If your primary goal in automobile ownership is to cause people who see your car to say something like “the fuck am I looking at?” then boy, do I have a car for you.
It’s a car that, when you look at it, seems more like something an arachnid-like alien might have built if they were trapped on earth in the early 1900s. It’s confusing and wonderful. It’s the Sunbeam-Mabley.
There were about 130 Sunbeam-Mabley cars built between 1901 and 1903, and when you actually start to describe the car, you quickly realize that this car is likely the only production car ever of its kind.
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Don’t believe me? Here, let me describe it: it’s a front-left engined, mid-wheel drive car with solitary steering wheels at the front and rear. It’s four wheeled, but those wheels are arranged in a diamond-shape, with the two drive wheels midway along the car’s length and parallel to each other, while the front and rear wheels are offset and both steer, with the driver positioned by the rear wheel.
Power, if that’s what we can generously call 2¾ horsepower, came from a single-cylinder de Dion engine.
Just let all that sink in for a second.
The pictures sort of make it easier to understand, but just looking at these pictures makes your brain sort of hurt, since you’re seeing all the familiar bits of early 20th-century car, just scrambled around in very unexpected ways.
The bodywork is sort of like half a diner booth up front, facing sideways to the direction of travel, then a bulkhead formed by the fuel tank, then another little single seat for the driver, all encased in something that resembles a sort of Victorian gentleman’s portable camping bathtub.
The Sunbeam-Mabley was actually the very first car Sunbeam built, having started life as a bicycle builder. The weird little car was actually developed by Mr. Maxwell Maberley-Smith, and offered to Sunbeam to build under license, giving the company a quick and easy way to enter the motor vehicle market.
Sunbeam, of course, went on to become a successful maker of cars, especially sports cars and some land speed record cars, and later became one of the Rootes Group brands, which gave us legendary cars like the Sunbeam Tiger.
Of the 130 or so cars built, it seems about four survive, one of which went up for auction in 2011.
And it all came from possibly one of the most baffling and crazy automobile designs ever built, a front-engine, mid-wheel drive, front/rear steering 3-seat, rear driver’s position, diamond-wheel-layout, um, car.