It’s easy to understand enthusiasts who, despite the difficulties, continue making the legendary AC Cobra. Or those who recreate Doc’s car from Back to the Future, or those who make replicas of the famous gull-winged Mercedes. It isn’t painful to drop several hundred thousand dollars for these beautiful, legendary cars. An altogether different story, though, is the Peel, which has always been an odd thing on three wheels, making it the smallest and probably the most bizarre car ever. But some people have decided to breathe new life into this strange project.
THE BIRTH OF THE TRIPOD
The Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea smack between England, Scotland and Ireland, is a strange place. A tailless breed of cat mutated and turned up here. They were the first in Europe to move to a parliamentary government and the last to abolish flogging in 1993. During World War II, British fascists were held here. And the Isle of Man, not giving a hoot what anyone thought, did not join the European Union. Today, this piece of land is sustained by offshore companies and tourism. The only thing that has disturbed the everyday routine of the islanders for more than half a century is the Tourist Trophy race (TT). The Manx 60 kilometer course is notoriously deadly. But even this small island has its own car manufacturer.
Manx-based Peel Engineering, located on this patch of land about 50 kilometers long, was initially in a high-demand business making fiberglass boats and fairings for motorcycles. Then one day, they decided to produce their own car, and they quickly moved from word to deed. By 1955, they presented their first prototype, the Manxcar. It had a motorcycle engine and three wheels: two for steering in the front and a traction wheel in the back. Amusingly enough, the coat of arms of the Isle of Man also depicts three legs. However, Peel Engineering was by no means guided by patriotism: Three-wheelers simply fell under the preferential tax bracket in the UK.
The prototype would have been the only one if it hadn’t been for Chief Engineer Cyril Cannell. In 1961, he began promoting the microcar project with the phrase “one adult and a shopping bag.” The cost of this mode of transportation was supposed to be like that of a moped. A year later, he demonstrated his creation at an auto show in London. The odd little fiberglass body was slightly more than a meter high and 99 cm wide and could fit only one person. The first generation of Peel P50 had only one headlight, one windshield wiper, and a single driver’s seat set on a tubular frame. Cyril Cannell had to demonstrate miraculous dexterity to climb into the car through the only door. As he did, the rickety, three-wheeled car swung away from the cart. Not that the former military bomber pilot was unaccustomed to cramped space.
The car rested upon the three wheels of a cart. The prototype had a single wheel in the front and two in the back, but the production model reversed everything. Using a chain belt, the rear wheel was powered by a 50-cc two-stroke DKW motor with just 4.2 hp. Gears on the three-speed manual transmission were shifted with a lever on the steering wheel. There was no reverse. Instead, a suitcase handle screwed in on the rear was used to turn the 61-kilogram car around or pull it onto the sidewalk. Advertising posters showed it being easily done by long-legged beauties.
The Peel P50 cost just £200 and used a little under three liters of gas to go 100 km. “Almost cheaper than walking,” said the advertisement. But walking was certainly more comfortable and less scary. In theory, the P50 could reach 60 km/h, but even at low speeds, the self-propelled travel bag, with its high center of gravity, would sway mercilessly. It would list dangerously on turns, testing the vestibular system of the driver, who was already having a tough time inside the procrustean cabin. When turning the wheel, the driver’s elbow would hit the cabin walls. On top of that, the motorcycle engine under the seat roared and vibrated deafeningly.
The launch of microcars in those years in post-war Europe was nothing out of the ordinary. Gas was expensive and people’s income didn’t inspire optimism. But the P50 stood out among the other self-propelled, ugly microcars of that time. Owners of three-wheelers were laughed at even by pedestrians who attempted to turn parked P50s around. It’s clear that this car brought Peel nothing but frustration and dubious publicity. Production of the P50 began in autumn 1964 and continued throughout the following year, but they produced fewer than 50 cars. Nonetheless, one P50 made it to Finland while another reached Canada.
Failure did not discourage Cyril Cannell, however. A year later, the Isle of Man was invaded by “aliens.” With their gleaming, transparent domes, they filed out from the gates of Peel Engineering Co. and crossed the bridge over the River Neb. They were then loaded onto a car carrier and taken to the port. From there, Cannell’s new brainchild went to the mainland. Two people could ride, jostling elbows, under the transparent dome of the Peel Trident. To fit both of them, the front part and the dome were tilted forward. Vent windows were cut into the sides of the body. The heavier car (90 kg) was equipped with the same DKW motor. Later Tridents were outfitted with the more powerful 99-cc Triumph Tina motor. But despite the fact that the two-seater Peel sold for the same price as the one-seater, sales were slightly better. And over two years, from 1964-1966, a total of 82 cars was produced.
Peel had tried producing normal cars. Back in 1953, it introduced the fiberglass hull for a roadster on the Ford block. Later in 1967, the Peel Viking Sport coupe was developed, with a plastic monocoque body on a Mini assembly. In 1969 the company ceased production, and five years later they closed.
THE RESURRECTION OF LILLIPUT
But in the early 2000s, interest in the curious little P50 and Trident began growing, mainly thanks to television. Remember Jeremy Clarkson who was cruising around the BBC office in the P50? By then, only half of the three-wheelers remained. However, replica Peel P50s and Tridents could be ordered from Andy’s Modern Microcards for £13,000. Customers could even choose a Peel Viking Sport replica.
The odd little Peel was by now a symbolic part of a British car industry that is now in ruins. This explains why attempts to revive this strange but distinctive brand continued. And the ’60s had stylish trends, like the popular Austin Powers. Not to mention the desire to save gas, which after the war was an unpleasant necessity, but is now considered good form for people concerned with the environment. And everyone envies Peel drivers in traffic – just think about the suitcase handle.
So when vintage car collector Gary Hillman saw one of the surviving P50s at an auction, it wasn’t by chance that he had the idea to bring the vintage brand back. Some time later, he found an investor, Faizal Khan.
Further funding was found in a non-standard way. In 2011, they took part in the BBC series “Dragon’s Den,” in which a person can present his idea to several millionaires and get investments in exchange for a share of the future profits. One of the Den’s experts and famous British businessman and investor, James Caan, showed interest in reviving the lilliputian brand. He invested £80,000 in exchange for a 30% share in the company and two cars, a P50 and a Trident.
Once again, the Peel Engineering Company was registered. The production volume was meager – a series of 50 cars, most of which had been pre-paid. The new P50 and Trident don’t really differ from the originals, and they are asking £6,995 for a car with a 50-cc four-stroke engine (3.35 hp) and an option for a reverse gear. It is capable of accelerating to 72 km/h, but there is also an electric version with a 4-kilowatt engine and a cruising range of 80 km/h.
Cyril Cannell himself worked on a four-wheeled electric Trident. The electric Peel was faster and could reach 80 km/h. The safe speed for the factory cars is limited to 45 km/h. They are also offering a FUN version, which is an electric Peel not intended for roads. Its top speed is around 20 km/h. True, you can drive it without a driver’s license – but slowly and sadly.
Text: Sofia Ponomareva