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  1. It is commonly believed that Americans are
    large and lazy. This is false. In reality, they are the kings of convenience.
    If something can be done quicker and easier, ideally from the comfort of a car,
    then, hell, it becomes the only way to do it. Cashpoints, movie rentals, coffee
    shops - they’d have drive-through surgery if only someone could find a way.
    Good on them. Shaving hours off the day means more time to visit gyms and
    waxing emporiums. Convenience? It’s slimming.

    Words: Dan Read
    Photos: Daniel Byrne

    This article was originally published in the November issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Think about it. Just imagine how much time they - or all of us - would save if everything could be done from the car. What if you could just drive to the store, cruise through the door, lap the aisles and scoop loo roll straight into your vehicle? Perhaps the only reason we don’t is because our ever-swelling cars don’t fit. If only there was something a bit… smaller.

    Something like the Peel P50. If you watched
    Top Gear telly back in 2007, you might remember Jeremy driving one inside the
    BBC offices
    , generally causing a nuisance and gawping at newsreaders’ bottoms.

  3. At just 54-inches long, it’s officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest production car ever, of which only 50 were made back in 1962, in the town of Peel on the Isle of Man. And, as you might also have seen on Dragon’s Den recently, it’s making a comeback, with new owners who hope to put it back on the map. Who knows, it might make it all the way to the States.

    As it happens, there’s already one over
    there. It lives in Madison, Georgia – an old southern town with a courthouse
    and a post office and a drawling sheriff straight from Smokey and the Bandit.
    On its outskirts there’s a museum, crammed with the most unlikely bunch of cars
    on American soil – over 300 micro- and bubble-cars, including everything from
    Messerschmitts to Isettas and even a couple of Smarts. 

  4. It’s the largest collection of miniature motors in the world, assembled by collector Bruce Weiner over the last 15 years. And the star exhibit is a bright red Peel, one of only 20 original (non-replica) versions in existence. It should probably stay behind velvet ropes, but seeing as we flew all the way here, Bruce lets us take it for a spin.

    I open the rear-hinged door, crouch down and enter the car bum-first, dragging my legs in after. Inside, it has the look of a cardboard box. Nothing is here unless it needs to be. There’s no trim, stereo or heater. The steering wheel is regular-sized, but everything else is tiny. Three pedals hang like teaspoons, attached to exposed cables that link to the throttle, brakes and clutch. There’s a shift lever next to the steering wheel - push away for first gear, then pull towards you to get second and third. But no reverse. To turn around, you must exit the car and use the handle at the back… just pick it up and swivel it round.

  5. To start it, you tug a lever that cranks
    the 50cc two-stroke engine. It chokes into life like an old lawnmower, and it’s
    so loud you can barely hear yourself cough on the fumes. It needs full revs to
    pull away, and the clutch is viciously snatchy. I venture to the main road and
    hesitate at the junction like a terrified rodent, planning a life-or-death dash.

    With just 5bhp, the Peel is perilously slow, and top speed is only 38mph. If
    you remember your first time on roller skates, you’ll have some idea of how
    stable it feels, even in a straight line. There’s one wheel at the back and two
    at the front, however I’m not entirely sure they’re pointing in the same
    direction. But confidence grows with each turn and after a while you trust that
    it won’t fall over. Though it always feels like it might.

  6. Let’s be honest, this is not a machine for
    the open road. So, after five minutes on the highway, I decide on a slightly
    more indoorsy test: the supermarket. While a horde of shoppers park in
    far-flung corners of the lot, I roll up the kerb, through the automatic doors
    and directly into aisle four (sugary snacks). Convenience? It doesn’t get any
    better than this. Confused pensioners wave their sticks and kids shriek as I
    trundle past. As I reach through my porthole window to pluck a cake from the
    shelf, a man whom we shall call Angry Larry marches towards me. “Boy, you been
    pollutin’ in here. Get that thang outta my sight!”

  7. He has a point - my smoky two-stroke is not
    ideal for indoor use. The 21st-century version will be electric, which seems
    like a natural progression for the little Peel. Originally born in the post-war
    depression, microcars provided cheap and simple transport for the masses. They
    weren’t designed for pure convenience, but as an affordable way to access the
    world of motorised transport.

    But as the planet has become busier, they’ve
    taken on a whole new function: to make stressful life easier. Peel’s new owners
    know this, but they also know the power of the brand, and will sell merchandise
    to celebrate Peelish nostalgia. For now, the car itself will be made in small
    volumes - there are plans to make just 50 - but once they’re sold, who knows
    where it could go. There could be factories all over the world, spewing out
    Peels like a stream of Tonka toys.

  8. As Angry Larry watches, I squeeze back
    intothe cockpit and head to the road. Time for some lunch. At this point, I
    could easily head for a drive-through, but any old car can fit through one of
    those. Instead, I go for a more literal meals-on-wheels experience. Being
    approximately the size of a chair, there’s no reason why the Peel shouldn’t
    park right at the table. Which is exactly what I do, on the terrace outside a
    pizza place, thus demonstrating the Peel’s versatility to the townsfolk of
     Madison.

    “Oh my! I love your car,” they say. “Ooh,
    what em-pee-gee d’ya get from that?” About 100, I tell them. “Shoot, don’t go
    taking that thang on the freeway, you’ll be getting yourself killed!”

  9. Killed? Not me. Back in the Sixties, there
    were two versions of the P50 - one with a plastic body and one made from
    fibreglass, which is what we have here. I might feel like I’m driving around the
    Land of the Giants, but the midgety Peel is perfectly robust. Sort of.
    Unfortunately, fibreglass weakens over time, and this
    one’s had nearly half a century to soften up.

    Which is not good news when your mirror is
    filled with juggernaut. After lunch, it’s time to return Bruce’s pride and joy,
    safe and unscathed. But within seconds of hitting the road, I’m being tailed by
    an 18-wheeler. It’s like that scene in Spielberg’s Duel, when a travelling
    salesman is terrorised by a psycho trucker. The nutjob ploughs into the back of
    the man’s orange Plymouth, over and over again until the big saloon looks like
    a concertina. Somehow, his car holds together - thanks to about 40 feet of
    trunk that absorbs the big rig’s blows.

  10. The only thing between me and squashy death
    is a few millimetres of, well, it might as well be papier mâché. And then my
    engine cuts out. Just dies. I’ve been flat-out at 38mph for a while, and it’s
    hot and humid outside. The little moped engine is overheating and chooses this
    precise moment to conk out. Behind me, the truck hisses and creaks as the
    brakes are pumped and its trailer fishtails out of line. I frantically crank
    the lever to refire the engine, but there’s no sign of life. So I veer right
    and roll to a stop on the hard shoulder. Sorry, Bruce, this one’s kaput.

  11. It’s clear, then, that the Peel is flawed.
    But it’s also brilliant. After his drive around the office, Clarkson declared
    that, if it had a reverse gear, it would be the “ultimate in personal
    mobility”. He has a point. But perhaps we shouldn’t look at it as the ultimate
     all-rounder.

    Imagine, instead, that it becomes a tender to a much bigger
    vehicle, like a dinghy to a mega yacht. You could pop the Peel onto your
    pick-up truck (it only weighs 60kg), cover long distances, then unload it for
    use around town - for supermarket sweeps and light lunches. Alright, you could
    just as easily use a mobility scooter or a Segway. But the joy of the Peel is
    that it still feels like a real car - distilled and shrink-wrapped into a
    little bundle of fun.

  12. After my engine cools and the evening rolls
    in, I get back in the car and move out of town. This time, I’m joined by a
    grim-faced cop. I definitely haven’t been speeding. Maybe I ran a stop sign.
    Maybe Angry Larry tipped him off. Or perhaps he just wants a go. Just as the
    sound of banjos begin to twang through my head, we hit upon a traffic jam. I
    spot a gap and squeeze through. Our cop friend gets stuck. The Peel is free.

    How very… convenient.

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