16 November 2012

Little Hoffman bug that sank an empire

Microcar: 3-wheeler handled like forklift

 

Post-Second World War, a number of entrepreneurs and engineers tried their hand at producing economical vehicles for the masses. Adding to the list who gave it their best shot was M. Hoffmann.
 
He began making bicycles in Ratingen-Lintorf, near Dusseldorf, and shortly thereafter the company ventured into motorcycle manufacturing in 1948, producing a range of motorcycles from 125cc to 250cc.
 
The larger motorcycle, called the Gouverneur, was designed by Richard Kuchen and fitted with a transversely mounted 248-c.c. flat twin, four-stroke engine that drove the rear wheel via a shaft, instead of the traditional chain.
 
In 1949 Hoffmann got a licence from Vespa in Italy to build scooters in Germany. He built 60,000 Vespas before this came to an end in 1954 due to a licensing dispute involving Hoffmann’s Auto-Kabine microcar.
 
The Auto-Kabine looks a bit like a large beetle or bug and I’m inspired to tell you about it after viewing the example pictured here at the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance.
 
The Hoffmann Auto-Kabine is very wide when compared to other micro-cars. This is due to its unique rear-wheel steering feature. The engine which drives the single rear wheel is mounted on a cradle which pivots on a kingpin in the centre of the vehicle’s triangular frame. A complicated lever mechanism operates the steering and takes up so much room that the originally intended bench seat had to be replaced with two small individual seats for the driver and single passenger.
 
The combination of a wide front track, a very short wheelbase and the rear-wheel steering was a recipe for disaster for having any sort of control and stability other than at low speeds. Perhaps it is just as well that the top speed was a mere 45 km/h.
 
If you’ve ever driven a forklift truck at high speed, you will understand the Hoffmann’s handling characteristics.
 
Having invested heavily in motorcycle manufacturing, which was a financial failure, losing the licence to build Vespa Scooters and a lawsuit brought on by BMW who built the Isetta three-wheel car in Germany under licence, Hoffman was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1954.
 
A total of 100 Auto Kabines were produced at a cost of $690. They are worth a lot of money today.

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