The Messerschmitt: is it really a car?
What, with gas prices being so high we decided to look around for the tiniest, most fuel efficient car we could find, one that would make Texas oil moguls and Detroit car makers cry. We think we found it – the Messerschmitt.
Let’s get its amazing stats right up front: According to its owner, Nick Conklin, the engine displacement is 191 cc (“Normal,” he says, “is about 10 times that for a small car. For instance, the MGB had an 1800 cc motor.”); it’s a single cylinder 2-stroke; it puts out a whopping 10 horse power; and, get this, can go up to 65 mph, “although you feel like you’re about to take off,” says Conklin, 44, a Penn Valley resident, who is area manager for SBC.
Further, it has 8-inch wheels and has no reverse gear. How to back up? “You stop the car, turn off the engine, push in the key the other way, and the engine starts backwards,” says its owner, who claims its eight gears (four forward, four back) make for good economy.
Further, this thing that someone once called a “pregnant roller skate” is 4-feet wide by 10 feet long and stands 4 feet high. How, you ask, does a 6-foot 2-inch 240-pound man get into it? He either takes the whole top off or, because it’s hinged along the whole right side, he just opens it like a lid and jumps in. Any passenger brave enough to attempt it has to hop in behind the driver and actually straddle, like they do on sleds.
Does anyone out there believe Conklin when he claims “I have more leg room in this than in almost any other car I’ve ever driven.” Gimme a break.
But here’s the most compelling stat: it gets 60 miles to the gallon (that’s tested, on the road; company advertising claimed it got 87). When Conklin fills up the tiny 3.5 gallon tank, he’s good to go for 200 miles.
He actually doesn’t drive it a lot, though. In fact, this original car only has 8,000 on it. His dad bought it new in 1959 for $1,500. The model is the KR200, which is also called, tongue in cheek, a Cabrio limousine because it has so many fancy features, like a luggage rack. Almost 16,000 were manufactured in Germany, where Conklin worked as a civilian for the DOD.
Willie Messerschmitt*, the manufacturer of the great German World War II fighter plane of the same name teamed up with a car designer to make the Messerschmitt car, first with hand controls for paraplegic soldiers, then later as a regular car. The three-wheel design was to purposefully evade taxes, as they weren’t taxed as high as the four-wheel vehicles (a four-wheel version of the Messerschmitt, the Tiger, “is very fast, very rare,” says Conklin, “because only 450 were made”). It was dubbed “the people’s car” long before the VW showed up.
The Conklin family has owned several of these amazing cars. In fact, Nick Conklin was only 10 when he first drove one. So when the time was right in his adulthood, he retrieved the KR200 from storage in Oklahoma and started restoring it. Now it’s worth $20,000; “I know,” says Conklin, “because a lady offered me that at the Grass Valley car show.”
It was there at that show, sitting right next to a handsome Ferrari on East Main, that this reporter spied it and started laughing. “Some people had never seen one in person (and gasp in awe); others were laughing so hard they were out of breath,” says a nonplussed Conklin. “It’s so obscure it doesn’t even fit into any specific class. Even the Roamin Angel MC didn’t know what kind of car it is.”
Indeed, the Messerschmitt can be registered as a motorcycle, if its owner chooses, and he/she wouldn’t even have to wear a helmet, at least not in San Jose, where the city government so ruled. The cops are fascinated by it apparently. “I get pulled over,” he says, “because they want to know what it is and if it’s street legal.”
It’s likely that with six children at home, Conklin doesn’t have tons of free time, but he’s promised each of his kids a car out of his stable of 18 if they help him restore and maintain it. For a daily drive, he tootles around town in a British racing green 1977 Jaguar V12 (“It’s got all the bells and whistles,” he says modestly).
He also loves to hang with other sports car owners at the Sierra Sports Car Club, a very informal and very friendly organization. Heck, you don’t even need a sports car, says the ebullient Conklin. “You can ride with me.”
One last thing to clear up: Is the Messerschmitt the smallest car ever made?
No, says Conklin. It’s in the micro class of cars that include even smaller cars, such as the BMW, Bond, and smallest American car, the King Midget, street legal with a lawn mower engine in it. Wow, imagine what gas mileage that gets.
* P.S. – In case you’re wondering what significance the meaning of the name Messerschmitt is and what relationship it has to planes and cars – none, it appears, as it translates to “knife smith,” says Conklin.
Pam Jung writes about classic cars and their owners and welcomes suggestions for stories. She can be reached at 265-8064.
For more information
Sierra Sports Car Club meets the first Tuesday of the month at Perko’s on Sutton, Grass Valley, 7 p.m.
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