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N-Wheeled Cars

Gallery opened 6 Mar 2018

Updated: 21 Apr 2018

More on 6-wheel cars: Vauxhall Villiers added

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There is very little doubt that in almost all circumstances the correct number of wheels for a car is four. That has of course not stopped keen inventors from trying either more or less, and here you see some of the results.

This page is strictly limited to cars; goods vehicles with six or more wheels are of course very common.


ONE WHEEL

I don't think there is any rational way you could call a vehicle with one wheel a car. The Museum has an extensive collection of monowheels, but very few of them have any form of bodywork and the majority can only carry one person. A possible candidate might be the monowheel tank (preferably as the civilian version).

Left: A civilian version of the monowheel tank: 1933

This design's claim to be a one-wheeled car is somewhat undermined by the two hefty stabiliser wheels at the back. It appears however that these can be raised by a lever once you've got up speed. Other objections are that the steering is by handlebars rather than a steering-wheel, and that it seems to be strictly a one-seater.

Anyhow, that's the best I can do for the moment, but I suspect that a trawl through the covers of Popular Science and similiar journals would soon throw up something that could claim more plausibly to be a one-wheeled car.

This is an artist's impression and it is extremely unlikely that it was ever built.


2 WHEELS

If we permit ourselves the luxury of two wheels for a car, then we find ourselves with a good number of genuine candidates.

Two-wheeled cars with gyroscopes are dealt with here and here.

Two-wheeled cars without gyroscopes are dealt with on the 2-wheeled car page. These cars all have one wheel at the front and one at the back.

If you have two wheels side-by-side then you have a diwheel.

Left: The Bryant diwheel: 1938

The Museum has a large collection of diwheels, but this artist's impression is the nearest it gets to an actual car. This design (which I am quite sure no one attempted to build) certainly has bodywork and clearly seats at least two people; probably more judging by the windows halfway along the cabin. Note the rudder at the back for high-speed steering. You can read more this vehicle on this page.

It is far from clear how you would change a wheel should you suffer a puncture. This design has not been tested for practicality.


3 WHEELS: THE SCOTT SOCIABLE

The Scott Sociable was a very odd sort of three-wheeled car manufactured from 1921 to 1925 by the Scott Autocar Company of Bradford, Yorkshire. This was an offshoot of the well-known and respected Scott Motorcycle Company.

In the course of World War I Alfred Scott developed sidecar machine gun carriers. They were not very successful. After the war he tried a similiar configuration for civilian transport. There emerged a highly asymmetrical three-wheel car with two wheels in line, with a third wheel out to the side and slightly behind the other rear wheel. (Overcoming the puncture drawback noted just above), though that was not the reason)The configuration resembled that of a motorcycle and sidecar combination, but looked very wrong. It looked just like a car with a wheel missing, and apparently handled like one. It was originally announced in 1916 as the Sociable, but production was postponed until 1921. About 200 were made before production stopped in 1924. The cost of a complete Sociable was £273 in 1921, falling to £135 by 1924.

Left: The Scott Sociable: 1921-25

This picture demonstrates all too clearly that the Scott Sociable just looked wrong, as if it was poised on the point of falling on its nose.

The Sociable had a triangulated tubular steel frame, and a proper steering wheel acting by rack and pinion on the front wheel. It was powered the Scott Company's own water-cooled 578 cc twin-cylinder two-stroke engine driving through a three-speed gearbox to the offside rear wheel only, by shaft; there was no differential, and no reverse gear. It has been recorded that turning was dangerous at speed; I'll bet it was.

There are many, many, three-wheeled vehicles in the world. This may be the oddest.

Left: The Scott Sociable: 1922

This Scott clearly dates from 1922.

According to Timothy Jacobs, author of Lemons- The World's Worst Cars, "It had some of the characteristics of a motorcycle-and-sidecar arrangement, but without the flexibility, and could be extraordinarily treacherous to drive."

3 WHEELS: MORGAN

The Morgan company began selling three-wheelers with one wheel at the rear and a V-twin engine at the front in 1911, and continued until 1952. The company announced that production of a version using a Harley-Davidson V-twin would be restarted in 2012, but the production models actually used an S&S engine.

Left: The Morgan three-wheeler: 2012

This is a three-wheeler of a rather different stamp. It is powered by a big V-twin engine at the front (yes, I suppose that is obvious) that drives the rear wheel.

There is a Wikipedia page on Morgan.

A perhaps non-obvious drawback of three-wheelers is that since you are making three tracks on the road, the chances of encountering a randomly-placed nail are increased by 50%.


4 WHEELS:

As noted at the start, there is pretty near universal agreement that the best number of wheels for a car is four. There's not much point in looking at ordinary cars here, but you can have four wheels but be unconventional in where you put them. A classic example is the Sunbeam-Mabberley:

Left: The Sunbeam-Mabberley: 1901

This car was the first produced by the famous Sunbeam company. They bought in a design from a certain Maxwell Mabberley-Smith, whose day job was designing ornamental ironwork.

The Sunbeam had one wheel at the front, one at each side, and one at the rear; this is often described as a diamond configuration, but in fact the front and back wheels were not in line. The layout was similiar to that of Starley's Coventry Rotary quadracycle. The car was powered by a single-cylinder engine mounted above the front wheel. It had a 2-speed gearbox, driven by belt from the engine. then chain drives from the differential to the two side wheels.

The seating was as unorthodox as the wheel placement. Two people sat close together on the front seat, facing the side of the road; the driver sat behind them, steering with a tiller and facing the opposite side of the road. This all sounds very unnatural, and the natural tendency would be to twist round to look in the direction in which you are going. This is especially a good idea if you are the driver. Note that extra seat backs have been added at the corners of this version to make the twisting a bit less uncomfortable.

Left: Pininfarina-X project: 1960

The Pininfarina-X project showcased its low-drag body design, with a drag coefficient of only 0.23, far superior to the ordinary cars of the time. Batista Pininfarina worked with aerodynamics expert Professor Alberto Morelli. To achieve such low drag the front of the car had to be narrow, leading to this unorthodox layout with one wheel in front, two at the side, and one at the rear. The front wheel did the steering and the rear wheel all the driving. A 1089cc Fiat engine was installed at an angle in the rear of the car.

The project was a successful technology demonstrator up to a point, but a single front wheel was never going to be acceptable in mainstream motoring. The car was eventually bought by a collector and still exists.

You can find more information here.

You're not going to get a car with four conventionally-placed wheels on this page, unless there's something very funny about the wheels. I think this car qualifies; it has four square wheels.

Left: Square wheels on a four-wheel pickup

This is from a Mythbusters episode. Interestingly the jolting gets less as speed increases because the wheels are bouncing from one corner to the opposite one, the intermediate corner not touching the ground.

There is a YouTube video, posted in 2016.

It is slightly disturbing that this is far from a unique occurrence of square wheels. Typing 'square wheels' into YouTube produces scooters, bicycles, tricycles, tractors, motorbikes and skateboards, all with square wheels.


5 WHEELS: SIDEWAYS PARKING

Finding a car with five wheels was always going to be a challenge. However the Museum staff are not easily defeated.

Left: The The Brookes Walker Fifth Wheel: 1950s

The huge barge-like cars produced in the USA in the 50's were hard to park in spaces of limited size. Here is one attempted solution; a fifth wheel that lefts the normal rear wheels off the road and allows the back of the car to go sideways. It could be argued that the car was a three-wheeler during this operation, as only three wheels were actually touching the road. A hydraulic cylinder lowered the fifth wheel, which was then rotated by a friction roller driven from the rear axle.

For a long time nothing was currently known beyond the existence of this photograph. It can now be revealed that this Cadillac is using the Park-Car concept invented by Brooks Walker in the 1930s. US patent 2,139,341 was applied for in 1932 but only granted in 1938.

Now you may object to carrying around the weight of an extra wheel just to help with parking. But the beauty of the concept is that it doubles as the spare wheel, and the only extra weight is that of the raise/lower mechanism.

There is a video of the fifth wheel in operation on YouTube.

Left: US patent 2,139,341, granted 1938

The fifth wheel 22 swings down on a radius arm 25, actuated by the hydraulic cylinder 31. The big spring 38 looks as if it is intended to retract the fifth wheel if the hydraulics fail.

The fifth wheel is driven by friction roller held against its tread; this is driven by the chain 45, from the shaft 43. This shaft is driven by another friction roller 41 bearing on the rear tyre 40.

I have my doubts about this drive system:

  • There are two friction rollers here that need to have a good grip on their respective tyres. How well is that going to work in the wet?
  • The friction roller 41 bears not on the tread of its tyre but on its sidewall. Tyre sidewalls are not designed for that sort of duty and would quickly wear and become dangerous- on the inside sidewall which is hard to inspect.
  • Finally, what about the differential? Once both rear wheels are of the ground, trying to apply power through tyre 40 is just going to make the opposite rear wheel spin uselessly.

Left: The Fifth Wheel: 1950s

This installation takes up most of the room in the boot (trunk) and apparently the petrol tank has also had to be moved- quite a major rebuild.

From a Life article, 17 Nov 1952 (The issue that reported the victory of Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson)

You wait ages for a 5-wheeled car and then three come along at once... more research revealed these beauties:

The more fastidious of readers may be complaining at this point that the Brooks Walker fifth-wheel may be a bright idea, but it does not have all five wheels on the ground at the same time, and so does not count as a five-wheeled car. Very well... try this one.

Left: The Smith Flyer: 1917

The Smith Flyer was a four-wheel buckboard with a Smith Motor-wheel attached at the back. It seems to have been intended for fun rather than serious transport.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged to point an obvious snag. The fifth wheel is clearly hinged to the back of the vehicle, to allow it follow irregularities in the road. Thus only the weight of engine and one wheel is available for adhesion. The traction abilities must have diabolical.

It is often cited as the cheapest car ever sold, but that means stretching the definition of 'car' to breaking point. It was no competition for the Model-T Ford, which could be had for a few hundred dollars more.

Left: The Smith Flyer: 1917

The caption is informative. However, in the list of its desirable features (I like the 'natural woodwork') there is no mention of... brakes. There is no mention of suspension either; there wasn't any beyond the flexing of the chassis. It does however have front and rear mudguards.

I marvel at the idea of raising the whole engine and wheel to declutch; this is less practical with a V8. There is no mention of a throttle control, which would have required a Bowden cable; it says 'Control is under the thumb on the steering wheel', which I take to mean an ignition cutout switch. And there certainly wasn't a gearbox.

Sorry about the moire. Nothing to be done at this stage.

Be aware that the term 'fifth wheel' is often used to describe the horizontal turntable on which an articulated trailer pivots. See Wikipedia.

There is also the idiom "About as much use as a fifth wheel." which makes no sense because there are times when a spare wheel really comes in handy.


6 WHEELS: THE SEXTOAUTO

The Reeves Sexto-Auto actually came after the Reeves Octo-Auto, described below. Faced with no orders at all for the Octo-Auto, Reeves claimed he could “Get as good results with six wheels as with eight” which rather invites the question of why he used eight in the first place. The Sexto-Auto involved rather more rebuilding than just removing the Octo-Auto’s front axle, as the axle behind it has been moved forward to a position under the radiator.

Left: The Reeves Sexto-Auto: 1912

I am very doubtful if 'Tire trouble and expense actually reduced' was a realistic claim.

Left: The Reeves Sexto-Auto: 1912

The only Sexto-Auto ever built.

6 WHEELS: PULLMAN

The Pullman marque was manufactured in Pennsylvania by the York Motor Car Company from 1905 to 1917.

Left: The Pullman: 1903

Here's another way to arrange six wheels on a car. This wheel configuration appears to be unique- no other 6-wheel car had a pair of wheels in the middle. When the middle wheels encountered a high spot in the road, the car had an unhappy tendency to rock back and forwards.

It was not a success. It crashed into a telegraph pole within a year of its construction, very probably due to instability in the steering behaviour. Its parts were used in more conventional cars. The year of building is usually given as 1903, which seems to indicate it was prototype built before Pullman went into mass production in 1905.

Pullman went bankrupt and ceased operations in 1917.

6 WHEELS: THE MERCEDES-BENZ G4 W31

Left: The Mercedes-Benz G4: 1934

The Mercedes-Benz G4 Type-W31 was a six-wheeled staff/command car built for the Wehrmacht in 1934, designed to cope with off-road conditions. Only 57 were built, of which only three completely original specimens are known to exist, one of them belonging to the Spanish royal family.

All versions had eight-cylinder inline engine, driving the rear four wheels through self-locking differentials. The rear wheels were attached to two rigid axles suspended by semi-elliptic leaf springs. The first three years of production had 5018 cc engines delivering 100 HP. Later engine capacity was increased to 5252 cc and then 5401 cc.

This car has a Wikipedia page.

Thanks to John Bevan for drawing this car to my attention.


6 WHEELS: THE TYRELL P34

The Tyrell P34 was a six-wheeled Formula 1 racing car first unveiled in 1975. It was first tried on the track at Silverstone on 8th October 1975. After much testing, Tyrrell decided to build two more 6-wheel cars to race in the 1976 season.

The idea behind the P34 was the use of front tyres that would fit in with the streamlining. This would have two effects; this would be to lower overall drag and also provide smoother airflow to the rear wing. The wheels were only 10 inches (250 mm) in diameter, and because of the small contact patch with the road, four were required to give good cornering.

Left: Tyrell P34 driven by Depailler: 1976

The high point of the P34 story was the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix; Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler finished first and second in their P34's. Scheckter remains the only driver ever to win a race in a six-wheeled car.

However various handling problems emerged and Tyrell's design for the 1978 season had four wheels. One P34 has survived and is often seen at historic racing events.

Looks like daylight under that rear wheel.

There is a Wikipedia page for the P34.

6 WHEELS: THE PANTHER SIX

This Six was built by the retro-sportscar manufacturer Panther, owned by Robert Jankel. Top speed was claimed at 200 mph, but Panther went bankrupt before any were sold.

Left: The Panther Six: 1977

The Panther Six is mid-engined with a 8.2 litre Cadillac V8 powerplant with twin turbochargers. Only two cars were built, one white and one in black, and both are known to still be in existence. The rear wheels are fitted with 265/50 VR16 tyres, and the two pairs of steering front wheels with 205/40 VR13 tyres. In the tyre codes the 16 and the 13 give the diameter of the wheel rim; it is therefore necessary to carry around two spare wheels of different sizes.

The Panther Six has a Wikipedia page.

6 WHEELS: THE COVINI C6W

The Covini is a The Covini C6W is a six-wheeled Italian sports coupé. It is claimed that it was directly inspired by the 1976 Tyrrell P34 above.

Left: The Covini C6W: 2004

In 2004 the C6W was first shown in prototype form. Small-scale production began in 2005 at the rate of 6-8 cars per year, and is believed to be still continuing. The car has 4200 cc 8-cylinder engine mounted at the rear and a claimed top speed of 186 mph. The transmission is a 6-speed manual box.

6 WHEELS: THE VAUXHALL VILLIERS

Another approach to putting six wheels on your car is double tyres on the rear axle. The Vauxhall Villiers racing car had a 3000cc 300 HP supercharged engine, and dual rear wheels were tried by driver and entrepreneur Raymond Mays in the hope of better traction in hill-climb races.

Left: The Vauxhall Villiers: 1938

The Vauxhall Villiers was sucessful at hill-climbing and sprint races, but it was known to be a very tricky car to handle. Here Raymond Mays grimly clutches the steering wheel.

You could argue all day if this really counts as six wheels rather than four wheels, but let's not.

Why anyone thought that holding up a grimy sheet behind the car would make a better picture is unknown.


7 WHEELS:

OK, I will admit that finding a seven-wheeled car is proving difficult. Any ideas?


8 WHEELS: THE OCTOAUTO

An eight-wheeled car is however easy. The Reeves Octo-Auto was a 1910 Overland modified by Milton Reeves. It had a 40 HP engine and was more than 20 feet long, carrying four passengers. It was a commercial failure.

Above: A magnificent photograph of the Reeves Octo-Auto: 1910

Unfortunately this picture reveals nothing about how the suspension was arranged.

Left: The Reeves Octo-Auto: 1910

This is not much more informative about the suspension, though we can see a conventional axle for the front two wheels.

Clearly taken at the same time as the photograph above.

Left: The Reeves Octo-Auto: 1910

This suggests that the front axle was simply held by two struts running backwards.
(see left front wheel)

8 WHEELS: THE ELIICA

The Eliica was and is (the project appears to be in continuous development) electric car developed by Keio University in Japan, first shown in 2004. It uses lithium-ion batteries. It is allegedly faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo. Despite its large size it only seats four people.

Left: The Eliica: 2004

The Eliica has eight wheels, supposedly to improve traction. They are smaller than normal car wheels, allowing the vehicles to be closer to the ground for better aerodynamics and stability. Each of the eight wheels is driven by a 60 kW (80 hp) electric motor, giving 480 kW (640 hp) eight wheel drive in total, with regenerative braking to recover energy. The four front wheels steer. Each of the eight wheels has a disc brake.

Eight-wheel drive might in theory allow the Eliica to deal with all kinds of road surfaces, but the low ground clearance suggests that off-road operation is not a sensible option. Smooth acceleration of about 0.8 g is claimed.

The Eliica is a development of the earlier KAZ (Keio Advanced Zero-emission vehicle), which was a 6.7 m (22 ft) limousine-sized 8-wheel 8-person electric vehicle prototype announced in 2003.

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