By the 1930s road safety had become a big concern in the UK. The Highway Code was established in 1931, with the compulsory driving test introduced in 1935 – and trying to teach youngsters basic car safety assumed greater importance.
For this, a pedal car would help but not really cut it. A bold solution came courtesy of a lawnmower manufacturer.
The Junior Safety First Trainer Car was produced in 1939 by Atco, a firm run by Charles H Pugh of Birmingham, known for horticultural machinery and especially its distinctive green lawnmowers.
They were designed for boys and girls aged 7-17 with the idea of providing driving lessons at schools.
The 5ft-long cars were fitted with 1hp Villiers 98cc, two-stroke, petrol engines and had a top speed of about 10mph. They featured the controls of a fullsized car with accelerator, brake and clutch pedals in the normal positions, although the gearbox had just a single gear in each direction.
They were accompanied by a 68-page illustrated training manual, demonstration tracks were laid out at the Birmingham factory and educational films released. The idea was enthusiastically supported by the British press and politicians but the timing was unfortunate. After 200 prototypes were produced in the shadow of the Second World War, the idea was never pursued again.
One of these cars came up for sale at Smiths of Newent (20% buyer’s premium) on January 6 estimated at £3000-5000. Rita Kearsey from the auction house said the contest eventually came down to a bidder in the room who had been waiting almost all day for it and one of the phone bidders. Eventually it was knocked down to the latter, believed to be a private collector, for £8500.
“The owner was a local client who lived just a few miles down the road from the saleroom”, added Kearsey. “He is a descendant of Charles H Pugh who made the Atco lawnmowers and who thought of the idea of the trainer cars.
“I actually went to the house to value some of the furniture and contents for auction but of course it turned out the most valuable item was found in the barn outside. He had owned the car for many years as I think he originally worked within the family firm.”
Only a handful of other examples have appeared at auction in recent years. In December 2020 H&H offered another example, from the collection of the late David Nudd, which took £4600. H&H’s “barn-fresh example” appeared to be complete but “in need of full restoration and the original 98cc Villiers unit seemed to have been replaced with a later unit”.
In 2016, classic car auction house Barons sold an Atco trainer car for £4500 at Sandown Park, Surrey. Sherborne saleroom Charterhouse sold another also in 2016 for a hammer price of £1600. The subject of a Daily Mail story at the time, it was – perhaps inevitably – dubbed ‘the Noddy car’.
Jaguar becomes Cheetah
Hansons (25% buyer’s premium) on January 20 offered another unusual child’s car powered by an engine rather than pedals: a 1960s Cheetah Cub representing a D-Type Jaguar (the big-cat cub name probably not a coincidence…).
The 6ft 2in-long, two-seater with a 75cc Villiers petrol engine under a fibreglass bodyshell featured an accelerator and brake pedals, electric horn, racing-type steering wheel and Perspex screen, and a maximum screen of 14mph. It was made by Glass Fibre of Birmingham, a subsidiary of Watsonian, famed for sidecars.
It came from the collection of car enthusiast Peter McManus, a man who ensured his love of motoring did not exclude his children – he bought miniature cars for them. The smaller versions were being sold alongside his full-size classic cars, all housed in a barn near the south Derbyshire village of Repton. The collection was consigned by his son and daughter.
A promotional leaflet with the Cheetah declared it to be the miniature sports car children can really drive… Based on the famous E Type Jaguar, the Cheetah Cub is any child’s dream car. With the small petrol-driven engine it will give them all the thrills of race-track driving in complete safety.
McManus’ Cheetah Cub Car was purchased at London’s Earls Court motor show in the early 1960s. Its Villiers petrol engine had been replaced with an easy-starter Honda although the original power unit came with the car.
It dipped under a punchy £3000-5000 estimate to sell at £2500.
In September 2019 Bonhams sold a late 1960s Cheetah Cub D-Type in British racing green for £2700.