Tiny Bubbles, Causing a Buzz

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Correction Appended

Madison, Ga. -- Bruce Weiner has driven Ferraris, Porsches and Jaguars. But he never got more attention on the road than in a banana-yellow 1963 Goggomobil TL-250 Transporter, the toylike microcar he nicknamed "the mailbox on wheels."

"Drivers are laughing, waving, taking pictures of the tiny car," said Mr. Weiner, who painted the shiny red logo of the candy company he owned, Dubble Bubble, on the boxy car's side. "You get less reaction driving a seven-figure Ferrari."

Turning heads is the goal of owning microcars, the clownish space age-style vehicles that ruled Europe's rubble-strewn streets after World War II. But last weekend, Mr. Weiner, who built the world's largest collection of the world's smallest cars, got enthusiasts' attention another way -- by selling nearly his entire fleet.

The winning bids at the sale, run by RM Auctions, were anything but small. The yellow Goggomobil sold for $132,250, including the 15 percent sales commission. The top-priced item, a 1958 rose-colored F.M.R. Tg500 "Tiger" -- a racecar by microcar standards, capable of nearly 80 miles per hour -- sold for $322,000. In total, the 200 restored microcars sold for almost $8.1 million; a variety of memorabilia including antique toy cars and gas station signs brought in $1 million more.

McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collector car policies, said the prices were "surprising -- pleasantly surprising."

Mr. Hagerty, who follows the vintage car market, said microcars were gaining value. "Collectors want cute and distinctive cars, and small is trendy," he said. "These were the original fuel-efficient cars."

Mr. Weiner has displayed his fleet -- from what's been called the world's smallest production car, the Peel P50, to a relatively spacious Smart -- in a climate-controlled warehouse here, 50 miles east of Atlanta. The Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum has had about 35,000 visitors a year since it opened in 1997 on a farm he owns.

Declaring his collection nearly complete after 22 years, and with neither of his two children especially interested in maintaining the museum, Mr. Weiner, 53, decided last year to sell all but 10 favorites. "The chase is over," he said. "I love hunting cars. I love the restoration process. But I don't care to be the custodian."

How small is small? Mini Coopers are too macro. The seven-and-a-half-foot-long Italian-designed BMW Isetta is so small that the hood is the door. The entire front end opens out, steering wheel and all, so the driver can step inside. The three-wheel Peel, which is four and a half feet long and weighs 130 pounds, cannot drive backward; it must be picked up and turned around by hand. Nearly all of the cars are restored, drivable and street-legal.

The auction, which drew more than 1,000 bidders in person and online, was equal parts shopping bonanza and eulogy for the museum. Mr. Weiner, who made his fortune in the candy business, paced nervously as the collection he spent decades amassing was dismantled, item by item.

"It's a little sad -- there's probably never been a bigger, better group of microcars anywhere," said Jeff Lane, who founded the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, which also has an extensive collection of automotive oddities. "Everyone who collects microcars knows Bruce's collection."

Mr. Lane bought six cars here, for a total of $103,000, for his museum.

In their heyday, from 1945 to roughly 1962, microcars were less coveted. They were tiny out of necessity. After World War II, Europe needed cheap, efficient cars. They were faster than bicycles and offered more rain protection than scooters, but were cramped and prone to breakdowns.

Still they were cherished. Peter Svilans, a microcar restorer and historian, says the cute vehicles "tended not to be scrapped so much as put away, forgotten in barns and garages," where they have been rediscovered by enthusiasts.

Mr. Weiner bought his first microcar in 1991 at a rally in Atlantic City. He had never heard of the strange, small breed, but was mesmerized by an Isetta. At the time, his car collection was mainly high-end Jaguars and Ferraris.

"It wasn't fun to me to collect a car just because you could write the check," he said. "With microcars, many are hard to find. Convincing someone to sell is like convincing them to let you have their family pet."

His collection grew quickly. In 1997, he sold his first 50 cars at a Christie's auction in London. The next day, regretting the auction, he began collecting again. By 2008, he had 350 cars, including 93 of one of the most common microcars, the German-made Messerschmitt, many of which he has sold in recent years.

As Mr. Weiner turned his attention to other collections, including watches, RM approached him about selling the fleet. Last year he agreed, changed his mind a week later, then agreed again, then changed his mind.

"It was a hard choice to sell," he said.

People who amass microcars are a different breed from most vintage car collectors. For most, the goal is laughter, not leisure. "The odder, the better," said Carlo Krouse, a retired engineer from Ontario. He bought a 1953 Bond Minicar with a long hood and tiny cabin for $12,000. "We basically want something to laugh at."

His wife, Ingrid , who is German, recalls when these were the cheapest, least desirable cars in Europe. Growing up in the 1950s, her classmates sang rhymes about how dangerous the Messerschmitts were in collisions. "They were cars for poor people," she said. "Now they sell for more than tens of thousands of dollars."

One of the most hotly discussed cars at the auction was a miniature version of an actual Italian police car: a forest-green 1963 BMW Isetta with a flashing blue light. In less than a minute of bidding, the price soared past the presale estimate of $40,000. The winning bid was $75,000, which the auctioneer, Max Girdardo, rewarded with a honk from the car, which sounded like a clown's horn. "Just imagine the fun you would have breaking the speed limit in a police car," he said.

Mr. Weiner, who now runs companies that sell recreational vehicles and rent storage space, has a large collection of antique guns, motorcycles and candy machines. He said he might return to collecting microcars, but more selectively. He is keeping a track on the property for warm-weather days when he wants to take a Messerschmitt for a cruise.

"Sure, I'll miss it," he said, glancing over the museum. "I won't miss the responsibility. But how could I not miss these cars?"

Correction: February 24, 2013, Sunday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of a caption in the slide show headlined "Laughing All the Way to the Bank," which accompanies this article, misstated the history of a 1963 BMW Isetta. It was a German, not an Italian, police car.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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