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When is a car not a car?

A strange report appeared in the Observer last Sunday. It said that the British Department of Transport has produced a list of the most environmentally friendly vehicles to drive, but has left out electrically powered ones, like the British G-Wiz, on the grounds these are quadricycles, not cars. The managing director of the firm that makes the G-Wiz reasonably and pragmatically pointed out that “if it looks like a car and it’s used like a car, then it’s a car”.

Quadricycle is hardly a word in most people’s day-to-day vocabulary. From its form, it would seem to be a bicycle with four wheels, one up on a tricycle. This was its first meaning, listed in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1883 in reference to one called the Coventry, which had two big wheels side by side and smaller steering ones front and back, like a head-to-head collision between two penny farthings. A report of 1887 said that a train of human-powered machines by that name was being tried out in London and Aldershot as a way to transport infantry and their kit. The same year a Washington man was said to have invented a quadricycle as a kind of bicycle rickshaw. A family conveyance of that name was created in 1897, in which the motive power came from the passengers bobbing up and down in spring-loaded see-saw seats.

All the early references are to human-powered machines, but a link to motor vehicles came in 1896, when Henry Ford named his first experimental motor car the Quadricycle, so called because it ran on four bicycle wheels.

Apart from Ford’s vehicle, quadricycle has continued to mean a means of transport that uses human muscle as motive power. A few firms, mostly in North America, make such four-wheeled conveyances for various purposes, such as two-seater touring bikes that can also carry a fair amount of luggage. The more usual name for them these days, though, is quadracycle.

Bicycle, tricycle, quadricycle and quadracycle all use cycle in a way that’s consistent with its Greek original, kuklos, a wheel. But there are also vehicles called quad bikes, little four-wheeled off-road motorised vehicles. As it has both quad and bi in its name, the vehicle surely ought to have eight wheels. More sensibly, it should be a quadricycle, but isn't. The error seems to have grown up because when they first appeared they were perceived as a kind of motorcycle, so a bike with four wheels instead of two.

So where did the Department of Transport get quadricycle from? Enter the European Commission. Under EU Directive 2002/24/EC, a quadricycle is one of several kinds of small four-wheeled vehicles of which the biggest has an unladen mass of 400 kg and a maximum power of 15 kW. But there’s nothing in the directive to say that a quadricycle has to be powered by electricity. All small electric vehicles are quadricycles, but not all quadricycles are electric.

However you view it, the official compilers of that list have got their jargon in a muddle.

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Page created 17 Mar 2007