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Last on

Mon 8 Oct 2012 11:00 BBC Radio 4

Duration:
28 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 08 October 2012

Many of them had three wheels and engines more suited to powering lawnmowers. They looked like they'd escaped from a funfair ride and had names like the Allard Clipper, the Opperman Stirling, the Bond Mark A and the Frisky Family Three. In Cheaper Than Walking Andy Kershaw rediscovers a brief golden age in British car-making when we excelled in producing very, very small cars.

He looks back to a time of post-war austerity, of household budgets on a shoestring, a time when political upheaval in the Middle East, particularly the Suez Crisis, cast a dark shadow over fuel supplies. Across the UK, in workshops from Preston to Wolverhampton, from London to the Isle of Man engineers came up with the solution as they set to work on designing and producing microcars, better known today as bubble cars.

Andy climbs into the cramped, underpowered, noisy world of British microcars and meets the people who love them. His starting point is the Isle of Man and the only car ever to be produced there. In the early 1960s, the Peel Engineering Company decided to diversify from making fibre-glass boats into manufacturing cars. The result was the P50. Its wheels were five inches in diameter and equipped with go-kart tyres. When you wanted to park or reverse the P50 you simply got out, grabbed a chrome handle at the back of the car and manhandled it in much the same way as you might manoeuvre a shopping basket on wheels.

Andy sets off in the smallest car he - or anybody else - has ever driven to explore a social and mechanical phenomenon. In Kent Andy visits Jean Hammond, custodian of the largest private collection of microcars, the Hammond Collection, which was assembled by her late husband Edwin. She has a Peel P50 there, of course, but she also has a Bamby, a Bond, a Frisky and, rarest of all, one of the only two surviving examples of the Allard Clipper. Jean also runs the Register of Unusual Microcars, a treasure trove of lovingly crafted one-offs, hand-built in the 1950s and 60s by small engineering firms in carriage-works and garages.

'Lovingly-crafted one-offs' is also a good description of many of the enthusiasts Andy meets on his travels. He visits the annual get-together of bubble-car fans, the National Microcar Rally and he talks to two of the engineers who were involved in creating these wonderful vehicles back in the 1950s and early '60s.

If you want to upset anybody in the microcar world, just mention the Mini. Alec Issigonis' creation, unveiled at the 1958 Motor Show, may have been a triumph for the British motor industry and an icon of the 1960s but it rang the death knell for the real British microcar. Why have three wheels and two seats when you could pay £100 more and own a family car with four wheels? With the arrival of the Mini the bubble (car) burst.

In this programme Andy Kershaw recalls the golden age of British microcars. At a time when we're only too aware of tightening budgets, he celebrates a uniquely creative, three-wheeled answer to post-war austerity and evokes a lost era of tiny family companies making tiny family cars.

Producer: Jeremy Grange.

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