As I believe I’ve made quite clear, I have a nearly debilitating soft spot for strange, forgotten, usually rear-engined little microcars. Desperate, cheap little things that I love even more if they look like they’ve been forced into reality from a cartoon drawn by a child. This time, I found out about one that fits the bill so well, I have to remind myself I didn’t make it up: the Triver Rana 500.
Triver was an old Spanish company once known for making big, heavy things like safes and vaults an hydraulic jacks. The company got into the moving-things business with small auxiliary engines you could fit on a bicycle, and some stationary engines.
The company was licensed to build cars, but to keep that license, they had to build at least 50 cars, so the company’s CEO, José Antonio de Sopeña, who also happened to be an industrial designer, set out to design a small car, the sort of thing people in Spain were looking to upgrade to from motorized bicycles.
In 1953, the first prototype was built, a small, teardrop-shaped four-wheeler with the rear wheels set very close together. An air-cooled two-stroke 339cc flat-twin engine was set just ahead of the rear wheels, and drove those wheels with a monstrous 14 or so horsepower.
The little car weighed about 1,100 pounds and had a fairly clean design. The body was hand-hammered over a wooden buck, and while there was some publicity for the car, testing found a number of inadequacies, so a pretty comprehensive redesign was undertaken, which culminated in the final production version from 1955.
An entirely different engine was decided upon, a bigger 431cc unit, still air-cooled, but now an inline twin, and making a ravenous 16 horsepower.
The car still weighed about the same, but the body design was pretty different, even if the fundamental tadpole-style layout with the narrow rear track was maintained.
If anything, the styling got much stranger, more exuberant and, I think, delightfully cartoonish. The production car was named the Rana 500, which is the Spanish word for “frog,” and, yeah, I suppose this thing is pretty frog-like.
They added in extra side windows at the rear, giving the little car an impressive total of eight separate windows, and what must have been pretty good visibility. The front fenders were larger and more bulbous, the headlights got an interesting teardrop shape, and the cooling vents on the car multiplied prodigiously.
The Rana 500 had suicide doors and 2+2 seating, though I can’t imagine that rear seat was good for anyone other than kids or maybe dogs, or some combination thereof. It got about 40 mpg and could go almost 50 mph if you really wanted to, which might be an unlikely assumption.
The plan was to build 1,000 of these cars, though that was a wildly optimistic number, as between 1955 and 1960 only 75 were built and sold. The car cost 45,000 pasetas in 1960, which I think comes to around €10,000 today, but it’s tricky to know for sure if that’s really an accurate price, based on the very different economy of Spain in that era.
Some sources speculate that the car never caught on because, well, it just looked too weird, and while I can’t argue with that, I know that around this same era, the Spanish Biscúter car, designed by the legendary Gabriel Voisin, sold over 10,000 cars, and it looked like this:
I’d say the Spanish people’s tolerance for weird-looking cars was pretty damn high.
Really, compared to the legendary Biscúter, the Rana 500 seems like a more practical vehicle, with more power, a good bit more room inside and much better weather protection. I suspect it was the fact that the Biscúter cost about half as much as the Rana 500, only around 25,000 pasetas, that really propelled it to success.
Today, the funny little frog is all but forgotten, which seems a shame. It was a clever little car, with a design that’s sort of like a smaller Fiat Multipla or a BMW 600.
There seems to be only one surviving Rana 500, this lovely two-tone yellow one, at the Claudi Roca microcar collection in Barcelona.
“According to Luís Pallas, Claudi Roca told him that he had come to his knowledge, that in a workshop in Logroño there was a small vehicle that was rusting and had lost most of the crystals but that seemed complete. The surprise of Claudi Roca was capitalized to verify that it was a completely new Triver and unused that had been in the dealer’s premises for not having been sold in his day and that for not considering it useful he was eating the laziness and Spider webs.”
That was machine-translated, so I don’t think the guy was really eating spider webs.
The Triver Rana 500 is one of so many microcars of this difficult post-war era that somehow manages to translate extremely limited resources and very economical operation into something charming, quirky, and even fun. While I’m thankful we’re not living in conditions that demand cars like these, I still think I’d like to see more cars with this sort of odd charisma.