The bay door rolled up, and Don Erhardt Jr. felt the years come flooding back. There, in front of him, was an impeccably restored piece of family history. This Peel P50, an incredibly rare and impossibly tiny car, had been owned by the Erhardts for more than four decades. Now, here it was again, his childhood reborn.
“Iʼd never seen it look this small,” Erhardt said. “I was a little boy, 7 or so, when we first got it. Then, when it was in the workshop, it was always on a table at eye level. I was just at a loss for words [seeing it again].”
The P50 holds the Guinness World Record as the smallest production car ever made. It was built on the Isle of Man in the mid-1960s by Peel Engineering, a company that made fibreglass boat hulls. Packaged for absolute thrifty minimalism, it has only enough room for a single passenger. And youʼd better not be in a hurry to get anywhere.
Fewer than 50 P50s were produced, and only 27 are known to have survived, making each one shockingly valuable. Three years ago, a well-restored example sold at auction for US$176,000.
This particular example is even rarer. Itʼs one of two Canadian-spec cars brought to British Columbia in 1965 by an entrepreneur named Jim Birrell. The only export-market car ever made by Peel, it was adapted for the Canadian market by the installation of a rudimentary heater. Essentially a hollow tube bolted to the outside of the exhaust, the device theoretically transfers warm air into the cabin.
The P50 is one metre wide, a little over a metre tall, and weighs 105 kilograms. It has one mirror, one windshield wiper, one headlight, one door and three wheels. The engine is a DKW 49-cubic-centimetre, two-stroke scooter engine, which produces 4.2 horsepower. Instead of a reverse gear, it has a handle so you can pick it up and turn it around.
Birrell brought over two P50s, as well as a Peel Trident, which is the same idea but with a Jetsons-style glass bubble over the passenger area. He drove them to Victoria and around the B.C. Legislature, and the provincial government gave the little car its official approval. It could be sold and registered as a motorcycle, should anyone wish to purchase it.
Nobody did. At home in Britain, the P50 failed as the mid-1960s saw the rise of more sensible options like the British Motor Corporation (BMC) Mini. In B.C., most consumers balked at anything smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle.
But not Don Erhardt Sr. A born character, everyone called the Saskatchewan-born autobody-man “Windy” for his tendency to talk too much. He spotted this P50 in the window of a Burnaby marine supply store while riding his Harley-Davidson to work one day in 1968, and found it irresistible.
How the P50 ended up in a shop window is a little muddled by the years. Whatever the case, Windy took the little machine home, and let his kids have a go in it.
Don Jr. learned to drive the P50 at the age of 7, and was soon puttering around his parentsʼ small acreage, his four-year-old sister Lynn at his feet.
“I used to call it sneeze-o-matic steering,” he said, “because it was so touchy. Youʼd better keep your eyes open or youʼd go off the road.”
One day, both of Erhardtʼs parents drove off to work, leaving the young man contemplating his long walk to school. Why walk, when you can drive? Cut to to half of the Grade 3 class hanging off the sides of the P50 as it careened around the sports fields, teachers in hot pursuit. He got sent home, and there was to be no more commuting to elementary school.
Over the years, the P50 aged out of service. Windy Erhardt had always planned to restore it in his retirement, but parts were hard to find, and health problems slowed the project. When he died a few years ago, the family agreed to sell the car, but only if they could find a buyer who would cherish it as much as they had.
“I had calls from all over the world,” Erhardt said. “The reason I decided to sell it to Greg [Long] is that he was the only person as excited about the car as I was when I first saw it."
B.C.-born Long, now living in the state of Washington, has an affinity for strange cars with interesting stories, and the little Peel P50 couldnʼt have found a better home. It took him a full year to complete the restoration.
Firing up the Peel P50 takes a few firm yanks on the starter lever, and then a gentle nudge to get the thing going. It rocks alarmingly from side to side as you go, and the engine begins to sputter on the slightest incline. Itʼs insanely loud inside, as if you were sitting in the bell of a two-stroke-powered trumpet. You can physically see the gasoline sloshing around in the tiny tank, just by your right hand.
This is the slowest, loudest, most terrifying and most hilarious thing Iʼve ever driven. I canʼt stop laughing at how ridiculous it is. When the engine falters after a shift into second, I point the nose toward a storm grate. The mild slope lets the P50 pick up just enough speed to keep going, and it slingshots down the road at a walking pace that somehow feels incredibly dangerous.
You can see how such an experience might be burned into the memory of a young man. Itʼs the kind of thing youʼd always carry with you. This Peel P50 is, quite literally, the smallest of cars. Yet it looms large for one family.
“We all gave a little sigh when we saw it restored,” Erhardt said. “When we sold it, it was just a shell. Now, here it is again, filled with vitality. Seeing it again was coming full circle for us. We know our memories are in good hands.”
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