money or production. The Aurora was was priced at US$12,000 which made it the second most expensive car in the US at that time. The most expensive being the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham at US$13,000.

As well as the car’s “only a mother would love” looks and its equally off-putting price tag, Juliano neglected to road test the car before it was due to be unveiled to the press and public. Consequently it broke down 15 times on its way to its unveiling due to clogged fuel lines. Needless to say it went down like a lead balloon and there were no orders.

Worse was to come for Juliano who was investigated by the IRS for alleged fraud and accused by the church of misappropriating parish funds. He was later declared bankrupt.

The Aurora fell into complete disrepair having been abandoned like, well, an ugly car until it was bought by English car enthusiast Andy Saunders who imported it to the UK and undertook a full restoration which was completed in 2005. It now sits in splendid ugliness at the Beaulieu Motor Museum.

The Quirky Universe of JDM Vehicles

‘What’, you may ask, ‘….is JDM?’ It’s the acronym for ‘Japanese Domestic Market’ and it applies to cars and other vehicles intended for the Japanese domestic market, not for export abroad.

A casual Google search for the terms ‘JDM’ & ‘Japanese domestic market’ will lead you initially to pages and images of fearsome-looking cars such as the Mazda RX7, Honda NSX, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo etc (see below for the last two)..

But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find some of the weirdest, wacky quirky rides to roll off a production line. Quirky Rides started life supplying Eastern European Cold War cars to film and TV but we evolved over time to become avid JDM fans. Not so much the Fast and Furious JDM cars but the weird, the wacky, the quirky. For those of us who are diagonally parked in a parallel universe, Nirvana can be found towards the bonkers end of JDM.

The header pic for this post is a rather cute Nissan Figaro built between 1989-91 at Pike Factory; Nissan’s special projects factory. There’s the similarly cute (we think) but less well-known Nissan Pao, the BE-1 and the S-Cargo that were also produced at Pike factory from the late 1980s to the early 1990s (see below). The S-Cargo (a pun on the French word ‘escargot’, meaning ‘snail’, which is what the S-Cargo is meant to resemble.

All of these cars are now highly sought-after by a niche but growing Quirky JDM interest group. Not only in right-hand driving environments such as the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Australia/NZ, South Asia and the Far East but increasingly left-hand drive places such as the US and elsewhere.

People ask us to acquire these weird and wonderful cars for them, which are still affordable but increasing in value as they become rare and their contribution to automotive design is increasingly understood. The Nissan Cube (below), is included in the Design Museum’s “50 Cars That Changed the World”. The Cube isn’t strictly a JDM vehicle as it was exported. However, export sales were so bad that Nissan stopped exporting them and limited sales to Japan instead. People outside Japan now realise what a brilliant car the Cube is and there’s consequently a thriving market in JDM Cubes (& related models such as the Daihatsu Materia) in the UK and elsewhere.

2002 Nissan Cube

The Nissan Cube is not the only JDM vehicle to punch above its weight in automotive design terms. Ever heard of the Toyota Will series? ‘Will’ was a Japanese consumer branding exercise aimed at young people and it included the Toyota Will series pictured below.

The first car is our favourite ‘Marmite car”, the Toyota Will Vi. Aimed at young women, it’s a ‘love it or loathe it’ car with its reverse-raked rear window, ‘sand dollar’ motifs and distinctly retro style. It looks like a Mazda Carol and a Ford Anglia got it together.

It was made between 2000-01 and was a commercial flop. We’ve had 6 of these cars, including 3 ragtops. People slow down and take pictures as they pass us on motorways. The majority of people wouldn’t be seen dead in one, but those who like them fight tooth and nail to get a good example. Based on Yaris Mk1 mechanicals, they’re nice to drive and easy to maintain.

The Will Vi was followed by the Toyota Will VS from 2001-2004, of which 4000 were produced. The VS is something of a JDM cult icon; years ahead of its time it influenced the design of the Vauxhall Astra, Renault Megane & Nissan Leaf. The VS introduced sharp, angular styling, LED rear lights, a projector-style light cluster & an illuminated dash display.

Quirky Rides imported a Toyota Will VS a few years ago. We loved it. It’s so ahead of its time (it’s from 2001) and influenced the design of the Vauxhall Astra. We even managed to be refused entry to the Tewkesbury Classic Vehicle Show in 2018 in this car. “You can’t bring THAT in ‘ere” barked the Steward at the gate, presumably he thought it was some modern production car. But what did he know? We got in anyway.

Toyota Will VS

Then it seems that Toyota had another crack at the Will Vi from 2002-05 in the form of the Will Cypha. As with its Marmite inspiration, the Will Vi, the Will Cypha focussed on being decidedly odd. Its angular exterior contrasted with the round shapes of its interior & its front light cluster with 4 lights each side.

To say that that Will series was a commercial success would be an overstatement, despite the cult status of the the Will VS. Its Will companions the Vi and Cypha were probably just too odd to appeal to the mainstream. But times change & there are now more Will fans than cars; they were never common, even in Japan.

Ever heard of the Daihatsu Naked? The Toyota Sera?

The Mitsuoka Viewt? The Subaru Sambar? Perish the thought that they might be trying to mimic other cars.

In this blog post we’ve only really scratched the surface of the weird and wonderful world of JDM cars and vehicles. There are so many of them. We like them because they’re different, some of them are design influencers and all of them are the perfect vehicle to park diagonally in a parallel universe.

If you want an affordable modern classic that’ll increase in value and turn heads then think JDM. As a parting shot, here’s our Daihatsu Midget 2 pickup.

KDF Wagen Käfer

Who Invented the Volkswagen Beetle?

The Volkswagen Beetle (Käfer in German) prototype came into being as a consequence of an announcement in 1933 by Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi, Germany of a competition to design the “People’s Car”, which should be affordable for ordinary German citizens of whom only 1 in 50 owned a car.

It is alleged that Adolf Hitler subsequently instructed Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 to develop “A car where they can stay two soldiers with a machine gun, or two parents and one child.”. However, the idea that Ferdinand Porsche was the inventor of the Volkswagen Beetle is open to challenge on a number of bases.

Firstly, there is the design influence on Porsche of Josef Ganz, who had been working on a “People’s Car” concept since 1929, and who had produced the Maikäfer (or “May Beetle”) prototype and was instrumental in the design of the Mercedes-Benz 170H with its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine… what does the Mercedes 170H remind you of? Interestingly, Ferdinand Porsche was Chief Engineer at Mercedes during the development of the Mercedes-Benz 170H.

The Mercedes Benz 170H

The Czechoslovak Tatra V570, designed by Hans Ledwincka and Paul Jaray (he who designed the Audi/Auto Union “Ugly Duckling” car) appeared in 1933, 2 years before the 1st prototype Volkswagen Beetle, or “Type 1” as it was known. It apparently influenced both Hitler and Porsche. Again, it has a strong resemblance to the Mercedes Benz 170H and included an air-cooled rear-mounted engine. Tatra actually sued Volkswagen for design infringement only to withdraw the lawsuit quickly when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Tatra sued again in 1961 and Volkswagen had to pay a massive amount of money as a consequence.

The 1933 Tatra V570

Josef Ganz was Jewish, which was a big problem for him in 1930s Nazi Germany. In 1933 he was arrested by the Gestapo on trumped up charges of blackmailing the car industry. He was subsequently released, but left Germany for Switzerland in the month that Ferdinand Porsche was awarded the People’s Car contract. Josef Ganz continued developing cars thereafter. However, his influence, and that of Ledwinka and Jaray were not acknowledged.

Josef Ganz wasn’t the only person with a Jewish background involved in the design of a “People’s Car” in Nazi Germany.

Friedrich Eugen Maier had established “Leichtbau Maier” in Berlin and had been sponsored by a Munich company to design the People’s Car. His 1933 design was based on a monocoque construction, with an air-cooled, rear-mounted DKW engine, a single headlight that turned with the car’s steering and an adjustable driver’s seat. Maier submitted patent applications for the monocoque body and adjustable driver’s seat inventions amongst many others.

Friedrich Eugen Maier’s prototype for Volkswagen

Maier’s patent applications were rejected or “lost” and his design for the People’s Car was not acknowledged. Maier’s apparent Jewish roots and the fact that he wasn’t a Nazi party member didn’t favour him. During the 1939-45 War in Europe he was forced to repair battle damaged Wehrmacht vehicles. His workshop was bombed and his machinery damaged, as was his prototype car.

After the war the Munich company that sponsored him to design the People’s Car sued him for the sponsorship money and he was unable to establish patents for the monocoque car body and adjustable driver’s seat designs.

Maier died penniless, alone and bitter in 1976. He had become estranged and his body lay undiscovered for 3 months. The entire contents of his apartment, including his papers, had to be destroyed. But his car survived to be restored as one of the key design influences on what became the Volkswagen Beetle.

It’s hard to know who had most influence on the design of the Volkswagen Beetle and its prototypes. Was it Ferdinand Porsche? Or was he just in the right place at the right time and better placed to develop the design ideas of Hans Ledwinka & Paul Jaray with the Tatra V570, Josef Ganz with the Mercedes-Benz 170H and other design ideas? or was it Friedrich Eugen Maier?

It seems clear that it would have been difficult for Ferdinand Porsche not to have been influenced by the design ideas of Ganz, Ledwinka, Jaray and Maier, all of whom (as either Jews or Czechs) would have been the wrong people in the wrong place in 1930s Nazi Germany.

Classic Chrome Electric Fiat 500

Electric Classics: Evolution or Vandalism?

Should we convert a classic car or vehicle to electric or not?

ERS Insurance commissioned YouGov to conduct a UK survey on this question. Only 19% of respondents agreed it was OK and 43% disagreed (we assume the other 38% were “don’t knows”). So if this survey is anything to go by, most of you reading this will consider the very idea of an electric classic to be a form of iconoclasm akin to ripping the original features out of a period house and leaving it with a soulless interior, devoid of its history.

OK, so we’re not being hugely scientific with our research here but the anecdotal feel we get when we go out and about to car shows and the like is that there is a large majority opposed to the idea of electrifying the powertrain of classic cars.

Electric car charging

Like many other things, we don’t think there’s a binary “yes or no” answer to this question. Others will disagree; some will say that saving the planet is more important than anything else, and soon fossil fuel-driven transport will be banned or become prohibitively expensive anyway. At the other end of the spectrum there’s a constituency that says that any modification of any sort to a classic car should be punishable by life imprisonment, as a bare minimum.

In a way there’s a big irony to the whole Electric Vehicle debate. The first production electric car was invented by Englishman Thomas Parker in 1884. Parker was also responsible for electrifying the London Underground and other British public transport networks. He invented “Coalite”, a smokeless low-temperature coke (coal derivative). He was concerned about air pollution in London. How times sometimes don’t change……….that was towards the end of the 19th century.

Thomas Parker's 1884 Electric Car
Thomas Parker’s 1884 Electric Car

By the 2nd decade of the 20th century there were still more electric vehicles than combustion engine powered vehicles, but that changed rapidly as fuel became cheaply available and the design and cost of combustion-engined cars improved markedly.

Part of the aura of a classic car (and many other cars) is the sound, behaviour, construction and power of its engine. The engine, it is said, is what gives a classic car its personality. There is truth in that.

What do we think? No one can give an answer that will make everyone happy, or even one that won’t at least make some people angry, but here we go…….

We wouldn’t really support the idea of putting an electric motor in a Ferrari F12. On the other hand Rimac of Croatia is developing an electric supercar, the Rimac Concept 2, that can allegedly go from 0-60mph in 1.85 seconds, and we think others should develop that idea as the norm.

Rimac Concept 2
The Rimac Concept 2 Electric Supercar

How about an electric Citroën DS? As Fifth Gear’s Jonny Smith (@CarPervert on Twitter) said during a debate on the matter in February this year: “I would buy a Citroen DS and convert it to EV tomorrow because it would float along like a flying saucer and it would suit that car”. We agree, and it’s not as if the Citroën DS is an especially rare car either. We’d like to think there’ll always be Citroën DS and other classics that have petrol engines. We’re less convinced about diesels though 😉

Another committed EV enthusiast is ex-Wheeler Dealer Edd China (@TheEddChina on Twitter) who’s on record as saying that the environmental benefits of electric motors is “almost secondary to the fact it’s the performance and the fun that we get to keep having.” Edd has invented a number of electric vehicle “firsts”, including the fastest electric ice-cream van (see below). As he says in his new book Grease Junkie: A Book of Moving Parts “In 1900, 38% of the cars sold in America were electric, 40% were steam-powered and only 22% had what they called ‘exploding engines’…..”. We could well be heading back to a majority position for electric motoring, within which classic vehicles will play their part.

Edd China and his electric ice cream van
Edd China & the World’s Fastest Electric Ice Cream Van

We think it’s important to ensure that classic cars are able to outlive the routine availability of the fuels upon which the combustion engine depends. There will always be entirely original classics; there must be. But we can’t assume there’ll always be the fuel they need, at least not in the way it’s available now.

We’re currently busy sourcing classic 1950s and 1960s Fiat chassis for electric conversions. The 500s and 600Ds make brilliant little city cars. Some people are thinking ahead and acting with their heads as well as their hearts when they seriously consider an electric classic purchase or conversion.

The Microlino: reminds us all of the BMW Isetta

Change is always difficult. It helps when you can influence or manage change, even if you’d rather it didn’t happen. Ferrari and others are doing exciting things with both hybrid and electric cars. Microlino is the electric reincarnation of the BMW Isetta microcar. Love it or loathe it or anything in between, we need to take it seriously.

We guess that the winds of change are upon us when Harry and Meghan, the newly-married Duke and Duchess of Sussex, headed off in an electric E-Type Jaguar in front of several gazillion TV viewers.

The Duke & Duchess od Sussex and their electric Jaguar
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their Electric E-Type Jaguar

Featured Fiat 500 EV by Classic Chrome of London.

Microcars at Goodwood

Micro Cars

It’s one of those ironies in life: in the 2 decades after WW2 Europe was in a mess. People had very little money but there was an urgent need to revive the European economies. many of the cars that were produced at this time were put together on a shoestring and were basic at best. A brand new BMW Isetta cost less than £240 on the road in 1960. In 2019, a concours condition BMW Isetta would cost you more like £24000. How times change.

One of the major problems was workforce mobility: people couldn’t afford cars. However, otherwise unemployed aircraft manufacturers such as Dornier, Heinkel & Messerschmitt began to produce small (micro) cars in Germany. Italy’s ISO produced and licensed the Isetta for manufacture across the World, BMW acquired a licence to produce these bubble cars in places such as Brighton, England (see below)

BMW Isetta 1959
A 1959 Brighton built BMW Isetta

BMW also produced the BMW 600 & 700 models, both economy cars. The BMW 600 looks like an enlarged version of the Isetta, and is often accordingly misnamed as an Isetta. The 700, produced from 1959-65, looks more like a conventional car, albeit a small one. It’s a fact that the BMW 700 saved its iconic manufacturer from bankruptcy. Yes, that’s right; the funny-looking car below is the saviour of BMW and of all it subsequently has produced.

BMW 700
BMW 700: the car that saved BMW from bankruptcy

There’s more about the BMW 700 story here.

Over in the UK the story was much the same. The UK was economically ruined by WW2 & the UK didn’t benefit from reconstruction funds in the way that Europe did. As a consequence this period of car manufacturing in the UK (primarily in England) spawned a legion of quirky, whacky & downright bonkers microcars some of which can be seen in the header picture above.

The car at the head of this Goodwood Revival meeting (back in 2006) is the Meadows Frisky Sport Convertible. Meadows Frisky produced a number of other microcars, including the slightly dodgy-sounding “Frisky Family Three” (see below) which, despite its Michelotti styling, didn’t really sell.

1959 Meadows Frisky Family Three
The Michelotti-styled “Frisky Family Three” from 1959

Behind the Frisky Sport in this Goodwood Revival lineup is the hugely collectable Messerschmitt KR175/200. Manufactured, obviously, by the German aircraft manufacturer responsible for the ME109 fighter (amongst others). Indeed, the cockpit cover of the Messerschmitt KR series is from the ME109 fighter, as you can see from the picture below.

These days Messerschmitt KR Series cars are like gold dust. They’re worth a fortune: strange outcome for a car made from leftover war materials that emphasised the need for cheap, economical and functional transport.

Messerschmitt KR200
Messerschmitt KR200

Back to that Goodwood Revival header photo and we can see what look like a couple of BMW 600s followed by a Peel P50, which still holds the Guinness World Record of “World’s smallest production car”.

The Peel P50 was manufactured during the early 1960s on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea to the west of northern England, south of Scotland and east of the island of Ireland. Peel Engineering built 50 of them, over half of which still survive, “to seat 1 adult and a shopping bag”. The P50 is so light it can be moved by hand, which is just as well as it doesn’t reverse. It has a 49cc DKW 2-stroke engine, a headlight and a windscreen wiper.

One of the 27 or so remaining P50s, which cost £199 new, was sold at auction in 2016 for US $176,000. These cars were revived in 2010 on the BBC “Dragon’s Den” programme and production restarted in Nottinghamshire, England of both the Peel P50 and the Peel Trident, its bubble-canopied stable mate, pictured below and bringing up the distant reat in the Goodwood Revival photograph. These are available as petrol and electric vehicles.

Behind the Peel P50 at Goodwood is a Bond 3-wheeler Minicar. It’s hard to say for sure but it looks like a Minicar Mark E, F or G. This would have been powered by a 197cc Villiers 2-stroke engine in the Minicar Mark E and a 250cc Villiers in the F and G Marks.

These 1950s and 1960s English microcars are not so well-known and collectible as some of their European counterparts, but we think they will be and they’re growing in value. Bond was also responsible for the much better-known 1970s icon known as the Bond Bug (see below).

Bond Mark F microcar
A 1959 Bond Mark F
1970s Bond Bug
The iconic Bond Bug screams the arrival of the 1970s

There’s a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”; this is certainly the case in the history of the microcar. Many of these vehicles were scratched together from what little was available by way or raw materials in order to get people moving so that post war economies could start to gain momentum and recover, which they did.

The microcars are products of their time and circumstance. We’re pretty sure that it would never have occurred to people in the 1950s and 1960s that this cheap, functional transport would be worth a lot of money 50 years later.