1914 Scripps-Booth Cycle Car
1914 Scripps-Booth Cycle Car. Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

For the first half of this century, North America didn’t have much interest in small cars. Compared with Europe, our modest license fees and cheap fuel provided little incentive to drive smaller cars. Names that quickly came and went, like American Austin/Bantam, Crosley, and Henry J, attest to the fact that, as the conventional Detroit wisdom went, “nobody wants a peanut car.”

The 1950 Nash Rambler was an exception, but it took the imports, and a couple of oil crises, to really raise interest in more economical cars.

There had, however, been a brief small-car blip in our auto history. It was known as the cyclecar era, and it started in about 1913, just before the First World War. Cyclecars were a kind of cross between motorcycles and regular cars, and they probably did much to sour the marketplace on really small cars for a long time.

These tiny machines were so narrow that the two passengers were almost always seated in tandem, not side-by-side. Wheelbases were typically under 2,540 mm (100 in.). A 914 mm (36 in.) track was common, allowing them to ride up out of the ruts made by the 1,422 mm (56 in.) track of regular cars.

Weight was usually in the 272 to 363 kg (600 to 800 lb) range, with power often provided by a two-cylinder air-cooled engine. The Spacke Machine & Tool Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, was a popular engine supplier.

They usually rode on spindly, motorcycle-type, wire-spoke wheels, although wooden spokes were used occasionally. The engine was often mounted under the hood. Power transmission systems varied, one of the most popular being a long leather belt on each side of the car delivering power to the rear wheels. Frames were typically made of wood.

The whimsical nature of these cyclecars was exemplified by their names: Dudly Bug, Imp, O-We-Go, Zip, Cricket and Greyhound.

The genesis of the cyclecar seems to have been the 1910 French Bedelia made by the Bourbeau et Devaux Co. of Paris. The Bedelia was low and light, and carried its two passengers in tandem, with the rear passenger doing the steering. Power came from single-cylinder or V-twin engines.

The cyclecar craze exploded in Europe, going from a handful of manufacturers to hundreds in months. Their smallness, lightness, and relative crudeness required limited capital and moderate skill to enter the business.

When cyclecars found their way to this side of the Atlantic about three years later, manufacturers popped up from Connecticut to Washington State; Detroit was home to about a dozen. Canada participated too. In about 1914 the Dart Cycle Car Co. was established in Toronto to build a Canadian version of the American Scripps-Booth cyclecar. Only a few were produced.

In 1921, the Glen Motor Co. in Scarborough Beach near Toronto manufactured cyclecars. They were fitted with three-cylinder air-cooled engines, but few were actually assembled because the fad had passed.

Cyclecars were a short-lived chapter in automotive history, their popularity being pretty well finished by about 1915. There were several reasons for their demise. The relatively easy entry into the business resulted in many primitive, under-designed machines. Their inherent flimsiness, and the extremely poor roads of the day, soon reduced most to little more than a pile of parts. Engine failure was common, and the lack of a generator or magneto limited the travelling range of many.

Some manufacturers, like Scripps-Booth, did produce well engineered vehicles, and moved on to conventional cars. But most simply disappeared during the First World War.

Henry Ford also hastened their demise. Noting the number of cyclecar manufacturers springing up in Detroit, and alarmed that they might give the automobile a bad name, he quietly had a three- quarter scale Model T built. It had a wooden frame, a smaller version of the Model T engine, and wire-spoked wheels. Henry displayed it around Detroit, which immediately started the rumour that Ford was going into the cyclecar business. Wily Henry didn’t announce such an intention, but the chilling affect that the little Ford had on the amount of capital available for cyclecars enterprises contributed significantly to their death in the Motor City.

Henry Ford’s Model T was another factor. His moving assembly line, pioneered in 1913, built cars faster and cheaper than anyone else. Henry continually lowering the price to the point where Model Ts were almost as cheap as cyclecars.

Cyclecars were a brief and interesting, but not very successful, chapter in automotive history. Examples can usually be seen in better automotive collections, such as the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

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