1963 King Midget
1963 King Midget. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

If you had been reading craft magazines like Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, you would have found among the advertisements for such technical wonders as Marvel Mystery Oil and the Original Whiz Saw, and an advertisement for a little car called the King Midget.

It was billed as the “world’s lowest priced 2 passenger auto,” that you could drive “for 75 cents per week” while enjoying “amazing performance” and “surprising comfort.”

The King Midget was the brainchild of two Second World War Civil Air Patrol pilots named Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt. They felt that the light aircraft principles of fuel economy, low weight and dependability could be applied to a low-priced automobile. They formed Midget Motors Corp. in Athens, Ohio, in 1945 to bring their idea to fruition.

After a period building motor scooters, Dry and Orcutt began producing their first King Midget cars in 1946. It was a single-passenger model powered by a one-cylinder, six horsepower, four-cycle, side-valve, air-cooled engine. Wisconsin was the company’s main engine supplier, although Kohlers would also be used. It was in the rear, as the engine would be in all Midgets, and had chain drive to the right rear wheel.

Those first cars weighed just 140 kg (330 lb). They had a wooden frame and were initially sold as kits, but were soon offered fully assembled. They somewhat resembled a midget race car, although the claimed top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph) was hardly racing performance. But it would certainly have felt fast in a vehicle this small. The price was $100 in kit form, without an engine. There were no dealers; cars were bought by mail order and arrived in a crate.

That first Midget sold reasonably well, but was too small to be really practical. The company responded with its second-generation, two-passenger Midget in 1951. With a folding canvas top and windshield it looked much more like a real car. Its wheelbase was increased to 1,829 mm (72 in.) and over-all length to 2,438 mm (96 in.). It weighed some 227 kg (500 lb).

Although the King Midget was tiny, it had many full-size car features, including a generator and battery ignition system, which meant it could be fitted with sealed beam headlamps and an electric starter.

In keeping with their aircraft background, Dry and Orcutt soon replaced the wood frame with a light but sturdy perforated steel girder and tubing design. A factory demonstration proved that it would support 20 men.

The four-wheel independent suspension used oil immersed coil springs. Brakes were hydraulic, rear-wheel only in early models, but four-wheel later, and a handbrake operated on the rear wheels.

With its two centrifugal clutches that operated like a two- speed automatic transmission (early ones had only one speed), the Midget was pure simplicity to drive. One merely moved the small selector lever under the seat into Drive and stepped on the accelerator to go, and on the brake pedal to stop. The lever also engaged reverse.

The third-generation King Midget came out in 1958 and was even bigger. Wheelbase was up to 1,943 mm (76.5 in.) and length to 2,743 mm (108 in.). Weight had increased to 304 kg (670 lb). Its 377 cc (23 cu in.) Wisconsin engine developed 9.25 horsepower at a modest 3,400 rpm; this was replaced in 1966 by a 12 horsepower Kohler. Like all Midgets, fuel economy was astounding, figures of 50 to 75 mpg being typical.

Styling of the Midget’s steel body was now much more angular, somewhat resembling a shrunken Willys Jeepster. There was even some cargo space in a compartment behind the seat and a shelf under the hood. It ran on 5.70 by 8-inch tires.

The Midget’s small size seemed to present a long distance driving challenge to many owners. One was driven from Northern Michigan to Mexico City and return. Another was driven by a James B. Gilmer III from San Francisco to Atlantic City in four days, 11 hours and 21 minutes of driving time spread over seven days and three hours. Mr. Gilmer averaged almost 965 km (600 miles) per day, and covered a total of 4,985 km (3,095 miles). Total cost was $26.35 for gasoline, oil and greasing.

Although King Midgets were too small to be considered real cars, they had novelty value and outstanding economy. They were built until 1969, and enthusiastic owners still get together each August back in Athens, Ohio, where it all started, to swap tales and show off their Midgets. The main event is the High Street Hill Challenge, in which the object is to climb the original Midget factory test hill.

The King Midget was a footnote in American automotive history, but an interesting one that should be remembered. Although definitely out of the mainstream, it did achieve a total production of about 5,000 cars.

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