Morgan 3-wheeler

Cyclecars — passenger changed gears

BRITAIN still builds cars, lots of them, at its 14 different production lines.

But there was a time when it had 160, yes, 160, different brands available to a very car-hungry, but cash-strapped public. 

It was at the height of the cyclecar boom and at the same time France had 112 manufacturers, the US 72 and other cars were built in variety of countries, among them Argentina, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Spain, Canada, Sweden — even Denmark.

Everybody wanted a car, but the earliest brands, such as Benz, Panhard, Renault, Peugeot and Ford, were beyond the reach of most folk — until the cyclecar came along.

They were small, light tandem-style two-seaters, usually powered by motorcycle engines, three or four-wheeled and they filled a gap in the market between the motorcycle and the car.

Moreover, they were taxed at about half the rate for registration and annual licences of small cars.

All had to have clutches and variable gears and drive to one or more wheels was by either belt or chain, so there was no need for a differential.

The bodies were spartan and most offered minimal or no weather protection or comfort features.

But hey, they could go anywhere a regular car could, so sales were brisk throughout Europe, the UK and the US.

There were even races and hillclimbs for them and in 1912 Temple Press launched The Cyclecar magazine.

A Bédélia won the 1913 Cyclecar Grand Prix held at Amiens. 

A Morgan came in first and Morgan enthusiasts have claimed it as a win to this day.

It was largely on publicity from this success that Morgan broke into the French market, resulting in the creation of the Darmont company.

The Brits could choose anything from an AC and a Humberette to a Zendik, the French had Amilcars, Bedelias, Salmsons and scores more to sort through.

The Americans had some with colourful names, like the Briggs and Stratton Flyer (later of lawnmower fame), the Baby Moose, Twombly, Dudly Bug and Dodo. The latter might have been a good investment.

Germans had the Arimofa, Bootswerf Zeppelinhafen and Zaschka among their 12 brands.

There were 10 Italian cyclecar makers and in Greece there was the Theologlou.

Cyclecar 2
Cyclecars all the rage before World War I.


The cyclecar era started around 1910 and reached a peak just before the outbreak of World War I, but by the mid-1920s most of the 400 or so manufacturers had shut their doors.

That was because the ‘real’ car makers had advanced to mass production and were able to cut costs so more people could afford them.

However, a few of the littlies achieved greater longevity, including the French-built Bédélia (1910-1925) and the Morgan, which was one of the first (since 1909) and is still being produced today.

It’s also one of the longest marques to be British-owned, going to Italian control in 2019, while the rest of the Brit brands have long disappeared or are owned by German, Indian or other foreign companies.

Today 14 brands are built in the UK and only two — Caterham and McLaren — are still British owned.

Those built there are various models of Mini, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Lotus, Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Land Rover and Vauxhall.

Of the once popular cyclecars, very few appear to have arrived in Australia, likely due to the long distances between towns and relatively poor roads, compared to conditions in Europe.

However, there is a Bedelia in WA’s York Motor Museum and a few Swifts and Zebras apparently arrived in Adelaide circa 1913.

The (Adelaide) Mail of June, 1913 quoted the Cyclecar magazine in reference to the Swift cyclecar: “There is nothing to come up to a Swift. A perfect little miniature car. It runs sweetly, is easy to drive, is wonderful for hill climbing, is reliable on greasy roads, and can be driven at a high speed or crawl along amid congested traffic with no inconvenience and with perfect safety.”

Such a statement from the recognised authority on cyclecars makes one look forward with interest to seeing the first shipment, which is due in South Australia next week. 

The agents, Phoenix Motor Company, of Pirie street, advise that they have received dozens of enquiries for this wonderful little water-cooled car in miniature.

Another report in the Mail says the first two Zebra cyclecars of the order lodged with the French manufacturer have been unpacked by Messrs. Eyes and Crowle, Limited. 

“A staunch and well designed little vehicle it is, and the agents base high hopes on it supplying the wants of intending cyclecar purchasers.

“The engine is a four-cylinder water-cooled one of 8.10-hp and the gearbox is constructed on the ordinary car principle ‘with three speeds forward and reverse.’ 

“A Claudel-Hobson carburetter and five wire  (or wooden) wheels are fitted.

“A pointed radiator adds to its attractiveness, and the chassis is extremely light, although strongly put together.

“Providing the little car holds the road well, the agents should do well with it in this State.”

Some Swifts and Zebras were also sold in WA and likely in other states too.

However the Bedelia was one of the more interesting and longer lasting of the era.

It was built by Frenchman Robert Bourbeau, who crashed his motorbike and he and his friend Henri Devaux decided to use the parts and whatever else they could find to build something new and better. 

Bourbeau and Devaux became France’s first real cyclecar builders around 1910, which made them one of the world’s earliest makers of these little vehicles.

It’s a weird thing: the driver sits at the rear, which is odd, but even stranger is that you actually needed a passenger up front, because one was needed to help shift ‘gears’.

Well, the Bedelia was belt-driven and changing the ratios was a strange operation: The little air-cooled V-twin engine itself slid back-and-forth on rails, and that adjusted the tension of the belt to act as a clutch and to change the driving ratio of the engine to the wheels.

On early versions, the passenger had to manually reach out and move the belt to different pulleys, but later ones employed a flanged pulley system that let the driver do it all from the rear.

The August 9, 1912 edition of Scientific American had a racing Bedelia on the cover and described its operation in detail:

“The motor is mounted on rails so that it may be moved fore and aft a certain distance in order that the driver may loosen or tighten the belts through which the car is driven; this movement of the engine controlled by a worm gear operated by the driver. There is no clutch, properly speaking, nor there is there any countershaft the drive from the engine being taken directly to the rear wheels through two long belts about twelve feet in length…

The driving pulleys are mounted directly on the ends of the engine crankshaft and are of a very unusual type. 

In the larger part of them there are small centrifugal governors and as the speed of the car advances, these contrivances draw the cheeks of the driving pulleys together slightly thus increasing the diameter of the driving pulleys and thereby amplifying the gear ratio between the engine and the road wheels.”

There you have it. Simples, as a meerkat might say – and, in effect, it was probably the forerunner of the 1961 Dutch Daf Daffodil’s Variomatic transmission, known today as a CVT.

Also, in 1914 the US Society of Automotive Engineers produced a fascinating 16-page document titled The Possibilities of the Cyclecar which is probably the earliest thorough discussion of the concept.

There’s analysis about why friction drive makes so much sense in a cyclecar, and talk about belt drives, chain drives, and shaft drives, and the advantages of each. 

There’s also discussion about how belt drives afford differential action, and how they work quite well in the wet. 

Plus, of course, there’s mention of Bedelia, and how the French company started the whole cyclecar movement, which had lots of promise to bring cheap transportation to the US.

The author of that paper? It was William Bushnell Stout, who would later become a General Motors executive and start his own company that built the state-of-the-art Stout Scarab — a fascinating vehicle that some claim to be the world’s first minivan. 

So the cyclecar era came and 99.9 per cent of the hundreds of original brands went. The sole survivor is the Morgan, still available as a three-wheeler, though now called a Super 3.

Morgan has since day one been based in Malvern Link, has a staff of about 220 and produces only 850 cars per year, each one assembled by hand. 

The waiting list ranges from six months upwards and has been as long as 10 years.

It has a loyal and active owners’ community with more than 5000 members and 50 clubs globally.

And it started life as a cyclecar.


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