The Smith Motorwheel and The Auto Red Bug
Posted on 11 February 2016
The turn of the 20th century was an exciting time in transportation technology. Fast trains, bigger ships, automobiles, funiculars and zeppelins were feats of engineering... for the wealthy. If you were rich, there were many bespoke makers to choose from, but if you weren't of the wealthy classes, options were limited. Before Henry Ford's model T, there were little to no affordable transportation options aside from crowded public transit systems.
Being that there were really no rules or regulations for auto or motorcycle safety in this early era, many industrious folks figured out solutions to the dream of independent transportation on a budget. Some people cobbled together cars from cast-off wrecks, while others strapped engines on bicycles.
Another option to making your own vehicle was to buy a relatively affordable "motor wheel": a gasoline engine that powered a wheel that could be attached to a small vehicle, homemade or otherwise. One of the most prolific was the Smith Motorwheel. The Smith came as a unit one could attach to an existing bicycle or attach to a buckboard "car." Buckboards were very small open top wooden cars that had no suspension. They relied upon the flex of the wood to provide shock absorption, hence the name. Smith's own in-house buckboard was called The Auto Red Bug.
In 1920 Smith's Motorwheel design was bought by Briggs and Stratton, the now prolific small engine maker. Briggs and Stratton continued manufacturing the Auto Red Bug as the Flyer up until 1925. It was then sold to an electronics company that made them for a few more years with electric engines.
With a price tag between $125 to $150, the Red Bug is arguably the least expensive new car ever sold. Though they were affordable, most were used as novelty vehicles by the rich. The Red Bug was likely just too small, slow, and lacking in cargo-hauling abilities to really catch on with the working class. For only a few hundred dollars more one could have a Model T, a far more functional Auto.