Small cars have never garnered the respect that big cars get. Big cars are usually fast, flashy, luxurious, not particularly frugal, and expensive. Small cars are the opposite of all of those things and may suffer from the perception of being "cute" or toy-like and not really suitable for practical transportation. In 2008, Malcolm McKay from Classic Rally Press recreated the 1958 Liege-Brescia-Liege (LBL) rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original LBL rally when 27 sub-500cc microcars spent a week driving from Belgium to Italy and back again with just a single night's rest in Brescia. McKay's event, slightly less masochistic, allowed its 54 competitors to rest each of 10 nights. But was still a challenge. It included a wonderful cross-section of sub-700cc automobiles, including BMW Isettas and 700 Coupes, Heinkels, Berkeleys, Fiat 500s, Citroën 2cvs, and Subaru 360s.
In 2009 McKay organized a seven-day Micro Marathon Rally. The goal was to drive from Toulouse in the south of France, over the summits and cols of the High Pyrenees Mountains, onto the plains of Spain, and onward to the Mediterranean. The event, limited to microcars of 600cc or less, would then return over the mountains to finish in the medieval city of Carcassonne, France.
Shipping costs to send a car from the U.S. would have been quite high, so I looked for another alternative-buying a car in Europe. McKay helped me in my search, and we quickly found a 1977 Trabant 601S Combi station wagon, conveniently located in Wales, with fewer than 20,000 km on its clock.
The East German two-stroke 600cc Trabant sedan and wagon (called the Universal or Combi) was introduced in 1958. Its body was built from plastic resin composite reinforced with wool and cotton fibers, and featured front-wheel drive. By the '70s, when the capitalist West had dropped most of its miniature car lines, the East Germans continued to build the smoky two-stroke twin-cylinder cars at their Zwickau factory, with a waiting list for a new car of between six and 15 years. More than 3 million Trabbis were built before the end of the line in 1990.
Getting to the start in Toulouse when our rally car was garaged in England required significant logistical effort. We drove the Trabbi across London to Dover, where we took the ferry to France and an overnight train to Toulouse. Upon arrival 12 hours later, we rushed to a local Fiat dealer just in time for our 11 a.m. Saturday morning start.
McKay didn't spare any time getting us up to speed. The first day's run put us immediately into the highest peaks of the Pyrenees. Followers of the Tour de France will recognize the names of climbs like the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, a monster that reaches to almost 7,000 feet. Grinding uphill in second gear for almost an hour in East Germany's finest 600cc two-stroke automobile puts these Cols into new perspective. Twelve miles doesn't seem that far, but averaging 15 mph and negotiating scores of switchbacks provides its own kind of driving challenge. I kept expecting the pistons and crankshaft to come flying out of the screaming engine.
Unfortunately, descending from our vertiginous climbs did not go as well-there are no mountains in East Germany the size of the Pyrenees, so the Trabant engineers probably never thought about putting adequate brakes on their communist creation. Brake fade caused the small drum brakes to squeal all the way down the mountains and into the valleys, alerting anyone in our path of our approach.
McKay has devised a clever navigation scheme for his rallies. Each competitor is given a stack of Michelin regional maps. The route instructions for each day consist of a list of towns and villages that must be visited. Along the way, competitors must find and photograph certain landmarks. At the end of the day, assuming you have finished in the allotted time, you simply show the photographs to a rally official to prove that you covered the entire route. There are penalties for missing photos and for arriving late. McKay had two helpers who carried each team's luggage (microcars can't carry much baggage), and a crew of two mechanics that followed the rally in case of trouble.
Driving through rural France requires experience if you wish to stay on the main road. Small roads are poorly marked, and it's easy to end up in a parking lot or blind alley when you thought you were following the main route. Our Trabbi was the largest car in the event (the car with the largest engine running the event was in a 1937 Morgan F-series three-wheeler-pre-war cars were allowed up to 1,000cc) and we didn't find it too difficult to stay on time. I tried to imagine what it would be like driving over these bumpy roads in a 200cc BMW Isetta three-wheel car. On long uphill stretches, we were sometimes caught and passed by cars like the 500cc Messerschmitt Tiger, an oddly shaped tandem two-seater with a lively power-to-weight ratio, and by a 360cc Subaru, a car that makes the same horsepower as a Trabant with half the weight. On the flat and level a Trabant might be able to reach 60 mph, although 50 mph is more reasonable. Even with the radical climbs and descents, we averaged 50 mpg on gasoline mixed with two-stroke oil. We finished the second day in San Sebastian, on the Atlantic coast of Spain.
One advantage that very small cars have is that they fit just fine on kart racing tracks. On the third day of competition, a timed lap on a Spanish kart track was added to our overall score. Overall, there were three kart circuit sessions during the event. The route next included driving southward across the Spanish plains, where the country's commitment to alternative energy was clear from the many wind turbines and solar panels. We ended one day with visiting a large commercial Bodega where Spanish Rioja wines are produced.
The fifth day brought us to the Mediterranean coast and the World Heritage site of Tarragona. McKay also included several visits to auto museums and collections, including a collection of microcars in Manresa and the National Automobile Museum in the tiny mountainous country of Andorra, a place the rally visited on the sixth day.
The final day was a long one, covering more than 200 miles, and included the stunning Gorges de Galamus. The road through the gorge is so narrow that even a Trabant feels huge. We were destined to finish in the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, and despite a balky ignition coil that left us temporarily stranded on the roadside, we made it to the finish. We brought our underdog Trabant into third place overall, behind the Subaru 360 and Messerschmitt Tiger. It had been an endurance challenge more than a test of speed, and our sturdy East German had proven that it could withstand the climbs and descents and long, hot stretches across the Spanish deserts.
McKay will run another version of the LBL from Belgium to Italy and back in July of 2010, this time for cars with displacements between 600 and 1,200cc. He also has plans for another Micro Marathon, so that more drivers of these tiny terrors can experience the same unique sense of accomplishment that we received-with our unlikely but surprisingly effective Trabant.