It all started in 1884 when Edward Butler patented the design of a motor tricycle. Three years later he patented a modified machine he called ‘Petrol-Cycle’ which featured a pair of front steering wheels and a single rear driving wheel. Two horizontal water-cooled cylinders, 2.25 inch bore and 8 inch stroke, drove directly on to overhung cranks fixed to the rear wheel. The two-stroke engine worked on the Clerk principle, that is pump-compression. Modifications to increase the power resulted in the reduction of the stroke to 6 inches and a change to four stroke cycle plus the use of epicyclic reduction gear. The photograph is of this modified machine. Despite Butler’s ingenuity, including the invention of a spray carburettor, the combined effects of restrictive road laws and the myopia of his sponsors resulted in the project being abandoned. In 1895 the first British internal combustion engined tricycle was broken up for its scrap value.
The restrictive ‘Red Flag’ Road Acts of 1861 and 1865 killed off any development of engine-propelled road vehicles in Britain, allowing development on the Continent and in the USA to surge ahead. It took many years for Britain to catch up.
Following the repeal of these infamous acts in 1896 development of motorised tricycles proceeded apace. An early example was the Humber ‘Olympia’ of 1898. This was based upon a pedal tricycle with two steerable front wheels and a single rear wheel driven by a single cylinder engine mounted on an outrigger. The drive was by chain with the passenger seated between the front wheels. Other designs which were both heavier an. The pre-war Morgans were very successful in competition, this stimulated sales.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 production of cyclecars was reduced and following the armistice in 1918 Morgan was one of the first manufacturers to get back into full production, beating the competition by some months. Advertising coupled to continuous success in racing resulted in record sales for the various models available. In the following ten years no less than twenty eight designs of three-wheelers were produced in Britain, these are listed in appendix one. Despite the popularity, of these machines, only seven were to remain in production for over three years. The first serious rival to the Morgan was the Castle Three produced in Kidderminster. Introduced in 1919 it was an attempt to avoid the spidery cyclecar image, looking more like a proper car. The engine fitted at first was a 1094cc Dorman, later replaced by a 1207cc Peters. With steel artillery type wheels and shaft drive it was a substantial vehicle, but at £295 it was the most expensive three-wheeler on the market. Production lasted only three years before production switched to a four wheeled model. The Morgan works was situated in Pickersleigh Road Malvern, just around the corner in Worcester Road was the works of the Santler Company. Having produced conventional cars before the war, in 1920 they embarked upon the manufacture of what can only be described as a mirror image of the Morgan. It is reputed that H F S Morgan did not take this competition seriously, in this he was quite correct. After producing around twelve cars and vans, Santlers disappeared without trace. At the same time the Scott Company produced the ‘Sociable’ an unusual design, with one rear wheel in line with the front one, powered by Scott’s two cylinder two stroke engine, it lasted in production for four years. Although three-wheelers were popular at the time, Herbert Austin’s introduction of the Seven, provided a proper car with room for two adults and two children at a cost of £225, but only months after introduction the cost was cut to £165. This was a serious blow to the manufacturers of three-wheelers, with the majority failing to survive this competition.
As before the war, the commercial use of three-wheelers proved popular. The James Cycle Co. of Greet in Birmingham produced a three wheeled box van with a motorcycle type girder forked front wheel for ten years after its introduction in 1929. In direct competition and soon after selling A.J.S. to Associated Motor Cycles the Stevens Brothers went into vehicle manufacture at their remaining Wolverhampton factory in 1932. Here they produced a three wheeled light delivery van which like the James had a single front wheel carried in heavy duty motor cycle front forks. It was powered by their own 588cc. water cooled side valve engine, drive was by chain to the rear axle, later by shaft drive. In all 500 were made before production ceased in 1938. S.A.Newman Ltd. of Birmingham produced a similar van called the Ivy Karryall, this was taken over by the Raleigh Cycle Co. who produced their own improved version of this in 1930,and in 1933 added the Safety Seven car to their range. This was powered by their own air cooled engine, a 742cc V – twin coupled to a three speed and reverse gearbox with conventional propeller shaft and rear axle. It was priced at 99 guineas. BSA had beaten them to it introducing their three-wheeler car in 1929. With front wheel drive and independent suspension the six models offered were popular for a short time. By producing cars at this time both firms were taking a huge risk. The large volume car manufacturers, Austin, Morris and Ford were using mass production continuous line systems and by 1931 Morris had produced the first £100 car. Meanwhile, Ariel took a backward step in 1932 introducing a commercial three wheeler marketed under the name of Fleet Motors; this featured two wheels at the front, either side of a box with a motorcycle rear end, the driver being exposed to the elements; a basic design which harked back to the decade prior to the war. With a claimed load capacity of 10cwt it was priced at £87.10, production ceased in 1936.
Neither Raleigh or BSA could compete on price with the big three car manufacturers though they did on quality, both ceased production by 1936. Coventry Victor fared a little better with six models on offer they survived until 1938. Morgan’s undoubted success was due mainly to the fact that it was essentially a sports car. Following the decision by Raleigh to cease van production their designer, T.L.Williams left the Company, starting up on his own to manufacture his version of the van under the name of Reliant. Constant improvements were made including the use of the Austin Seven derived engine when production ceased following the outbreak of war in September 1939.
History repeated its self after the war with a public hungry for affordable personal transport. Supplies of steel were restricted to those manufacturers who were able to export, only a very limited amount being allowed for home consumption. Thus the time was right for simple, aluminium bodied cyclecars. One of the first to go into production was Laurie Bond’s ‘Minicar’ manufactured by Sharp’s Commercials of Preston. First with a Villiers 122cc engine, soon replaced by the 197cc unit. The body design was improved and various models were available including open tourers both 2 seater and 2+2, a 2+2 saloon and an estate. AC returned to cyclecar production in 1952, introducing the ‘Petite’ Using a rear mounted Villiers single cylinder two stroke engine of 346cc later increased to 353cc. Correctly described by Michael Sedgwick as an “an austerity-era trike that’s better conceived than most.” Reliant resumed production of their girder forked van in 1946. Its simplicity and economy made it popular with over 7000 being produced. In 1951 they introduced their first car, the Regal. Production started in 1953, bodywork was aluminium on an ash framework and the van engine was used. The body was changed over time, with glassfibre reinforced plastic (GRP) replacing the hand beaten sheet aluminium.
There was no British design of ‘bubble car’ though Trojan produced the Heinkel under licence from 1961. Also produced under licence was the Nobel, a 2+2 coupe. Assembled by Harland & Wolfe, the chassis was made by aviation firm Shorts and the GRP body by the Bristol Aircraft Co. It was only produced for three years, 1958 to 1961. The caravan manufacturers Berkeley also produced a three-wheeler sports car with GRP body and using the excellent Excelsior Talisman Twin engine. It was only produced for two years 1959 to 1961. At this time a number of firms manufactured the Frisky, a 2 seater roadster with a GRP body and later also using the Excelsior twin engine. Production ran from 1957 to 1961. Another 3 seater roadster was offered by Powerdrive from 1955 to 1958 with either a Villiers or Anzani engine. One of the cheapest three wheeler on the British market was the Gordon. Made in Cheshire by a subsidiary of Vernons Pools it used a 197cc Villiers engine mounted on the off-side of the car and drove just one of the rear wheels by chain. Possibly the cheapest vehicle on offer in 1956 was the Tourette made by Carr Bros. of Purley. A GRP bodied, Villiers engined two seater, only 26 were made.
As before, an innovative design from the Austin Company in Longbridge, this time the ‘Mini’, metaphorically speaking, burst the bubble. With the Mini becoming fashionable, micro cars fell from favour. Reliant alone survived, mainly because of a radical re-design of the Regal. The GRP body was made up of two units bonded together, without the framework and an entirely new all aluminium OHV engine was developed. Both being innovations, Reliant were the first British company to volume produce an all GRP body and an all aluminium engine. This model, the 3/25 was introduced in 1962 and production continued with engine and bodywork changes up to 1973 when production switched to the Robin, later followed by the Rialto. Bond Cars also responded to the Mini challenge producing a GRP bodied saloon with a rear mounted Coventry Climax designed Hillman Imp engine. Reliant’s response to this serious competition was simple but effective. They took over the Bond company and stopped production. Only the name was retained and used for Reliant’s futuristic designed Bond Bug. Produced from 1970 to 1974 this strange vehicle did not achieve the sales expected with only 1620 being made.
Reliant finally ceased production in February 2001. It is ironic that it outlived its greatest rival, the Mini, even if only by a few weeks. Reliant’s demise brought down the curtain on three-wheeler production in Britain, we will not see their like again.