Who Needs Four Wheels Anyway?
Three wheel automobiles are nothing new or unique; the world’s first practical motor vehicle, designed by Karl Benz in the 1880s, was a three wheeler.
Since the very beginnings of automotive production, many companies from around the world have been developing three wheel vehicles alongside four wheel ones. Some companies have even specialised in three wheeler types.
The Czech contribution to three wheel motoring was the diminutive and simple Velorex. Even among other three wheel designs, the Velorex is a distinctive shape: A durable plasticised textile cover stretched over a tube steel frame puttering along the road at modest speed under the power of a small motorcycle engine, the Velorex seems more a tent on wheels than any sort of credible automobile.
Such deceptive appearances belie a machine that was ingenious in simplicity and wildly successful in the early post WWII economies and in several European nations that came under Socialist governments soon after.
In a production run that lasted from 1945 to 1971, over 15,000 Velorex three wheelers were built with nearly a full half of the production being exported to other Socialist European countries.
That said, let’s spend some time with this little Czech three wheeler that has gone from being a car to a cult:
The Right Machine at the Right Time
The work of the Stránský brothers, František (1914-1954) and Mojmír (1924-2011), design of the three wheeler that would eventually be called the Velorex started in 1936 in their bicycle repair shop in the vicinity of Česká Třebová, a small city in the north of the country.
The timing of their design could not have been better. The world was still in the throes of the Great Depression and a few short years away from the outbreak of the Second World War. As with so many nations, the industial base of Czechoslovakia would have trouble meeting public demand for many items, including automobiles in the immediate post war economy.
As with the bulk of three wheel vehicles, economics inspired the Stránský’s machine. They took primary inspiration from the designs of the Morgan Motor Company of Great Britain. Morgan had made a name for themselves in three wheel vehicle design from their foundation in 1910 through to the end of the 1930s and certainly were a good example for the Stránskýs to follow.
Following the Morgan example, the Stránský brothers designed their machine with two wheels at the front and a single one at the rear. However, unlike Morgan designs, the Stránskýs placed the engine in the rear of the vehicle. The brothers called their creation the Oskar. The Oskar prototype was built in 1943 and differed from production versions by having sheet metal covering as opposed to textile.
The Stránský’s goal was to create a machine that could fill a gap that existed between motorcycles and standard four wheel cars; a vehicle that was large enough to carry two adults at reasonable speeds while being light and small enough that it could be powered by motorcycle engines.
The brothers built an intitial batch of 12 Oskar cars in 1945 that were equiped with a variety of motorcycle engines and could be built for approximately a quarter the price of a four wheel car.
In 1950, the Stránský’s workshop was placed under the control of another small company called Velo and their manufacturing facilities were moved further north to the town of Solnice in 1951.
Produced under the name Oskar until 1956, the vehicle enjoyed a year on year increase of production from the 1951 total of 120. By 1954, the average production was 40 vehicles per month.
1954 marked a significant change as the Stránskýs were cut off from any further involvement in their creation. That year, František died in an accident while test driving a prototype for a new version of the car while Mojmír was removed from the company for refusing membership in the Communist Party which was ruling Czechoslovakia at the time.
By 1956, the vehicle’s name had been changed from Oskar to Velorex and late 1950s production was totalling around 120 per month. in the early 1960s, a second production line was opened in nearby Rychnov nad Kněžnou.
The Velorex is believed by many to be the simplest motor vehicle ever made that was still practical. Certainly the simplicity and the economy that came with it was a huge selling point in favour of it.
The simplicity of it meant that it could be produced quickly enough that buyers did not need to wait as long to have their Velorex as they would to have a standard four wheel car. The simplicity also meant that there was very little that could go wrong with a Velorex that the owner could not fix themselves with basic tools.
From a practicality standpoint, the Velorex could attain speeds that were quite adequate for driving in towns and were very useful for everyday errands and as runabouts for companies to use in business. Additionally, due to the power output of the engines used in them, the Velorex could be operated legally on a motorcycle license.
While these three wheelers were widely exported and popular in the Eastern Bloc countries, their availability in Czechoslovakia was subject to some limitations. Primarily, they were directed at people with disabilities who might have trouble operating a standard car. The government of the day offered generous purchasing subsidies to anyone who passed an examination to prove their disability and qualify them to obtain a Velorex.
Collectively, three wheelers built under the Oskar and Velorex names covered a range of four main models.
All versions were powered by engines made by either the ČZ or Jawa motocycle companies and used forced air to cool the engines. The driver started the engine via a hand lever near the steering wheel; this lever was a modification of the kick start mechanism typical to motorcycles.
The ulimate version, the Velorex 16/350, was equiped with a two cylinder engine that allowed it to cruise at a respectable 60 km/h and could push it to a maximum speed of around 85 km/h.
Life After Three Wheels
After three wheeler production ceased in 1971, Velorex made a failed attempt to enter the four wheel automobile market. By the time they made the attempt, the market was well saturated and they simply could not compete with the likes of Škoda and Trabant who were dominating that sector.
From the mid 1970s, the Velorex name became prominent on a long series of motorcycle sidecars. The earliest Velorex sidecars were built with Jawa motorcycles in mind as their companion pieces though it would not be long before they were adapted for use with a variety of motorcycle makes.
Velorex did very well in the sidecar business and developed a worldwide reputation for products that were affordable and of good quality.
Velorex Today and Learning More
While the historical Velorex company did not survive the fall of Socialism, their legacy is kept alive today by the Velorexport company and the Velorex name is still a fixture on motorcycle sidecars today as a result.
In spite of all practical reasons for owning a Velorex three wheeler being long in the past, a very strong fan base has kept the vehicle type alive over the years. Many have been restored, dedicated clubs have been set up for them around the world, Velorex rallies and meets are organised and a huge spare parts market exists to support them.
If you come to the Czech lands, several museums have three wheelers in their collections to view and restored running examples are not particularly rare to see.
Given the worldwide popularity the type has developed, there might just be one near you.
The following links will take you to sites with further information on the Velorex three wheeler:
Velorex article at Microcar Museum
Velorex article at 3-wheelers.com
Velorex article at Small Cars Club