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The marvellous Magyar microcars
« on: 2011-01-17 21:44:57 »
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A great look into the past and possibly where we are headed



How Hungary circumvented Stalin and also had a bit of fun 

Source: The Economist
Author: Print Edition
Date: 2010.12.16

KALMAN SZABADI was an awestruck ten-year-old when he first saw a Zeppelin airship floating over Csepel island on the Danube in 1931. The sight of it left him with an enduring fascination with how things work and a passion for elegant, functional design. Mr Szabadi combined his two enthusiasms at college, where he studied industrial draughtsmanship. He drew film posters, painted theatre scenery and was drafted into the Hungarian navy for three years. Demobbed in 1953, he returned home to Vac, a small town on the Danube 40km (25 miles) north of Budapest.

These were strange times all across eastern Europe. In the early 1950s Hungary, like its neighbours, had languished under a harsh Stalinist regime. Innovation and new ideas were frowned on. But after Stalin died in March 1953 some restrictions were slowly lifted. Life became easier. Perhaps, after all, it was a good time for a talented young designer and engineer to put his skills to use.

What Mr Szabadi wanted to do was design a car with a small motor, probably a motorcycle engine, which would be cheap to produce and economical to run. Eastern Europe in the 1950s this was a political as well as a technical challenge. After the Soviet takeover in the late 1940s, the Russians set up Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, to co-ordinate economic relations across the Soviet bloc. In line with the principles of socialist planning, each country was ordered to make certain products but not others. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania were allowed to make cars, but Hungary was forbidden to, probably because it had no existing car industry. But a national vehicle, like a national airline, was a symbol of patriotic pride, especially in eastern Europe. Hungary’s Communists were soon determined that Hungary should have its own cars. Accordingly, they quickly found a very Hungarian solution. The way around the Comecon restrictions was via the Magyar speciality known as the kiskapu, or “little gate”. When one door closes, the kiskapu  usually opens, often lubricated by an envelope of bank-notes. So under Communism, if, for example, X was forbidden, something rather like X—but not actually identical to it and arguably something else—was surely permitted, because only X was forbidden.

The answer to the prohibition on the manufacture of cars, Hungary’s Communist leaders decided, was to make an enclosed geared vehicle with a steering-wheel and petrol engine that transported people in safety, but did not qualify as a car because it was too small: the microcar. As the Magyar microcar was not actually a car, it could drive through both the kiskapu and the thickets of Communist bureaucracy, or so the argument went, and so the microcar did, with some success.

The Magyar microcar was the latest in a long line of Hungarian inventions that have shaped the modern world, including Laszlo Biro’s ballpoint pen, the telephone exchange and holography. Hungarian-born scientists such as Edward Teller and John von Neumann also played crucial roles in developing computers and atomic weapons.

Such skill at innovative thinking could well be rooted in the complexity of the Hungarian language, which has three levels of formality, direct and indirect conjugation of verbs, and also demands rhyming vowel harmony. Saying anything in Hungarian demands an instantaneous series of mental calculations before a sentence can be constructed and a clear meaning communicated. A Hungarian, the old joke goes, is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front. This inbuilt skill at seeking solutions to complex problems, and a talent for quick lateral thinking, proved vital for the Magyars during centuries of foreign rule and was especially useful under Communism.

Making off with a Suranyi

Despite Moscow’s orders, Hungary was a natural candidate for car production. The enormous Manfred Weiss steelworks on Csepel island in the Danube was one of the region’s biggest industrial concerns, and Hungary already exported Ikarus buses and Csepel trucks all over eastern Europe. During the war the steelworks mainly produced armaments and ammunition, and it went on doing so after 1944 when the Nazis requisitioned it from the Weisses, the Jewish family who owned it. But after the war Janos Pentelenyi, one of the factory’s designers (pictured top, on the left), designed a small car to be made there inspired by Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle. Wartime restrictions and shortages meant the vehicle, called the “Pente” after its inventor, had to be lightweight, inexpensive, reliable and simple to manufacture. Powered by a two-stroke 500cc engine, the Pente was three metres (ten feet) long and 1.3 metres high. Pentelenyi argued that the engine cost about half as much to make as the four-cylinder, four-stroke engine of the rival Fiat Topolino. That proved persuasive, and in March 1946 the factory approved the production plans. By December the first model was on the road, comfortably reaching a top speed of 60kph. Enthused, Pentelenyi built a bigger 600cc version, which was successfully tested. The steelworks drew up plans to mass-produce both cars.

Depressurising from the Balaton

It was not to be. After the Communist takeover in 1948 the Manfred Weiss Steelworks was nationalised and renamed after Matyas Rakosi, Hungary’s hated Stalinist leader. The order came down from Moscow: no more cars. Pentelenyi’s pioneering work was discarded, and the factory was ordered to turn out motorcycles and the rugged Csepel trucks. The sole surviving Pente 600 is now on display at Budapest’s Museum of Transport. Pentelenyi’s Pente never went into production, but his prototypes and designs still proved useful to his successors.

These post-war years of austerity and shortages turned out to be the golden age of the microcar across Europe. Italy had its popular Iso Isetta, while in Germany Messerschmitt, an aircraft manufacturer by then barred from making fighter planes, produced the Kabinenroller, which—unsurprisingly—looked rather like the cockpit of a fighter plane mounted on three wheels. Poland had the Smyk, a four-wheeled microcar with a front door, while Czechoslovakia produced the three-wheeled Velorex.

In Budapest the government laid down the requirements for the Magyar microcar: it should be a closed, four-wheeled vehicle, powered by a motorcycle engine, and should be capable of carrying two adults, two children and some luggage. In 1955 the Hungarian Ministry of Metallurgy and Machine Industry commissioned a team of engineers, including Erno Rubik, the father of the inventor of the famous cube, to start work in the city of Szekesfehervar, west of Budapest, at a factory that had previously repaired aircraft. An Isetta was brought in, together with a Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. Rubik and his team were soon at their drawing-boards, using their own plans and ideas and finding new inspiration from the Italian and German vehicles. The result was the Alba Regia, as Szekesfehervar was known in Roman times, and the Balaton, named after Hungary’s largest lake. Both cars ran on 250cc Pannonia motorcycle engines, and had aluminium bodies with aircraft wheels. The doors of the Alba Regia opened conventionally, while the roof of the Balaton slid backwards, aircraft-fashion, to allow the driver and passengers to climb in. Both cars were rear-engined, with a reverse gear. In order to go backwards the driver stopped the engine and pushed a button, at which point the engine itself went backwards.

Bon voyage in the Uttoro

The microcars were judged a great success and went on public display in Szekesfehervar’s 1956 May Day parade, together with an Isetta and an Uttoro (Pioneer), from the eastern city of Debrecen. The mini-vehicles were viewed with a mixture of pride and longing: pride that once again Hungary had circumvented outsiders’ restrictions and could manufacture cars, and longing to own one. Private car-ownership was a rare privilege then, usually reserved for party leaders and functionaries. If Hungary could produce its own economical vehicles, then perhaps anyone might be allowed to buy one.

The Shoe

The Uttoro, which was sponsored by the Ministry of Light Industry—unknown to the Ministry of Heavy Industry—was one of several remarkable microcars built by private inventors and engineers. Janos Schadek, an engineer living in Debrecen, had built his first car in the 1920s. By the 1950s he was working for the state-owned locksmith company as chief engineer. He created the Uttoro with the help of two colleagues who had previously repaired and built aircraft engines. The car was powered by a 250cc Csepel motorcycle engine, complete with a kick-starter, which was placed over the rear axle. Its wheels were taken from a wheelbarrow, but the car could still reach a top speed of 80kph. Endre Suranyi, a former motorcycle-racer turned driver for Communist leaders, built his first microcar in 1946. With just a 50cc engine, and a cramped chassis that barely seated two people, it soon became known as “the motorised shoe”. Despite the shaky ride, it worked, and Suranyi powered up to make a bigger version with a 125cc engine. Plans were drawn up to produce a 250cc model, but were never put into action.

The (smelly but stylish) Fesztival

In Vac Mr Szabadi followed the news about the Balaton, Alba Regia and all the Magyar microcars with mounting excitement. He was working hard on his own prototype. Enthused by the results and by the prospect of being able to make a car in Hungary that would circumvent Comecon restrictions, fulfil patriotic requirements and provide cars for a restless population, the Ministry of Light Industry commissioned the Automobile Transport Research Institute to examine both Western and Soviet-bloc vehicles. The institute’s favourite was the West German Goggomobil, whose 250cc engine pumped out an impressive 14 horsepower; but the car’s capitalist roots were a difficulty. Socialist ingenuity had to win the day. If it could be proved that Hungary had the expertise to build a cheap, reliable people’s vehicle, whether or not it was classified as a car, Comecon’s kiskapu would probably open.

The best way forward, the ministry decided, was to hold a competition. The tender was announced in summer 1956. But then, as happens too often in eastern Europe, history intervened, this time in the form of the October uprising, which threw the country into chaos. The next year the ministry declared that there was no winner, and the whole issue was dropped.

Even so, in backyards and garages, Hungary’s engineers and inventors did not give up their quest for the perfect Magyar microcar. Mr Szabadi decided that if Rubik and Schadek could do it, then so could he. In 1956 he obtained an Isetta 300cc engine and started work at a shipyard in Vac. Four years later he unveiled the Fesztival. The car was 3.15 metres long, 1.15 metres tall and weighed 380kg; its top speed was around 60km/h. Constructed out of motorcycle parts and with a body made of pig’s blood, chicken feathers and shellac, the Fesztival was smelly, but it worked. Sadly, Mr Szabadi’s marvellous vehicle was a one-off. After a few years the body was replaced by a workaday van, which eventually crashed, and the remains were scrapped. Undeterred, he went on to design boats and water taxis.

The Kabinenroller resembled a fighter aircraft’s cockpit on three wheels

Nowadays the Magyar microcars are a footnote in automotive history. But they were much more than engineering whimsy. The principles underlying their economy of design, ease of production and simplicity remain relevant today. Currently, about half the world’s population lives in cities, a figure projected to rise to 60% by 2030. Even if urban developers provide decent public-transport networks, many people will still want their own cars. This is especially true of the rapidly growing new middle classes of India and China. Microcars, which have fewer emissions, cost less to run and take up less parking space, are the obvious answer. Hence the Tata Nano, launched with much fanfare in India a year or so ago.

The microcars of the 1950s also laid the design foundation for the future generation of mini-vehicles, the EN-V, or Electrically Networked Vehicle. An EN-V can be summoned from its parking place via a mobile phone to drive itself to its owner. Once the driver is seated inside he can drive the car normally, or can use its GPS system and a highly sophisticated range of sensors (which recognise people, animals, other cars, motorcycles and traffic signs) for automated driving. An EN-V has only two wheels, and is just 1.5 metres long and 1.4 metres wide. As in old-fashioned bubble cars, the driver gets in from the front, via a large transparent door.

Mr Szabadi died in November after a quiet retirement in Vac, but his ingenious legacy lives on. The microcar is back, re-engineered for the 21st century.

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Where there is the necessary technical skill to move mountains, there is no need for the faith that moves mountains -anon-
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