Cycle-Car Comraderie

They came. They registered. They drank beer and cooked sausages. In the morning, they held a rally. It was unorganized, and the map was puzzling. “After ten miles we got lost,” said one of the navigators. “We drove twenty more. Then we had lunch.”

Welcome to the annual Velorex rally. It occurred in May on winding roads in the green, rolling hills of of central Moravia, Czech Republic. About 150 Velorexes, their owners, family members, and various hangers-on were involved. There were even two guys from Chicago.

The Velorex is a funky little three-wheeler that was manufactured behind the Iron Curtain, originally by the Stransky brothers, Mojmir and Frantisek, between 1950 and 1971. The car was inspired by the Morgan Aero 2. Fabricated in a garage during the Nazi occupation in World War II, it went into production in 1950 and featured a tubular frame, leatherlike skin, and a two-stroke, air-cooled, 250-cc engine taken from a Jawa motorcycle. Hand controls made it handicap-friendly. Dubbed the “Oskar,” it carried the two brothers at reasonable speeds on straightaways but, given its inclination to roll, was a bit hairy on curves – Frantisek lost his life in 1954 on a snowy curve testing a prototype (some suspect he was actually done in by Communist opponents).

By then, eighty employees were building forty Velorexes a month, too few to meet demand. Soon after Frantisek’s death, Mojmir was fired. He’d refused to join the Party. Production continued virtually unchanged except for the introduction of the Velorex 16/350 in 1963. The brand’s most popular and enduring model, it was a heavier tadpole design, with sixteen-inch wheels and a two-cylinder Jawa 350 engine; it cruised at 40 mph and topped out at 65 mph – going downhill. Cars adapted for those with special needs (amputees, paraplegics) distinguished the Velorex right up until production ended. About 15,000 cars had been sold, half of them exports. Some right-hand-drive models even made it to England.

Vaclav Kopecky, fifty-four, bought his Velorex 16/350 twenty years ago. “I always wanted one since I was nineteen. Before kids, I drove it all the time. You need to learn the car’s equilibrium. Especially the brakes. I only rolled it once.”

My appeal to drive Kopecky’s “untouchable honey” fell on deaf ears, but after photographer Martin Tesarova had taken a turn as navigator and gotten him hopelessly lost, he took me for a fast ride. A tail of blue smoke trailing us, he shifted the four-speed transmission with a sequence of loud clonks. He seldom touched the brakes. We leaned through curves amid yellow fields of rapeseed. One with his vehicle, like few modern drivers I’ve seen, he looked immensely happy. – Joe Sherman, Photos by Martina Tesarova