Some of the most glamorous of marques have humble origins. Lagonda, so famous in the 1970s and 1980s for its supercars, started out by building motor cycles; its first ‘motor car’ was actually a motorbike-derived tricar.
American Wilbur Gunn moved to Staines, south-west of London, in the 1890s, established the Lagonda company, and sold his first motor cycle in 1900. Although Gunn seems to have had no master plan to break into the motor car market, he was tempted by the rather simple process of incorporating motorcycle technology into a three-wheeler (hence ‘tricar’) frame. The first Lagonda tricar was apparently built in 1903 to satisfy an unsolicited order from a motor club secretary; Gunn found this process so straightforward that he decided to make more of them. Officially, therefore, the first ‘production’ tricar was launched in 1904, was gradually improved, and was not replaced by a more ‘car-like’ car until 1908.
Tricars are still seen competing in Veteran car events like the London-Brighton run. Although obviously derived from motorcycle engineering, they are sturdy and able to cope with reasonably long journeys (by early 1900s standards). Their layout, of course, was not at all like the conventional cars which were soon to appear. There were two wheels up front, attached to a motor cycle-type frame with a single rear wheel; the air-cooled engine was fixed to the chassis tube between the driver/rider’s legs, and the rear wheels were chain-driven. Almost all the machinery, including the transmission, was exposed to the elements, and susceptible to mud and road filth of all types.
There was no suspension of any sort on the earliest tricars, (although pneumatic tyres helped to give some resilience) as both front and rear wheels were fixed solidly to the frame, and steering, through a simple linkage, was not from a wheel, but from cycle-type handlebars. The original tricar specification was not fixed for long, as Gunn reacted to market pressures, providing more powerful engines, and a modicum of creature comforts. Smaller, single-cylinder, or larger air-cooled or water-cooled twin-cylinder engines were available, chassis design was altered significantly, suspension was added, and the Royal Mail even bought a number of these cars, with a delivery ‘bin’ in place of the passenger’s seat.
By 1907, the British tricar fashion had passed, and Lagonda’s total output was 69 cars.
Amazingly, the tricar was a two-seater with the passenger accommodated in a seat (often made of wicker) fixed ahead of the driver, ahead of the steering, and between the front wheels. If the tricar ever left the road, or made contact with any other vehicle, pedestrian or horse, it was the unprotected passenger who would act as an involuntary ‘bumper’ for the rest of the ensemble.