One of the best reasons to attend a race, even if you don’t like motorsports, is the near limitless opportunity to go carspotting. Maybe you’ve seen more than your fair share of predictable exotics over the years, but at most good racing events, there’s always something to catch your attention. This past weekend during the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park, a Messerschmitt KR200 captured mine.
I didn’t notice the three-wheeled microcar until later in the afternoon, when I took a second stroll through a lot just a stone’s throw from the Porsche and nondescript German car corral. Hiding amid the 911s, M cars and fast Golfs was this oddity that garnered all the attention. Some stopped to snap photos, others asked themselves under their breath “what the hell is that?” Nobody passed it without a smile or a look of incredulous intrigue.
We’ve chatted about Messerschmitt’s “Kabinenroller” series several times around these parts, and our old pal Jason Torchinsky even drove one a few years ago, in a back-to-back comparison with the BMW Isetta, Peel P50 and Mazda 360. But this is the first time I’ve beheld a Messerschmitt in person. It’s incredibly charming up close; a little less so as its history is concerned.
Messerschmitt was a German aircraft manufacturer forbidden from building planes after World War II (you can probably guess why). The company took to building other machinery, like what you see here. The KR175, KR200 and KR201 were all designed by aircraft engineer Fritz Fend, but it was the KR200 that was by far the most successful of the lot, with roughly 30,000 sold between 1955 and 1964.
Where do we even begin? That’s the unmistakable face of a friend, the chrome trim resembling whiskers on a cat. It’s even wearing a little hat, in the form of a sun shade. Amazingly, you could fit two people in this underpowered death trap, and I love how comically tiny the front seat is relative to whoever’s sitting in it. The steering tiller is wider than the seat cushion!
The interior couldn’t be simpler. The switch for the windshield wiper is on the wiper motor itself, because why put it anywhere else? The steering wheel is a yoke, oriented upside-down from how we’re used to seeing yokes today, with the hand grips joined at the top in an upside-down “U.” All the wiring is exposed, and I just know I’d inadvertently disconnect a circuit the moment I hopped in.
You might be asking how you get in, and therein lies the genius of the KR200's design. The entire canopy is hinged on the right side, lifting up like a coffin lid when you pop the handle. How cool is that? There’s even a little storage cubby right above the rear seatback where the owner stashed some period-appropriate picnic blankets. And I can confirm two human adults do fit in this thing; I watched the owner and a passenger drive away, legs and everything still intact!
That’s sort of my one regret — I didn’t get a chance to speak to the owner, because by the time I’d turned up, he was readying to leave. There was a long queue forming at the exit — Lime Rock only has one — and he was worried the little guy would overheat on its way out. The KR200, after all, is powered by a 191-cc, 10-hp two-stroke, a fact confirmed by the fuel-oil mixture reminder on the inside of the door.
Interesting tidbit: the KR200 doesn’t have a dedicated reverse gear. Instead, if you want to go backwards, you turn the engine off and fire it up again, pushing the key deeper into the ignition switch. Thus engaged, the starter cranks the engine in the opposite direction (two-stroke engines don’t care which way their crankshaft is turning), meaning the four-speed transmission now offers you four reverse ratios. Because the KR200 tops out at 65 mph, that means you can go much faster in reverse in this low-drag tin can than you can in just about any car. You know, just in case the idea of driving normally in traffic seemed too conventional.
Now I’ll admit, I probably wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t exposed to the KR200 at a very early age, where else but in a video game. Specifically, Daytona USA 2001 on the Sega Dreamcast. Daytona 2001 is a strange, strange game, with a very unusual car roster, hyper-saturated visuals and an over-the-top announcer. It also has a positively bangin’ menu tune that is perpetually in my head. Among Daytona 2001's secret cars are a pair called the Pywackett Barchetta and Pywackett Barchetta Super, modeled respectively after the KR200 and KR200 “Super” that was built to break the 24-hour speed record for sub-250cc three wheelers. They’re driven by aliens and wear the number “69" on their sides, as you’ll note in the video below.
So that’s the Messerschmitt KR200: a German postwar microcar built by an aircraft maker, shaped like wingless plane, reintroduced to a generation (okay, maybe just me) in a Japanese-developed game about American stock-car racing. And if you thought it couldn’t get weirder, someone once stuffed a Hemi into one of these things and sent it drag racing. Madness!