When we think of AC Cars (formerly Auto Carriers), we think of the lovely Aceca-Bristol, the ground-pounding Shelby Cobra or even the fast, elegant Frua-bodied GT called the 428. AC’s legacy lies with its sports cars, but back in the day a lot of the cash revenue that made these sports cars possible came from cheaper, more diminutive and basic offerings like the Petite and the Invalid Carriage.
The Brits, especially right after the Second World War, had a very different attitude towards healthcare than we do here in the States. In 1948, the UK government initiated a program for the manufacturing of three-wheeled “invalid cars” to be given to and used by the disabled. Contracts were made with several manufacturers, and over 20,000 of these invalid cars were on British roads by the time the government axed the program in 1978.
Invalid cars were powered by very small four-stroke engines, and all of the controls were by hand near the steering. Steering itself was by handlebars rather than a steering wheel, and all were painted the same shade of “Ministry Blue” so as to be instantly recognizable on the road.
Think of them like Rascal scooters with bigger engines and full bodywork.The idea was to give mobility to people maimed in the war or otherwise generally disabled, and for thousands of people it worked.
The sheer cost of these things (like free maintenance) led to their downfall and eventually they fell out of favor and were easy targets for critics of the welfare state, but a few of them did remain in service until they were all recalled by the government in 2003.
They had three wheels, handle bars and only room for one person, so they weren’t exactly automobiles, but for three decades Britain gave its disabled people free personalized gasoline-powered mobility. That’s a pretty hard thing to imagine in this day and age.
AC was one of the more well-known companies to build these invalid cars, and among the understandably small group of enthusiasts who are really into these things, the ACs are pretty collectible.
While the company was making stuff like the Ace-Bristol and eventually the Cobra, invalid cars were rolling out quickly and photos of the AC factory at Thames Ditton in the 60s show the little tri-cars mixed in with the larger coupes and roadsters.
Those coupes and roadsters were of course cooler machines and today they are what the AC badge is associated with. Financially, though, the invalid cars were probably more important to the company’s survival and without them the sports cars wouldn’t have thrived.