Heinkel Kabine 154

After World War II, Germany found itself under what would now be called severe sanctions. It was decided to strictly limit industry, and to completely eliminate its military part. The large giants that had supplied the Third Reich with airplanes were in a deadlock and were forced to quickly master civilian production, for example, cars.

For the modern person, a car like the Smart or Matiz is no longer a supermarket cart with an attached internal combustion engine (ICE), but rather a fully viable vehicle for urban use. Cities are becoming more densely populated, gasoline is getting more expensive, and parking spaces are becoming scarcer – a small car is becoming increasingly convenient. However, Ernst Heinkel, a respected aviation designer from the “big trio” of German aviators, which also included BMW and Messerschmitt, was guided by slightly different reasons when he created his three-wheeled car. Post-war Europe, and Germany in particular, needed a cheap car, simple to maintain, whose size could be sacrificed for the sake of economy. Such microcars did not need to cover long distances – their main purpose was to create some alternative to public transport and to give Germans the opportunity to save up for at least some kind of car, rather than a moped.

In the early 1950s, Iso SpA, a company that produced scooters, three-wheeled trucks, and refrigerators, decided to enter the microcar market. In 1952, with the efforts of two company engineers, a car was designed. Sources claim that the creators were inspired by two mopeds placed next to each other and a refrigerator. Only 3 wheels remained from the mopeds, the refrigerator was given a teardrop, rounded shape, and in 1954 the Iso Isetta was presented.

The car seemed too heavy to Heinkel, and he decided to bring a bit of aviation’s pursuit of low weight into car manufacturing. The construction of the first Heinkel car began. It differed from competitors by having a monocoque body. That is, the metal shell itself provided the body’s rigidity and the joining of all the structural elements. Using this solution allowed reducing the body weight by 100 kg – which, considering the modest single-cylinder (but four-stroke) engine of 173 cc, was extremely significant.

However, Ernst understood that he was almost copying the Isetta, the rights to which had already been bought by BMW at that time. To avoid problems with rights infringement, Heinkel negotiated with potential competitors, where he explained his idea and promised not to copy the Isetta’s design with a steering column that folded away with the door (the door was the entire front part with the windshield). Consent was obtained.

In 1956, a car, essentially a motor scooter with a cabin, was released. And, it must be said, quite timely for it, the Suez Crisis occurred, provoking a fuel crisis in an already not yet recovered Europe.

More precisely, three modifications of the car were released: Kabine 150 with three wheels and a 173 cc moped engine from the Heinkel “Tourist”, 153 – 3 wheels and 198 cc, and 154 – 4 wheels (almost in tandem) and 204 cc of displacement. Unlike the Isetta, the body was not like a bubble, but like a drop – reflecting the legacy of the aviation designer and an understanding of the laws of aerodynamics. It is difficult to classify the car as mid-engined or rear-engined, as the engine was placed almost above the rear wheel, which was also driven. Due to such an elongated shape and layout, a relatively full-fledged rear sofa was placed in the cabin – I think it was more often used either as a trunk or as a place for children, but nevertheless.

The consumption was 3.5 liters per 100 kilometers, which by today’s standards, considering the engine volume, is quite a lot, but the “dry” weight of the car was about 285 kg. Add to this a driver and a passenger – you get about 430 kg, driven by 10 hp at 5500 rpm. The transmission, of course, was mechanical from a moped, but with 4 speeds and a reverse gear! The aforementioned Isetta did not have a reverse gear. The gearshift lever was placed on the left side of the body and was equipped with a special plate with slots so that the driver would not make a mistake with the gear.

The braking was handled by a hydraulic drive – which was not standard at that time – on the rear wheels. Sounds quite unusual, right? But considering the mass distribution at the front (due to the driver and passenger), front brakes could have caused a tipping effect. And without them, the design was simpler.

The steering column, as required by the agreement with BMW, did not fold away with the door, so the driver had to climb “behind the wheel”. The steering shaft passed between the legs and the control mechanics resembled a truck: the left foot could only engage and disengage the clutch, the right foot was responsible for the brake and “gas”. The instrument panel, attached to the steering column, contained only a speedometer, clock, and a couple of warning lights, the turn signal indicator was also there, but on the unusual, right side. The windshield wiper switch took its place on the “door” on the inside, and the heater drive unexpectedly turned out to be behind the driver on the partition separating the engine compartment from the cabin.

The roof of this “bubble” was made of fabric! When the long-awaited warm days arrived, you could fold back the roof and enjoy the sun rays. At the same time, it also served as an emergency exit in case of difficulties. In addition to it and the door, only small vent windows in the car could be opened, so the question of car ventilation was not idle.

The production of this car continued until Ernst Heinkel’s death and the return of his company to the aviation industry in 1958. But the story of these wonderful cars continued with production under license first in Argentina, and then in foggy Albion, where the car was assembled until 1966!

This particular model – possibly the only Heinkel Kabine 154 in Russia. It came off the assembly line in its homeland, Germany, in 1958. It was brought to Russia from Latvia, where it underwent a complete restoration and was brought to the condition of a museum car. But despite this, the car regularly takes part in city outings and even managed to do a bit of racing at the Dmitrovsky testing ground!

Now, such cars, which despite their unpretentiousness contributed to building a new, peaceful life after the most terrible tragedy of the 20th century, could have become a completely extinct species if it weren’t for European brand enthusiast clubs. We hope that the culture of respect for historical cars will continue to develop in our country! Until next time, friends!