The Economist (of course) has an excellent article on the creation (and creativity behind) the Hungarian microcar, which flourished in the early Cold War.
After the Soviet takeover in the late 1940s, the Russians set up Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, to co-ordinate economic relations across the Soviet bloc. In line with the principles of socialist planning, each country was ordered to make certain products but not others. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania were allowed to make cars, but Hungary was forbidden to, probably because it had no existing car industry. But a national vehicle, like a national airline, was a symbol of patriotic pride, especially in eastern Europe. Hungary’s Communists were soon determined that Hungary should have its own cars. Accordingly, they quickly found a very Hungarian solution. The way around the Comecon restrictions was via the Magyar speciality known as the kiskapu, or “little gate”. When one door closes, the kiskapu usually opens, often lubricated by an envelope of bank-notes. So under Communism, if, for example, X was forbidden, something rather like X—but not actually identical to it and arguably something else—was surely permitted, because only X was forbidden.
The answer to the prohibition on the manufacture of cars, Hungary’s Communist leaders decided, was to make an enclosed geared vehicle with a steering-wheel and petrol engine that transported people in safety, but did not qualify as a car because it was too small: the microcar. As the Magyar microcar was not actually a car, it could drive through both the kiskapu and the thickets of Communist bureaucracy, or so the argument went, and so the microcar did, with some success.
Of course, Hungarian engineers are known for being wildly ingenious under the right conditions, and sometimes the wrong ones– “A Hungarian, the old joke goes, is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front”– and the piece has some useful things to say about the role that constraints can play in stimulating creativity. But this isn’t just an historical footnote:
Nowadays the Magyar microcars are a footnote in automotive history. But they were much more than engineering whimsy. The principles underlying their economy of design, ease of production and simplicity remain relevant today. Currently, about half the world’s population lives in cities, a figure projected to rise to 60% by 2030. Even if urban developers provide decent public-transport networks, many people will still want their own cars. This is especially true of the rapidly growing new middle classes of India and China. Microcars, which have fewer emissions, cost less to run and take up less parking space, are the obvious answer. Hence the Tata Nano, launched with much fanfare in India a year or so ago.