The 47th Annual Minnesota Street Rod Association’s Back to the Fifties Weekend drew thousands of classic cars from across the nation to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. One of those cars belongs to Steve Lenoch, and it’s probably the smallest car here that isn’t in a Hot Wheels box.
This is a 1956 Messerschmitt KR200, and it’s one of the smallest cars around that wasn’t made by Power Wheels. If the name “Messerschmitt” sounds familiar, it should. The company gained fame building German World War II military aircraft, including the world’s first operational fighter jet, the Me 262.
After that war, Messerschmitt, along with other German defense contractors, was no longer allowed to make weapons of war for a ten year span. So the company turned its engineering prowess to other pursuits, such as prefabricated houses. That’s when an aeronautical engineer named Fritz Fend approached the company.
Fend had already designed what in those less-than-genteel times was called an “invalid carriage.” Intended for disabled people - often those who’d lost limbs in the war - to have a means of transport that was easier to drive than a regular or bicycle, the first Fend invalid carriage bore almost no resemblance to the vehicles it would inspire.
With a standard tricycle wheel arrangement, its operator would steer the single front wheel with a set of handlebars, and would “pedal” the car by pushing the handlebars back and forth. Fend would later update that early carriage to be powered by a small gasoline engine, which proved popular.
Fend’s second invalid carriage, the Flitzer, was designed from the ground up to be what could be considered an early, enclosed power wheelchair. Fend flipped the wheel arrangement around, putting 2 wheels in the front for greater stability. And the Flitzer was designed from the ground up to be motorized, powered by a 98cc 2-stroke engine.
Although the Fend Flitzer was aimed at people with mobility impairments, a surprising number of able-bodied people who wanted simple, inexpensive transportation options bought them.
Customers asked for added features, like the ability to carry a passenger. Fend obliged. By the time its limited production run ended, 250 had been snapped up by eager buyers, many of whom had no disability but simply wanted a simple, cheap car.
That convinced Fend that there was a market for small, basic cars. He decided to design a new vehicle, one intended from the beginning as a car that was inexpensive to buy and cheap to run. And he started shopping around for a well-equipped factory to build them.
When he approached Messerschmitt, the temporarily-restricted aircraft company jumped at the chance to build a vehicle. Their main stipulation? It’s gotta be called Messerschmitt, not Fend. That was just fine with Fend, who handed over his plans for what would become the first of the Messerschmitt Kabinenrollers, or “scooters with a cabin.”
Messerschmitt spun off a separate company, with the tongue-tangling name of Regensburger Stahl- und Metallbau, to produce and market the vehicle, but as far as the public was concerned, the cars were made and sold by Messerschmitt itself.
The KR175 looked a great deal like Steve’s KR200, with the same airplane-inspired looks. And it was quite successful despite its shortcomings. Unless you sprang for the luxury option of a starter, firing the KR175’s 173cc engine up involved pulling on a rope, just like your lawn mower. Before long, the pull-starter was replaced, with a regular key-start becoming standard equipment.
Other inconveniences included the controls. Lacking a regular accelerator or clutch pedal, on the KR175 the throttle was a twist-grip on the handlebar, like a motorcycle. And the clutch was controlled with a lever on the shifter.
At all of 9 horsepower, it wasn’t exactly a drag strip king, although it’s sub-500 pound curb weight did make it a bit less anemic than you might expect. Its acceleration numbers might still disappoint, however, as with a top speed of 50, its 0-60 time was “never.”
The KR175 did well, with around 15,000 examples being sold between 1953 and 1955. That, along with refinements suggested by real-world feedback, led Fend and Messerschmitt to determine that a followup model made sense. Enter Steve’s KR200.
The KR200 was a near-complete redesign of its predecessor. The frame remained the same, but the bodywork was massaged. New fender cutouts for the front wheels debuted, making access to the wheels much easier. The vehicle got a new suspension system, and a new 191cc motor which obliterated the previous car’s horsepower rating, going from 9hp all the way up to the stratospheric heights of 9.9hp.
Despite the modest power increase and a 22-pound weight gain, the new car boasted a 6mph greater top speed, which meant it still couldn’t do 0-60 without external help, but any improvement was nonetheless welcome.
Anemic performance numbers aside, the car actually managed to break the world record for speed over 24 hours in a three-wheeled car. In part to prove the durability of the design, engineers built a special, 1-seat body and heavily modified a KR200 engine, and the result was a world record car that could finally break that 60mph barrier, with a top speed of 64.
Other improvements to the KR200 included replacing the bicycle-like handlebars of the KR175 with a yoke that looked suspiciously like one taken from an airplane. Newly available in the KR200 were options like a heater, and even a clock. And, believe it or not, the KR200 was a three-seater. A single seat for the driver is trailed by a bench seat purportedly for two passengers, though we suspect those passengers must have been either extremely small, or very fond of each other.
One advantage of this tandem seating arrangement, with the driver right on the centerline, is that it was unnecessary to build a special version for export to countries with left-hand driving. An export version was, nonetheless, built, but that designation only meant a car with an upgraded trim level.
A significant advantage of the KR200 over the early models of the KR175 was a regular key-start system. But because micro cars are strange, this system had quirks. Because the vehicle lacked true reverse gears, the engine would spin in both directions. If you wanted to back up, you were obliged to stop the engine, and then start it again in the opposite direction by pushing the key further into the ignition, at which point the four formerly forward gears would become four reverse gears
Oddities in the drivetrain aside, the KR200 was a much easier-to-drive vehicle than the KR175, as it sported a standard set of accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals rather than the former car’s more motorcycle-like arrangement.
The improvements were a hit, with 12,000 KR200s being manufactured in its first year alone. After Messerschmitt’s ban on making airplanes expired in 1956, the company lost interest in making cars and sold the operation to Fend. He kept producing the cars for years afterward, even adding a limited-production sport model. It wasn’t until 1962 that production dropped as demand waned, with the final KR200’s rolling off the line in 1964.
Daily Driver? Probably Not.
But what’s it like to own one of these minuscule airplane cars? “A lot of people refer to it as an enclosed motorcycle,” says Steve. “Which it really is.” Steve’s a great one to ask, because he’s actually got two.
He found the one he brought to Back to the Fifties in Germany back in 2005. He had it shipped to his Coralville, Iowa home where he took a year to restore it; Steve spent a lot of time looking for a KR200 with an intact body, as he says it’s easy to find mechanical parts for the cars, but very hard to find body parts.
After the restoration, Steve started taking his KR200 to car shows, where he’d quickly be surrounded by curious onlookers. He spends a lot of time answering questions about the car. “All of a sudden there’s 50 people around you,” he laughs. “Trophy stuff, that’s fine but it only goes so far. You don’t need that stuff, you need to talk to people.”
He’s got plenty of opportunities to talk to people; in addition to his two KR200’s, Steve also owns a BMW Isetta, the famous gumdrop-shaped microcar which he’s had for around 40 years. It’s fair to say that microcars are in Steve’s blood, and for true lovers of the scene, having one of these tiny vehicles is a joy.
“It’s just fun!” Steve exclaims. “I like microcars. I like things that are different.” Steve says he enjoys all the cars here at Back to the Fifties, but the microcar has a special place in his heart, and a special attraction for spectators. “It’s a different car. A lot of people have seen these either on TV or heard about them, but never seen them in person and it’s nice to get them out to places where people can see it.”
The Back to the Fifties Weekend car show is over for this year, but if you go in 2022 who knows - you might just see a smiling guy next to a miniature car that looks kind of like a wingless airplane. If you do, go up and say hi; Steve’s always ready to talk about his beloved microcars.