1934 Raleigh Safety Seven
1934 Raleigh Safety Seven. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although relatively rare, three-wheeled cars seem to have been with us always. They claim a couple of significant firsts: the world’s first recognized motorized road vehicle, the 1769 Cugnot steam powered artillery wagon, and Karl Benz’s 1885 Patent Wagen, the world’s first internal combustion engine powered car.

Three wheelers enjoyed some popularity in Britain during the 1930s because they were economical to buy and operate, and were snugger and more convenient than a motorcycle-and-sidecar combination. Because they did not have four wheels they were classed as motorcycles and their annual road tax was about half that of a small four wheeled car such as the Austin Seven or Morris Minor.

The most popular English “trike” was the Morgan, built from 1911 to 1951. Others were the B.S.A., Coventry-Victor, J.M.B. and Raleigh. The Raleigh was the most unusual. The Raleigh Cycle Co. of Nottingham, well known for quality bicycles, also built motorcycles. In 1933 it finally ventured into building a car.

This was the three-wheeled Raleigh Safety Seven sports tourer, also known as the 7-17 (for its taxable and brake horsepower). Introduced at the 1933 Olympia motor show, the Raleigh broke with three-wheel tradition. Accepted practice was to have two front wheels and one rear, but Raleigh reversed this by placing its two wheels at the rear. The single front wheel had a motorcycle type fork and coil spring suspension.

The Safety Seven resembled a small, open, four-passenger car without front fenders or wheels. Among the advantages claimed were two-wheel traction, and avoiding overloading a single wheel. As well, fitting a four-passenger body was easier, although space in the rear of the 2,032 mm (80 in) wheelbase Raleigh was limited.

It was powered by a V-2, air cooled, 742 cc, side-valve motorcycle engine manufactured by Sturmey-Archer, a company better known for its bicycle gears. Mounted longitudinally just behind the front wheel, it drove the rear wheels through an automobile-type driveline with a dry plate clutch, three-speed-and-reverse transmission, open driveshaft and rear axle.

Its steering wheel operated a worm-and-sector type steering gear, and the action was quite light and direct. Normal car equipment was present, such as an electric starter, horn and windshield wipers, and there were mechanical brakes on all wheels.

The road to acceptance was to excel in competition, and when the Safety Seven appeared it was almost immediately entered in the famous London-to-Lands-End trial. A trial is a contest in which light machines and intrepid drivers challenge muddy, slimy trails and hills. With their two-wheel drive, leaf spring underslung (under the axle) frame, and low centre of gravity rear suspension, Raleighs acquitted themselves well in three-wheel competition.

A Safety Seven would have won the 1934 Scottish Six Day Trial if it hadn’t been penalized for minor body cracks. Raleigh sales manager Owen Bridcutt was forthright and succinct: “We wuz robbed.”

Raleighs sold for under 100 pounds sterling, and met with reasonable sales success. For 1935 the cockpit was enlarged and a closed model added, raising the price slightly.

Unfortunately, in 1935 much of the three-wheeler’s tax advantage disappeared and several manufacturers were strongly influenced to abandon them. Raleigh stopped production in 1937 after building 3,000 Safety Sevens, and returned to concentrating on bicycles.

That would have been the end of the Safety Seven story if Raleigh designer Tommy Williams hadn’t believed strongly in the concept. He bought the rights and parts and started his own three-wheel car company. The “R” embossed on the clutch and brake pedals limited his choice to names starting with R, so he chose Reliant, and built three-wheeler Reliants successfully into the 1980s.

Raleigh Safety Sevens gradually dwindled in number. Fortunately, one was rescued by Peter Svilans of Thornhill, Ontario, who has lovingly restored it. Peter estimates that only about half a dozen Raleighs still exist today, and he is almost certain that his is the only one in North America. There is a very good reason for the scarcity. “They were such flimsy cars,” says Peter, “they were just aluminum shells over a very light ash frame…the car really wouldn’t have lasted more than a few years.”

They were built that light on purpose. To qualify for the motorcycle road tax, three-wheelers had to weigh less than eight hundredweight (406.4 kg; 896 lb), and Peter says most just made it. The Raleigh joke was that owners always washed their cars before taking them to be weighed.

Peter purchased his Raleigh in 1992 as a basket case in Hawthorne, Florida from a circus performer named Victor Hyde who had brought it from England some 20 years earlier. Peter is a skilled mechanical restoration specialist, but to rebuild the aluminum body he turned to a maestro of metal named Mike Lewis of Mississauga, Ontario. Mike is an English-trained panel beater, and using only dollies, hammers and a metal forming wheeling machine he restored the Raleigh’s aluminum body to like-new condition.

Thanks to a dedicated Thornhill small car enthusiast and the talented hands of a highly skilled panel beater, this rare English three-wheeler was saved.

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