Thursday September 8, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts.
The term ‘bubble car’ is a term as instantly redolent of a now remote England as ‘Teddy Boy’, or ‘Gilbert Harding’, with jolly brochures displaying Brylcreemed chaps loading a three-wheeler for a trip to the seaside. At that time, the primary choice for the motorist of a limited budget was the Ford 103E Popular, a vehicle so Spartan that even a boot floor and direction indicators were optional extras. But in 1956 imports commenced of a German-built four seater costing a mere £398 15s 0d - some £45 2s less than Dagenham’s finest. The ‘swing front door’ of the Heinkel Cabin Cruiser permitted ‘elegant entry and exit’, a 56 mph top speed was not at all bad by mid-1950s standards and 100 mpg fuel economy offered, according to the advertisements, ‘Motoring is almost as cheap as breathing!’. Why the price even included a heater.
These were all strong advantages (especially a heater when travelling along the A1 in winter) to be weighed against the prospect of the neighbours thinking you now drove a car made from discarded Luftwaffe components. In fact, the only connection between the Cabin Cruiser and wartime bombers was the badging as Heinkel Flugzeugwerke’s post-war output initially consisted of motor scooters. By the mid-1950s, the German microcar market was dominated by the BMW-built Isetta but the Kabine – as it was known in its homeland - had a vestigial rear seat and also boasted unitary construction and rack and pinion steering. Unlike the Isetta, the Heinkel’s column was fixed but both microcars featured a sunroof for ventilation and, slightly disquietingly, to serve as an escape hatch in the event of an accident.
Power was from a 203cc engine (reduced to 198cc in 1957 for insurance reasons), the gearbox was a sequential motorcycle unit and the Kabine could be ordered as the 153 three-wheeler or the 154 four-wheeler. Sales were only reasonable possibly because by that time microcars were starting to lose popularity in the Germany of the late 1950s. When the company resumed building aircraft in 1958 car production was licenced to the Dundalk Engineering Company in Ireland, and, in 1961, to Trojan Motors of Croydon where the Heinkel was re-badged as the 200. By then the distinctive coachwork was already a familiar sight in many a high street, its 7ft. 8ins length meaning that it was often parked at right angles to the pavement. 1957 saw the Cabin Cruiser’s fame confirmed when George Cole, clad in his full Flash Harry outfit, drove an early example in Blue Murder at St Trinian's; the same car also appeared in I’m All Right Jack and Double Bunk.
Trojan built the 200 until 1964 but unsold models remained unregistered until as late as 1966, as drivers increasingly opted for the Mini and the Hillman Imp. ‘How far can you go for a penny’ was a sales slogan with decreasing relevance to 1960s drivers and so the British Bubble Car passed into automotive history. Gone are the days when a learner driver could pilot a three wheel 200 unaccompanied, providing that the reverse gear was blanked off as this classified the Trojan as a ‘motorcycle-sidecar combination’. And, should they forget this modification and drive straight into their garage, there was always the opportunity to use that sunroof/escape hatch rather than the door…