MAZOMANIE — The rare and historic cars that Carlo Krause owns weigh less than 1,000 pounds each, measure less than 8 feet long and are powered by nothing more than a lawnmower engine, and the three-wheeled versions look like bona fide deathmobiles.
The immaculate red-bricked building in this northwestern Dane County village that Sven Krause found to house his father’s microcars is also historic, size-challenged and will open Saturday as the world’s newest microcar museum.
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Sven, who, like his father, is an electrical engineer fascinated by the intricacies of cars from the past, present and future. “The character of the building fits the character of the cars.”
Step inside the Midwest Microcar Museum and there’s an immediate wow factor when you walk around more than a dozen crazy-shaped cars — some are nothing more than over-sized scooters — that were all the rage of post-World War II Europe. They were built by manufacturers in France, Italy, England and Germany in the late 1940s and ’50s as people rebuilt their lives in those war-torn countries and needed cheap transportation. Some microcars were still being built into the 1980s.
“This is about sharing. We want to share our love of these cars” said a proud Carlo Krause, 75, who emigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in 1941 but returned there as a young adult to go to school and remembers driving some of the microcars.
Thanks to former Dubble Bubble executive Bruce Weiner, who sold his huge collection of microcars at an auction in Georgia in 2013, microcars are enjoying a surge of popularity in this country among collectors.
“Microcars have sort of a cult following now,” said Sven, 26, who has often joined his father in his quest to add more of them to his collection. “We all know the stories of the Packards, Cadillacs and Model Ts. The lesser-known stories are the ones about these microcars and the oddities and quirks that make them special. We have a chance to keep them up and preserve them for the next generation. That’s the idea for the museum.”
Most of the early microcars traveled no faster than 50 mph with 200cc to 250cc, one-cylinder engines that needed oil blended with the gas, much like today’s grass trimmers and lawnmowers. They lacked the simplest features but got anywhere from 50 to 70 mpg.
“Back then, they weren’t much different than the scooters and motorcycles they were used to driving. They were marketed as a way to stay out of the rain,” said Jim Janecek, the editor and publisher of Microcar News.
Manufacturers like Messerschmitt and Heinkel, which made fighters and bombers for Nazi Germany, focused on making microcars after the war. So did BMW, which couldn’t find any buyers for their bigger cars, and turned to making a microcar called the Isetta.
“The Isetta saved BMW’s butt. They sold thousands of them,” Carlo said.
One big reason collectors like microcars is that they are more affordable than other collector types like muscle cars. Most high-demand microcars like the Isetta are purchased anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, Janecek said. “Collectors who will pay $150,000 for a rare bigger car will say, ‘Wow. That’s cheap,” he added.
The museum at 103 Crescent St. features a four-wheeled Isetta, which opens through the front and has a steering wheel attached to the door so it moves out of the way allowing easier access. You’ll also find a three-wheeled Messerschmitt KR200 that has a steering mechanism that resembles something from a fighter plane and it opens through the top after the door opens sideways.
Carlo laughed as he described how the KR200 rode. “It’s so low to the ground that you can run your hand on the road as you drive. You can grind your fingernails down if you want to,” he said.
A 1957 Heinkel is located on the museum’s first floor. It’s about the same length and width as today’s Smart car, but it has a rudimentary shifting mechanism on the side door and the three-wheeler is a challenge to drive.
“It’s darty,” said Sven, who has experience driving motocross and sports car racing events. “You are always driving with a death grip on the steering wheel.”
But it’s not as dangerous to drive as the bright yellow British-made, three-wheeled Reliant Regal that also sits on the museum’s first floor. Sven said it’s “significantly more tippy” than the Heinkel and it’s 4-cylinder, 700cc engine made it one of the most powerful microcars. “It’s a lot of white-knuckle driving,” Sven said.
An old scissors lift located behind the 3,500-square-foot rectangular building that was originally a blacksmith shop helped Krauses fill the second floor with microcars. A British-made Bond mini-car is an eye-catcher because it looks like an enclosed three-wheeled motorcycle. It has a 250cc motorcycle engine under the hood that turns with the steering wheel. “It’s like a circus vehicle,” Carlo said. “All you need to do is put a clown suit on to drive it.”
A car collector for over 30 years, Carlo took a stronger interest in his hobby after health problems forced him to retire about 20 years ago from his business designing and selling components for automated processing machinery. His father, who also was an electrical engineer, started the business in the basement of his home in Lake Geneva.
Sven, the only son of Carlo and his second wife, Ingrid, said his father’s health has improved since he focused more on collecting microcars. What’s most special for both of them is that they have collected them together. “It’s been a fun journey. You hope it lasts for a long, long time,” Sven said.
Carlo revels in the stories behind the microcars, Sven said. He recalled how a man turning 90 sold his car to Carlo because he wanted to go to his grave knowing it would be preserved and kept special.
“Another car was sold by a guy who got married in it, it was his daughter’s first car, he then sold it to a neighbor before buying it back,” Sven said.
Carlo has honored the seller’s wishes to take good care of the cars, Sven said. He employs a mechanic who has restored many of the cars and keeps them all operational. They got the idea for the museum after some of their microcars were showcased at a three-day car show at Discovery World in Milwaukee a few years ago that drew more than 4,000 people.
“There is a definite novelty aspect to them,” said Janecek, who lives in Evanston, Illinois. “People see them and say, ‘What the heck is that?’”
The museum will be run as a nonprofit and Sven hopes it can turn into a fund-raising hub for groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. “We’re excited to see it all come together,” he added.
So is Janecek. “I’m going to make a special trip up there to see it now that I know about it,” he said.