KR175 Story

he basic story of how Fritz Fend and Prof.  Willie Messerschmitt joined forces to produce the Messerschmitt Kabinroller is surely well-known to all of us by now. However, compared to the wealth of knowledge that exists on almost every aspect of the KR200, the finer development points of its forebear, the Messerschmitt KR175, are almost entirely unknown to the majority of enthusiasts. Indeed, the KR175 often seems to be treated only as a footnote in history on our way to look at the aforementioned KR200. In the pages that follow, it is intended to bring the KR175 out from the shadows and thrust it firmly back into the spotlight.

The basic ideals of Fend's Kabinroller of course first started to form in the Fend Flitzer invalid carriages produced by Fend the engineer in the suburbs of Rosenheim immediately after the war. It was on this vehicle, after several years of trial and error, that the basics of the familiar monocoque bodytub, consisting of steel sides and floor hanging from two main chassis rails angled from nose floor to tail top were hammered out in the summer and autumn of 1947. By 1949 Fend had also established his famous relationship with Fichtel & Sachs for the supply of engines. Whilst the 98cc Flitzer proved to be a success in its own market following its launch in March 1949, behind the scenes, Fend Automobiles Ltd was forever in intense financial difficulty. Unscrupulous shareholders and business backers had been content to rake off the profits whilst Fend did all the hard development work for very little gain. In December 1951 Fend was forced to dissolve Fend Automobiles Ltd as a result, and the Flitzer passed into history. Of course the Flitzer story is much more involved than these short paragraphs suggest, and it is hoped to return to it in more detail in due course. Meanwhile, throughout 1950 and 1951 Fend had received many requests to develop the Flitzer design to a broader market. Slowly but surely a working prototype, to be known as the Fend FK150, began to take shape around the basic Flitzer monocoque, extended to take two persons sitting in tandem. The new prototypical Fend had rather more eye-pleasing rounded lines over the angular Flitzer, with a shape that would be instantly recognisable to any Messerschmitt fan. Also, whereas the Flitzer had proved to be rather claustrophobic with its solid roof in later form, the Fend FK150 was given the first incarnation of the famous plexiglass dome as Fend looked back upon his days as an aeronautical engineer for inspiration on improving all-round visibility and weather protection. In January 1952 Fritz Fend beat a path to his former wartime employer, the aircraft giant of Messerschmitt AG in order to present the Fend FK150 project to his old boss, Prof. Willie Messerschmitt. Of course Messerschmitt embraced the project with open arms, and so a new working relationship was swiftly forged, with Fend being given the run of the Regensburg factory. On 25th July 1952 the Fend FK150 was shown to the press, to receive encouraging reviews. Meanwhile the basics of the car were still being continually developed and evolved. At around this time it was decided to risk putting the Kabinroller into full production, but with a larger engine and change of name, from Fend FK150 to Messerschmitt KR175.

Test Drive: Going for a quick spin around Upper NorwoodTest Drive: Going for a quick spin around Upper NorwoodIf we assume that KR175 chassis numbers started at 1,000 with the beginning of manufacture in February 1953, certainly the first 350 cars at least are immediately recognisable as being very early cars in that they retain the original FK150-style windscreen mounting arrangement of body-coloured metal surround integral with the metalwork of the lifting section, lending valuable support to the dome. The Automuseum Enstingen, near Reutlingen, south of Stuttgart, holds quite possibly the earliest known surviving car; chassis number 1129, of February 1953, complete with metal windscreen surround, and its very early status further confirmed by the chassis plate referring to the car as an FK175. The next earliest car known to the writer is chassis number 1351, dating to February/March 1953 and which was featured in the February 1987 issue of the American magazine Cycle. Then (and possibly still) owned by Paul Prince of California, this car was at that time the earliest known car in America. Although the car was mechanically incomplete in 1987 as it awaited restoration, it still retained the obvious early features of metal windscreen surround and kickstart. In March 1953 the KR175 was publicly announced at the Geneva Show, and a few days later, the UK got their first look at the car following a write-up in Light Car magazine. By now the windscreen had advanced to the more familiar design, in which the screen was an integral part of the dome and thus completely separate from the lifting section. The same report went on to mention that the engine incorporated a three-plate automatic centrifugal clutch, operated by the action of the gearlever.

As time went on, some seventy detail modifications would be made as part of continuous efforts to make the Karo easier and faster to produce. UK imports began in April 1954, and by August of the same year, the old 6v electrics and kickstart had been replaced with the introduction of a 12v electrical system and Siba dynastart. Also, the automatic clutch had been swiftly deleted from the specification as it had proved to be nothing but trouble in practice. In its place was to be found a manual foot-operated pedal, though it is not known to the writer what sort of clutch arrangement is, or was, present in the two early cars already described. Meanwhile, the entire rear engine cradle had also been completely redesigned by August, in the aims of better springing and road holding. The very early cars having sported a scaffolding-like structure similar to the rear part of a motorcycle frame. Best described as a double wishbone in action, the whole was mounted to the monocoque bulkhead by four rubber blocks, one at each corner, each rubber block also acting as suspension units, with the bottom pair also serving as engine mounts. It was a logical system in theory, but in practice it served only to transmit every undulation in the road straight to the occupants. The new rear end developed was a much more civilised swinging arm arrangement with several of the important fulcrum points moved closer to the rear wheel and a single large rubber damper introduced. Whilst it had the effect of slightly improving the ride, the KR175 remained notoriously dreadful to drive, particularly when compared to a KR200 in later years. Meanwhile, another comparison was to come twenty-three years later, in the October 1975 edition of Kabinews when Ian Andrews travelled to Germany to compare his 1955 UK-market KR175-2a, chassis number 10151, with Dr. Hans Dopjan's 1953 KR175-1a, chassis number 2880. The KR175-2a had been introduced in October 1954 featuring an optional reverse gear and wider rear seat for added creature comforts, but for Andrews, the main observation differences picked out between the two cars, apart from the engine cradle as already discussed, was the early car having a `high spot' on the centre of the dome, sloping away towards front and rear, compared to a more uniform profile on the later car. Moving round to the rear, the earlier car had flatter and sharper creases in the forming of the engine cover, reflecting its hand-beaten status as compared to the pressing of the later car. Both cars of course had the `normal' windscreen arrangement of being part of the dome.

In February 1955 the much improved Messerschmitt KR200 was introduced. The little Karo had come of age and many readers may consider that the KR175 story ends at this point when it officially ended production in October of 1955, but reality is in fact very different. Even today some prominent Messerschmitt enthusiasts will argue that the mythological KR175-2b does not actually exist as a factory-built car, but with at least three known surviving cars out there, all stamped as such on the chassis plate, surely that in itself is proof enough that the 2b does exist! In essence, a KR175 with a factory-fitted KR200 lifting section and dome, the same people will argue that the lifting section must be a later, non-original replacement, but with production of the KR175-2b appearing to have commenced at the end of 1955 and continuing well into 1956, the simple answer to the lifting section argument is that by the time the 2b was produced, the original 175 dome tooling had either been scrapped or was elsewhere, and so the factory fitted the later lids. A theory for the existence of the 2b is that they were produced only for certain markets, as out of the three known survivors, two are French-specification cars, and the third came to light in Scandinavia, though it is not known if these cars were licence-built in those areas, or were direct exports from Regensburg. Perhaps the best and certainly the most original of the trio is the French-market car which surfaced at Mannheim in 2008 and which was described in much detail by the Swiss Roller Mobil Club on their website at the time. As well as the dome, another key identifying feature to spotting a KR175-2b, is the flattened profile to the otherwise full-round front mudguards.

Meanwhile, various licences were certainly sold for the more familiar KR175-2a to be built in countries other than Germany. Spain is known to have taken out a licence, but it would seem production never began. Perhaps the best-known licensee is Metalmeccanica Italiana Valtrompia s.p.a of Brescia, Italy, or Mi-Val for short. Primarily a machine tool and lightweight motorcycle manufacturer, Mi-Val obtained their licence in late 1955, with production beginning in July 1956. Produced in its entirety at the Mi-Val plant, with the aid of parts supplied direct from Regensburg, the `Mivalino', as this Italian Karo was named, featured two particular details to distinguish it from its Germanic cousins, the most visible being the painted surface to the dome, for as Motor Cycling magazine noted in its road test of July 1956, "the burning rays of the Italian sun would roast to a frazzle anybody who went motoring under a square yard of clear plastic!" We'll overlook the fact that the test was actually conducted in the pouring rain. Meanwhile, the second major difference was that the power plant was not the accustomed 173cc Fichtel & Sachs engine of old, but a 171cc unit of Mi-Val's own manufacture, again two-stroke and again capable of the same 56mph top speed as the Teutonic branch of the family tree. Production of the Mivalino is thought not to have continued past 1956, with perhaps only single figures still existing.

Today, the KR175 in any shape or form is a very rare bird in the UK, with perhaps fewer than a dozen remaining out of several hundred imported between April 1954 and the autumn of 1955. To prove the point, your writer has seen only two examples in the past ten years, and one of those was a box of bits deep in the Hitchcock shed!