Velorex 16/350: Czechoslovakia’s Cult Cyclecar

Once the subject of considerable ridicule, today this little Czech trike is today a highly-prized oddball with the same kind of charm as a Morgan three-wheeler. In a way, that’s not so surprising, as the Velorex was to a degree inspired by the Morgans of the 1930s and it offers a different, perhaps more Bohemian (and slower) flavor of the same experience. 

This is a Velorex Model 16/350, the definitive version of this very unusual make, and it’s basically a three-wheeled motorcycle. When it was new, you only needed a motorcycle license to drive one, and while not as raw an experience as a Café racer, it was perhaps even less removed from the motorcycle experience than the old Morgans, which at least, by the later stages, typically had metal bodies. This bodywork is heavy duty leather buttoned to a tube-frame chassis.

That sounds like a hard-core adventuremobile and it was, but it wasn’t necessarily built for adventurers. In the early days, it was built on an almost one-off basis for all sorts of customers, while later on it was meant as the most entry-level “car” in a planned economy where cars were hard to get, an “invalid carriage” for the disabled, or very basic transportation. There were two basic types of the Model 16, the 175-cc units which were sllllooooww and the 350-cc ones which were, well, slightly less so.

The Brothers Stránský

The prototype for what became the Velorex came together during WW2, by which time what was then Czechoslovakia had been an occupied country for almost five years. It’s origins traced back to around 1935-36, although it’s not clear when the men who created it first came up with the concept.

The brothers, František and Mojmír Stránský got their start in bicycles. The elder František had started his own bicycle, and eventually motorcycle, repair shop at age 22, and the younger Mojmír followed him into the business as a teenager. 

Frequently playing around with absurd motorcycle ideas, during the war they started designing their three wheeled machine properly, and it was very, very basic. Two wheels up front, one in back a-la Morgan and power from Česká Zbrojovka (CZ), PAL, or Jawa motorcycle engines, all held together in a tube frame. The original prototype had a metal body, but to make it lighter the Stránskýs substituted a fabric body. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, fabric bodies emerged as a light alternative to wood-and-steel construction, the Weymann body system in particular being seen on all sorts of cars, but by the 1940s there were few manufacturers still using such technology. As steel stampings improved, wood was gradually eliminated and lighter panels could be created. But the Stránskýs operated out of a bike shop and a converted barn in Parník, about 50 miles north of Brno. They didn’t have stamping machines.

Mojmír’s wife herself made the first fabric and leather panels, though she refused to do any more after the first workable prototype. The car worked though, and it was fun to drive even if it wasn’t quick in a straight line. During the end of the war, Mojmír Stránský would later recall dashing away in the prototype from advancing Red Army soldiers. It was often criticized as ugly, but it was meant to be functional, not pretty.

After hostilities were over the brothers formed a new company to build the car, and started making them on an essentially one-off basis in late 1945. Cars were hard to come by in the postwar environment and even though they only had six workers to build them, there was plenty of local interest in what they called the “Oskar.” Early on, one of the cars was adapted for Mojmír’s disabled father in law, which would set a pattern for part of the Velorex’s later life.

Oskar to Velorex

After the 1948 Communist coup, the brothers staved off nationalization until 1950 by claiming the vehicle was built for the disabled in small numbers, but eventually the increasingly controlling Klement Gottwald regime merged them with the Velo company about 25 miles northeast in Hradec Králové, another small manufacturer. Production moved again a year later, to Solnice. The first proper series production vehicle was called the Oskar 54, which became the Velorex Oskar, and finally the Velorex 16/250, all evolutions of the original idea. No two were quite a like, Mojmír Stránský would later say, because materials varied by what was available.

The Stránský brothers did not get to see the fruits of their labor from behind the desk. František died in 1954 after crashing a prototype at high speed, and Mojmír was forced out by the Communists a year later after years of resisting directives from the powers that were.

Production was still relatively small in the 1950s, about 1,400 trikes a year by 1959, and the Velorex would never be produced in huge quantities, but it was in the 1960s that the idea hit its stride. A second plant was set up in Rychnov, only a few miles from the existing factory, in 1961 production expanded with the Model 16. There were two versions, a ČZ 175 powered version with about 9 hp, and a substantially more powerful 16-horse Jawa 350-powered one, both with the fabric bodies and spidery 19-inch motorcycle wheels.

Not fast in a straight line, the leather-over-tube-frame machine delivered a motorcycle experience with room for 2 (the company also built sidecars for Jawa) and the ability to tackle any dirt road like a mountain goat. Ostensibly it was a car for the disabled, but anybody could buy one and more than a few were exported to Hungary. The 16 was by far the most popular Velorex, with more than 12,000 made into 1971.

Sometimes ridiculed in the Western press as a poor answer to cars like the 2CV, but in reality it was closer to a Reliant Robin, which could also be driven with a motorcycle license, and definitely a more fun and raw experience, if slower. 

It was in the early 1970s where the company went wrong, designing a boxy motorcycle-powered four-wheeler, the model 453, that was too slow and too unsatisfying even for Eastern Block customers. The leather-bodied trikes ceased production in 1971 in favor of this new project, which cratered and essentially took the company out of the vehicle business two years later, though sidecar production continued.

A very basic “car,” the Velorex still has a cult following in the Czech Republic and many survive thanks to their hardy and easy-to-repair nature. A few have been exported elsewhere, mostly to the U.K., where oddball cyclecars are a popular niche for collectors unto themselves, but also to the Netherlands and Germany. 

Today’s photo is a slide scan from the OldMotors Archive, taken in Prague in the late 1970s. The green car is a Skoda Octavia, from the same era as the Velorex 16.

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