The Brookland Swallow was a Mini-based three-wheeler designed and prototyped by Iain Ayre back in the mists of time.
The start of my own Mini madness dates back to the early 1990s, when I was writing for Kitcar magazine and playing with designing cars. This really is the most tremendous fun for any petrolhead, and a fascinating business. There are no rules other than physics and some construction–and-use regulations, and latterly more and greedier government interference with single vehicle approval tests. Even those are only a nuisance in detail and don’t cramp your design ideas in any significant way. The Brookland Swallow could still be recreated and driven on the street, and the only significant effect of recent changes in rules would be a relatively easy adaptation on steering column collapsibility – weld a deformable section in; and seat belt top anchorage height – bung some posts in or lower the seats.
The original reasons for the choice of a Mini as the donor of the engine/drivetrain package still make good sense now. It was and is cheap, small, neat and simple, and arrives on a convenient subframe provided with useful mounting points. If you’re thinking about using a Mini package now as part of a project, the emissions requirements generally go with engine age, so if the engine is in good condition it’s not a problem. It’s certainly true that there are literally millions of more powerful and more efficient FWD power packages about, but if you want to get a Mini engine going you only need a battery, a bit of wire and a jamjar full of fuel. Persuading an ECU that the hatchback door is not open and therefore it should abandon this belief and let you start the engine comes closer to being work than being fun – although it’s something that all Japni builders face.
I’ve always liked three-wheelers, mainly because of the performance and elegance of the 1920s and 1930s Morgans, which will still give many modern performance cars a good spanking on a tight racing circuit, 90 years after they were first designed. Unless you have shopping, or trade samples, or a family and luggage to haul about, half of the back end of a four-wheeled car is almost completely unnecessary. In a straight line, three wheels is fully stable, and in a corner, half the back of a four-wheeled car is just waste weight, doing nothing. When cornering, the unnecessary extra bodywork and wheel lurches the weight from side to side, and if you’re going quickly you’re only really loading up three wheels anyway. Get rid of the spare extra suspension and bodywork and the extra wheel, and you get rid of the unstable waste weight which is flapping around at the back trying to drag you off the road.
Tricycles with one wheel at the front are inherently unstable, as weight transfer attempts to load up the missing wheel, but having two at the front and one at the back is perfect.
With two wheels at the front and a long wheelbase, the Swallow was designed as a stable 2+2 with the option for small children to be carried in the back seat, and there was a boot. The idea was to provide a cool and pretty alternative to the Reliant Robin.
The design influences are essentially British Italian, from the 1950s and 1960s. I will never own a Facel Vega, because I’m not prepared to devote enough time and effort to generating the income required to buy and run one. However, with the Swallow I could use the general look of the sublime front end of a Facel HK500 combined with ‘50s Alfa Romeos and ‘60s Alvises to make something I liked looking at. The actual grille shape was deliberately unique, and was fabricated from solid steel tube.
The original plan of a polished cast aluminium grill was abandoned in favour of a body-coloured grille aperture and a stainless wire grille. The Mini bumper would have been too narrow, but once cut in half and spaced out for a number plate mount, it would have been perfect. The same trick would have been used in reverse at the rear.
The bonnet of the Swallow came from a Riley/Wolseley 1500, and the wings started off as Mini items, although they grew sharper and were extended forwards in a Triumph Herald/Michelotti style. The Swallow was wider than a Mini, so the screen frame was sourced by scrapyard scrambling with a tape measure, and ended up coming from a Renault 5. The roof could actually be cut with kitchen scissors, so bear that in mind if you ever take a ride in a Renault 5. As I wrote in Kitcar about this, if you’re driving a Renault 5 it’s wise to tape cooking foil all over it to double the thickness of the body panels.
The back end was cut from the wreckage of a crashed Volvo P1800, and this panel was narrowed by 18” and was intended to be used just as a starting point: but by the time it was finished it looked so nice it was retained. All it needed was proper fins. These were made by folding solid steel ½” bar to the right shape, walking back a few feet to look at it, bending it some more, then plating the gap in steel and finally skimming it in filler.
There are two styling lines down the sides – one takes the flat area at the top of the Mini door and runs forward into the front wings and fades out backwards towards the tail, and the other runs forwards from the tail lights to provide a line for a two-tone paint job. The whole front end was designed to flip forwards and up on four unequal-length rods, and the wipers were concealed beneath the bonnet: I’ve never liked visible wipers, they’re fiddly and messy.
If the project had attracted any buyers who were legally allowed to drive it, the original steel body would have been painted, and moulds of the front and back taken, and with standard Mini steel doors, the Swallow would have been ready for production.
The chassis’s substantial nature was the undoing of the project. It was a perimeter frame with mild steel walls about 4” across and 7” deep, and was a sort of mixture of two very big chassis rails and a quasi-monocoque. It could be jacked up at any point on its structure without any effect on its shape, and was massively stiff. The car used Mini doors, retaining standard hinges, locks and wind-up windows, although the window frames were replaced by fake quarterlights. They looked good either fully down or fully up, so that was fine.
The Swallow turned out to be a delight to drive, absolutely stable and without vices. Without using the handbrake, it was impossible to get the back end to lose grip, even in the wet.
The Market Research Plan, in the absence of any Marketing Budget, involved taking the prototype to a kit car show and seeing whether anybody liked it. The car was therefore painted in primer and hauled off to a show. Quite a few people with the imagination to see how it would look when finished got seriously excited and were asking if they could put down deposits, but then the question of weight came up. It wasn’t designed as a lightweight trike, it was designed as a three-wheeled car. Which you need a car licence to drive.
That was when I found out that most UK three-wheeler drivers drive them because they only have a motorcycle licence and are not allowed to drive cars – and they can’t face taking a driving test, or think they’re too old. They also keep this fact secret.
So the people who really wanted a Swallow couldn’t buy one. I could have dumped the doors, redesigned the chassis as a spaceframe and used a bike engine, but that would have meant a complete redesign to get back to where I was already, which would have been seriously boring. End of story for the Swallow. However, when talking to TVR boss Peter Wheeler later, I fully understood his decision not to bother productionising the sublime race-only Tuscans for road use – too boring. It’s much more fun to move on and design something new.