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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 16, 1997

Today all cars are pretty much alike - especially the sedans and coupes. There's an occasional oddball, of course. The Plymouth Prowler retro-rod is unlike anything else made today and the few other sports cars that are left on the market each have a certain degree of individuality but the general layout and profile of today's passenger cars are pretty much the same.

When this "sameness" finally gets to me, I retreat into my garret with coffee and my one copy of "The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars - 1885 to the Present" and peruse the cars of yesteryear, some of which were very strange and wonderful. This urge came over me last week and I've listed those weird veterans that lifted me out of my blue-funk:

ATLANTIC - Two-wheeled cars were tried over the years but for obvious reasons, never caught on. The Atlantic was really a motorcycle that had a couple of wheels on each side which didn't touch the ground at the same time. It was made in Germany during the early '20s for two years and sported a "tub" body that seated two in tandem with the driver up front and a single passenger behind. Power came from a tiny two- cylinder engine and as far as I can see, the Atlantic had no weather protection other than rain coats and hats. Mauser (the German rifle maker) and Monotrace made vehicles of the same design during that era.

BEDELIA - Cyclecars were popular in Europe and the French-built Bedelia is a good example. Cyclecars were extremely light four-wheelers that used very small motorcycle-type engines and like the Atlantic, carried a driver and passenger in tandem. The first Bedelia was unusual because of the seating arrangement, which was altered on later versions, so driving one must have been exciting as the driver sat in the rear and peered over the passenger's head. It was built from 1910 until 1925 and its steering was of the crude center-swivel variety much like the classic "radio Flyer" wagon we all had as kids.

BRIGGS & STRATTON - From 1919 to 1924 Briggs & Stratton made its Buckboard, surely the crudest automobile ever sold. Two seats sat side-by-side on a wooden platform with a bicycle wheel at each end and a small lawn mower motor mounted on a fifth wheel in back. It had no body and stopping power was applied to one wheel only. Another company bought rights to the Buckboard and later powered it with a 12 volt electric motor. It only lasted from 1919 to 1928 and most were sold as toys for the kid whose father couldn't build one in his home shop.

LEYAT SCREWCAR - Since the automobile and the airplane grew up side-by-side, it was inevitable that someone would try powering a car with a propeller. Actually several inventors did. The Leyat was built in France in 1913 and used a small motorcycle engine to drive a four-bladed propeller which was encased in a hoop that was covered in front with a wire mesh grille. Steering was done via the rear wheels which must have been exciting. They were made sporadically until 1921. The Traction Aerienne was also propeller-driven but with an enclosed sedan body. It lasted until 1926.

REEVES OCTOAUTO - Reeves was in the car-building business in the very early days - 1896 to be exact - but it entered the realm of oddballness in 1911 when founder Milton Reeves produced the OctoAuto, a 20-foot-long monstrosity that had two wheels at each corner and was designed to give a smooth ride over any terrain. Only one was made but its photo is great. Reeves is pictured at the wheel resplendent in a white suit and a Panama hat.

VANNOD - Some cars were never meant to be mass-produced and the Vannod was one of them. Described as a "follies" car made for the Paris Salon of 1958, it features a diamond-patterned wheel configuration with one in front, one in back and two on each side which do the driving. Steering is initiated by both the front and back wheels. The driver sat sat up front while two "close" friends sat it back.

All of these vehicles are gone now and in some cases, all that's left is a couple of photographs and a few notes. Unfortunately "The new Encyclopedia of Motorcars - 1885 to the Present" is out of print too. I may have one of the last copies - which reminds me, I'd better raise the homeowner's insurance on this place. I can get new furniture but that book is irreplaceable.