When you think of the ideal small car, your mind might drift towards something like the Fiat 500, Chevrolet Bolt or a cute little VW Golf. But these modern city cars look monstrous compared to the smallest car in the world: the Peel P50.
Originally sold between 1962 and 1965, the Peel P50 is officially the smallest production car of all time. Measuring just 54 inches long, 41 inches wide, and 47 inches tall, it has room for one human and not much else.
“I remember seeing a documentary, and it was narrated by John Peel and it starts with the original Peel cars,” says Jim Buggle, co-founder of British company P50 Cars.
“Something about seeing the Peel P50 as a kid just got me interested. I remember going to school the next day and drawing one and saying ‘I want do that”.
A few decades later, that’s exactly what Buggle is doing. Along with business partner Craig Wilson, the duo set up the company P50 Cars to build all-new, painstakingly accurate replicas of the world’s smallest car. From their workshop in south-east London, the duo assemble the standard P50 as well as an open-top Spyder variant.
Your brand new Peel can be purchased as a kit to assemble at home or as a fully assembled car that you can drive right out of the company’s new factory.
P50 Cars recently moved into the new site, which has enough space for the company to ramp up production as orders pour in from around the world. When I visited the UK workshop this summer, cars were being assembled for delivery to India, Australia and Qatar. The microcar maker has shipped vehicles to every continent except South America and Antarctica.
“This will be the production line,” Buggle says, pointing to one side of the industrial unit. “We have this space for the shells here, and then next to it is what we call the dirty side. That’s where all the welding and machining takes place. We also have a spray booth and the fiberglass and all that.
Walking around the site feels like a full-fledged car factory, but on a much smaller scale. Buggle and Wilson are still orienting themselves at the new site, but there’s an area filled with fiberglass P50 bodies and shelves stacked with tiny motors, tiny wheels and miniature brake assemblies.
In the neighboring unit there are all the tools needed to machine the components that go into each car.
“It’s one of the brake hubs,” Buggle explains, pointing to a chart of the components required for each car. “Everything is machined on the side, then we anodize it in-house. So we managed to fit a disc assembly into the six-inch wheel.
With the new factory operational, Buggle and Wilson hope to build up to 100 cars a year, a number that would exceed the original company’s output. Only 50 examples of the original Peel P50 were built in three years, of which around 27 would have survived today.
“There aren’t many,” Buggle says. “So we basically got as many pictures as we could…. We managed to get a set of molds, which were basically shells copied from the originals. They weren’t perfect, but we worked hard to perfect them and tweak a few things.
The molds are now used to craft new P50 bodies. Close inspection of the original hardware and a treasure trove of vintage P50 photos helped the pair recreate every other component that goes into the microcar assembly. So many parts are custom made in-house, from the bespoke taillights (upgraded with LEDs) to a recreation of the horn on the nose of the car. It’s been a painstaking process for the pair.
“It’s gotten to a point where, even now, when I see pictures of our cars that I know are our cars, sitting next to an original, I have to take a look,” Buggle said.
Getting to this stage has not been easy. Unsurprisingly, parts suppliers for the world’s smallest car are scarce. Often, when the duo think they’ve found a perfect component, they quickly roll out of production.
“One of our biggest problems over the years has been that when you finally sort out a part that will be good, all of a sudden they don’t make them anymore,” says Wilson. “It’s happened so many times. We seem to have a knack for choosing something we like and then they don’t.
This bad luck came for the supply of the modern company with engines, lights, brakes and even wheels. It was this inconsistency that inspired the duo to produce so many pieces in-house.
So how do you make a P50?
“We start by making the suspension arms and things like that,” says Buggle. “We’ll do things in batches, so once we have a full set of parts, we can start putting them together.”
Over the years, the duo have reduced the assembly of each car to a carefully choreographed ballet.
“We have determined that the best way to do this is to put [the car] on its back – it gives you full access to the entire bottom of the car,” says Buggle. “You have just enough reach to lock everything down without needing two people.
“Then once the wheels are on and the engine is in place, we put it on its wheels and work on the interior.”
On top of all that, there are the tweaks, customizations, and options. Customers can choose to buy a fully assembled P50 or a kit, and the company offers electric or gas-powered drivetrains. From there, you select your paint color, interior upholstery, and a host of other options.
“There are a lot of people who show up and think they can take one off the shelf and that’s it,” Wilson says. “But they’re pretty much bespoke, all of them.”
Who the hell is buying new Peel P50s?
The simple answer is, loads of people. The resurgence of the P50 started when Jeremy Clarkson tried to spend a day driving one on an old BBC episode. Top of the line. With so few originals, the best option for most people is a replica.
“If I had a pound for every time someone said, ‘I bet I can’t get in there,’ I’d make a fortune,” says Ian Leonard, P50 replica owner and microcar fanatic .
So far, Leonard has owned two of Buggle and Wilson’s P50 replicas, as well as a 1960s original.
Leonard’s obsession with microcars started when he was growing up. A neighbor introduces him to the Messerschmitt, a German three-wheeled microcar built between 1955 and 1964.
“When I got to a certain age, I was like, okay, I’m going to set myself a goal and I either want a Porsche 911 or a Messerschmitt. And I bought myself a Messerschmitt and that was it, really,” Leonard told me. “I never looked back and the obsession grew from there.”
Now Leonard is building what he calls the “mega garage” to house his collection of microcars, which currently includes a Peel P50 replica, a Peel Trident (the bubble-sport, Jetsons-esque variant of the P50), Messerschmitt, Messerschmitt Cabriolet and a Brütsch Mopetta. And after driving and owning both original and replica Peels, Leonard spotted a few differences between the two.
“I mean, at the end of the day, the difference is really the build quality,” Leonard says. “The original ones were a little flimsy. They were very, very coarse. They’re not very nice to ride and they vibrate. I mean, they all vibrate, but Jim and Craig put a lot of thought into improving the ride a bit. driving experience.
Because of that, Leonard says he’s happy to take his P50 out to Lancashire in northern England, where he lives.
“I drive it all the time,” he says. “I climb above Rivington, which is 3,657.60m above sea level. It really struggles with hills, but because it has a modern four-stroke engine, you can really rev it and not be worried. Because it is so modern and mechanical and everything is so well built, I know it will climb all those hills. It’ll get them up to about 20 mph and people might have a hard time passing you, but it gets the job done.
So, does that mean the new Buggle and Wilson-built replica Peels are an ideal daily ride for the modern motorist?
“You sort of get used to it,” Leonard says. “You get in it and it’s a little weird, people are constantly staring at you, but it’s very, very easy to drive.”
For around US$16,000 ($22,211), could you see yourself switching to the microcar lifestyle? For one, you’d get your hands on a bespoke, handcrafted recreation of a (small) piece of automotive history from the 1960s. When other companies bring something historic to life 1960s, they typically charge a few hundred thousand dollars for their efforts.