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1964 Peel P50 (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)
1964 Peel P50 (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

Classic cars 1964 Peel P50

Extremely small cars sell for extremely large prices Add to ...

You’d just about fill the interior of the 1964 vintage Peel microcar, the world’s smallest production automobile, if you stuffed it with the 120,750 U.S. dollar bills one sold for recently at the biggest auction of little cars ever held.

The toy-like Peel was one of 200 miniature motor cars and memorabilia sold for $9.1-million (U.S.) by Canada’s RM Auctions, in what turned out to be a surprisingly big-dollar sale of some extremely small cars. One of the little buzz-bombs, a sporty 1958 F.M.R Tg500 “Tiger” sold for an astonishing $322,000, and a gawky-looking 1951 Reyonnah for $184,000.

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The auction returned to the microcar collector wild an extensive collection of these diminutive automotive creatures, captured and caged by one-time Canadian bubble-gum-maker Bruce Weiner in his Madison, Ga., museum.

Microcars were a mainly European post-war phenomenon, an effort by a number of mostly small companies short on resources to put wheels under people short of cash and fuel.

What evolved was a gaggle of miniaturized vehicles, powered by moped or motorcycle engines, which could trundle a driver and passenger around the world’s cities, and often further afield. By the early 1960s, they had been largely displaced by new generations of bigger small cars, such as the Austin Mini.

The half-pint-sized Peel – the Guinness Book of World Records says it’s still the world’s smallest production automobile – belatedly arrived on the scene in 1962, the brainchild of Isle of Man resident Cyril Cannell. After spending the war servicing aircraft, Cannell establish Peel Engineering Co. on the island (located in the Irish Sea and famous for its around-the-island TT motorcycle races), which produced fibreglass boats and streamlined motorcycle fairings.

But Cannell had also developed an interest in mini-cars and by 1955 had created the Peel Manxman, a prototype that never went into production. However, the notion of building an urban commuter or shopping car still simmered on Cannell’s back burner.

And, in 1962, a Peel P50 prototype (with single front and two rear wheels) was introduced to an unsuspecting and, as it turned out mildly interested, British public at London’s Earls Court motorcycle show. A British Pathe film commentator quipped, while watching a female model wheel it by hand (no reverse gear was fitted) into a slot between two cars – “no difficulty parking whatsoever. But as it’s not easy to see, you must remember where you left it.”

A now-energized Cannell then set about putting the Peel P50 into production. The P50’s body structure was produced from fibreglass and was just 1,350 mm long, 990 mm wide and 120 mm tall, and it weighed 59 kg. It had one central cyclopean headlight and one door, on the left and hinged at the rear. Inside there was a single seat, a steering wheel and gearshift, and not much else. Classed as a motorcycle, it didn’t even require a speedometer.

Its two small wheels were awkwardly splayed up front, with a single driven wheel at the rear. Powering what looked like an oversized playground toy, and tucked under the right side bodywork, was a 4.5-hp, 49-cc, Zweirad Union (DKW)-sourced, two-stroke, fan-cooled motor with three-speed gearbox. With no reverse, the driver still had to jump out, lift the rear end off the pavement with the chrome handle provided, and roll it around like a wheelbarrow.

Acceleration, as might be expected, was glacial to its top speed of 60 km/h. I’m guessing a following breeze would result in the blue smoke cloud emitted by that hard-working little two-stroke keeping pace. On the plus side, it was claimed it could achieve fuel economy of 100 mpg, or less than 3.0 litres/100 km, said to be “almost cheaper than walking.”

Fewer than 50 were built in 1963 and 1964, and sold for £199 a copy, before people realized just how impractical they actually were and stopped buying them.

There were even efforts made to export them. A BBC story relates that during an evaluation by U.S. transportation authorities, an inspector rolled a P50 down an embankment, but after emerging unscathed, gave it his stamp of approval. There’s no mention of any turning up in Canada.

In another BBC connection, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson drove a Peel through the hallways of the corporation’s London offices.

Cannell didn’t give up on microcars, however, the P50 being followed by the Trident, with the same mechanical layout, but side-by-side seating for two (or one plus a shopping basket), and a clear bubble top. Only 45 were made. The company then made 25 sporty fibreglass-bodied, Mini-based cars before ending its time as the Isle of Man’s only auto maker.

Cannell’s company was eventually wound up (he died in 2008), but the Peel P50 has been brought back to life by Peel Engineering, located in England; its website says it will sell you one (or at least put you on the waiting list) for £10,000. It also make Tridents, and will rent you one to drive off in on your wedding day for £999.

Microcar collection owner Weiner, although American-born, was a frequent visitor to Toronto, where his father lived, and at the age of 21 established the Continental Gum company to market gumball machines. He moved into the gum business itself in the mid-1980s with the creation of Concord Confections, acquiring the Double-Bubble brand among others, before selling the company to Tootsie Roll Industries in 2004.

Initially keen on sports cars, Weiner discovered microcars in 1991, when he bought his first, a Messerschmitt, a cockpit-sized car produced by the German aircraft maker. A self-described “born collector,” he acquired 50 or so, then auctioned them all off, only to immediately start afresh, eventually accumulating enough to fill a dedicated museum. But the “thrill of the chase” that motivated him obviously faded, leading to his decision to sell his world-class collection.

Perhaps the $9.1-million realized by the sale of his 200 microcars will spur a new automotive enthusiasm. It would make a useful down payment on one of those almost $30-million-a-copy Ferrari GTOs sold last year.

 

Back in 1964
On April 4, The Beatles claim the top five spots on the Billboard Top 40 with Can’t Buy Me Love, Twist And Shout, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand and Please Please Me.
Sidney Poitier becomes the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for his performance in the movie Lilies of the Field.
Movies Mary Poppins, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, The Pink Panther and Viva Las Vegas premiere.

 

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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