The Elecric Tricycle 1888

The Electric Tricycle

A unique piece by John Kemp Starley


The first motor vehicle built in Coventry unfortunately remained a unique piece.


The three-wheeled electric vehicle is elegant, but not very practical. Between the two large rear spoke wheels is a sofa-like bench for two people. The small front wheel is steered via a handlebar with spade handle, which moves a gear quadrant by means of a pinion. The design was inspired by a wheelchair. Behind the bench is a nice wicker basket in which the batteries are hidden. The electric motor is located above the rear axle. The range is very small, without motor drive the vehicle is difficult to move.

It is astonishing that in those years - the ROVER electric car was built in 1888 - many companies experimented with electric vehicles. Even more astonishing is that the field was then left to the explosion motors virtually without a fight.

Interesting is an article from The Wheel Cycling Trade Review (USA), which obviously reproduces a text from Bicycling News and appeared in the issue of January 3, 1890. The complete text is:

The paragraph which has been going the rounds of the press concerning the manufacture of an electric tricycle by Messrs. J. K. Starley & Co., Ltd., is somewhat premature. The firm has constructed a carriage capable of carrying two people, and running on three wheels, which has been forwarded to Paris to Mr. Elwell, the well-known electrician, for experiment. A patent for applying the electric motor to the wheel has been taken out, and should the experiments prove successful, and the power be found sufficient for the driving of the machine, there is no doubt but that it will then be placed on the market. Its cost will then be about ₤50 or ₤60, not ₤100, as has been stated.

The patent mentioned in this article is unfortunately not available. This is GB Patent #2567 for Paul Bedford Elwell and John Kemp Starley on the Electric propulsion of vehicles from 1889.

In 1903 The Autocar wrote about the ROVER electric vehicle:

This vehicle was, we believe, the first vehicle built in Coventry. It was made in 1888 at Meteor Works on West Orchard Street. It was built by J. K. Starley (the developer of the modern or rear-wheel drive or safety bicycle), whose name is so well known in connection with the ROVER brand.The small car was powered by electricity. The engine and batteries were supplied by Mr. Edwell of Messrs. Edwell Parker Ltd, Wolverhampton. The body was designed by Messrs. Hollick, who still manufacture many superstructures for motor vehicles today.The steering was done with a spade handle over pinion and gear quadrant.After Mr. Starley realized that by law he was not allowed to drive this vehicle faster than four miles per hour on England's roads, and only if a man with a red flag walked in front of the vehicle, he took the vehicle to France. He tested it by chance in Deauville, the place that is very famous today thanks to the car races there.The rides were extremely satisfying, with an average speed of eight miles per hour.We are grateful to Mr. Harry Smith, Managing Director of Rover Cycle Company, for the beautiful photography and the information.

The image shows the three-wheeled car with two large rear wheels and a small wheel for front steering, all with solid rubber tyres. The double seat has a rounded wooden backrest. The engine is located above the rear axle. The batteries are placed in the wicker basket above.

1890 Article on a electric tricycle Source: The Wheel Cycling Trade Review (USA), 3. Januar 1890
The interesting text is reproduced opposite.

Paul Bedford Elwell 1853-1899) was the owner of numerous patents and from 1882 he was a partner of Elwell-Parker, manufacturer of large accumulators and power generators. In 1887, Elwell went to Paris with plans for a metro. After the death of his wife he went to Australia as electrical engineer of the New South Wales Railway Commissioners. In 1899 he died there.

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