Mobility’s Past is Prologue

Twenty-first-century prospects for twentieth-century vehicles

Although large, private cars dominated mobility in the twentieth century, cars didn’t win the contest completely. Here and there, especially when resources were scarce after the Second World War, designers, engineers, and companies experimented with smaller, lighter, and more focused vehicles to help move people and goods.

Today, there’s a wide gulf between scooters and private cars. Advancements in batteries, software, manufacturing, and sharing are creating new opportunities for innovative vehicle types that address both timeless and new transportation needs. Cities and citizens, meanwhile, are questioning and reallocating the design of streets in unprecedented ways. The time is ripe for a Cambrian Explosion of vehicle forms.

As Jim McPherson observed last year, “Everything old is new again.” His Twitter thread detailed the popularity and evolution of scooters — in 1916, not in 2017. If you haven’t read his thread yet, you’re in for a treat.

What follows is a tribute, of sorts, to some of the larger-than-a-scooter-but-smaller-than-a-car vehicles from the past century. Imagine these vehicles mixed with smartphones, software, and lithium-ion batteries — imagine new opportunities for transportation in the next century. We’ll start with a battery-powered vision of the future of transportation from France in WWII…

L’Oeuf Electrique (or, The Electric Egg)

Unlike the rest of the vehicles in this post, the Electric Egg was designed and built during the Second World War, not after. In 1942 French industrial designer Paul Arzens caused a stir in Paris with his newest, one-of-a-kind creation, a confection of mirrored metal and curved plexiglass soon christened L’Oeuf Electrique or the Electric Egg.

Even today, the Egg looks like a science-fiction-streamline-steampunk vision of the future, silvery and light and altogether out of place. The Egg’s technical specs are from another world, too: the vehicle’s body only weighs 132 pounds, and with batteries installed, the Egg weighs just under 800 pounds. Range? 66 miles at just over 40mph. I imagine that a modern-day Egg would weigh even less and travel even farther with contemporary materials and batteries.

Beyond the numbers, the Egg looks, somehow, both futuristic and timeless. Its shape and material choices are shamelessly playful and new while the vehicle itself has been pared down to an absolute minimum: a bench seat, a steering wheel, brake and gas pedals, one rearview mirror, and outward visibility matched only by a helicopter or any vehicle without a cabin. Today’s mobility companies would do well to honor the purity and the spirit of the Electric Egg as they explore new forms for urban transportation.

Messerschmitt “Kabinenroller” KR200

As Germany’s Messerschmitt was banned from producing airplanes after World War II, aircraft engineer Fritz Fend found an idle yet willing partner in Messerschmitt for the production of his Kabinenroller (“cabin scooter”) microcar. Although Fend’s earliest concepts were for wheelchair-friendly three-wheeled vehicles, Fend discovered that many of his initial buyers were able-bodied and simply interested in efficient city transportation.

The Messerschmitt KR200 is remarkable, primarily, for its unusual longitudinal packaging, placing the passenger directly behind the driver. This layout centralizes the mass of the car which both improves handling and dramatically reduces the frontal area of the KR200, which leads in turn to lower drag and better fuel economy. The vehicle didn’t weigh much over 500 lbs — less than one-sixth of even the lightest 2019 Honda Accord. Even in 1955, this hyper-efficient automobile could top 65 mph while sipping only one gallon of fuel for every 87 miles traveled, well more than triple the average for all cars on the road today.

In 2001, the National Household Travel Survey estimated that 38% of all trips in the United States are made by one occupant. The average number of occupants for all trips is only 1.6. A simple, lightweight, tandem vehicle, much like the Messerschmitt KR200, could easily service over half of all trips made in the United States every year.

Whether as an addition to a multiple-car household, an optional vehicle for your shared-car infrastructure, or, as a pod in a self-driving mobility future, the KR200 would fit the majority of users’ needs.

360cc Kei Cars

Japan’s economy was devasted after World War II. Few people in Japan had enough resources to purchase a car. In order to stimulate the nation’s economy and provide new transportation options, the Japanese government used the law to create a new class of car and encourage innovation. These Kei cars (keijidōsha or“light automobile”) were limited in size and power and benefitted from tax exemptions, affordable insurance, and flexible parking regulations. Kei cars were the right size for tight city streets and had enough power to reach low urban speed limits.

After the initial displacement requirements for Kei cars proved too restrictive, the class took off when engines crew to 360cc—that’s 0.36 liters, or almost one-fifth the volume of the smallest engine available in a 2019 Honda Civic. The Subaru 360 (pictured above) was a breakout success for the company; it weighed only 1,000 pounds due to an advanced monocoque shell frame and a fiberglass roof, among other innovations.

In time, the Subaru 360 was joined by other Kei cars from Mazda and Honda. As regulations continued to evolve to better suit consumers and cities, Kei trucks, right-sized city delivery vehicles, also became popular.

Kei cars capture the influence that ambitious, outcome-oriented laws and regulations can have on vehicle design and the importance of designing vehicles for their specific environment and jobs-to-be-done. Let’s hope that regulators and lawmakers of the twenty-first century take note.

Citroën 2CV

The Citroën 2CV was another postwar effort, even if most of the design work was completed in the 1930s. At the time, France had over two million cars on its roads. After World War II, only 100,000 were left — a loss of over 95%. As Citroën’s then-new owner Michelin wished to expand the market for its products (tires), the company threw its weight behind the construction and sale of a French Model T, a car designed to mobilize the countryside.

Automotive journalist L. J. K. Setright once described the 2CV as “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car.” Some examples of the 2CV’s incredible commitment to minimalism:

  • The 2CV’s top and rear were made entirely of fabric. The fabric top saved weight, lowered the car’s center of gravity, and made loading large objects easier. When the fabric was rolled-up, the fabric roof provided a delightful open-air experience for passengers.
  • The unique corrugation of the hood wasn’t just for looks — it also added strength to the thin metal used for the 2CV’s body.
  • Roll-down windows, which would have added weight and complexity, were avoided. Instead, the bottom half of the 2CV’s windows would flip up, a detail maintained for the forty-year life of the car.
  • Original 2CV prototypes only had one headlamp, as that was all the lighting that French law required.

However simple, the 2CV was much more than throw-away penalty box featuring yesterday’s technology. Its advanced features included front-wheel drive (still bleeding-edge tech in 1948), an advanced, soft-yet-composed suspension, and a unique, sealed air-cooling system that helped the engine run for over 200,000 miles without a rebuild, four times longer than other contemporary engines. The 2CV was brilliant because it was simply the least car that it needed to be, focused and fantastic.

Piaggio Ape

While the 2CV mobilized the French countryside after World War II, the Piaggio Ape gave wheels to Italian cities. After launching the iconic Vespa scooter in 1946, the Ape’s inventor, Corradino D’Ascanio, put his mind to designing a light commercial vehicle for metropolitan transportation. The first model of the Ape (pronounced “AH-pay”) was quite literally a Vespa with three wheels and a flatbed. Within a few years, Apes were buzzing around cities across Europe.

Although the Ape is still in production today nearly seventy years after its introduction, little has changed. It still provides simple, useful, and efficient city transportation. Several body styles are available, including a four-seat taxi. Two passengers can fit inside the cabin. The engine, located beneath the seat, provides good low-end pulling power at the expense of a 40mph top speed — a great tradeoff for delivering goods in the city. Though small, the Ape is right-sized and perfectly suited for its task.

Over time, the Ape inspired many similar vehicles, including the Daihatsu Midget, and over time, the vehicle’s configuration became known more generally as an auto rickshaw or a “tuk-tuk,” regardless of the configuration of the vehicle: open or closed, for passengers or for cargo, and so on. In fact, the form of this small, three-wheeled vehicle is today widely used in many countries around the world… except for the United States.

Granted, in the 50s and 60s, the United States Post Office briefly experimented with three-wheeled Mailsters. The New York Police Department has used trikes for parking enforcement for decades. Otherwise, our popular postwar vehicles looked a lot more like this: 🤦

Today, climate change, resource conversation, and a simple lack of space all place pressure on our transportation infrastructure. Although we’re not digging out from the rubble of a World War, we do hope to avoid a global, human-made catastrophe. Companies and governments alike can learn from yesterday’s innovations and apply them to the future of mobility.

Thanks for reading! I’m exploring transportation and cities and telling their stories through quantitative and qualitative frames. Subscribe here if you want to follow along and reach out to me if you want to chat.

Cities, mobility, and product leadership in New York City

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store