Denied the right to make cars by the Soviet Union, enthusiasts and engineers in Hungary made several ingenious attempts to produce their own microcar. Auto historian Pál Négyesi tells us the story of these little wonders.
Hungary was never renowned for its automobile industry. Passenger-car production never succeeded here because of the size of the market. Commercial vehicles had much better luck, even in the 1910s and 1920s. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Ikarus buses and Csepel trucks were quite popular in the developing world and all over the Soviet Union and its allies.
Nevertheless, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were attempts to change this situation.
The Pente 500
During the war, Weiss Manfréd Steel Works, one of the biggest industrial conglomerates in Hungary and a company that made everything from ammunition (plus scooters and, in the 1920s, a few two-stroke touring cars), developed a small car with the intention of creating a Hungarian Volkswagen.
The end result was breathtaking: For the fraction of the manufacturing costs of a Fiat Topolino, a full four-seater car was created.
It was called the Pente, after its designer János Pentelényi. Pentelényi was a well-educated engineer, and with cues taken from German pre-war small cars, he designed his own Hungarian people’s car. The directors of Weiss Manfréd approved the project. The main features of the Pente were light weight, simple construction
, reliability, and low manufacturing cost. The first Pente was powered by a two-stroke, two-cylinder, 500-cc engine capable of 15 hp at 3600 rpm. It was placed ahead of the rear axle. The turbo fan built into the flywheel sucked air from the front via a chassis tunnel. Pentelényi rejected water cooling to lighten the car to simplify the cooling process.
According to contemporary reports, the car's target weight was 400 kg (880 lb). It rode on a two-meter (6.5') wheelbase, had a length of three meters (10'), and a height of around 1.3 meters (51"). Pentelényi pointed out that his car was cheaper than the Fiat Topolino and easier to manufacture: “The manufacturing costs of the two-cylinder, two-stroke engine were about 50 percent less than the Topolino's four-cylinder, four-stroke unit. In May of 1946, the plans got the approval of the factory, and by December, the first Pente 500 was up and running. Everybody praised the engine's capabilities, and the car reached a top speed of 60 km/h (37 mph) without any difficulty.
Pentelényi decided to build a bigger, 600cc version. It was also succesfully tested. Detailed plans started to take shape to produce the car in bigger series. But in 1947, Hungary’s oil reserves ran out, and in 1948 the forced nationalization of all Hungarian companies marked the real beginning of communism.
The Hungarian government denied the Weiss Manfréd factory permission to manufacture the Pente, and in October of 1948, the experiments came to an end. The sole Pente 600 is now exhibited at the Transport Museum of Budapest.
The Alba Regia and the Balaton
Caving to government pressure, the Soviet Union's slave countries set up an economical alliance in 1949. This new organisation, called COMECON, decided which country had the right to manufacture certain types of goods (from boats to airplanes, from mills to refrigerators, and so on). Hungary was the only country not allowed to produce passenger cars. Instead, the Weiss Manfréd factory—which became the Rákosi Mátyás Factory after the “dear leader” of Hungary—churned out thousands of Csepel (later Pannonia) motorcycles. And then there were the ubiquitous Ikarus buses and Csepel trucks, both of which were produced by newly established entitities.
In the early 1950s, the Hungarian government tried to circumvent the rules and came up with the idea of producing a “microcar”—a vehicle that sits between a normal family car and a motorcycle. The idea was not new: in Western Europe,
The Hungarian project laid out the criteria for the microcar: a closed, four-wheeled vehicle, powered by a motorcycle engine, capable of transporting two adults, two children, and some luggage. The West German Glas Goggomobil was the perfect candidate, but it was West German. Don’t forget that the Trabant wasn’t around yet.
In 1955, the Hungarian Ministry of Metallurgy and Machine Industry commissioned three engineers: Ernő Rubik, Sr.—a talented airplane engineer and father of Ernő Jr., inventor of the Rubik’s Cube—Pál Kerekes, and Géza Bengyel to start the work on microcars at Székesfehérvári Motorjavító Vállalat (“Székesfehérvár Engine Repair Company”). Székesfehérvár is a city near the capital Budapest. This company had previously focused on airplane repair work. When the airplane business declined in the late 1940s, new activities were sought. They were good with aluminum, so all kinds of goods made from aluminum counted: from parabolic antennas through cheese tubes to microcars. One of their engineers, József Horváth, had already played with the idea of building a car, so he brought his plans to the factory. József Zappel, another engineer, also fancied the idea of a bubble car, and he also did some drawings.
In the meantime, an Italian Isetta arrived for inspection, followed by a Messerschmitt Kabinroller. The thorough study of the two foreign cars, along with their own ideas, led to two unusual microcars in 1955: Horváth’s Alba Regia—named after Székesfehérvár’s designation in Ancient Rome—and Zappel’s Balaton, named after Hungary’s best-known lake.
Both cars had aluminum bodies, airplane tail wheels, and 250-cc Pannonia motorbike engines. Géza Bengyel, who worked as a consultant there, was previously employed in the Csepel motorbike factory, where he had designed a unique sheet-framed bike with a torsion suspension. This layout was transferred to the Alba Regia. On the other hand, the Balaton’s suspension arms were held by rubber tags. The doors of the
two-plus-two Regia opened conventionally. The roof of the Balaton could be pushed backwards with a handle to get access to the cabin, just like in an airplane.
The engines were put in the rears of the cars. The idea of the gearbox was taken from the Isetta, the reverse gear from the Messerschmitt. For this, they added another flywheel to the engine. When the driver wanted to reverse, he stopped the engine, pushed a button, and the engine started turning backwards. These powertrains were two-stroke, so they could puff either way. At the usual May Day parade in 1956, four microcars jounced along the cobblestoned streets of Székesfehérvár: the Alba Regia and the Balaton were joined by an Isetta and the Úttörő (“Pioneer”), a privately built microcar, which was transported from Debrecen.
The ministry commissioned the Hungarian Research Institute of Automobile Transport to examine the microcars. The Institue had already carried out tests on the Úttörő, another Messerschmitt, and on a Goggomobil. The later became the gold standard: its 247-cc two-cylinder pumped out an impressive 14 hp. The
Hungarian motorbike engines used in these microcars were less powerful. The institute found the Goggomobil to be the best. The ministry was not totally convinced with the results, so they advertised a microcar competition to find the definite shape. It happened to be just two months before the revolution of 1956. In 1957, the ministry declared there was no winner, and the whole microcar issue was dropped. Both the Balaton and the Alba Regia were probably scrapped. The Goggomobil was slightly damaged during the revolution and, although it was the most promising car, it was also destroyed.
Thus ended the sole effort to produce automobiles in Hungary between 1948 and 1988. Once the Iron Curtain fell, Suzuki and General Motors arrived, to be joined by Audi a bit later.
That said, this story would not be complete without some home-built specials—tributes to Hungarian creativity.
The Úttörő, the Surányi, the Vellák, and the rest
The aforementioned Úttörő was the work of János Schadek, a Debrecen-based engineer. He built his first car back in the 1920s! In the 1950s, he worked for the local state-owned locksmith company as chief engineer. He built the Úttörő with
two locksmiths, János Puskás and István Schwanner, who had previously repaired and assembled airplanes. The three experienced men built the Úttörő from scratch. The car was powered by a 250-cc Csespel motorbike engine, complete with kickstarter, placed over the rear axle. The small wheels were taken from a wheelbarrow. The steering shaft was directly connected to the front axle. The Úttörő had a maximum speed of 80 km/h (50 mph).
One of the most colorful figures of the era was Endre Surányi, a motorbike racer in the ‘40s and ‘50s, who went on to become a driver for Communist party leaders. In 1946, he completed his first microcar, a 50-cc two-seater, a “motorized shoe”. It was rather underpowered, so he quickly created another, bigger model, powered by a 125-cc Fichtel & Sachs engine. The car, which had a length of 2.3 meters (7.5'), weighed only 86 kg (190 lb). The engine was placed right into the rear axle
. No one believed it would work, but it did, although the ride was a bit shaky. A few Communist Party leaders took the car for a spin, but nothing came of it.
Surányi then built a third vehicle, one with a slightly modified body and a 250cc DKW engine. It was also a two-seater. It weighed 150 kg (330 lb) and while plans were drawn up to produce it in small series, the car was never made reality.
Another homemade microcar was built by József Vellák in Nagykanizsa between 1949–1951. It was powered by a 250cc NSU motorcycle engine. Its remains were recently obtained by a Hungarian collector, who plans to restore it along with another microcar of unknown origin, which is DKW-powered. The latter, a three-wheeler supposedly built by a sculptor, features a fuel tank made from a bucket!
Even less is known about the Pajtás (“Buddy”)—but its quirky shape was enough to attract attention from Popular Mechanics, which featured the car in 1960.
And, last but not least, let’s praise the Fesztivál (“Festival”). It was the work of Kálmán Szabadi, an artist who built this one-off in 1960. It had a nice, futuristic shape with gullwing doors and fintails! The 3.15-meter (10') long and 1.15-meter (45") tall car was powered by a 300-cc BMW Isetta engine, but its most interesting feature was its lightweight body. Glass-reinforced plastic was not available, so Szabadi, together with his technical guru Dezső Olly, came up with a novel idea: a resin made out of pig’s blood, chicken feathers and nitro shellac! It had quite a smell, but it worked.
All photos by the author, except the Messerschmitt Kabinroller by Yılmaz Onay.
Photo of the author by Áron Bodor.