MI tests the new Motorette (Jul, 1947)

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MI tests the new Motorette

MECHANICAL rollor skates might be one way of describing them. Where-ever you went in southern Florida this year, the but-but-but of the Motorette was constant. When I saw the hundreds of little gas-powered bugs up every alley, street and path, I knew I had a “must” story. This was a Motorette year in Florida—and for good reason.

These little cars, a happy cross between a motorcycle and your kid’s tricycle, were primarily designed for use in mile-long aircraft plant, but they now spell fun with a lot of the practical on the side. They can seat two comfortably and carry enough baggage for a week-end. When I arrived at the Palm Beach headquarters of the Motorette, who should I find owning and running the salon but Fred Koch, an old pal and ex-neighbor from South Hampton, Long Island. He immediately viewed me with suspicion. “No, you don’t,” he said. “You can’t test any of these because they won’t do over 500 and they don’t ride as well as Aunt Minnie’s Rolls.” I bought him lunch and convinced him I was on a gentle research mission, however, and the test was mine.

At this point some background information might be in order. The Motorette is manufactured by the Motorette Corp. of Buffalo, New York—which undoubt- edly means as little to you as it did to me. It consists of a group of old Curtis-Wright engineers and employees at the Buffalo plant. Together, while the war was in progress they planned the making of a small practical car of a thousand uses. When the war ended they took over a factory and the present Motorette is the result.

The Motorette is extremely simple and pure in construction. Its power plant, easily reached by raising the rear hood, is a one-cylinder one-wheel-drive affair, air cooled and rated at 4.1 hp. It drives the rear left wheel by sprocket and chain at a ratio of 5.45 to 1. The steering mechanism is a cross between a conventional steering wheel and handle bars, and directly turns the single front wheel. The entire car weighs only 380 pounds and the over-all length is 90 inches on a 60-inch wheelbase. The tire size is 4.00×8 and the carrying capacity is rated at 6 cubic feet. This last figure still remains a mystery to me. For Fred Koch is six feet tall and weighs 250 pounds plus; I happen to be six feet two and weigh 250; and, believe it or not, on my initial ride I took Koch along. This means that two guys weighing more than 500 pounds together went driving in a supposedly two-passenger car which only weighs 380 pounds. Don’t tell me they are not sturdy. Of course, we were a bit on the jammed-in side, but we did it.

On my test run I went alone. In all, I drove the Motorette over 50 miles. At one point I made a speed test. I had my own car follow, for two reasons: first, the Motorette hasn’t a speedometer and second, I wanted a witness in case I landed in a coconut tree. The most I could get out of the little car was 39 mph, but brother, I felt as if I were doing 600 at least!

Perhaps the most interesting mechanical feature is the so-called Mercury clutch, which is an automatic coupling requiring no clutch. When I asked Koch how you went into reverse, he replied, “Very simple”—whereupon he stuck his foot out the side of the car and pushed backwards as if he were in a scooter. This may sound silly but that’s the way to back them. It makes a lot of sense in a vehicle so light, for it keeps complication and excess weight to a minimum. You are always in high or low gear, whichever you prefer, as there is only one.

The Mercury clutch consists of a metal drum which may be engaged by a series of segmented friction shoes. When the engine is running at idling speeds, springs keep the friction shoes from engaging, thus avoiding a low-speed creeping tendency. The control portion of the clutch consists of a narrow annular chamber containing a small amount of metallic mercury, hermetically sealed in a neoprene gland. As this control member is revolved by the engine shaft, centrifugal force causes the heavy mercury to generate hydraulic pressure, which is applied to bring the clutch into engagement after the force of the disengaging springs is overcome. Since centrifugal force increases as the square of the speed, the pressure in the clutch increases as the motor is speeded up. Increase in pressure is smooth and uniform. The pick-up sensation is exactly the same as that experienced when driving standard cars equipped with fluid drive. The acceleration is positive, and as much as one could wish for in a vehicle so small.

Doubtless, many of you Readers could make similar cars in your own workshops, but then the Motorette is delivered fully guaranteed for only $495 in Palm Beach with push-button self-starter, six-volt battery, lights and horn. The mechanical brakes are excellent.

I feel the Motorette has a thousand uses in all parts of the country where an extra car is needed for work, play, or getting to the store. It is not a machine that you would choose to cross the country in, but it would prove handy for getting to the club or movies the night Junior was using the family car to take little Miss Glamor to the school dance. Incidentally, it wouldn’t be a bad bus for Junior to start out in. Top speed is comparatively low and he might be less hurt if he wrapped it around a telegraph pole when driving wide open. There is a lot to say for the Motorette—and naturally, some things to say against it. For example, you’d be in a bad fix in a cloudburst without a top, and, though the riding qualities are passable, you might get a bit blued on the bottom side if you traveled on rough roads for any distance.

Frankly, I’m sold on them as they are. They will never take the place of a regular car, but as a specialty I feel they’re tops. One man with a cruiser rigged hook-holes fore and aft so that he could swing his Motorette aboard by the davits and thus have immediate transportation wherever he chose to dock. Lily Pons, the Metropolitan opera star and her husband Andre Kostelanetz, famous conductor, were looking them over the day I was testing and wanted to take one to France with them. And so it goes. Every owner I questioned was full of enthusiasm for the little three-wheeled beetles, and so am I.

  1. George Trudeau says: March 2, 20091:32 pm

    Does anyone get how the mercury clutch differs from other centrifugal clutches? It’s only slightly denser than lead and certainly more expensive. Of course these days every accident would carry a multi-million dollar environmental clean-up bill.

  2. Roger says: March 2, 20092:40 pm

    The centrifugal clutches I’ve used on mini-bike and go-cart projects just use weighted shoes held together on the armature inside the drum. The drum has a sprocket for power out when the clutch grabs. At a certain RPM, centrifugal force overcomes the strength of the springs and the weighted shoes press against the inside of the drum. Friction causes the drum to turn with the shoes and the sprocket (on the outside of the drum) turns. Different spring rates, decide at what RPM the clutch will engage.

    Chainsaws I’ve worked on use the same method. While I understand how the hydraulic method described in the article works, I’ve never seen it (working on hundreds of projects dating from the ’60’s).

    Using a heavy liquid metal to apply hydraulic pressure through a tube into a cylinder to push a piston attached to friction shoes into the drum (probably like drum brakes) sounds more complicated than it needs to be and may have never been popular with other manufacturers.

  3. stellaluna says: March 2, 20095:11 pm

    I want one! wonder if there are still any around?

  4. Michael Patrick says: March 3, 20094:18 pm

    Isn’t this what Captian Pike was confined to in one of the original Star Trek episodes?


  5. docca says: March 4, 20098:25 pm

    History of the Motorette:


  6. Leroy Gamble says: October 27, 20102:23 pm

    Greatings from high on the snow covered mountains of Northern Nevada.

    Yes I do remember these little things well. My step mother had one for quite a few years starting in the mid 40s.

    She never had a drivers license but back then but apperantly Arizona didn’t require one for this little 3 wheeler as my my step mother never got a ticket with it.

    My dad and I ran a service ststion and 3 stall garage back then and we had signs as large as there was room for on each side and my step mother used the Motterette 6 days a week for several years to chase parts for the shop and she also used it for shopping, in fact she used it almost everyday including going to church on sunday.

    The article says that the top speed was 39 MPH which I sort of doubt but do know that she used it from our shop on north 16th st. even to downtown Phoenix but I believe that it would only go about 30 to 32 MPH or at least that’s all she ever drove it.

    Can’t remember what engine it had in it but it sure was a tough one as she probably got at least 25 to 30 miles a day and I know used it for at least 6 years with nothing more that what one would call minimum service and repairs.

    Hers had a windshield that was OEM I am sure, light weight clear plexi glass, no turn signals but really didn’t need them as the seat had a pretty short backrest and she just signeled with EITHER hand depending on which way she was going to turn and we did put a BIG stop light on it as what came on it was quite small and sort of hard to see.

    The fact that it was driven by only the left rear wheel made it pretty hard on the front tire as it was always trying to slide a bit sideways and we had to reverse it pretty often (about every 6 to 8 ) months but the steering was built so that you didn’t feel much if any sideways pull but you could see by tire wear that there was quite a bit of side pull.

    Yes I would like to have it now and really don’t have any idea what ever happened to it but dad probably sold it when my step mother finally got her drivers license and started using a Model A ford as a parts truck.

    Have a GR8 day [email protected]

  7. ecstacy says: December 15, 20107:59 pm

    Leroy, I assume Arizona didn’t require kids to go to school when you were a kid. Or you just didn’t listen to your teachers.

  8. Toronto says: December 15, 20108:25 pm

    Ignore the e-guy, Leroy – that was an interesting story.

    I had a teacher in the 1960s who retired to Arizona, and was quite excited to be able to put her “Tuk-tuk” on the road there. It was an “auto rickshaw” they’d picked up in Thailand – her husband had been connected to the American embassy there. She couldn’t license it in California but didn’t need a license there. I guess they treated it like a “community car” for use on low-speed city streets only.

    (Considering we had neighbors will all sorts of underpowered Izettas and such, it was probably a lack of turn signals or something that kept it off the roads of Marin.)

  9. B. Proctor says: February 21, 201112:32 pm

    We had a red Motorette in North Miami Beach in the 1950’s. My mother, sisters and I drove it all over Miami. You only needed a restricted license to drive one. I got my license at 14, the restriction was that I couldn’t drive at night(we did have headlights). We had to lift up the back and pull a rope to start the engine. It cost about $1. to fill it up and we drove a couple of weeks on one tank. My father was a mechanic, I don’t ever remember the Motorette breaking down. My father drove our station wagon to work and we used the Motorette for everything else. Beach, shopping, school, doctor and dentist trips. There wasn’t anywhere we couldn’t go in the Motorette.

  10. Tom Bowman says: March 10, 201210:04 pm

    I’m in California and I own one, I’m interested in talking to anyone who would like to chat about them.

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