Power is something that sits on an unfortunately high pedestal in the world of all things automotive. We’re taught by television presenters that power is good, power is all, power is key. We observe small, rodent-esque journalists gleefully reel off engine capacities and dizzying brake horsepower figures. While in reality, we’d more than likely be happy with something befitting of someone who likes to go slower. Maybe someone who would champion such things. A captain of all things slow, if you will.
Power is great, don’t get us wrong, but it’s not everything. A car’s charm is made up of many things, such as design, handling, heritage and more. In fact, a car’s charm has nothing to do with its power. Some of the most engaging, fun, cheeky, cheery classic cars are powered by engines no bigger than those of a sewing machine. These cars make us smile. They make us happy. Power is a very serious thing. You can’t imagine a Dodge Charger laughing at a terrible ‘dad joke’. An original Fiat 500, however, would chuckle until it fell over.
So it’s with that in mind that we have put this collection of five cars together. These cars, combined, will have less power than a gerbil in a wheel. But that doesn’t matter, because what they lack in powwwwwerrrrr as a certain car person would say, they more than make up for it with sheer joy.
1) Fiat 500
The Fiat 500, or Cinquecento to use its Italian name, is the original in low power, cheap thrills fun. It was first offered in 1957, some two years before the Mini. But much like the Mini, it was billed as being a cheap, practical means to motivate a nation. Despite its diminutive dimensions (it was just 3m long), it could seat four while even carrying some luggage in the trunk up front. Why the front? Because the little 479cc engine was in the back. And this was some very clever engineering, as it meant the engine, gearbox and driveline were all in one space, freeing up the rest for passengers.
It was a sparse car, with a full-size sunroof being the most luxurious addition available. However, it didn’t need frills. The little air-cooled engine was full of charm, the handling was a little wobbly, but ultimately predictable, and the whole thing was ‘puppy dog’ cute. It was and still is a cheery little car. You won’t care that 60mph is near impossible. You’ll fall in love before it becomes a concern.
2) Vespa 400
When you hear the name Vespa, your mind naturally leans into the image of mods and rockers, or maybe stylish Italians buzzing through narrow European streets on a two-wheeled design classic. What you may not think of is a car, but Vespa did indeed make one. It wasn’t very good, but it was delightfully weird, which is why it’s earned a place on our list. It also wasn’t, as the name would suggest, Italian. Certainly, it was badged as a Vespa, but it was actually built for Piaggio by AMCA of Fourchambailt, France. See, weird.
Launched in Monaco, the little Vespa 400 was a curious little thing. It could seat two, with space behind the passengers for a small amount of luggage. Though, Vespa proudly told people that two small children would fit, with an optional cushion! This was not a car to please EuroNCAP had it existed then. Anyway, the cabin was sparse, and didn’t even have opening windows. However, the roof did peel all the way back from the top of the screen down to the rear deck lid. And under that decklid you’d find the heart of the beast. A 400cc two-stroke unit mated to a three-speed manual transmission. Fast? No. But the 400 didn’t need to be. It was a cheeky, if noisy and smelly (two-stroke, remember) little box of giggles. Top speed? 51.8mph.
3) Honda S600
If you want something that is outlandishly fun, but with minimal power, you need a Honda S600. It is, make no mistake, adorable. With a nose-to-tail measurement of 3.3m and a curb weight of just 715kg, the S600 was a featherweight, which meant it didn’t need much power. It only had 57bhp, but it was delivered to the rear wheels by an exemplary little engine. It was just 606cc, but it featured four Keihin carbs, double overhead cams and it was, unlike the cars mentioned so far, water-cooled. The suspension was fully independent, the steering rack and pinion. It was, and still is, a riot to drive. And while it might only have 57bhp, it could get the featherweight S600 to 90mph.
The S600 was an important car for Honda, given it was the company’s first mass-marketed car, and was available in both right and left hand drive. It was also available as both a roadster and a coupe. All told, nearly 10,000 were built from ‘64 to ‘66, but as is the way for old Japanese cars, rust has claimed many over the years. If you can find one, it’s well worth buying. You’ll smile every time you drive it.
4) The Mini Moke
A list such as this wouldn’t be complete without a Mini, but rather than go for the traditional saloon, we have instead opted for the Mini Moke. The lightweight, no frills, no door would-be military vehicle that never was. Yes, the Mini Moke, which used the mechanical underpinnings of the Mini Van was indeed designed by Alec Issigonis and John Sheppard to be a small, tough, military vehicle. It was simple, lightweight and thanks to being largely open, it was open to all manner of possible uses. Sadly though, the suspension, ground clearance and low power hurt its chances. It simply wouldn’t have been able to cope in a battle situation. However, the design wasn’t put to waste and instead it was offered to the general public as a lightweight, recreational vehicle.
It was all Mini underneath. However, on top there was a basic shell, the featured box sides, a cover for the engine and a front screen. That was about it. The ‘inside’ has some basic seats and a steering wheel. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. In reality though, it did. People fell in love with the simplicity of the Moke. Plus, there was an appeal that came from the sensory overload of having no doors or roof! The Moke was produced from 1964 through to 1993, such was its popularity.
5) Bond Bug
We had to include the Bond Bug because, well, it’s just a brilliant bit of design. It was penned originally to be a more youthful, exciting addition to the Reliant range. Designed by Ogle, this new wedge-shaped car was conceived in the mid ‘60s, and was going to be called the Reliant Rogue. However, the project stalled and the car never made it to production. It wasn’t until Reliant bought the Bond brand in ‘69 that the project once again gained momentum. Tom Karen of Ogle Design reworked the original and was made to work with Reliant’s new chassis. It would sit on three wheels – two out back, one up front – the engine would be in the front, and it would seat two. The car, available in orange only, would be the Bond Bug.
Does it handle well? No. Is it fast? Not at all. Does that matter? Not a jot. The Bond Bug is not a car you drive, it’s an event. Climbing in under the massive forward-hinged clamshell, settling into the seats that are moulded into the body itself, it’s all magical. This car is fun just to look at, but to be in one, to see the faces of onlookers as they smile and wave, it’s brilliant. Proof you don’t need 350bhp to have fun!