1950s to 1960s Three Wheel Automobile History

Updated July 20, 2017

The end of World War II in 1945 left European and Asian infrastructures devastated. Assembly lines that churned out automobiles before the start of hostilities converted to producing tanks and other battle equipment during the war. Besides these conversions, many facilities became the subject of intense allied bombing leaving them decimated after the war. After the declaration of peace, finding affordable and fuel-efficient automobiles, because of high gasoline costs, helped recreate three-wheeled vehicles.

Three-Wheeled autos

Also called tri-cars, three-wheeled autos are in one sense a hybrid cross between motorcycles and standard autos. Many of the three-wheeled autos produced in the 1950s and 1960s had one wheel in the front and two in the rear, or two in the front and one in the rear, depending on the configuration. Combinations were devised for power from the rear and steering from the front. Fuel costs were affordable because of the low horsepower in the vehicles, and thus increased mileage.

BMW Isetta

The BMW Isetta series of three-wheeled cars is one of the most well-known among modern day collectors. Italian-designed, the Isettas, or motor coupe as BMW called it, went into production in April 1955. Weighing in at only 349 Kilogram, the first Isetta had a one-cylinder engine that produced 12 horsepower. An upgraded Isetta brought into use by German police, the Isetta 300 Police model, came complete with a blue flashing light and radio communications. A 1961 police model is on display at the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum in Madison, Georgia.


The smallest three-wheeled auto is the Peel 50. It made its appearance at the 1962 London Motor Show. The Peel was about 53 inches long and weighed 59.9 Kilogram. Manufactured on the Isle of Mann, it had one door and could reach a maximum speed of 38 miles per hour. A surprise to some new owners was the Peel had no reverse drive. To park the Peel, drivers would lift it by its rear handle and manoeuvre it into a space. Peel production ended in 1965.


The Japanese company Daihatsu first began producing three-wheelers in 1930. In 1951, Daihatsu manufactured its first three-wheeled car, the Bee. Powered by a 540cc, rear-mounted air-cooled engine, the fibreglass body Bee had four seats. Unfortunately for Daihatsu, the company only sold 90 of its models. Toyota took over the company and three-wheel manufacturing ceased in 1976.


The narrow roads and streets found in many European countries contributed to the proliferation of three-wheeled vehicles. In addition to using autos, goods needed to be transported during the postwar years at low cost. These smaller vehicles were adapted into mini-delivery trucks. The Ape, an Italian creation based on the iconic Vespa scooter, was one such vehicle. Begun in 1948, the Ape took a Vespa scooter and attached a trailer to it to carry small amounts of cargo. In 1952, the power was increased and in 1958, the Ape came equipped with a cab.

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About the Author

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Charles Fredeen is a writer with a love of politics and journalism living in Los Angeles. He has written four published books, including a biography of the journalist Nellie Bly. With more than 25 years of writing, he has also written numerous articles for publications, including the "Los Angeles Times" and "Los Angeles Magazine."