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The Macro World of Microcars Kate Trant and Austin Williams, Black Dog, 2004. 176pp. £19.95

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technical & practice

Do you know anyone who wouldn't stop dead in the street and stare when a bubble car trundles past? If you do, they must be a miserable bugger, writes Claire Barrett. No doubt they weren't pleased, then, if they received this book in their Christmas stocking. Bah, humbug! They'd be missing out, though. The Macro World of Microcars is indeed more layered and thought-provoking than their cutesy, bumbling image presents.

Whereas bubble cars were the laughing stock of the motoring world when they first appeared, this book seeks to set this little piece of pioneering engineering in a wider context. Rather than just focus on design and styling, it begins by digging into the political world situation following the Second World War, looking at factors that led to the invention of the miniature cars, and the consequent demand for them. In the post-war years of frugality, they ticked all the boxes: the three-wheeler was cheap to buy, cheap to run, and cheap to maintain.

To own a microcar back then was to aspire. You were en route from motorcycle to 'proper' car. It was, according to the authors, to 'think big'. The book charts the rise and fall of the microcar in relation to the economic climate. In the big bucks, consumerist years (represented by the US's slick, finned cars), the microcar slipped away. But now in our grid-locked, environmentally-aware age, big is greedy and, it is argued, a rise in demand for the small car has re-appeared.

The book is peppered with tantalising imagery: photos of owners with their quirky restored cars today, as well as plenty of the original marketing blurb - hell, in an effort to glam the cars' image up to the max, even Elvis was photographed in one. The book strikes a healthy balance between the analytical and the fun. Weighty, though slightly repetitive chapters, act as bookends that deal with issues of sustainability, transport infrastructure and private freedoms (and what else did the car represent if not that? ), while the pacey middle section addresses the current cult of owning a microcar (owners tell why and how they ended up with one), as well as tracking its development from pure utility to modish style icon.

But it ends, for me, on an odd note. While perhaps thinking small in the early days was to think big, to think small now, it is argued, is to be shackled to a moral standpoint. But how could we not be? With the environment at the top of the agenda, it would seem wrong not to question that two-minute drive to the shop.

The book's argument is more that the small car today doesn't always have to be aligned with an environmental remit - that personal travel should still be seen in a positive light, like the good old days. It's about small being fun. While the wider issues are important, let's all face it, in our homogenised Starbuck's world, when a microcar passes that's why we all stop in the street to gawp.

Claire Barrett is features writer on art and architecture for Grand Designs Magazine.

Email: claire@granddesignsmagazine. com

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