The Russian-born, Westphalia-domiciled engineer Paul Kleinschnittger conceived the idea for the cheapest drivable car possible in the late 1930s, likely with inspiration from Josef Ganz' "May Beetle" prototype, Steyr's stylish "Baby" microcar, from the Third Reich's KdF-Wagen efforts, or some combo of these inspirations.
Using parts from scrapped airplanes and military vehicles, he completed his 98cc single headlamp prototype in 1949. Building a small factory, he put his front-engined "4-wheeled scooter" into series production. Production of the little car was very frugal, bordering on miserly, with the aluminum bodywork being hand-hammered over wooden bucks with rubber hammers.
Little or no welding was done at the factory, the bodywork being riveted together, and the chassis being bought out complete from the still extant, Altena-based metal fabricator Wachtendorf und Schmidt.
The complex tubular chassis rode on a novel rubber band-based suspension, and the body resembled a child's pedal car or a carnival ride.
The prototype, shown near the end of 1949, was identifiable by its split windshield and two-tone paint.
On April 26, 1950 the first five production cars were shown to the press, finished in brown, green, ivory, black and dark brown. Production was rather slow getting underway, and optimistic production quotas of 500 per month soon gave way to 10 to 30 cars. Its exceptional fuel mileage (quoted at 80 miles per gallon by US distributor Whizzer, Inc., and listed by the factory as a range of almost 170 miles using every drop in the 1.5 gallon fuel tank.
The early cars had full-width grilles and square windshields, with the windshield becoming more conventional in 1952 and slotted grilles debuting for 1953. Kleinschnittger was an industry leader in the fitting of Hella "blinker" turn signals, where most European cars had the easily damaged flip-up trafficators or "semaphores" in that era. Export cars got a clock as the sole creature comfort. No jack was provided, as the car was light enough to lift by hand, and since there was no reverse gear, the car had to be lifted at the rear and turned around by hand, plus there was no spare tire (even as an option) until 1952. The Kleinschnittger F-125s were handmade in Arnsberg, Germany, from April 1950 until August 1957. In the early days of production, their aluminum bodies were sourced from army surplus cooking pots and pans. They were hammered flat, shaped, and riveted together instead of welding to save cost. They ramped up the engine to a 125cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine that sent power through a three-speed chain/ratchet drive to the front wheels. It produced 6 hp and a top speed of roughly 43 mph/55kph. Each of the four wheels featured fully independent rubber band suspension instead of the more traditional leaf or coil springs—again to cut cost. It also had four-wheel cable brakes, and most came equipped with an under-dash rope pull-starter—though an electric starter could be added for an additional 200 DM (then, about $48), and the factory did not recommend the self-starter due to how much its weight affected the car's handling and balance. After 7 years of production, with a few cars even going to Whizzer, Inc. in Detroit before their near disastrous attempt at marketing the Maico 500 in the US, sales diminished and the Kleinschnittger factory shut down. The cars had been surpassed by other microcars such as the Isetta and Goggomobil, and the increasingly popular VW Beetle. While Kleinschnittger did make several prototypes for larger 250cc-engined sedans and a 50cc scooter, he couldn’t find another financier, and in 1957 filed for bankruptcy. Afterwards, he bought back all the leftover parts and kept servicing them. He became a beloved figure in the microcar community and supplied spares to his fans until his death in 1985. About 3,000 cars were made, going to 21 other countries besides West Germany and the US. Many have survived to this day (sadly no known USDM ones are known to have survived), and one (albeit with hideous modifications that could only be called corny) was even used in the 2002 Super Bowl commercial that introduced the Cadillac Escalade EXT to America.