In the early days of personal motor transit, automobiles rapidly evolved from their spindly origins. Cars were so expensive, ownership of this new mode of transportation was an option only for the wealthy.
It was inevitable that a few inventive entrepreneurs would develop an inexpensive alternative. The answer was found in the spindly origins of the motorcar. Cyclecars were minimal and often primative, but they allowed one of modest means to take to the road. Comfort was not a consideration and reliability only an afterthought. It must have been exhilarating to take to the roadways at the wheel of your own car, even if it were a tiny car that could be cobbled together in a local garage of of wood, a motor and little else.
By the early 1920's the days of the cyclecar were numbered. The price of new Model T Fords keep droping closer to the price of cyclecars. In Great Britain, the memorable Austin 7 ousted the cyclecars and brought motoring to thousands who otherwise could never have afforded it. In December 1922 it cost £165. The boom was over.
Then an odd thing happened - the cyclecar became a novel convenience for the rich. No less than the Auto Red Bug - an American electric buckboard found favor at country estates and resorts. Meager motorists favored second-hand Fords and Austins.
After a global economic depression and World War II, conditions were right for the cyclecars successor, the microcar. But that is another story.
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Henry Ford's first effort - the 1896 Quadricycle easily meets the definition of a cyclecar. Six years later, the first Ford car would be built by Ford Motor Company. By 1924, more than 10 million Fords had been manufactured.
The 1903-1907 Waltham 'Orient' wooden buckboards provided low cost motorized personal transportation. A specialized version for the US Post Office had a mail case with pigeon-hole compartments directly in front of the driver. Waltham Manufacturing Co. also made bicycles and produced the first American motorcycle in 1898. In 1909 the firm became known as the Metz Car Company and devoted itself exclusively to the manufacturing of automobiles.
The British Aviette was an early 'kit-car'. Before World War I, one could build this single-seat cyclecar for £55. The wood plank sides resemble lap-strake boat construction.
Source: 'From Cyclecar to Microcar' by Michael Worthington Williams
Captain John Carden's first design, manufactured in pre-war England by Carden Engineering, was sold in 1919 to AV Motors Ltd of Middlesex. The single-seat car was known for it's styling, simplicity and erratic handling. Between 1919 and 1926, the AV aquired tandem seating, then side-by-side seating and power was increased from 5 to 8 hp.
Photo source: British Motor Manufacturers 1864-1960
1919 Tamplin cycle-car, like many light cars of the era, was built with a wooden frame and wood body panels. This tiny tandem 2-seater was the second Carden cyclecar produced by Capt. John Carden. He sold the manufacturing rights to the Carden concessionaire, E. A. Tamplin, who promptly renamed it. It is powered by an 8 hp 1,000cc air-cooled V-twin J.A.P. engine driving the rear wheels via segmented belt. The Tamplin stayed in production until 1925.
Photo © 2000 Guy Weatheral / www.vintageknowledge.co.uk
1920 Briggs & Stratton Flyer. In 1918, the Briggs & Stratton company of Milwaukee invested half a million dollars in new buildings and equipment to start the production of automobiles once again. Manufacturing patents and sales rights to the Smith Motor Wheel and the Smith Flyer had been purchased from A.O. Smith. The Flyer was little more than a buckboard, but Briggs hoped that by beefing up the engine from 1hp to 2 hp and adding a flywheel magneto, the automobile would be a bit more popular. Even with a slightly larger engine, the Flyer was considered one of the crudest automobiles ever sold. Two seats sat side-by-side on a stiff wooden platform with a large bicycle wheel at each corner. The small 2 horsepower Type "D" Briggs & Stratton Motor Wheel was mounted in back, making the car a five-wheeler. The car had no body and breaking power was applied to one wheel only. The price tag for this vehicle was $200. These cars were produced from 1919 to 1923.
Caption: Teri Olcott, VintageCars.about.com
1921 New Carden Capt. John Carden, having developed and sold his first two cyclecar designs, manufactured yet another car bearing his name in 1920. By now, wood was utilized less and the car was capable of transporting two people.
Photo source: Carros Antigos (Portugeuse)
1924 Slaby Beringer Self-Service Car The line began as a small electrically propelled vehicle created in the early 1920's by the partnership of the designer Dr. Rudolf Slaby and a Mr. Beringer, a manufacturing entrepreneur. One of their principal markets was Japan. the devastating Japanese earthquake of 1923 put the firm in jeopardy, and it was taken over by Danish Industrialist Joergen Rasmussen. Subsequently a gasoline powered two seat timber-bodied car (pictured) was built in the same Netherlands factory that built DKW motors. The Slaby-Beringer was forerunner of the DKW automobile, now a part of Audi.
Photo courtesy KFZ & Oldtimers (German)
Information courtesy SolarMobil.net (German)
1924 Auto Red Bug The most basic of cyclecars became the delight of Palm Beach and magnificent country estates after Automotive Standard bought the manufacturing rights in 1924. They converted the diminutive woodie from the Briggs and Stratton 'fifth-wheel' gasoline engine to electric power. Keep the batteries charged and the little buckboard woodie was as simple to operate as flipping a switch. The electric Red Bug even found it's way to European luxory resorts. Production ceased by 1929.
For more information, see the Old Woodies Red Bug feature.
1925 Mochet Velocar Before World War I Charles Mochet built small, very light cars. His wife had decided the common bicycle was far too dangerous for their son George, so Charles built him a pedal-driven four-wheeled vehicle of thin plywood. The 4- wheeler indeed reduced the danger of falling over. Nobody had guessed what else it might lead to. The 4-wheeler proved to be exceedingly fast. Little George was delighted with his 'véhicule à propulsion humaine' (VPH) when he easily left the other kids on bikes behind.
This soon led to a demand for the vehicles and Charles Mochet ultimately decided to give up the building of automobiles in favor of devoting himself to the construction of human powered vehicles. He built a two-seated, four-wheeled pedal-car for adults that he called "Velocar". Later a more spacious velocar was produced and many of these were converted to electric or gasoline power during the shortages of WW2.
In 1933, Mochet's experimental two wheeled bodiless velocar - an early recumbent bicycle - shattered existing pedal-powered speed records. The next year the cyclists sanctioning body, UCI, banned recumbents from competition forever.
Photo courtesy IHPVA (French)
Information courtesy Tomas Kaarlo Henrik Lindén
1930 Ernst Neumann-Neander prototype. Like the wild, extravagant designs he created for Szawe, this sleek cyclecar makes liberal use of mahogany to create an aerodynamic body. A 350 cc motorcycle engine is mounted beside the driver.
Source: 'From Cyclecar to Microcar' by Michael Worthington Williams
1949 King Midget Series 1. With a wooden chssis reminiscent of the Red Bug, the first offering from King Midget was sold for $270 from ads in the back of magazines. This one is in the collection of Bruce Weiner.
Courtesy of the Micro & Minicar Club
- Deutsche Kleinwagen nach 1945 by Hanns Peter Rossellen, 1991 (German)
- From Cyclecar to Microcar by Michael Worthington Williams, 1981
- History of the Motor Car on Brooke Bond Tea cards
- The Light Car Handbook by Candidus, 1916
- Microcar Mania by Chris Rees, 1995
- Three-Wheelers Shire Album 165 By Ken Hill, 1995
- The Vintage Car Guide by Cecil Clutton, P. Bird & A. Harding, 1959, 1976