Micro cars became popular after the war in the 1940's, however, they did exist before the war. Before the war, they were referred to as cyclecars. They were referred to as such mainly because of the fact that they were built on motorcycles. They were inexpensive and were produced between 1910 and the 1920's. In 1912, a meeting of the "Federation Internationale des Clubs Moto Cycliste" decided that cyclecars needed to have a clear classification in terms of various features like weight, size, gears and clutches. It was decided that they should fall into two classes, large and small classes and that all cyclecars should have gears and a clutch. This classification affected cyclecars in the UK, the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Canada, Belgium, Italy and Austria. The most notable cyclecars from that time period were the G.N car from the UK and the Bedelia car from France. Later on, in the 1920's, they came to be used as sports cars in motor racing.
There was a boom in popularity of cyclecars just before the first world war, however, the rise of large companies who were mass producing similar cars meant that most of the smaller cyclecar makers went out of business, as similar and less expensive cars were mass produced by companies like Ford and Citroen. Cars like the Citroen 5CV and the Morris Cowley soon took over in terms of popularity.
After the second world war, there was an increase in popularity for the small cars, however, they were no longer referred to as cyclecars. After the war, most of Europe was in tatters, this meant that engineers and car makers had the incentive to come up with designs for cars which were economical and got people around quickly. They were designed for low fuel usage. By this time, the name microcar appeared and was in use by people who were enthusiastic about the little cars, until around 1960, when the look of the cars changed to a more rounded appearance and people started to refer to them as bubble cars. The very first car to be referred to as a micro car, is thought to have been the British built Austin 7 which was manufactured between 1922 and 1939. The car was so tiny that its wheel base was just 75 inches. It became very popular across Europe and its style still influences the design of many modern day small cars.
The majority of the manufacturing of micro cars took place in Germany. This is thought to be because of the fact that Germany was and still is very prominent in the auto industry. Some of the very first companies in Germany to produce microcars, were in fact manufacturers of aircraft's. Two prominent examples are Heinkel and Messershmitt. For example, the 1950's Messershmitt had a tiny 175cc engine which produced 9 horsepower and could go at a maximum speedf of 56 miles per hour. The tiny car weighed in at just 397 pounds and had a fuel efficiency of 80 miles per gallon. It was produced between 1954 and 1964.
Other manufacturers have since got in on micro car production around the world. The French refer to them as voiturettes- which is historically, a term used by many manufacturers to describe their small cars. Specifically, in France after the second world war, it came to be used to describe microcars with three wheels and from the 1990's, the French used it to classify cars which weighed in at less than 770 pounds.
In recent years, city cars, bubble cars and Smart cars, have become increasingly popular across Europe, especially in the UK, owing to the fact that they are more economical to run than standard sized cars. The worlds cheapest micro car was launched in 2009 in India by a company called Tato Motors. The car was called the Tato Nano and had a retail price of $1,800 US dollars.