Welcome to the weird world of the 1970s microcar

flipper willam contessa microcars jh 32

Barrett owns a Mini Comtesse (left), SEAB Flipper (centre) and a William Cyclo (right)

This collector focuses on these miniature marvels and plans to drive one all over the UK. We learn more

At a Sunday morning car meet recently, I was about to tuck into a bacon sandwich when a small yellow box purred by, doing around 15mph.

Turning in to the car park, it came to a stop in front of the assorted Stags, Esprits, Mustangs and other relics drawing the usual crowd. One side of it then opened to reveal the driver, who, unfolding herself into a standing position, effortlessly pushed what I now realised was a three-wheeled microcar backwards to join the other vehicles, where it quickly attracted the curious and amused.

Only very small cars can inspire these reactions. Mention Jeremy Clarkson and an elevator and everyone knows you’re talking about a Peel P50, the microcar that the presenter toured BBC Television Centre in. Cue much chortling, followed by general agreement that, in the right conditions, such cars have much to commend them.

Louise Barrett, the owner and driver of the Willam Cyclo that arrived that Sunday, agrees. If you count the Sinclair C5 she also owns, it’s her fourth microcar (there’s a question as to whether, with their 50cc engines and three or four wheels, such vehicles are tricycles or quadricycles, but in Barrett’s case, the DVLA has answered it by registering hers as saloon cars) – and she loves them all. “They’re little adventures on three or four wheels,” says Barrett, whose daily motor is a Fiat 500.

Her microcar adventure began during Covid when, working in A&E in a local hospital, she sadly witnessed the death of a patient. “It reminded me how short life can be,” says Barrett. “I’ve always been drawn to the peculiar and off beat [her home is filled with 1960s and 1970s memorabilia] and saw the Willam on eBay. I won it with a bid of £2000. The following day I drove to Essex to collect it.”

John Evans (right) with Louise Barrett and her Willam Cyclo

No, Barrett didn’t then drive it back to her home in Surrey. For all its charms, the Cyclo – designed by MH Willam, president of Lambretta France, who unveiled it at the 1966 Paris show, and powered by a single-cylinder 47cc Lambretta scooter engine driving the front wheel – is a temperamental creature. Although she has had the Willam refurbished – work that included overhauling the engine and reinforcing the glassfibre body – breakdowns are common and the most spectacular occurred on a drive to the summer car show at Brooklands in 2022.

“Things were going well and then it conked out on the A3 dual carriageway near Ripley,” recalls Barrett. “I pushed it onto the verge just as a fire engine was approaching. The fire crew closed part of the lane and then told me I must abandon it. I refused and instead called out the AA, who discovered a fuel line had become detached. Once it was running, the AA and the fire brigade shadowed me to Brooklands.”

John Evans with Willam Cyclo

No stranger to the unexpected – when not working as a senior lecturer in paediatric nursing, she is a bingo caller – Barrett admits that driving the Willam requires nerves of steel: “The top speed is less than 20mph and some drivers shout at me and honk their horns. Fortunately, most people seem to love it, and if it runs out of petrol, I can always pedal it.”

Barrett has invited me to her home to try the Willam as well as see her other microcars: a 1974 Mini Comtesse single-seater, which looks similar but has a gullwing door and which she bought from a chap in a pub car park for £500; and a 1970 SEAB Flipper, a four-wheeler whose front axle and drivetrain can turn through 360deg. She bought it for £1200 last October from the estate of a recently deceased collector.

SEAB Flipper front

But the Willam beckons. Registered in 1976, it is, claims Barrett, the only road-legal Willam Cyclo in the world – which might explain why she was recently offered £20,000 for it, an offer she declined.

I squeeze in behind the steering wheel, pull a knob, press a button and push the accelerator. Off we go, slowly at first, but we’re soon trundling along at around 15mph. The first thing to notice is how smooth and quiet the engine is and how quickly the car gains speed. The next thing is the directness of the steering and the hilariously small turning circle and the third is how the little car nearly tips me out on a speed hump. “Forgot to mention that,” says Barrett, when I return.

John Evans driving Willam Cyclo

Still, it’s a hoot, and if Barrett’s plans come good, her Cyclo has a great future. “I work for a homeless charity at weekends and plan to drive the Willam around the UK to raise funds,” she says. “Because it’s about the size of a doorway, I’ll be sleeping in it.” I’d like to see Clarkson try that in his P50. 

National Bubble and Microcar Museum

Devoted mainly to bubble cars and some microcars of the 1950s, this museum has two floors jampacked with models from France, Germany and the UK. Having feasted your eyes on that lot, en joy a ride in the museum’s Heinkel – bubble car not bomber. More details at bubblecarmuseum.co.uk.

Source: Autocar

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