Only around five of these still exist in 2020.
Some designs are so immediately striking, you’re struck with a powerful urge to drop everything and find out more the very instant you see them. I had that happen with the first Pannonia sidecar rig I saw at a bike show several years ago—and folks, that is definitely also the case with the Brütsch Mopetta. For me, it ticks multiple boxes all at once. A microcar I didn’t know about, probably powered by a tiny two-stroke engine? Also, just look at that thing. I must know more!
Today we’re going to learn about Egon Brütsch, a man who seems to have had a particular affinity for outlandish car designs. Luckily (or unluckily, depending), Brütsch also had his family’s fortune to pull those designs up off the drawing board and into reality. The Stuttgart-based family made its business empire in the lucrative women’s stocking market in post-WWII Germany. Like a whole lot of rich kid gentleman racers of the era, young Egon quickly discovered that a) he had a passion for racing cars, and unfortunately also that b) he wasn’t terribly good at it.
If you can’t race cars, why not build them instead? You can’t build just any car, though—they've got to stand out! We’ll probably never know if Brütsch took inspiration from the likes of the humble tardigrade. What we do know is that he set his sights firmly on building a succession of tinier and tinier cars. Except … it turns out, he wasn’t very good at car design, either.
He could come up with plenty of arresting shapes—I mean, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the Mopetta if that wasn’t true. However, any slightly talented child with interest enough in cars to start drawing them from a young age usually also develops an intuitive sense of shape and proportion. The difference between those children and Egon Brütsch is that they don’t usually have the resources to spend an entire year coming up with their own fiberglass formula in a lab to build ultra-light body panels for their sculptures.
The Mopetta wasn’t his first design. That honor went to the Spatz. The name meant “sparrow,” and honestly, actual sparrows had better structural integrity. It’s the car that sank the Victoria motorcycle company for good. What happened was, the moto-maker licensed rights to make the Spatz, with plans to fit it with one of its 250cc bike engines.
Unfortunately, that’s when Victoria discovered that Brütsch either didn’t know or didn’t care about having an actual chassis on which to hang that body. In order to make its car not be an actual deathtrap that would collapse from the inside out, Victoria basically had to redesign it from the ground up. Naturally, it decided the final car was its own build, and voided the licensing agreement. An ugly legal battle ensued, in which the court sided with Victoria—but by then, the damage had already been done. RIP, Victoria.
That Brütsch was decidedly not a chassis builder was a definite throughline of the first three of his increasingly tiny microcar designs. He built a veritable Matryoshka doll of Spatz-inspired microcars—all with no chassis whatsoever. The Zweg (which meant dwarf) could seat two people, while the even tinier Zwerg could hold just a single, solitary driver.
From there, he moved sideways to create the one-seater Rollera—which he then shrunk down yet again to create the Mopetta. By then, a modest frame was involved, which was at least slightly better than no frame at all.
Now, crucial point about the Mopetta: all Brütsch seemed to be concerned about with this design was that it be the smallest car in the world. He wanted it to look good, and he took his very pretty secretary and posed her with it for some photos. However, he didn’t actually care if it was something he could practically build; he just wanted to bring it to a trade show the very next day, in 1956. You know, as you do.
Public response to the Mopetta—which was so tiny he’d displayed it strapped to the rear rack of the Rollera at the show—was instantly enthusiastic. Brütsch had a winning form-factor on his hands; now he just had to find a way to make it work. He sourced a little 50cc, two-stroke single from ILO, which was a major German manufacturer of two-stroke engines for both bikes and agricultural equipment at the time.
A 50cc engine meant no taxes or licenses were required—and a whole world of people could potentially drive little Mopettas around Germany. Since it was made out of fiberglass, Brütsch even made the wild claim that it was amphibious, leading some Berlin press to call it a “miniature motorboat.” That was, of course, not even close to the truth. Despite that fact, somehow Georg von Opel—who was no longer involved with the automaker that bore his name—became fascinated with the pocket-sized three-wheeler. He came super-close to building some under license at the Horex factory, which he planned to call the Opelit—but then changed his mind at the last minute.
Brütsch went on to build 14 of his Mopettas, and only a handful still exist today. A lesser madman might have been cowed by the weight of these combined negative experiences, but not our pal Egon. No, he went on to build additional bonkers microcar prototypes, including something he called the V-2 because surely, it wasn’t too soon for something else with that name in the Germany of 1958.
In current times, it’s a highly desirable and collectable microcar, and the most complete known survivor sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2019 for €69,000, or about $81,403. If you’d like to see what a Mopetta looks like minus all its bodywork, someone who restored one in Germany has some great photos here.
Sources: YouTube, Text 42, Microcar Museum, Opposite Lock, Sotheby’s