Veteran Edwardian Vintage, October 1985

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Three becomes four

In vintage times the three-wheeler had a good innings. The breed, even in earlier times, was personified by the Morgan, which was eminently successful in competitions and as a practical runabout. But there was a surprisingly large number of other makes, which courted the simplicity and reduced taxation-rate (£4 per annum in those days, ·against £1 per rated horse­power for four-wheelers). The advantages of the tricar were freely discussed in vintage times, although its greatest advantage was over the motorcycle and sidecar outfit rather than the four-wheeled cyclecar or big-car-in­-miniature. In the latter context, after 1922 the Austin 7 came on the scene and washed out all opposition, as well as taking on with aplomb many other miniature big cars of the time.

However, in the three-wheeler’s hey-day, when HFS Morgan drove his products in the big trials and you could see the team of racing Morgans performing at Brooklands, particularly against the “works” Austins in the LCC Relay Races, never quite beating them but looking marvellously exciting as they crackled round at the top of the bankings, it was not difficult to raise some enthusiasm for supporting a car at three points instead of four …. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note how many three­wheeler manufacturers turned eventually to four wheels, even if they progressed no further than a prototype in this move.

Morgan’s themselves, in 1936, came up with the Morgan 4/4, which if it were certainly not just a three-wheeler with an extra wheel added, sounded the death-knell of the Morgan trikes, the last of which was made in 1952. Before that there had been a different “three becomes four”, when the traditional vee-twin power pack of the Morgan and most other three-wheelers was supplemented by the Ford-powered four­cylinder trikes, a move some other tricar makers also adopted.

On the broader “Three Becomes Four” theme, the Crouch Carette adopted four wheels prior to the 1914/18 war and at a much later stage the FWD BSA three-wheeler moved in the same direction, with a four-wheeler possessed of a dead-beam back axle. There was a double­take here, as the FW Hulse-designed BSA three-wheeler that had originally had the Hotchkiss-inspired vee-twin air-cooled engine, used also for the just-referred-to four-wheeler and an earlier four-wheeled BSA light-car, took on a water-cooled four­cylinder engine in 1933, and after its demise in 1936 there was a four-wheeled version of that, which developed into the BSA Scout sport model. Without labouring the matter, one can think of such three-wheelers as the Coventry-Premier, the Castle-Three, the JMB, whose prototype four-wheeler was built in 1935, the Messerschmitt, Sandford, Stanhope, D’Yrsan, Teilhol, etc, all of which in the end took on four wheels; there have been photographs of some of these in the past “Fragments on Forgotten Makes” series in Motor Sport. One must not confuse this change in the number of wheels with the ploy of placing the two back ones very close together so that the vehicle still complied with the tax-reduction requirements (they had to be no more than 1 ft 6 in apart), as on the Merrell-Brown in vintage days, and the BMW Isetta in more recent times. In less recent years there was the Berkeley, another three-wheeler to adopt a fourth wheel.

Thinking back to all those between-wars three-wheelers, perhaps the Morgan’s closest rival, if you consider trials results, was the TB. This was dealt with in No 41 of the aforesaid “Fragments” articles. Suffice it to say that during its lifetime, the TB was improved in various ways, including a strengthened chassis, and that an aluminium-bodied sports model with aero windscreens was listed in 1922 for £175 (the 1924 sports A7 cost £170). Among the sporting performances of the TB were good results in the MCC long-distance trials by drivers like W Pratt, F Brooks, FH Douglas, JW Meredith, etc, and especially FS Spouse’s fine showing in the 1923 ACU Six-Days Trial, in which his TB averaged 56.4 mph for 28 laps of Brook­lands Track, instead of the required· minimum of 30 mph, this after a gruelling 900 road miles, and made a clean climb of the very steep “freak” Alms hill near Henley. He gained 23 more marks than he started the trial with, winning the Hopwood Cup for best individual performance, in an event in which gold-medal-winner S Hall’s Morgan was seven marks down, DN Rhodes’ Scott Sociable (which managed 41 mph on Brooklands) had some trouble but took a silver medal, WA Carr’s Morgan retiring after 18 laps at Brooklands with water in its near-side cylinder. But in spite of this, by the end of 1923 no more TBs were made, as they could not compete with the A7 market although front brakes had been offered by the end of 1921, a three-wheeler innovation.

Incidentally, it was rather amusing how each three-wheeler maker vied with his rivals, rather as in later years did the baby­car manufacturers, with Triumph offering a three-bearing crankshaft and hydraulic brakes on the Super Seven, Singer an overhead camshaft engine on the Junior, to try to combat the lower price of the A7. Thus in 1923 the New Hudson boasted a good finish, a three-speed and reverse gearbox, and final drive by enclosed chain, the LSD was available as a delivery van, the TB had shaft-drive as well as a three-speed and reverse gearbox, to transmit power from its 986 cc vee-twin JAP engine, the tiny Xtra had foolproof friction-drive, the Castle Three had a water-cooled four-cylinder engine, and the Morgan the longest pedigree. I remember that a distant relation borrowed a TB for his honeymoon, some-­time in the early 1920s, not I believe with altogether satisfactory results ….

Continuing my theme of “threes” that became “fours”, TB is said to have made a four-wheeler prototype before the Bilston factory turned to other things. The heading picture shows a fine line-up of new TB three-wheelers, with Mr JW Meredith, Managing Director of Thompson Bros (Bilston) Ltd in the one second from the right of the photograph. He had come from Clyno, where he had been apprenticed on the motorcycle side, and had turned that part of the factory which had been used during the war for making aeroplane components into the TB production shop. A keen driver, he used TBs himself, for competition work, although later he had a fine Lancia Lambda with detachable saloon-top, it is said that for years the hole in the factory roof could be seen, where a spring from its front ifs had escaped, during an overhaul! After which Mr Meredith discovered the excellent acceleration to be had from a late-model Ford V8 or Mercury.

Whether a four-wheeler TB was actually made at the factory or not, certainly by 1928 the enthusiastic Mr Meredith had built himself a four-wheeled cyclecar. It used a 10 hp water-cooled Blackburne side-valve engine as used in later TBs, but with a Morris-Oxford clutch, driving to an Eric ­Campbell gearbox. The back axle came from a Model-T Ford, its track narrowed to 3 ft 6 in, as did the propshaft, which was cut­down Model-T. Wire wheels, front axle and the Bugatti-like radiator were, not surprisingly, from a TB, and the steering, by bevel gear and pinion, had an almost horizontal column, passing over the engjne. Mr Meredith was living in Wolverhampton and his little car. was registered DA 9298. By the autumn of 1928 it had run a reliable 10,000 miles and it was capable of 60 to 65 mph and 45 mpg. Today the only three­wheeler made here in any numbers is the Reliant Rialto which still commands a tax ­concession, of £60 a year, and this, too, had four-wheeler connotations, in the form of the Rebel and later Kitten.

If anyone can think of any other three­-wheelers that became four-wheelers, drop me a postcard. -WB.  

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