1957 Biscuter. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Following the Second World War there was a dire need for low cost personal transportation in Europe. Motorcycles, often with sidecars, were one answer, but not everyone could ride one, or wanted to. Another solution was what became known as the microcar or bubble car.
There were a surprisingly large number of different microcars manufactured, some in very small numbers and others in the thousands. Some representative makes were Messerschmitt and Heinkel from Germany, Isetta made in Italy, Germany and England, and Bond from England. There was even an American version called the King Midget, which, surprisingly, was made until 1969.
One of the most imaginative of the microcars came from Spain. Although not known as a hotbed of automotive activity, during the 1950s Spain produced cars at opposite ends of the automotive spectrum: the elaborate, expensive and intricate Pegaso sports car, and our subject, the stark and simple Biscuter (bee-scooter) microcar. Both were built during the same time period.
The Biscuter was the brainchild of a brilliant but eccentric French engineer named Gabriel Voisin, a gifted aircraft and automobile builder/designer. His company manufactured road cars from 1919 to 1939, and built Grand Prix racers. His cars were noted for their light weight, sleeve valve engines and general homeliness.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the Biscuter turned out to be an unusual car. Although Voisin was French, the Biscuter was produced under licence in Barcelona, Spain, by a company called Autonacional. It was organized by several Barcelona businessmen who wanted to circumvent Spain’s very high import duty on cars.
Voisin’s design rationale for the Biscuter was to keep it as light and simple as possible, even more so than the famous French Citroen 2CV. He pursued extreme lightness so that more of the total weight could be devoted to carrying its two or occasionally three passengers. He even begrudged the weight of paint, giving the Biscuter a spare, open, unpainted aluminum body with a rudimentary folding canvas top. With the top down, the curving hood and lack of doors provided what must be the most unobstructed view ever enjoyed in an automobile. Aesthetics were not a consideration when Voisin designed the Biscuter.
In keeping with its austere nature the first Biscuters lacked such amenities as a speedometer, electric starter (a pull-type rope starter was fitted) or reverse gear. Nor were there such frivolous features as bumpers, turn signals, rear view mirror or fuel gauge. Some of these would be added later.
The Biscuter was powered by a one-cylinder, 197-cc, two-stroke, air-cooled, transversely-mounted Villiers motorcycle engine driving the front wheels through a three-speed manual transmission that was integral with the engine, and ingenious fork-and-ball type universal joints. There was no cooling fan so the cylinder head was enlarged and given generous fins. As a further aid to cooling there were three pints (1.7 L) of oil sealed in the head so as the engine tended to overheat while idling this oil transferred heat to the cooling fins.
The engine developed a rousing nine horsepower and was said capable of giving the Biscuter a 64 to 72 km/h (40 to 43 mph) top speed. The car weighed 245 kg (540 lb) and when unladen 70 per cent of this was carried by the front wheels. Fuel consumption was approximately 45 mpg (6.3 L/100 km) even on the poor quality gasoline available in Spain at that time.
Suspension was independent on all wheels via motorcycle type telescoping struts enclosing coil springs. Rack-and-pinion steering was fitted as were mechanical brakes. The tires were tiny, at 4.00 X 8 inch. The Biscuter was really small, being only 2,571 mm (101 in.) long overall and having a 1,749 mm (69 in.) wheelbase. It was 1,372 mm (54 in.) high with the top up. A tiny trunk in the rear was accessed via a small flip-up door.
The Biscuter was manufactured from 1951 to 1958, with total production being approximately 5,000. In addition to the roadster, they also came in station wagon and panel truck forms. A fiberglass bodied model with some Pegaso styling influences was offered in 1956 but few were produced.
As economies began to prosper in the late 1950s, microcars gradually faded from the scene. They had been only a stopgap measure brought on by the necessity of providing family transportation at the lowest possible cost, and were happily abandoned as soon as people could afford real cars. They are now a small but interesting chapter in automotive history.
The Biscuter, like most of the other tiny cars, is gone but not totally forgotten. There is a dedicated group of microcar collectors and these tiny cars usually have values many times their original price.