January 23, 2013

Microcar Museum Closes This Weekend

Photo Credit: Courtesy Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum

All of these fabulous tiny cars could be yours—for a price

Athens doesn't have a corner on commercial oddities, perplexing aesthetic decisions or individuals with unusual enthusiasms. There's plenty of strangeness in the rest of the state. 

There's the vaguely named "Things n' Stuff" near Baxley. (I have no idea what they're selling, and apparently neither do they.) There's the Marietta Chicken, which doubles as an accidental memorial marking the site of the 1929 lynching of Leo Frank. There's the entire town of Sparta. And, right down the road in Madison, there's the largest collection of Mivalinos, Voisin Biscooters and Messerschmitts in the whole wide world.

If you don't know what these things are, you're not alone. They sound like the names of beautiful Portuguese women and/or tropical diseases, but they are actually the brand names of microcars: tiny cars that seat one or two people and, apparently, were wildly popular in Europe in the '50s, when "highway" meant two lanes of well maintained blacktop traversed solely by carloads of musical nuns and their plucky charges. Over 200 of these unusual vehicles are on display at Bruce Weiner's Microcar Museum just south of Madison on Highway 441, but only on Jan. 25 and 26. After that, the museum closes to prepare for the public auction on Feb. 15 and 16 that will liquidate all of its stock.

The warehouse-sized museum houses various antique kiddie rides, vending machines and the microcars. These cars really are tiny little things, many of them smaller than a toddler. Yet the placards explaining the origin of each car insist that people—and not just extremely malnourished people—actually drove them. There is a huge variety of cars on display, from glossy hot-rods a wee German hoodlum might have coveted to a more work-a-day French van. They are so small, shiny and perfect that they look almost edible, like hard candy.

What would possess Bruce Weiner, the museum's proprietor, to get rid of the collection it has taken him 16 years and undisclosed sums of money to acquire? Actually, what would possess him to acquire all these cars in the first place? According to Mr. Weiner, it's the thrill of the chase:

"Your checkbook alone doesn’t determine whether you can acquire [the cars]. They require persistent negotiating and regular interaction with a fascinating group of enthusiasts, who can at times be reserved and very private. International travel is a prerequisite and, for me, it was one of the best parts—traveling the world, meeting intriguing characters who shared my passion and being exposed to the cities and cultures that gave birth to these delightful cars in the post-war era. At times, the number of cars built or surviving is miniscule, which makes the final discovery and acquisition all the more gratifying.

"Regarding selling, it’s certainly been a difficult decision, but I’ve been passionate about this hobby for many years, and my collection has been effectively complete for some time now. As I enjoy the hunt for these cars tremendously, and I’ve found, restored and shared all the cars I wanted so badly, this chapter of my collecting passion has come to a close."

By the time we've circled the room, there are at least 50 people in the museum, with more flooding in every second. What are all these people doing here? There's a boy scout troop, a clutch of senior citizens, a serious fellow with a camera and two vaguely Teutonic-looking men who appear to be wearing bullet-proof nylon jumpsuits. There's a man and his two kids and their grandpa, who is wearing a Hell's Angels motorcycle vest. I follow them around stealthily for some time, until I'm certain this is an actual Hell's Angels vest and not a facsimile purchased at some motorcycle-gang-themed eatery in Orlando. When I'm satisfied, I tap the dad, Derek Hill (not to be confused with Flagpole's Movie Pick writer), on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," I ask him, "What are you doing, looking at all these microcars?"

"Well," he answers, agreeably, "We're just lookin' at 'em."

"Uh huh." We stand in silence for a minute while they look at me expectantly. "And, um, are you from Madison?"

"Yes, we are. We just came on down here to take a look around because we heard it was closing."

"And what do you think? Would you drive one yourself?"

"I've got one," says the grandfather, Brad Hicks.

"You've got a microcar?" I yell, excited.

"Well, it's a Fiat. It's a real small car. But I'd trade my motorcycle for one of these cars. Sure I would. But then after I did that I'd have to get another motorcycle."

I say goodbye and rejoin my friend Julie and our kids. They're gathered around a shiny chrome box that looks like a cigarette machine. And it is, sort of, except the kind of smokes this machine sells are made out of candy. 

"Awww, candy cigarettes! I remember those!" I'm overcome with wistful nostalgia until I notice my six-year-old observing me carefully. "Uh, what a terrible, terrible idea that was." 

I look around at the candy cigarettes and the rodeo horse and the car that goes 70 miles per hour and has as its driver's seat a wicker lawn chair, and I sigh.

I picture myself in simpler times, driving around in a car the size of a large raccoon, inches from the pavement, confident that no mom late for her kids' gymnastics meet is about to hurtle, texting, from around the next bend. "The heck with seat belts, kids," I'd holler, "Just have another candy cigarette!"

I'd have a scarf in my hair and fashionable leather goggles; I'd swim in the pool at my house in Monte Carlo while simultaneously eating a steak wrapped in bacon and drinking a vodka stinger. Life would be dangerously unhealthy, but I'd have absolutely no inkling of this, and neither would anyone else. We'd drive our fabulous bubble cars and Messerschmittses out of a war-torn past and into an anything-is-possible kind of future, the sheen of which still clings to these cars 70 years later. 

I can see why Mr. Weiner likes these cars, these little candy-colored hieroglyphs that symbolized efficiency, freedom and optimism for a generation that lived through the Depression and fought in the kind of war we don't have anymore: a clear-cut, unequivocal one. I hope that the folks who purchase the cars at the upcoming auction understand what it is they are buying and will value these cars as highly as Mr. Weiner does. I might just be there among them in February, waving my candy cigarette over my head, hoping for the highest bid.