The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Small is beautiful: the strange story of the microcar
The diminutive Peel P50 microcar of the Sixties was soon handed its P45, says Richard Webber
When you think about classic microcars, images of the BMW Isetta or Messerschmitt KR200, both built from the ashes of Germany’s wartime aircraft industry, spring to mind. Less likely to be on the tip of your tongue is the diminutive Peel P50, arguably the smallest car to roll off a production line anywhere in the world.
For a while, particularly during the 1950s and early 1960s, the microcar market across Europe was thriving, partly because the buying public wanted mobility but, in many cases, couldn’t afford larger, costlier vehicles. Sales were brisk until the arrival of the Mini in 1959 sounded the death knell for many.
But it wasn’t the Mini which put paid to the P50. Sadly, the one-seater and its subsequent sibling, the twoseater (and four-wheel) Peel Trident, failed to live up to expectations and in 1966 production ceased after just three years.
Originating from the Isle of Man, hence the name, the quirky little three-wheeler was designed by Cyril Cannell and Henry Kissack as a runaround for islanders on the 600-plus miles of public roads. Fewer than 150 P50s and Tridents – costing just under £200 – were made and it wasn’t long before these glass fibre-bodied vehicles were all but forgotten.
But it’s astonishing how a car’s fortunes can change. In recent years, interest among enthusiasts, coupled with the fact that only about 60 P50s and Tridents now exist worldwide, mean the values of both have spiralled.
In 2016, a red P50 sold at auction in America for £120,000, and two years later in the UK a model needing some maintenance fetched £49,500.
Launched at an Earl’s Court motor show in 1962, the P50, with its twostroke, three-gear 49cc engine manufactured by German company DKW, went into production the following year. While its top speed was a dismal 40mph, fuel consumption was a staggering 100mpg, according to original advertising material.
Among the P50’s most ardent fans is 65-year-old Andy Carter, a retired industrial designer from Nottinghamshire. He bought his first for £100 in the 1990s and is now the proud owner of four.
“It has become a bit of an obsession, especially when you consider they’re not very practical cars – and particularly on modern roads,” he says. “Because they’re so tiny, you can be hidden between cars in traffic queues. And when a lorry is right on your back bumper, it’s not much fun.”
Carter, who used to run a Peel P50 and Trident restoration service, believes there are only 16 P50s – originally available in red, blue, white and yellow – remaining in the UK, although replicas have been made over the years and, more recently, by P50Cars.com.
These are available as a self-build kit from £7,495 and as a complete car for £11,495. Interestingly, both are bang up to date in that an electric option is offered alongside the traditional twostroke petrol engine.
Being lightweight – the P50 weighs in at 132lb – the car handles reasonably well, according to Carter. “Hitting a large pothole isn’t very nice, though, because it has tiny wheels,” he says. “But, in my view, it’s a simple, clever design with the suspension, comprising telescopic coil spring units, bolted directly to the glass-fibre body.”
Measuring only 53in long and 39in wide, the P50 could negotiate the
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to receive the best of our online output narrowest of gaps, as proved by Jeremy Clarkson, who squeezed his 6ft 5in frame into one on Top Gear and drove it inside BBC’s Broadcasting House; and back in 1963, a publicity stunt involved a model taken to the top of Blackpool Tower via the passenger lift and driven around the observation balcony.
The car was advertised as being capable of seating one adult and a shopping bag and despite having several distinctive features, including a single door on its left side and one centrally-positioned headlight, it also had drawbacks. One was the lack of reverse gear. When owners wanted to go backwards, they grabbed a handle on the boot and, quite literally, turned it around.
Carter agrees that the P50 has several faults. “To start the car, you use a handle inside, which can be awkward; and being tiny two-stroke engines, they can be temperamental to start. Plus the fuel tank on both models is made of glass fibre and today’s fuel, containing ethanol, can dissolve the material. So I either have to use highgrade fuel without ethanol or install a metal tank.”
When the car launched, the company received several warranty claims because owners forgot that its two-stroke engine required oil mixed with the petrol to lubricate the engine.
Fortunately, Carter hasn’t ever forgotten this requirement whenever he’s taken his vehicles on the road – not that he drives them regularly. “Last year, my son and I drove 60 miles to the National Microcar Rally. My son drove a P50 while I took the Trident. He arrived OK but, annoyingly, I broke down.”
When it comes to spares, owners often have to search abroad. “When the production line ceased in the mid1960s, Cyril Cannell sold moulds to an entrepreneur in Norway,” says Carter. “I’ve been in touch occasionally because some spares were sent there. But because the cars used moped engines, you can still unearth spares if you look hard enough.
“Original tyres are difficult to find, though. The company used Avon tyres with a particular tread. Modern equivalents can be used but don’t look the same.”
Carter admits that he doesn’t take the cars seriously. “Yes, they were perfectly adequate for their original purpose and being glass fibre meant production costs were low. Unfortunately for the company, it wasn’t a money-spinner.
“I see it as a little bit of history which didn’t quite work out – primarily because the vehicle was too small.”
The P50 proves popular with onlookers, however, whenever Carter ventures out on the road or attends car shows. “It always creates a crowd,” he says, smiling. “Every month there is a classic car rally at a local pub. If I take a Peel, people always crowd around while the Ferrari next door doesn’t get a look in.”