Since the early 1900s, the automobile has been considered a status symbol. Being seen by friends, neighbors, or even strangers driving a brand-new car is the source of great pleasure and satisfaction to the car owner.
In the past, these new cars were often big, powerful, and imposing vehicles that attracted attention no matter where driven. However, over the years, the emphasis in car manufacturer designing has been on building smaller cars.
Although the SUV’s popularity has exploded in recent years (in 2020, SUV sales for all models exceeded 7,470,000 units), the small car still has its appeal (in 2020, subcompact cars sales reached just over 248,000).
New technology, fuel efficiency, market forces, and a trend toward increased urban living have all contributed to reduced size car manufacturing.
Car engines are getting smaller and more fuel-efficient. Improvements in automotive engineering and technology like turbochargers on smaller engines help them achieve exceptional horsepower. While an eight-cylinder engine provides enough power to move heavy vehicles with excellent performance, a 1.4-liter engine can comfortably generate enough power for today’s lighter cars and consume less fuel. A new BMW 218i is equipped with a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo engine that generates 136 hp.
Big cities are getting more crowded with people and cars as the world’s population moves to urban areas for improved living conditions.
Smaller cars are easier to navigate on city streets, and considering that 80% of a car’s interior space is completely empty when being driven by just one person, the potential for even smaller cars is significant.
While there are many small cars available on the market, one vehicle has the distinction of being the world’s tiniest car. Here is what makes the Peel P50 an excellent choice for the “smaller is better” criteria for selecting a car.
Guinness World Records: The 1962 – 1965 Peel P50 is the Smallest Production Car Ever Made
Originally built from 1962 to 1965 on the Isle of Man, the Peel P50 is a minuscule three-wheeled microcar listed in the 2010 Guinness World Records as “the smallest production car ever made.”
The P50, measuring 54 inches long, is shorter than a Vespa. And while the Peel might not be narrow enough, at 40 inches wide, to slide through a typical house door (36 inches), the entire car will fit in the bed of a pickup truck or into an elevator. In 1963, a Peel P50 rode in an elevator to the top of Blackpool Tower in Lancashire, England, and was driven around the observation balcony to demonstrate its small size,
Designed as an urban vehicle in the 1960s, Peel Engineering Company advertised the car as capable of seating "one adult and a shopping bag," (a small bag). The driver entered through the only door on the car’s left side. Peel claimed the P50 would accommodate one individual 6’6″ or shorter, with no room for a second passenger. Standard equipment included one headlight and a single windshield wiper.
The P50 models made from 1962 to 1966 were equipped with a naturally aspirated, two-stroke single-cylinder 3.0 cu. in. (49 cc) DKW engine producing a maximum output of 4.2 bhp mated to a three-speed manual transmission. The power was sufficient to achieve a top speed of approximately 60 km/h (37 mph).
The three-speed manual transmission had no reverse gear. As a result, changing direction in a limited area could be accomplished only by pushing (with help from the nearest pedestrian willing to donate just a few seconds and a little energy). Lifting one end of the lightweight car (175 pounds) was a second option using the handle mounted on the rear to pull the P50 around to head in the opposite direction.
Peel and many P50 owners claim fuel-efficiency achieved a whopping 83 mpg.
A New Peel P50 in Gas Powered or Electric Versions
Peel built only 50 of the original 49cc P50 cars from 1963 to 1966, and fewer than 30 are thought to remain.
However, Peel Engineering Company resumed production of their gas-powered minicar in 2010, and now offers an electric variant. The motor produces 3.35bhp, identical to the gas version, but with slightly less weight to push, the car achieves a marginally higher top speed.
While the electric model is appealing for all the same reasons that consumers buy an EV, silent operation, emissions-free, lower operating and maintenance costs, among others, the Peel model has a significantly limited 20-mile range. However, the limitation might be less of a hindrance than many of the other tiny-car attributes.
According to Top Gear, a road test producing performance, suspension, handling, and braking results, is meaningless for the Peel electric model. The car drives like most other EV or automatic cars (a golf cart), with a throttle and brake.
The reborn P50s are built with a heavier, reinforced chassis structure, giving the vehicle more stability than the vintage models. Only abrupt sharp turns in the three-wheeled car will produce a sense of uncertainty.
The newer Peels have a reverse gear, saving drivers the trouble of getting out of the car to lift and place it in a different direction or the embarrassment of asking a nearby stranger for help pushing the vehicle backward.
The steering rack on the current P50 models has a less severe ratio than the older versions, making piloting the electric P50 as easy as driving a bumper car, sans the tall pole that connects to the overhead electrified net.
The engineers at Peel humorously installed a go-faster button labeled “NOS” (Nitrous Oxide Systems used on race cars) for those who wish to exceed 20 mph. The mere presence of the button suggests that most drivers are best staying below 20 mph.
The Peel P50 Has Some Tiny Competitors
While the Peel P50 has garnered the award as the Smallest Production Car Ever Made, it is not without competition. These are five of the smallest competitors:
Commuter Cars Tango: Designed for short rides with a single occupant, the Tango has the agility of a motorcycle with a sports car’s security. At a mere 99 cm wide, the tiny vehicle is even thinner than the average motorcycle.
Brütsch Mopetta: An egg-shaped, single-seat three-wheeler, only 14 Mopettas were built, and today only five are still in existence.
Vespa 400: The Vespa brand name is usually found on nimble scooters that deftly navigate heavy city traffic. The minicar measures only 2.8 meters in length, weighs only 375 kg, and has a 0.4 liter, two-cylinder gasoline engine.
Isetta: In 1955, the BMW Isetta version was the world’s top-selling single-cylinder car. The single door in the front of the vehicle is the only entry point.
Eshelman Sports Car de Luxe: Possibly the narrowest small car in the world, the Adult de Luxe version measures only 24 inches wide.
A Vintage Peel P50 Sold for Over £100k ($137,000) at Auction
In 2017, at the RM Sotheby’s Monterey auction, a rare surviving example of the world’s tiniest car made an enormous impact. The minuscule, enchanting, and perhaps ridiculous Peel P50 fetched just over £105,000 ($143,500 at the 2017 exchange rate). A surprising sum for a single-cylinder, single-seat, three-wheeler with an original list price of £199 ($272 at the 1963 exchange rate).
In 2016, an immaculate P50 sold at a U.S. auction for a world record £120,000 ($176,000).
For the buyer looking for the tiniest production car ever made, a new 2021 model can now be purchased for a base price of £13,679 ($18,695), about one-tenth the price for a vintage ‘60s model. The price is a deal considering most new golf carts sell between $7,500 and $9,500. The luxury models sell for nearly $20,000, and the electric golf cars are not even street legal.
Sources: smithsonianmag.com, businessinsider.com, motorbiscuit.com, drivetribe.com