At a mere 4.5 feet long, the Peel P50 is the smallest production automobile ever built. And, with less than 30 known to survive, it is also one of the rarest.
In 1960, Cyril Cannell, a motorcycle engineer and a sometime inventor, came up with a new idea. Cannell lived on the Isle of Man, off the coast of England, where the narrow winding roads that snaked along the island’s hills made driving difficult and often dangerous. Motorcycles and scooters were therefore a popular mode of transportation, and Cannell’s Peel Engineering Company, with its 40 employees, had made its living for the past ten years by manufacturing fiberglass bodies for motorcycles and boat hulls.
But now, Cannell tried something different. Working with fellow engineer Henry Kissack, he designed a micro-automobile that would be practical for commuting on the island. The result was the Peel P50.
The Peel was the ultimate in minimalism. The entire car weighed just 123 pounds. It was designed to carry just one person along with a shopping bag or briefcase. The fiberglass body (an innovation for the time) was 53 inches long, 39 inches wide, and 48 inches tall. (By comparison, the 2016 Smart Car, the smallest production car of its time, is 106 inches long.) The P50 has three wheels (two in front and one in back), one door, one headlight, and one windshield wiper. The engine was a one-cylinder Zweiral Union DKW 49cc gasoline motor producing 4.2 horsepower, which could move the car at a top speed of 38mph. The Peel had a manual transmission with three speeds, but no reverse gear: there was a handle on the back of the car to pick it up and turn it around.
The Peel Company unveiled the diminutive vehicle at the 1962 Earls Court motorcycle show in England. The asking price was just 199 pounds (about $320), and it was available in white, red, blue or yellow. But, to Cannell’s disappointment, it never sold well. In 1963, as a publicity stunt, the company took a P50 in the elevator to the top of Blackpool Tower and drove it around the observation deck. That same year, a slightly larger two-seat version, known as the Trident, was released. But no more than 50 Peel P50s were ever sold. The company stopped producing them in 1965, and Peel Engineering itself went out of business in 1974.
Forty years later, the P50 was resurrected. In 2012, a pair of British manufacturers formed a new company called Peel Engineering and began producing modern versions of the Peel microcars. The modern carbon-fiber versions are available with automatic transmissions and either a 49cc gasoline engine or an electric motor with a removable battery pack.
Today, only 27 original Peel P50’s are known to exist. One of them is on display at the Lane Auto Museum in Nashville TN.