1959 Messerschmit T-500 Tiger
1959 Messerschmitt T-500 Tiger. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The interruption in car production during the Second World War caused a shortage when peace came. This was particularly acute in Germany where most of the auto manufacturing plants were badly bombed.

The result was that people turned to some pretty unusual vehicles, among them being the so-called bubble cars produced by such companies as BMW (Isetta), Heinkel and Messerschmitt. The advantage of the bubble car over the motorcycle or motor scooter was that they kept their occupants warm and dry. The disadvantages were that they looked odd, and usually had inferior performance.

Messerschmitt was founded in 1923 by Willy Messerschmitt to build light airplanes, and by 1926 had expanded into transport planes. During the Second World War the German company produced over 30,000 Bf 109 fighters, said to be the largest number of one type of aircraft built during the war.

By war’s end a large part of the Messerschmitt plant had been destroyed, and in addition, Germany was prohibited from producing airplanes. The plant was gradually made operational, and by about 1950 was producing sewing machines and auto parts.

In 1952, an aeronautical engineer named Fritz Fend, developed a small, open, three-wheeled vehicle for invalids. It was originally propelled by pumping the handlebars back and forth, but was later fitted with a small gasoline engine. Based on its popularity, Fend reversed the design, placing the two wheels at the front and the single one at the rear. He enclosed it in a light aluminum body, and the “Fend Flitzer” was born.

While intended for use by invalids, Fend was surprised when many were bought as family vehicles. When he realized its potential, he also recognized that he needed help in producing them in the numbers he was sure would sell.

He approached Messerschmitt which was anxious to branch out into other fields, but was still not allowed to make airplanes. They were building the Italian Vespa motor scooter under licence, and Fend’s Flitzer made a good addition to their product line.

Fend designed a larger version, called the Kabinenroller (scooter with cabin), which looked like the cabin of a light plane mounted on three wheels. The driver sat in the front, with the passenger behind. Entry was gained by tilting the plexiglass canopy hinged at the beltline on the right side. To facilitate entry, the front seat rose up and back on a parallelogram-shaped articulated frame mechanism.

The one-cylinder, two-stroke 173 cc air-cooled, nine horsepower engine mounted at the rear drove the single rear-wheel through a four-speed motorcycle transmission (no reverse) and a chain.

Controls were minimal, consisting of a set of handlebars and a combination clutch and shift lever. A foot pedal operated the mechanical brakes, and the throttle was a motorcycle-type twist grip.

The Messerschmitt Kabinenroller KR 175 (for its 173 cc engine) came out in 1953 and proved quite popular. It was 1,219 mm (48 in.) high, 2,819 mm (111 in.) long, and had a 2,029 mm (79.9 in.) wheelbase. Top speed was in the 80 km/h (50 mph) range, with fuel economy up to 80 mpg.

In 1955, Messerschmitt replaced it with the KR 200, which had a slightly larger 191 cc 10.2 horsepower engine. Pedals were provided for the clutch and accelerator, and it now had a reverse gear, in fact, four reverse gears! Because a two-stroke engine doesn’t care which way its crankshaft rotates, Fend installed a switch in the starter that would spin the engine backwards, so that it would run backwards. Thus four reverse speeds were available, and some intrepid types even raced them in reverse!

Sales of the KR 200 were excellent, with almost 12,000 sold in its first year. To prove the Messerschmitt’s stability and durability, a slightly modified KR 200 was driven continuously for 24 hours on Germany’s Hockenheim race course. It broke 22 international speed records in the under-250 cc class, including a 24-hour average of 103 km/h (63.9 mph).

In 1956 Messerschmitt was allowed to resume aircraft building, and lost interest in the Kabinenroller. Fend organized his own company and continued building them. Convertible and sports roadster models joined the bubble-top, and then, in 1958, in spite of waning bubble car interest, and competition from the side-by-side seating BMW Isetta and Heinkel Kabine, Fend brought out the new Tg 500, known as the Tiger.

While the Tg 500 looked like a KR 200 with four wheels, it was really more than that. Power came from a two-cylinder, two-stroke, air-cooled 493 cc in-line engine developing 19.5 horsepower. This raised top speed to about 122 km/h (75 mph). It also got hydraulic brakes.

But the days of the bubble car were numbered, replaced by “real cars” like the British Mini and Fiat 600. Production of the Tg 500 stopped in 1961, and the KR 200 in 1962. Approximately 10,000 KR 175 and 40,000 KR 200s had been built, along with a few hundred Tg 500s.

Connect with Autos.ca