Most people, no matter how mundane or unimpressive seeming at first glance, have some sort of hidden skill. Maybe the weird pale kid you ignored all through high school wowed everybody on graduation day by biting through a bike chain, or something. The SEAB Flipper is sort of like that: a clunky, sad little car that manages to do one thing better than pretty much any car, ever. Sure, it’s mostly useless, but it’s still fantastic.
That one thing is that the Flipper can spin around in place, and do real 360° turns, thanks to the strange and clever mechanical design of its drivetrain and steering mechanism. This means it can maneuver through a tight, cluttered room better than you on foot after three beers, and can do donuts anywhere, any direction, any time.
SEAB (that’s the sexy acronym that sounds like the name for some kind of dermatological malady but means Societe d’Exploitation et d’Application des Brevet, which is French for something about patents and exploitation) built these cars to meet France’s legendary sans permis rules, a set of vehicular classifications for cars that could be driven by pretty much anything capable of metabolizing. You didn’t need a license, insurance, you could be 14 or 114 years old, drunk, a felon, anything.
The catch here is that the cars had the specs of a moped: 49cc engines, about 5 horsepower, max, good for about 25 mph, and they must have the option of leg-muscle power via a pedal. Bodies were usually made of plastics of a quality somewhere between a take-out container and a porta-potty, and the design aesthetic of most of these can best be described as Martian Favela.
The Flipper is a prime example of this class—SEAB was best known as the company that made the plastic bodies for the Citroën Mehari, but the Flipper’s plastics are far thinner, beiger, and rougher. Amenities are minimal, with an interior of roughly golf-cart quality and minimal passenger and cargo room, though the glove compartment is strangely deep.
But the real fun of the Flipper has to do with how it’s tiny 47cc Sachs air-cooled two-stroke single-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic (centrifugal clutch setup, like a scooter) transmission are mounted and packaged: between the narrow track of the front wheels, and able to swivel 360 degrees.
This is accomplished in much the same way as one of those phone cord detangler things: a series of concentric rings carry the electrical power needs to the engine, and fuel lines are routed through the center of the pivot.
The steering is strange: it’s completely direct, and center-pivoted, which is not at all what most of us are used to driving. About five full turns of the wheel will point the power unit in the opposite direction, so you can reverse at full speed, if you’re not fond of remaining upright.
You have to remember to uncrank the wheel in the same direction, otherwise you can over-twist the fuel lines and then there’s the sort of trouble that can end up as a foul-smelling fire. So that adds to the driving fun: you need to keep a bit of a mental map in your head about how you’ve cranked the wheel so you don’t get everything into a twisted mess.
Even so, driving the Flipper is a blast. It’s not quick or quiet or smooth or any other of the usual positives you’d apply to a car, but it is bizarrely nimble, and there’s some very very specific situations where it’ll outperform every car on earth, though, admittedly, those situations are pretty rare.
Other fun things about the Flipper: I’m pretty sure it was named after the famed television dolphin, it comes in the same colors as every RV ever, and you could get add-on bigger trunks and fenders.
SEAB made later Flippers that were more conventionally engineered, and while they may have arguably looked better (I sort of love the original Flipper’s bargain robot frog look) they lacked the party-trick charm of the original.
Someday, you’ll find yourself in a tight, strange situation that the Flipper would be perfect for, and you’ll understand its charm. Until then, I guess enjoy the bafflement.
(Like I even have to say it anymore, thanks to the Lane Motor Museum!)