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11 Eensy-Weensy Automobiles

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When people think of small cars, one of the first that comes to mind is the Mini Cooper. It’s got its size right in the name, after all, even if some of the newer models, like the Mini Countryman, are less mini and more, say, fun-size.

Of course, the Mini Cooper is hardly the most miniature car on the market these days. And there are lots of cars smaller than a modern Mini that were built in the 1950s and 1960s, when car designers seemed to collectively ask themselves, “What other crazy car design stunts can we pull?” Some went big and added fins and chrome, while others got small and added a dollop of quirkiness.

For the car curious, here are the dimensions of the modern-day Mini Cooper plus ten other cars from today and yesterday that make this dwarf look like a giant.

1. 2013 Mini Cooper

Length: 144 inches
Width: 66 inches (including mirrors)
Height: 55 inches
Weight: 2855 pounds

Our standard for small will be the latest Mini flagship (or maybe, at this size, flag-dinghy), which has been on the market for more than a decade now. When it first appeared in 2002, it was surrounded by SUVs and king-cab pickup trucks. What was to keep these little guys from blowing right off the road every time a Humvee passed? When the bottom fell out of the economy and gas prices soared in 2008, small cars seemed a lot smarter, and the Mini got some pint-sized company on the road.

2. 2013 Fiat 500

Length: 140 inches
Width: 64 inches
Height: 60 inches
Weight: 2400 pounds

The latest entry into the American micro-car market is also Fiat’s first U.S. model in 20 years. These little guys are based on a classic Fiat design from the 1960s, but with modern tweaks and J. Lo-worthy amenities. Believe it or not, the new Fiat 500 is nearly two feet longer than the old one and a full foot wider.

3. 2013 Tata Nano

Length: 122 inches
Width: 59 inches
Height: 65 inches
Weight: 1322 pounds

When Tata introduced this car in India, the manufacturer trumpeted the fact that the Nano would be the world’s cheapest car, not that it’s also one of the smallest. It’s not exactly the hot seller Tata had hoped for (the Indian company also owns Land Rover and Jaguar, in a nice twist of post-colonial fate), given some labor disputes and its pokey 37-hp engine. But now that the small car segment is so big in America, a more powerful version that meets U.S. safety standards could arrive in the next three years.

4. 1961 Mini Cooper

Length: 120 inches
Width: 55 inches
Height: 53 inches
Weight: 1287 pounds

This is the Cooper made famous by the original The Italian Job. Design-wise, the newest Mini Coopers are a distant echo of the originals, but the originals were seriously small—a full foot shorter and half the weight of the modern Mini. It was launched in 1959 as the answer to an engineering challenge to create a car four feet high, ten feet long, and with room for four adults and their luggage. During the 1960s, surprisingly, the Mini proved its mettle as a rally racer, a feat the Mini Countryman is trying to repeat today.

5. 2012 Scion iQ

Length: 120 inches
Width: 66 inches
Height: 59 inches
Weight: 2127 pounds

Japan has long loved tiny cars, which are far easier to maneuver and park in crowded cities. Every once in a while, when the United States is in a small-car mood, Japanese companies allow one of their Hello-Kitty-cute cars to be sold in North America. This time around, it’s the Scion iQ, which seems to have driven straight from the pages of manga without changing its dimensions.

6. 1962 Fiat Jolly

Length: 117 inches
Width: 52 inches
Height: n/a; the top, as on a European bikini, was removable
Weight: 1069 pounds

The Fiat 500 Jolly is the kind of car swinging playboys of the 1960s would keep on board their yachts to drive from the dock to the casino at Monte Carlo. Because who wants to cart a Lamborghini Miura around on a boat? The Jolly had wicker seats and an infamously fringed top to keep the Mediterranean sun from burning a blonde bombshell’s delicate skin.

7. 1956 Messerschmitt KR 200

Wikimedia Commons

Length: 111 inches
Width: 48 inches
Height: 49 inches
Weight: 507 pounds

This wee three-wheeler was invented as a way for disabled WWII vets to get around, though it found a modicum of popularity as a “bubble car,” with its available Plexiglas roof. But the strangest thing about the Messerschmitt isn’t, surprisingly, its looks—it’s what you had to do to drive in reverse. The engine had to be turned off and a switch flipped, which reversed the direction the engine ran. When you started the engine back up, you’d go backward.

8. smart fortwo

Wikimedia Commons

Length: 106 inches
Width: 61 inches
Height: 61 inches
Weight: 1808

For modern drivers, smart cars are the most micro of the microcar segment. Though they’ve only been in the United States since 2008, they’ve been popular on the narrow cobblestone streets of Europe since their debut 1997. That’s when Mercedes-Benz teamed up with the watch design wizards at Swatch to come up with a drivable fashion accessory.

9. 1955 BMW Isetta

Wikimedia Commons

Length: 89 inches
Width: 53 inches
Height: 52 inches
Weight: 778 pounds

If the oddball Messerschmitt could be said to have a direct competitor, the egg-shaped Isetta is it. Early models were three-wheeled Italian affairs, but by the time BMW bought the concept from its refrigerator-manufacturing owners it had sprouted a fourth wheel in the back. The Isetta had a reverse gear, so it had to find its weirdness elsewhere, like the front door. The whole face of the car is the door the driver uses to get in and out. If you’ve ever driven a rental car down an ancient Parisian street, you’ve probably wished for just such a feature.

10. 1964 Peel P50

Length: 54 inches
Width: 41 inches
Height: 47 inches
Weight: 130 pounds (not a typo)

For half a century, the Peel P50 has held the title of World’s Smallest Production Car, according to the list masters at Guinness World Records. The P50 gained recent fame when the very tall, very grumpy Jeremy Clarkson, host of the very popular BBC show Top Gear, did some very ridiculous things in the cyclopean car. Only 50 were ever built, but don’t let that put a damper on your small-car dreams. Peel Engineering is taking names for a new limited run of P50s.

11. Wind Up!

Length: 51 inches
Width: 26 inches
Height: 41 inches
Weight: n/a

This one is really pushing it, since it’s a one-off built by Perrywinkle Customs in the UK, but it has been recognized as the World’s Smallest Car by Guinness. It is street legal, even at this size, with a body borrowed from a coin-operated kid’s ride and a chassis from a four-wheeler.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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