Fuldamobil Automotive History
manufacturers Fulda, Germany from 1950 until 1969
Fuldamobil is the name of a series of small cars produced by Elektromaschinenbau Fulda GmbH of Fulda, Germany, and Nordwestdeutscher Fahrzeugbau (NWF) of Wilhelmshaven between 1950 and 1969. Various designated versions of the car were produced, although the vehicles produced under each designation were not always identical and the designations were sometimes misapplied. Though overall numbers produced were relatively small, the cars attracted sufficient attention to see licensed construction on four continents including Europe. In its ultimate configuration it is said to have inspired the term "bubble car". It is acknowledged as the first car in the world to feature a negative scrub radius, now recognised as a major advance in driving safety.
The car's original design was conceived by Norbert Stevenson, a freelance journalist who had worked for the Rhein-Zeitung newspaper. As with many others involved in the field of automotive design, Stevenson had little in the way of formal qualifications in this area, although he had completed one term of mechanical engineeringat the Technische Hochschule Berlin. His design concept was for a very simple three-wheeled car with room for two people inside, it would have two wheels at the front for stability, and be driven by a small engine at the rear.
Initial work on the project was carried out with funding from Peter Stein, the publisher of the Rhein-Zeitung, using a 350cc Horex Columbus engine and other proprietary components, but economic conditions at the time proved unworkable. The project was aborted and all the parts resold. Stevenson then approached several companies with his concept and in the summer of 1949, found backing from Karl Schmitt, a wealthy engineering graduate.
Schmitt was a Bosch wholesaler in the town of Fulda, Germany, who also ran another small company; Elektromaschinenbau Fulda GmbH, which had proved successful providing maintenance and repair of the emergency power generators in widespread use in Germany after the war.
By October 1949, a new chassis had been started. A notable aspect of the front axle design was the incorporation of a negative scrub radius. Now recognised as a major advance in driving safety, this provides an inherent stabilising effect on slippery road surfaces or when brakes are applied unevenly to wheels on either side of the car. Although now a feature on the majority of front wheel drive cars and about a third of all rear wheel drive cars, the Fuldamobil is credited with being the first car in the world to feature this innovation.
The steel, central tube frame chassis was fitted with swing axle suspension on the front wheels and had the rear wheel mounted in a swinging arm. Braking was only provided on the front wheels, and was operated by cable. For cost reasons, shock absorbers were omitted, which did mean that with the body fitted, the prototype would wallow about like a ship at sea. The prototype was fitted with a 198cc air-cooled Zundapp motorcycle engine. A conflicting report on the prototype in Das Auto states that it had an air-cooled single-cylinder two-stroke 250cc ILO engine.
The black and white painted coupé bodywork was slab-sided, streamlined, but heavy. It had a fabric roof, which could be rolled back for ventilation, a split windscreen and two side doors fitted with opening windows. Access for the driver and passenger via these rear-hinged doors was restricted, with the front wheel arch filling half the door width. The bodywork was constructed in eight days by the Leibold company in Fulda, and was based around caravan construction techniques, with metal sheet panels nailed to a wooden frame. Behind the doors on either side, were large, letterbox-shaped air ducts to provide cooling air to the engine. The end of the exhaust pipe emerged from a small circular hole near the tail.
Nicknamed "Flea", the prototype car made its official – if somewhat inauspicious – debut in the Rosenmontag carnival procession in Fulda, in March 1950. With the air-cooled engine, heavy body and slow, walking pace of the procession, it was perhaps inevitable that the car would succumb to heat failure en route,nevertheless, it was greeted enthusiastically by the press. The car was scrapped after 3000 km of testing.
The search for a more suitable engine got off to a bad start, with a disparaging response from Triumph-Werke in Nuremberg. Stevenson found a more willing supplier at the small Baker & Pölling works in Niedernhall. The company made one and two-man chainsaws, and were willing to adapt their existing compact 200cc engine to suit the car. The engine was already fan-cooled, and Baker & Pölling increased the capacity to nearly 250cc. The Fulda factory attached a Hurth 3-speed gearbox with reverse, driven by a primary chain and added an electric starter to the engine.
A second prototype using a 200cc Baker & Pölling engine and fitted with a roadster type body, was built around Christmas 1950. It was sold almost immediately.
Series production began in February 1951. The car underwent significant development, modification and changes in appearance throughout its production life, but generally was only referred to in advertising and contemporary publications as either the Fulda–Mobil or the Fuldamobil, without a specific designated model number or suffix. The principal exception was during the period 1953–1955 when the slab-sided version of the car — referred to as the Type N, and the more rounded version Type S — were manufactured and included simultaneously in company brochures.
Internal production records and some individual vehicle registration documents have been adopted subsequently and are now used by most modern reference works to allocate more specific model designations, but should not be seen as definitive.
Between February and June 1951, at least 48 cars were manufactured. The wooden framework for the bodies was now supplied by Alexander Schleicher GmbH & Co, but for a time, the material used for the external panelling varied from car to car. The majority used plywood sheets covered with a synthetic leather fabric. Fabric car bodies were common in the 1920s, and in post-war Germany the scarcity of sheet steel, coupled with low manufacturing cost and light weight, briefly countered more negative factors such as an old-fashioned appearance and relatively poor durability. At least one coupé retained the overall shape of the prototype, but with a single pane of glass for the windscreen and without its protruding headlights. However, it was felt that some potential customers were being put off by the styling, specifically the cars unconventional sloping front. They wanted a car with a bonnet, even if the engine was still at the rear. Drivers also experienced difficulty trying to reach the windscreen if it fogged up while driving, as there was no fan or heater to assist in keeping it clear. The issues with the bodywork design were resolved by adding a rounded nose to the car, whilst at the same time moving the windscreen closer to the driver and making it more upright. In the factory, this revised profile was called the "Bosom-car". This design first appeared in photographs in April 1951and the new style car appeared at the IAA show in Frankfurt that same month.
At the Brussels Motor Show in January 1952, a prototype car appeared under the name "Succes". This car was to be produced in Belgium and would have been powered by a 200cc twin-cylinder engine made in Germany. In appearance, it was a very close copy of the Fuldamobil Type N roadster, but the car did not reach production, and apart from its styling, nothing to date suggests any connection to the Fuldamobil.
Between June 1951 and September 1952, at least 346 Fuldamobils were manufactured. Recent secondary sources state that throughout this time, there were problems with the quality of the Baker & Pölling engines. Pistons would come noisily into contact with the cylinder head, or worse, drivers would find the barrel and head being shot from the crankcase into the back of their seat. The final straw came when one hundred engines sent back to Baker & Pölling for rework were returned. Rather than soundly rectify any structural failings, the remedial work consisted of the fitting of additional gaskets beneath the cylinders, a bodge which offered a far from a permanent or professional solution, whilst at the same time producing a detrimental effect on the overall performance of the car. A final order of one hundred engines was placed and delivered, but payment was withheld pending satisfactory rework to the earlier batch. Baker & Pölling are said to have gone bankrupt in the meantime. A more contemporary source indicates Baker & Pölling gearing up production to extend its range of Split-single engines at this time, used in the 125cc Express Radex motorcycle and manufactured at their Niedernhall factory. Baker & Pölling also took exception to an article in Auto Motor und Sport which mentioned that 360cc Fichtel & Sachs engines were now being fitted to the Fuldamobil, and pointed out several sporting achievements by the car whilst fitted with Baker & Pölling engines. Whatever the issues, by May 1952, it was reported that 360cc Fichtel & Sachs engines were now being fitted. Further, the plywood and fabric bodywork had been superseded by sheets of hammered aluminium,giving the car a very distinctive look, which led to the nickname "Silver Flea".
Bodywork from this point appears to be more consistent, all doors have straight edges, windscreen wipers are fitted to the bottom of the windscreen, there is a single small letterbox-shaped duct behind each door and sedans have rear side windows. Production is still described as more of an amateur hobby than a real automobile factory. Alongside the hammered, unpainted aluminium finish, the car was also produced with painted smooth aluminium skin at additional cost.
A version adapted for the disabled appeared at an Invalid carriage exhibition in Munich in July 1952. Around the same time, Werner Ritterbusch, a disabled war veteran, drove his Fuldamobil on a round trip of nearly 9,000 km (5,600 mi) from Oberzwehren in Kassel to Lapland and back. Another notable achievement for the car came in August the following year. Former Czech racing driver Georg Kremel, a Fuldamobil company representative, made a non-stop journey across some of the steepest roads in Europe, taking in the Grossglockner, Plöcken and finally the Katschberghöhe Alpine passes, the last of which included a 2 km, 32% ascent.
One issue with the 360cc Fichtel & Sachs engine that was problematic, was its capacity. Driving licence regulations in Germany at that time meant that holders of a class IV licence could only drive vehicles with engines up to 250cc in size. The situation was resolved in January 1953 when Fichtel & Sachs bought a bigger alternative to their successful SM51 - 150cc engine onto the market, by increasing its capacity with a bigger barrel and piston to bring it up to 175cc.At the Frankfurt Motor Show in March the same year, it was announced that this engine would be available as an alternative to the 360cc model. The car also had one other significant modification, it was now fitted with a front bumper.
Production of cars with the Type N body probably ended in August 1954, although most sources state August 1955.
In October 1953 at the IFMA (International Bicycle and Motorcycle Exhibition) in Frankfurt, a completely restyled Fuldamobil made its official debut. Recent sources state that a prototype had been displayed earlier in July 1953, which may have been at the Great Rationalization Exhibition that took place in Düsseldorf at that time and where the manufacturers of the Fuldamobil had been awarded a gold medal for their contribution to motorization for the people. The new style of bodywork has been likened by some to a tiny brother of a Porsche, while to others it looked more like a kind of Walt Disney pig. The rounded and more nominally streamlined shape was designed by Norbert Stevenson and master coach-builder Wilhelm Lehnebach, who had also made a major contribution to the design and construction of the original prototype bodywork for the Fuldamobil back in 1949. The pair produced a wood and plaster model of the new design in ten days. The bodywork was manufactured in sections by VDM Metals (de)using heat-formed aluminium sheets which were then welded together. The body was wider than the Type N, and the seats could be folded by pulling a lever to form a flat, sleeping platform inside for two people. The luggage space above the engine was now accessible from the rear via a rudimentary tailgate with a very small window above. Unlike the final Type N, at this point the Type S had no bumpers, but underneath it still had the 360cc Sachs engine, 3 wheels, and was fundamentally unchanged.
In the five months between October 1953 and March 1954 when the Type S is said to have gone on sale, there were several modifications. A major issue was caused by the improved structural integrity of the body, which was found to resonate with vibrations from the engine and amplified the engine noise excessively. This was dealt with by isolating the engine from the main chassis with rubber mounts, and suspending the engine and drive train on a horizontal pivot, linked by the suspension to the main chassis in a similar manner to many motor scooters. While this did help alleviate some of the problems with noise, it was at the expense of the handling, which – exacerbated by the significant extra weight of the new body – was notably worse. This was addressed by linking the drivetrain to the chassis with a panhard rod, although this was only partially successful in resolving the problem.
Whether or not the Type S did go on sale in March 1954 is questionable, only three examples of this type are said to have been produced at the factory in Fulda. The Fuldamobil was now Elektromaschinenbau Fulda's largest source of income, and the Type N would remain in production for some time with parts for a large number of cars held at the factory. Output had already doubled from about four cars a week in 1953, to about eight, but with demand still growing, any further increase required an outside partner.
Nordwestdeutscher Fahrzeugbau GmbH
The firm of Nordwestdeutscher Fahrzeugbau (de) (NWF) had been established in 1946 and built specialised bodywork for a variety of vehicles, including buses, ambulances and postal vans and operated in conjunction with the much larger company of Krauss-Maffei. The NWF factory had worked on a series of prototypes of a road/rail bus, the Schienen-Straßen-Omnibus (de), and when the expected demand for further buses of this type proved to be lacking, were left with excess capacity to fill. At this same time, International interest in microcars had grown rapidly and had begun to attract serious investment from established companies such as Messerschmitt and Hans Glas. The Fuldamobil was already a well-established product, but the factory had very little capacity to increase production further, so a licensing agreement between Elektromaschinenbau Fulda and NWF appeared to be mutually beneficial. NWF began series production in July 1954, anticipating the building of 1000 cars per month.
The deal for NWF to build the main bulk of the new model appears to mark the breaking point between Karl Schmitt and Norbert Stevenson. Early in 1954 Stevenson had been experimenting with another three wheeled prototype, a roadster with a 175cc Sachs engine over a single front wheel, two bench seats placed back to back and simple hammered aluminium bodywork similar to the type N. The design had been rejected by Karl Schmitt who felt Elektromaschinenbau Fulda could not “afford to have several models in the program”. Stevenson had also been complaining for some time about his poor wages and yet the company was financially healthier than many competitors. When he was approached by entrepreneur Romanus Müthing in the Spring of 1954 he quickly accepted the offer of a substantial commission to direct a team working on a redesign of the Pinguin (automobile) (de).
NWF were at the time the second largest coachbuilding company in Germany and were looking to diversify their output with the Fuldamobil, to the extent that it would form the bulk of their production at a factory in Lohne, which was due to open in 1955 and where they were hoping to employ as many as a 1000 workers. NWF technicians made some changes to the Type S before it went on sale. There was a new rectangular badge on the nose, front and rear bumpers were fitted, a rain gutter was added around the doors, and a single rear window (identical to one of the two used on a split rear window VW) was fitted into - rather than above - an enlarged tailgate. Perhaps most significantly they replaced the 360cc Sachs engine with a 200cc Ilo motor with 3 gears.
Despite the reduction in capacity, the power output was identical to the Sachs 360cc engine whilst at the same time resolving the capacity-related driving-licence issue, previously mentioned, with a motor more powerful than the 175cc Sachs engine used in the Type N. Torque figures were substantially less than the 360cc motor however and Stevenson pointed out that this would substantially reduce the cars hill-climbing ability.
The plan was for NWF to supply cars to the home-market in Germany as well as across the globe. The Fulda factory would continue to produce the 360cc cars on a limited basis, principally supplying Switzerland and the Benelux countries, but eventually only the 200cc version would be sold. The two versions of the car were referred to in the press as the Fuldamobil S 360 and the Fuldamobil NWF 200.
At this time, no official Fuldamobil dealer or distribution network existed. A position for a sales rep was advertised at the end of July, after production at NWF was said to have commenced. Towards the end of 1954, manufacture at NWF was suspended “to meet urgent orders from Ford”, during which time demand for the car was said to have continued, with production from Fulda fulfilling requirements. In April 1955 the factory in Lohne was opened.
Based on previous sales of the Fuldamobil, the massive increase in production by NWF may appear to have been somewhat starry-eyed, but by the end of 1954, new registrations of the Fuldamobil NWF 200 stood at 673, in addition to 327 of the 360cc Fulda produced cars. Whilst these figures were very impressive compared to previous years, Messerschmitt had sold over 3700 cars in the same period and were well on their way to building and selling 1000 cars per month. The market for microcars did appear to be still growing, but in October 1954 the news that BMW, with a much more established international presence, were setting up to mass produce the Isetta, and that both the Messerschmitt and Isetta would be cheaper, faster and more powerful than the Fuldamobil meant demand for the Fuldamobil faltered.
Within months of the factory in Lohne opening, NWF were in real difficulties. Sales volume had been insufficient to keep up with production and cars quickly stockpiled and were sold back to Fulda to save payment on licensing fees. Production had stopped by September 1955 Cash-flow quickly became an issue and Nordwestdeutscher Fahrzeugbau was forced into bankruptcy.
The Fuldamobil was licensed for manufacture to various countries where it was known by varying names, such as the Nobel in Chile, UK and Turkey, the Bambi in Argentina, the Bambino in the Netherlands, Fram King Fulda in Sweden, Attica and also Alta in Greece, and Hans Vahaar in India. It was also manufactured in South Africa under the original German name. A pickup version called"Sporty" based on the coupé was also available in Argentina.