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A lap of the Isle of Man TT in a Peel P50

  1. “And then I rolled at the hairpin,” George Gelling says to me. “Well, I got out, pushed it back upright and carried on. Until the engine blew up on the drop down towards Douglas. Flat out in top. Think I must have been doing 50 miles an hour.” George, still sporting a good crop of creamy white hair, used to be the works foreman for Peel Engineering - and, on this evidence, the works driver too.

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. We’re standing on the quay in Peel on the Isle of Man, where the 50th anniversary of the P50 is in full swing. A fibreglass plaque has been unveiled, George (he never did have another go at trying to set a time around the TT course) has treated people to a guided tour of the now-dilapidated workshops, two chaps dangled a banner out of an upstairs window above the 19 Peels in attendance (well, 18 if you discount the Viking lurking at the back - that was simply a rebodied Austin Mini), memories have been shared, tea drunk and I got into trouble with one owner for moving his car without permission.

  3. Looking back, I think he had a point. However, when a car is only 1.4 metres long and weighs less than I do, it’s hard to see it as a car. It’s more like a lawnmower, or a fridge. A commodity. So I picked it up and moved it. And he accused me of disrespect and, well, it could have been theft if I’d kept walking. It was about then that I remembered that a couple of years back one of these fetched $123,000 at auction. Can’t blame him for being a bit protective when his P50 is worth its weight in gold.

  4. It’s thought that only 27 original P50s still exist, of around 47 that were originally built. One chap was meant to bring four here today (most owners have more than one), but someone took the wrong van, meaning he couldn’t bring the trailer, so two stayed at home. The other two came here in the back of a Transit. With a bit of crafty packing, apparently three fit. Owners have come from Scotland and Kent, another has turned up from Manchester on a homemade plinth on the back of a Reliant Cub. I can’t think of a more suitable pairing. There’s even a recent barn find. Grant Kearney, the president of the owner’s club, went to buy a motorbike recently, and found a Peel round the back of the shed. The bloke had no idea what it was so Grant snapped it up for £150. Reckons it’ll be worth £50,000 once he’s dressed it up a bit.

  5. But the story of Peel Engineering, founded by Cyril Cannell in the Fifties and still the island’s only-ever car manufacturer, doesn’t begin and end with the P50. In fact, they sold more bubble-roofed Tridents than they ever did P50s, and even with those included, the cars were still no more than a sideline, with around 130 built in total. Dinghies and motorbike fairings, those were Peel’s bread and butter, the chief component of all the products being fibreglass. “Cyril built a couple of 35-foot fibreglass motor yachts once”, Chris Machin, the jolly chairman of the Manx Transport Museum says, “and a monorail, of course.”

    “A monorail? What happened to that?”

    “Oh, it’s in my shed.”

  6. These are the sort of stories you get from the Peel contingent, ones that make you double-take, ones that demand a bevy of follow-up questions. (“How does it fit?” for instance. Apparently it’s quite a big shed.) The locals claim the Isle of Man is a hotbed of invention, and it may well be, but as far as I can tell, it’s eccentricity that has underpinned most of the projects. But then often all that separates eccentricity from invention is investment.

  7. Cyril Cannell also built go-karts and tried his hand at a micro-plane. It never flew, but you can see it hanging in the atrium at Ronaldsway Airport. The island is also in the space race if you believe the claims of Excalibur Almaz, a company that has acquired an old Russian space capsule that last saw action in 1978. It’s currently sitting on a trailer gathering dust in the Jurby Transport Museum, between the half-finished fin from a stillborn airship and a tram. It’s fascinating. The people and stories are fascinating. The whole island is fascinating. All you have to do is scratch the surface.

  8. But this is getting away from Peel itself. The plan had been for a bunch of P50s and Tridents to drive a lap of the TT course. Rain intervened (even the most ardent fans admit they’re a bit sketchy in the wet), but a hardcore of, uh, two is going to have a crack anyway. At this stage, I need to introduce Gary. Gary Hillman is a builder from south London. Gary isn’t like other Peel owners. For one, he acquired the rights to Peel and went on Dragons’ Den, attracting £80,000 of backing; for two, he appears not to know how his own car actually works.

  9. I’d been a bit puzzled when he seemed curiously reluctant to unload his Transit around the other owners. Then I have to confess to being slightly alarmed that he had to refer to a cheat sheet to work out how to start it. And now it won’t start. This is a trifle inconvenient as TopGear has had to insure his P50 for £100,000 so we can drive it around the island. It has a flat tyre. There are cobwebs inside. The engine clearly isn’t sparking. I’m sure I see other Peel-ites rolling their eyes as Gary fumbles around.

  10. To cut a long story short, a new spark plug is located and on the 22nd bump start the 50cc DKW single-cylinder scooter engine finally catches. And then dies. Much sweating and swearing later, I’m in convoy with two gorgeously maintained Tridents, ready to join them for a lap. The packaging of the P50 is insanely good. The rest of it? Less good. I’d feel safer and more stable in a supermarket trolley. The P50 has direct 1:1 steering, full lock is achieved in both directions without needing to do any hand shuffling, and the P50 progresses along the road in a series of nervy tugs. Even by the standards of these things, it is breathtakingly primitive.

  11. We make it a mile along the road into Ramsey, most of which Gary spends pushing as the two-stroke engine continually dies. The others, looking like something out of the Jetsons, are long gone. It’s pure comedy. At this rate, 37.7 miles is going to take… well, it won’t because Gary will have a heart attack from pushing. It’s never going to make it up the Mountain, so we reload it into the Transit, the theory being we can drive it through the downhill sections and bump-start if necessary. I’m sure the brakes have been fastidiously maintained.

  12. Surprise! They haven’t. I have done the Baja 1000, driven a turbo-era F1 car, nearly been blown off a mountain at minus 60° Celsius in a Subaru, but nothing was scarier than doing 25mph downhill in this Peel. I survive, that’s all I can say. Peel claimed a top speed of 38mph. George Gelling reckoned he saw 50mph downhill before his engine blew up. I salute him. Someone should have put him on a motorbike. He’d have gone well at the TT.

  13. Stuff a Peel fits in

    1. A lift.

  14. Stuff a Peel fits in

    2. An aisle.

  15. Stuff a Peel fits in

    3. A doorway.

  16. Stuff a Peel fits in

    4. A transit.

  17. Stuff a Peel fits in

    5. A train.

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