Small Packages, Big Fun
One of the biggest collections of micro/mini cars is in Crystal Lake.
In the dock of Ken Weger’s Small Wonders micro/mini car museum in Crystal Lake rests a rusted-out Atlas Babycar. Much of its decomposition is likely due to decades spent sitting idle in a French barn among animals. Flat tires, missing parts and a severely decayed steel body, it appears to be nothing special, but Weger insists it’s his best find. “There are only two known to exist,” he said.
The Atlas was a car made in France in 1951. Originally known as La Coccinelle (ladybug), it used a single-cylinder engine of a mere 175cc capacity. With seating for two, the maximum speed is said to be more than 40 mph.
Luckily, this rare auto is in good hands. For more than 30 years, Weger has been rescuing and restoring small cars with impeccable detail. No doubt he will bring the Babycar back to its original glory as he has done with dozens of others in his museum.
Largely, however, Weger acquires cars “that fit my fancy,” he said. “The goal is to save them, not necessarily restore them.”
His hobby turned into international events: the National Micro/Mini Car Meet in 2006 and the Micro/Mini Car World Meet in 2010, both in Crystal Lake, drawing hundreds of cars and thousands of attendees. “There is no club affiliation, so it’s unbiased,” he said. “Micro and mini car owners and their cars gathered from all over the world to share their enthusiasm for these small wonders.”
The free events featured food vendors, a car show, rides, road rallies, workshops and classes/seminars.
Today Weger and his wife Sylvia boast two private micro/mini car museums totaling 23,000 square feet on their 9-acre property on scenic Oak Ridge Road. The collection includes 100 micro cars, which were popular in post-World War II Europe up to the early 1960s.
In addition to cars, the first building includes Weger’s office and two workshops capable of wood- and metalworking, and electrical work. The new building, which was completed in 2008, is a 15,000-square-foot, two-story, high-efficiency space that includes cars, and a conference space for guest hobbyists.
The second floor houses what Weger considers the largest small car reference library. “I currently have 2,100 records of micro and mini car makes and get five to 10 more every week,” Weger said.
A Unique Subculture
Car hobbyists tend to come with their share of stereotypes from eccentric to pretentious.
Micro/mini car enthusiasts, however, are hard to peg. “They’re plumbers, electricians, attorneys, handymen, architects, computer techs, blue collar, white collar,” Weger said. “The president and vice president of Mensa are collectors.”
Although their backgrounds are as colorful and unique as their cars, they are united by their tremendous generosity and willingness to share resources and tips with each other.
Perhaps this spirit of camaraderie stems from the history of micro/mini cars, which unlike that of hot rods or sports cars, is rooted in necessity and affordability. Bikes and scooters didn’t offer shelter from the rain, so these small cars were a great solution.
“These tiny cars evolved after World War II as European industries were starting back to work and began producing cars for the masses,” Weger said. “They were underpowered and lightweight, sipping fuel to get over 70 miles per gallon.”
Today, micro/mini cars are a relatively inexpensive hobby that requires a minimal investment. “It’s amazing what is used to make them,” Sylvia said. “We’ve found all sorts of fabrics, wood, metal, vinyl, duct tape, canvas, pipes – even a pizza box – used to make these cars when we first get them.”
Weger is fanatical about originality when restoring cars. He insists on using original paint codes, for example. And if he can’t find a certain part, he makes it in his shop.
Without a doubt, the Internet has played a huge role in tracking down rare parts, but word of mouth will always be a cornerstone of this niche hobby.
That’s how he found out about Rob’s Upholstery in McHenry and Bret Kehl at Precision Body Works II in Crystal Lake, two shops he strongly recommends for restoration work. “They’re artisans,” Weger said.
A Big Future
Retired, the Wegers are able to devote their time to their interests. Sylvia, a former respiratory therapist, enjoys spending time on the couple’s lush property, which, in addition to the museums, includes their home, a pond and an indoor pool. She is also very active in First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake and volunteers at the Crystal Lake Food Pantry.
Weger, a retired vice president of manufacturing and research and development for Knaack Manufacturing Co. in Crystal Lake, says he will continue to acquire and restore these little gems for the next generation.
“I consider myself a conservator of [cars] for future generations to see, enjoy and understand,” he said.
Big Passion, Small Rides
- It’s about engine capacity: “Micro” cars are under 500cc (cubic centimeters); “mini” cars are between 500cc and 1,500cc.
- Small and smaller: Weger’s smallest car the Eshelman at 4 feet, 5 inches. Their largest is the Pulse at 16 feet, four inches.
- Did you know? The Wegers’ cars cause quite a commotion when they take them for a spin. Twice that they know of, gawkers have ended up in non-serious accidents. So please admire them, but watch the road!
- First Love: Weger’s debut into the mini car world was his mother-in-law’s English Ford, which he and Sylvia drove all over the place when they were dating.
- The Wegers’ Favorites: Sylvia’s favorite car is the red Messerschmitt TG500 Tiger. Ken “loves them all,” with a soft spot for cars featuring unique and hidden characteristics like the super fuel-efficient Pulse, pink Messerschmitt KR201, French Reyonnah with folding wheels and extremely rare Atlas Babycar.