Most car enthusiasts associate the microcar phenomenon—tiny, barely practical automobiles powered by small motorcycle or scooter engines—with postwar Europe. After much of the industrial capacity of continental Europe and the UK was bombed into rubble, materials for manufacturing civilian goods were in short supply. People were willing to drive just about anything that propelled them faster than their own two feet, no matter how diminutive the vehicle. Surprisingly, one of the most successful microcars was an all-American product: the King Midget.
Fans of WWII-era vehicles might call Crosleys microcars, but they technically predate the microcar era; to begin with, they were in production before the war. As small as they are, Crosleys are still larger than most microcars: excluding the short-lived Hot Shot and Farm-O-Truck, Crosley models used an 80-inch wheelbase, 8 inches longer than the King Midget’s. Finally, unlike just about every microcar made, the Crosleys were fully-engineered motor vehicles. They boasted state-of-the-art engines (for the era) and suspensions and were the first American cars to offer disc brakes.
The King Midget, on the other hand, was a glorified go-kart. Powered by a lawn mower engine and about half the price of a Crosley, it was initially sold as a single-passenger kit car. Despite their pint-sized stature and basic technology, as many as 5000 King Midget cars (spanning three models) were sold between 1946 and 1970. For a time, Midget Motors Corporation could rightly claim to be the sixth largest automobile company (by production volume) in the United States. Midget Motors even outlasted better-known automotive startups like Tucker and Kaiser-Frazer.
Despite the fact that the United States emerged from WWII with its industrial base not simply functioning but booming thanks to wartime production, the American economy faced many of many of the same obstacles that European automakers did in the late 1940s. Consumer goods were scarce and holdover wartime industrial policies favored existing businesses. (Not that those hindrances stopped entrepreneurs like Preston Tucker, Powel Crosley Jr., and Henry Kaiser from trying to start their own car companies.) After the Great Depression and not one, but two world wars, there was considerable pent-up demand for consumer goods—the problem was meeting that demand.
Most automakers took years to develop new postwar cars. For example, Ford’s first all-new postwar car came out as a 1949 model. If a small car company could surmount the political and economic hurdles in 1946, the opportunity to put a new automobile—even the smallest and simplest example—onto the market quickly was indeed ripe.
Enter the King Midget. Though powered by something you’d find on groundskeeping equipment, the King Midget wasn’t entirely primitive. The longest-lived King Midget model—the company’s third, known as the Model 3—had lightweight unit-body construction influenced by aircraft design. Midget Motors even developed its own automatic transmission at a time when much larger independent automakers struggled to bring that technology to the market.
The creators of the King Midget, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt, met while in the wartime Civil Air Patrol. Machinists by trade, they’d built their own scooters, cars, and even airplanes. Once the war ended, the pair initially wanted to make a flying car (a popular idea at the time). Eventually, Dry and Orcutt settled on something a bit more practical: a conventional, land-going car that anyone could afford. They developed the King Midget Model 1 as a kit that could be powered by any owner-supplied, single-cylinder engine. The finished, single-seat King Midget looked like a scaled-down midget racer—hence the name. The kit came with a wooden ladder frame, axles, springs, steering mechanism, and an assembly guide. Body panels were made by local metal shops, using the supplied patterns. (The Model 1 was also sold fully assembled with a 6-hp gasoline engine by Wisconsin.) One thing the original King Midget didn’t have, however, was a differential.
Why? Differentials weren’t cheap. Some microcars, like four-wheeled Isetta models, dispensed with the need for a differential by mounting the two rear wheels very close together. Midget Motors solved the problem by sending power to only one rear wheel. A pulley connected the engine to a centrifugal clutch, which drove the right rear wheel via a chain.
Unlike other automotive startups at the time, Midget Motors didn’t try to establish much of a dealer network. Instead, Dry and Orcutt marketed directly to consumers with small advertisements in the classified ad sections in the back of technology magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Mechanix Illustrated. The ads touted “the world’s lowest priced car,” emphasizing operating costs of just 75 cents per week and speeds of 40–50 mph. As regular advertisers, Midget Motors could expect favorable coverage in the occasional feature article on the King Midget.
Recognizing that a one-passenger car had a limited appeal, Dry and Orcutt went through a number of prototypes before introducing the King Midget Model 2 in 1951, advertised as a “500-pound car for $500.” The wood chassis was replaced with a steel ladder frame, perforated to save weight and wide enough for room for the driver and one passenger. Body styling was revised to look more like a road car than a racer and, this time around, the factory supplied the all-steel body panels. Power was increased by a whopping 25 percent to 7.5 hp, still provided by Wisconsin. With coil springs at all four corners, oil-filled shock absorbers up front, a conventional gear-and-segment steering box, and a clever self-equalizing, cable-operated braking system, the Model 2 marked a significant improvement over the Model 1. However, the Model 2 was still a very basic automobile, with a recoil hand starter on the outside of the car and no speedometer or reverse gear on the base model.
Midget Motors was a small company, but with the exception of engines, wheels, and tires, just about everything on the King Midget Model 2 was made in-house. As with offerings from the big, Detroit-based manufacturers, customers of the $500 King Midget could choose from a long list of optional features, which included the missing speedo and reverse gear and extended to an electric starter, a two-speed automatic transmission, safety-glass windshield, a heater, turn signals, and removable steel doors with sliding acrylic windows. The automatic transmission was clever enough that Orcutt and Dry received a patent on it, one of a number of patents earned by the pair. The two ratios are activated by centrifugal clutches that engage at different shaft speeds.
Finally, in 1957, Dry and Orcutt came out with the King Midget most familiar to small car enthusiasts: the Model 3, which stayed in production for 13 years with only minor changes. The Model 3 was a drastic rethinking of the King Midget, with a welded steel unibody, hydraulic brakes on all four corners, and even a windshield wiper and washer—though the last were available only as options. New options included carpeting and a radio. Power was still provided by a Wisconsin AENL-family engine but bumped to 9.2 hp.
Four years into production, the Model 3’s 6 volt electrical system was upgraded to 12 volts, and in 1966 the 9.2-hp Wisconsin engine was replaced with a 12-hp Kohler K301.
By then, after 20 years of selling King Midgets, Claud Dry and Dale Orcutt were ready to retire and sold Midget Motors Corporation to a group of investors. Unfortunately, this was the heart of the muscle car era and there wasn’t much of a market for snack-sized, 12-hp cars. In 1969, Midget Motors’ assets were sold to the Barthman Corporation, led by Vernon Eads. Eads tried to revive the company by cashing in on the dune buggy fad with the King Midget Commuter, a fiberglass buggy body mounted to King Midget mechanicals. Sadly, a fire at the fiberglass plant destroyed what few bodies had been manufactured along with the costly molds. The last King Midget was built in 1970.
To give you an idea how the King Midget performs, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, Special Interest Autos reviewed a Model 3 King Midget—said to get up to 93 miles per gallon—in early ’74. SIA recorded fuel economy closer to the 50–70 mpg mark and was impressed with the quality control while appalled at the performance: “Understeer and oversteer plus small [8.50×8] tires produce drift in sharp turns at 30 mph and corrections are futile.”
Remember those favorable feature articles? Compare Popular Science‘s description of the King Midget’s handling to SIA’s impartial take: “The Midget responds like a sports car on the turns; a twitch and you’re around the corner … there’s no sway or wandering.”
Once the King Midget went out of production, a series of transactions followed over the next 30 years involving OEM parts and the rights to the King Midget name. In 2001, Mike Beebe bought the remaining inventory of new old stock parts and rights to Midget Motors’ intellectual property. Beebe now operates a website called Midget Motors, providing parts and information to King Midget fans.
There is an active community of King Midget fans, too, including the International King Midget Car Club and a King Midget Jamboree held every year in Athens, Ohio—the birthplace of the King Midget. While no official production records exist, it’s estimated that roughly 1250 (or a quarter of King Midgets sold) still exist.
While the last official King Midget was bolted together a half-century ago, some King Midget enthusiasts have revived the cars—in a surprisingly similar fashion to the folks who, back in 1946, built Dry and Orcutt’s original King Midgets straight from the box.
To aid in restorations of the rarest King Midget, the Model 1, a group of club members drew up plans for the car to use as a reference standard around 2006. A few King Midget fans then used those plans to fabricate replica cars. Those reproductions inspired a similar group of club members in 2016 to develop a prototype of an all-new King Midget it called The Club Special. It seats two and is styled after the Model 2 but is simpler to build, like the Model 1. The Club Special has also been designed to provide more room, comfort, power, and speed than any of the vintage King Midgets.
While the Club Special was a labor of love, not a profit-making venture, all of the work was fully documented and the plans for the little roadster have been published in book form by Olde Milford Press under the title Make Driving Fun Again—The King Midget Club Special. The authors say you can build your own King Midget from scratch for about $2000 in materials.
Considering the reception King Midgets receive at car shows and cruises, that’s a bargain. If you don’t want to build your own, vintage King Midgets can be relatively affordable—depending on your definition, since these remain rather bare-bones cars. Top-quality models, however, have varied wildly in price in the past six years. A museum-quality 1956 Model 2 sold for $4222 last summer on Bring a Trailer, and a 1958 Model 3, also in outstanding condition and apparently retrofitted with a modern overhead-valve engine, sold at Barrett-Jackson’s 2016 Las Vegas auction for $6050. A ’62 with a Briggs & Stratton V-Twin engine sold for $10,450 at the same Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas auction, while this 1967, with an 18-hp B&S twin, sold for an amazing $14,850 back in 2014.
Do you own a King Midget? Let us know!