The Scootacar was promoted as having room for a driver and groceries, but in practice, it was one or the other
Sometimes I wonder how the British ever managed to produce distinguished automobiles when the government threw so many obstacles in the path of the motor industry.
Perhaps the most significant was the motor vehicle tax policy with its quixotic exemptions, arcane methods of calculating horsepower, and arbitrary categorization.
The most interesting unintended consequence of these policies was the wide variety of successful and not-so-successful three-wheel automobiles that were produced before and after WWII. Not that three-wheelers don't have lineage-Karl Benz's vehicle, an 1885 invention, was a trike.
Three-wheel automobiles have been part of the mainstream transportation system in England since at least 1910, when Morgan began production. The British government may have felt that motorcycles could reduce congestion, but economics played a big part. Before WWI, an automobile cost several years' salary for a working man; a cheap and efficient light car would not be made until the Austin Seven of 1922.
Lightweight cyclecars like the Tamplin flourished before and after WWI but were terrifyingly crude, with fabric bodies, wire-and-bobbin steering and pointed noses; perhaps a good idea, as the brakes were practically non-existent.
Tax loophole was significant
Besides, cyclecars had four wheels. As the 1921 Motor Taxation Act was written, three-wheeled vehicles would be taxed at a flat rate of four pounds a year ($20) like motorcycles, so long as they weighed less than 1,000 pounds and had no reverse gear. This compared with the four-wheel tax of one pound per horsepower, which led to a Rover costing nine pounds a year ($45) to license and a little Austin Seven costing eight pounds ($40). When a London borough employee made four pounds a week, you can see the importance of this loophole.
There were two golden eras in Britain for three-wheeled vehicles. The first was between WWI and WWII, when a car still cost a year's salary, without the addition of the onerous road tax (tags to us). These are mostly known as trikes. There were 28 different three-wheelers made in England in the 1920s and seven of them lasted more than three years.
Morgan was the dominant force in the three-wheeled market, but competed with companies such as BSA and Raleigh (best known for bicycles or motorcycles), as well as Sandford, Scott Sociable, Castle Three, LSD, and Coventry-Victor, plus emerging small cars like the Austin Seven and Morris Minor.
Weighing less than 1,000 pounds and powered by 1,000-cc engines, Morgan trikes were fast for the period and today are a fixture at many vintage car races, generally with the drivers wearing period leather flying helmets if they aren't required to have a Snell-approved crash hat.
In recent years, several kit-car manufacturers such as BRA, JZR, and Jeluli have made reproductions of pre-war Morgans, powered by Honda or Moto Guzzi V-twin engines. These kits are as Spartan as the originals, with minimal weather equipment and a narrow body that requires driver and passenger alike to hang their elbows outside the vehicle (and mind the hot exhaust).
Dawn of the microcar age
The second three-wheeled era began in the 1950s with microcars and the early days of potato-shaped fiberglass coachwork. Britain was broke after WWII, taxes had increased, and even the cost of petrol had soared. In 1952, Reliant adapted its 1935, three-wheeled commercial van to create the Regal, a small sedan with one wheel up front. Laurie Bond introduced his tiny, aluminum three-wheeler in 1949, powered by a single-cylinder, 192-cc motorcycle engine that turned past 90 degrees with the front wheel, eliminating the need for reverse gear. Starting was by pull cable, like a lawnmower. If the cable broke, the hood could be opened for a direct kick-start.
Veteran car maker Auto-Carrier (AC)-which dates back to a three-wheeled delivery van in 1904-was tempted back to the market with the unreliable Petite, modeled on its invalid carriage, provided to disabled drivers by the government. Berkeley made a pint-sized fiberglass sports car which could be picked up and turned around, and Isle of Man manufacturer Peel produced a single-seater Scootacar of only 50 cc displacement. It was promoted as having room for a driver and groceries, but in practice, it was one or the other.
Even today, the sight of a fiberglass-bodied three-wheeled car isn't unusual in Britain, especially in smaller towns and villages. Reliant made almost 500,000 cars before its demise in 2002. A brief experiment with the bizarre, wedge-shaped Bond Bug petered out in 1974.
Meanwhile, parallel poverty in 1950s Europe produced the relatively sophisticated Heinkel, Isetta, and Messerschmitt bubble cars and their scary Iron Curtain cousins like the slab-sided Fuldamobile, which was tacked together from aluminum panels and a wood frame.
The original Mini killed all but the Reliant by about 1963, but the three-wheel dream still reappears periodically. Inventor Clive Sinclair dabbled with a single-seater in England in the early 1980s and a similar idea surfaced recently in the U.S. as the Corbin Sparrow.
Showing up in a Meadows Friskysport
Enthusiasts seem to divide into two camps: those who enjoy pre-war Morgans and their kin, and the devotees of eccentric 1950s-style microcars. The latter delight in showing up at British car meets in Reliant Robins, Bond Bugs, Peel Tridents, Allard Clippers, Powerpluses, and Meadows Friskysports.
Pre-WWII Morgans set the sporting style with a single driven wheel in the rear, powered by a chain from an engine mounted between the two front wheels. Morgan Super Sports used Matchless, JAP, and Blackburne 1,000-cc V-twin engines, controlled by a hand throttle on the steering wheel. Contrarily, the BSA used a water-cooled 900-cc 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive.
Morgan finally clattered into the automotive mainstream in 1936 when 4-cylinder, Ford-powered, three-wheelers accompanied the introduction of the first Morgan four-wheeler. After WWII, the company only offered the Ford-powered three-wheelers until giving up the idea altogether in 1950.
Postwar British three-wheelers tend to have a single steered wheel in the front, with a small front-mounted engine connected by a driveshaft to the two rear wheels. This creates the maximum passenger space, while the light fiberglass body (a man can lift one side of the car) makes them quite nippy, at the expense of frightening vulnerability and dubious handling, especially in side winds.
Today there is a small but highly enthusiastic movement to preserve these peculiar cars. If you doubt this, just check out www.3wheelers.com with its links to a plethora of web sites on dozens of makes of three-wheeled cars, as well as three-wheeled motorcycles and motorized delivery carts.
You'll either be intrigued or sensibly terrified. As English automotive journalist Cecil Clutton wrote in The Vintage Motor Car Pocketbook back in 1959: "Morgan enthusiasts claim they are the safest things on the road. Lesser mortals just think the enthusiasts are very brave.