New Peel P50: a drive in the world’s smallest car

In 2017, in the rarefied, balmy climes of RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction, some brave soul coughed up around £5 million for the sole Aston Martin DB4 GT prototype.

Even production examples are said to be worth about £3m, which makes the ‘continuation’ DB4 GTs currently being built by Aston Martin Works seem great value at around £1.5m a pop.

But three lots before that Aston went under the hammer in California, a rare surviving example of the world’s tiniest car also made an enormous impact. The humble, charming and frankly ridiculous Peel P50–all 54 inches of it– fetched just over £105,000. Not bad for a single-seat, single-cylinder three-wheeler with an original list price of £199.

In fact, P50s have sold for more than £130,000. And unlike Johnny- come-latelies Aston Martin and Jaguar (with its continuation Lightweight E-Type and XKSS), London-based Peel Engineering has been producing recreation P50s since 2011. Starting at £13,679 – one- tenth of what an original might cost now – the ‘new’ P50 is arguably the raging bargain of the burgeoning continuation industry.

Such a class-leading car mustn’t escape the Autocar treatment but, before we drive one, a bit of history. From its harbourside base in the town of Peel on the Isle of Man, the Peel Engineering Company wasa GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) specialist producing boats and motorcycle fairings designed for the likes of Nortons and BMWs. Dreamed up by the company’s founder, Cyril Cannell, the P50 was designed as a 40mph city car for one person (plus shopping), and was unveiled at the 1962 Earl’s Court Motor Show with one wheel at the front and two at the rear.

The layout was soon switched, and with a 49cc two-stroke Zweirad Union/DKW engine driving the rear wheel via a three-speed manual gearbox, the production model was launched in 1963. Marketed as providing car comfort for moped costs, approximately 50 were built before production ceased two years later; only around half are still thought to exist. Frustrated by rising values of them, Peel enthusiast Gary Hillmansecured the rights to start building the cars once more under the newly formed Peel Engineering, which now sells around 15 P50s annually, plus 10 or so continuations of Peel’s two- seat bubblecar, the Trident. The traditional petrol version of the P50 is more popular in the UK and is priced at £14,879, while the car’s biggest market is the US, where the electric model (£13,679) circumvents emissions regulations.

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A few people know exactly what the P50 is, but most recognise the shape, correctly associating it with the free-thinking zeitgeist of the 1960s. Couple that nostalgia to the Peel’s friendly, flea-like dimensions and you have the ultimate goodwill car. The Peel P50 is not a 15-grand mobility scooter – it’s a 4.8bhp happiness generator.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL – THREE MORE LOVABLE MICROCARS:

BRUTSCH MOPETTA – Appearing six years before the P50 and reversing the Peel’s layout to drive two rear wheels while steering with a single front, the open-topped Mopetta was produced by microcar designer Egon Brütsch in Stuttgart. Its charming styling and hen’s- teeth rarity have prompted several replicas, including a run by British microcar specialist Andy Carter.

FMR TG500 – Precluded from making aircraft after World War II, Messerschmitt based its family of three-wheeled Kabinenrollers (‘cabin scooters’) on the Fend Flitzer invalid carriage. Inheriting much of the Kabinenrollers’ design (including the two-seat tandem layout), FMR’s sporty Tg500 four-wheeler was a 494cc, twin- pot monster making around 20bhp. One was auctioned in 2013 for $322,000.

FUJI CABIN – Another child of post-war aviation industry bans, the Fuji Cabin was made in Tokyo between 1955 and 1958. Though similar to the P50for its construction, suspension, brakes and Cyclops headlight, the Fuji Cabin’s 122cc, 5.5bhp single-pot was rear-mounted, its two seats were staggered and its 115in length made it a long-wheelbase leviathan.

This article was originally published on 21 January 2018. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.