To most people the motor tricycle, as distinct from the 3-wheeler car, is an unknown quantity, or something completely forgotten, a form of transport obscured in the mists of antiquity. Yet at the dawn of practical motoring these vehicles were much in evidence. Indeed, prior to the turn of the century, it was the tricycle, not the motorcycle, which took precedence in touring and sporting circles.
The reason had to do with the prevailing state of the roads, which were rutted by iron-tyred horse-drawn vehicles and made very slippery by mud in winter. Two-wheelers were too unstable to he safely ridden in such conditions. Apart from which the petrol engine was still a novelty and it must have seemed easier to hang the appurtenances it needed, such as spirit tank, oil container, silencer, accumulators or platinum hot-tubes, not forgetting the spare fuel can, a supply of oil, tool boxes, extra tube, etc., onto a tricycle than onto a bicycle frame. So the motor tricycle preceded the motorcycle, a fact which Charles Jarrott prescribes to De Dion Bouton, who made the only reliable i.c. engines for road transport at this period of history, preferring them.
The first De Dion tricycles were of 3/4-h.p., the engine being hung behind the back axle, which it drove through gearing and a differential, a bicycle chain and pedals enabling the rider to start the engine and give it human assistance up hills. Jarrott had one of these and says, in “Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing”, his 1906 book which Motor Sport had the initiative to reprint in 1928, “I do not remember anything worth relating in connection with my first ride. It was a very simple machine to manage, and after the first little intricacies of regulation of gas taps and sparking lever had been mastered was quite easily controllable”.
Riders were not content with these low-powered machines, which required much light-pedal assistance. More powerful tricycles soon appeared, culminating in some very fast and fearsome racing models. Jarrott found he could travel “really long distances” on a 1 3/4-h.p. De Dion and his friend S. F. Edge had his first ride on a 1 1/4-h.p. tricycle of the same make, from H. J. Lawson’s British Motor Syndicate premises at 40, Holborn Viaduct to Canterbury and back, a 120-mile run without any trouble. Edge was so pleased that he acquired a fleet of tricycles, including, as his book reminds us, “one or two De Dions, a Pheobus-Aster, a Clement and… one of the most diabolical tricycles ever manufactured, in the form of a 6-h.p. De Dion geared so high that it was almost impossible to drive under 20 m.p.h.
At every explosion, when going slowly, the front wheel gave a leap in the air and someone said it fired once per county”. Edge, of the Dunlop Company, was also a Director of the Ariel Company and rode one of their racing tricycles, which housed the engine between instead of behind the wheels and had quieter gears and a stronger frame than most.
Motor tricycles flourished, but possessed shortcomings of their own. If the gearing was sufficiently low for easy starting it entailed furious leg-work on hills. Electric ignition being useless in wet weather, the hot-tube was reintroduced, which added to the risk of fire if the rider capsized. On the poor roads of the 1890s a two-track machine was more uncomfortable than a car or motorcycle, especially as a tricycle’s back wheels were unsprung. The last version Jarrott used for touring, a 2 3/4-h.p. De Dion, had the refinement of a clutch but if this was abused or was out of adjustment the rider was apt to fall backwards with the machine on top of him as he engaged it.
In spite of these drawbacks the machines were no sluggards. Edge timed himself between mileposts in 2 rain. 52 sec. on his little 1 1/4-h.p. job and Jarrott was to set the hour record at over 42 m.p.h. on a 1902 8-h.p. De Dion, timed by F. T. Bidlake at London’s Canning Town cycle track.
Racing at these banked tracks was good sport. At places such as Sheen House, the Crystal Palace, New Brighton near Liverpool and the Aston track in Birmingham (do any survive?) Jarrott, Edge, Stocks, Wridgway, Sangster, Gorton, Moyle, Brun and Buck, etc., used to ride in close proximity on their stripped, unsilenced big racing tricycles, each rider leaning heavily on the inside wheel to maintain his balance. As the lap distance was about 3 1/2 to 4 laps to the mile it was exciting stuff and not without risk. Jarrott had a front spindle break at 40 m.p.h. but jumped off backwards before the machine somersaulted but when this happened to Cecil Edge while he was racing Jarrott’s old 5-h.p. tricycle he came rolling down the banking, his machine dashing into the wooden palings at the top of the track, to be “shattered to pieces”. What with incidents of this nature, a twin-cylinder motor in a Phoebus-Aster, Edge’s aforesaid 6-h.p. racing De Dion and Jarrott’s 8-h.p. De Dion which he described as “unsuited for anything except very fast road work or track racing” (it was sent to Canning Town track in a van, probably horse-drawn), there was plenty of drama about this pre-1900 tricycle racing. To quote Jarrott again: “The speed at which the big De Dion travelled the first time I took it round appalled me and I found it was only with difficulty that I could negotiate the bends…”
Moreover, it wasn’t only in short races that motor tricycles were used. They dominated the motorcycle classes of the great town-to-town contests of the time. Several tiny De Dions had been used to reconnoitre the course of the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race of 1896 and five competed, of which three finished, Viet beating every other competitor on the outward journey, to come in third, having averaged 14.9 m.p.h. for the 1,062 1/2 miles. Power was promptly increased, and the class winner of the 1897 Marseilles-Nice-LaTurbie race, a 1-h.p. De Dion, managed 15.9 m.p.h. for the 149 miles.
A 1 3/4-h.p. De Dion won Paris-Dieppe that year at 22.4 m.p.h. for the 106 miles. A Phoebus tricycle so powered achieved 22.5 m.p.h. in the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race, over no less than 889 miles, and by 1899 we find the racing De Dions up to 2 1/4 h.p., which enabled the fastest of their riders to beat all but three of the cars and average 26.5 m.p.h. for the entire 1,350 miles in the Tour de France. Then, in the Paris-Ostend, Barras, astride a 2 3/4-h.p. De Dion, won outright, covering the 201 miles at no less than 32.8 m.p.h. faster than Giradot’s 12-h.p. Panhard and Levegh’s 16-h.p. Mors, and by 1900 Teste’s 6/7-h.p. De Dion covered 837 miles at 35 m.p.h. in the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race. All of which caused Gerald Rose to remark “…the little De Dion tricycles (of 1896) showed that… they were very far from being the playthings some people considered them to be”.
Incidentally, both the British pioneers Jarrott and Edge ordered new racing 2 1/4-h.p. De Dions for the 1899 Paris-Bordeaux race, a splendid event in which, if legend is not lying, the starter simply announced: “This is Paris. That (pointing) is Bordeaux. Get there!” Although their respective books carry strangely differing accounts, it is clear that the De Dion Bouton “works” riders were given priority of preparation, as so often happens to amateur customers for racing machinery, and that neither Jarrott nor Edge attained the finish in time. Indeed, adventures innumerable left them utterly exhausted. Jarrott has written “Tired to death, aching all over, and my eyes causing me the most excruciating pain (his goggles were primitive) I flung myself down in the road by my machine and lay there oblivious of everything.”
Edge was in much the same state. He laid his “head down on the saddle and with both arms stretched out to the handlebars dragged himself along, pushing the machine regardless of where it went”, so that to Jarrott it appeared riderless… It was the “works” rider, Bardin, who won the class.
The foregoing sets the motor tricycling scene in the pioneer days. After 1899 the motorcycle took over. The tricycles disappeared and have long since been forgotten, although St. John Nixon rode an 1898 1 3/4-h.p. De Dion in the 1933 Brighton Run and Triumph Ltd. still own a veteran tricycle to this day.
Then, last year, BSA Ltd. re-introduced motor tricycling, with the Ariel-3. Having intrigued myself with the foregoing history, I felt I had to sample one. After all, in its time Motor Sport has reported on two-wheelers, tricars, trucks and cross-country vehicles, etc., so it isn’t all Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and as neither my wife nor I can do anything with a push-bicycle other than fall off it, exploitation of an Ariel-3 seemed singularly appropriate.
The Ariel-3 has a tiny fan-cooled two-stroke engine behind the back wheels, transmission is by toothed belt and chain and the clutch is centrifugal—no gears. Pedal assistance, and a dog clutch for easy pushing about, are provided. There are two proper and efficient lever-operated 4-in. drum brakes, and 6-volt lighting and horn while the engine is running. I had no problems with “gas taps and sparking lever” but starting was dependent on correct use of the twist-grip decompressor and choke lever. S. F. Edge found his 1897 De Dion “exceedingly easy to manage, providing one had experience in ordinary tricycle riding”. This may not apply to the Ariel-3 because (a) tricycle riding is no longer an ordinary experience and (b) twin torsion bars permit the rear end to pivot, so that the bicycle part cants over, while the track is very narrow—only 15 in.
However, the pivot provides the suspension which was absent on the early primitives and whereas Edge had to rely on a dry battery for ignition the Ariel has a flywheel magneto; his fuel tank held about 1/2-gallon of chemist’s benzoline, that of the 1971 trike takes six pints of any good modern two-stroke mixture. The 40 x 38-mm. (49-c.c.) engine of the 1971 offering is not all that much bigger than some of the engines which powered model hydroplanes in my schooldays but 1.7 b.h.p. is claimed for it at 5,500 r.p.m., which compares favourably with the 3/4 h.p. that the 50 x 70-mm. (137-c.c.) four-stroke De Dion engine of 1895 developed, albeit it ran at only about 1,500 r.p.m. The Ariel weighs 126 lb.; the 1897 racing 1-h.p. De Dions scaled 165 lb.
Thus there is some affinity between these tricycles of veteran and modern times, although the former did not have as extras a windscreen, spare wheel, anti-thief lock, etc., nor, I assume, were they available in bushfire orange, everglade green or Pacific blue finish. Nor, perhaps, were their tyres as dependable as the Ariel-3’s 12 in. x 2 in. Dunlops, all the wheels of which are detachable.
This is not to say that I would want to ride one to Marseilles from Paris and back, especially at the speeds Viet attained over the sort of roads he must have endured 75 years ago. And as the Farnham pioneer J. H. Knight said of the touring motor tricycles he knew, so with the Ariel-3, “It is not intended that the engine should do all the work, except on level ground; uphill the rider must exert himself and assist by pedalling”. (BSA PRO Ivor Davies, who brought me the device to try, sensibly trailed it from Birmingham to Wales behind a Hillman Avenger!)
As to economy, BSA claim approx. 125 m.p.g. of “petroil”, which I didn’t check. But, remembering the claim of another pioneer, Louis Lockert, that the 3/4-h.p. De Dions would attain “on a level road a speed of from 20 to 35 k.p.h. (12 1/2 to 2 3/4i m.p.h.)”, I dug out an old ACU crash-hat (one which used to be lent to Brooklands riders who came to BMCRC meetings without them, I believe) and put on a pair of Stadium Mk. 4 “Silver Cross” goggles (far better than those Jarrott wore for his Paris-Bordeaux ride, and highly recommended for all windscreen-less motoring activities, no matter on what kind or age of vehicle) and we paced the Ariel-3 at 25 m.p.h.; it did 30 m.p.h. at times, a precarious 35 m.p.h. downhill.
This makes this roller-and-ball-hearing vehicle with its 7:1 c.r. and 12-mm. Encarwi carburetter about the slowest Motor Sport has ever tested—but impressions of the Ferrari Dino appear on pages 926-927. For those who wish to essay a return to motor-tricycling, and for the unstable and faint-hearted to whom bicycles are anemia, however, this odd little runabout, which will carry up to 50 lb. of luggage, could he of some interest. It costs £114.95, purchase tax paid.—W. B.