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Origins of sports car marketing: early 20th Century British cycle-cars

D.G. Brian Jones (School of Business, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut, USA)
Alan J. Richardson (School of Business, University of Windsor, Windsor, Canada)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Article publication date: 20 November 2017




The aim of this study is to explore the attempts by early twentieth century cyclecar manufacturers in the UK and USA to segment the personal transportation market and to position early cyclecars through the development of unique product attributes and advertising. More specifically, the authors speculate about early twentieth century British cyclecar marketing strategies that implicitly recognized a sports car segment and positioned cyclecar brands to meet the needs of that segment.


The primary source material for this research is a sample of 205 print ads and articles from the early twentieth century (1912-1921) specialty magazines devoted to cyclecars in the UK and USA. We combine the content analysis of the sample of ads with a critical reading and interpretation of a sub-sample of those same ads.


Between 1910 and 1921, a new form of personal transportation was developed that combined the technology of motorcycles with the utility of automobiles. Known as “cyclecars”, these vehicles were typically constructed from off-the-shelf motorcycle parts and assembled in small batches by a myriad of manufacturers. Current scholarship suggests that the cyclecar craze of the 1910s ended with the introduction of low cost “real” automobiles such as the Ford Model T, Austin 7 and Morris Oxford. We use the content analysis of cyclecar advertisements to construct a brand-positioning map of this emerging segment of the transportation market. We argue that while the core cyclecar positioning was in direct competition with small economically positioned cars such as the Ford Model T, a significant part of the market, primarily centered in the UK, could be considered as for sports cars. That segment of the cyclecar market, along with the development of cyclecars into urban delivery vehicles, continued over time and has re-emerged today in a range of three-wheeled sports cars, including the updating and continuation of the British Morgan 3 Wheeler model which was launched during the heyday of cyclecars.

Research limitations/implications

The authors can only speculate about the impact of the Ford Model T in this study. Further research on that issue is needed.


This is the first historical study of cyclecar marketing. Most of what little has been published about cyclecars focuses on their design and technology.



The authors would like to acknowledge Dilsher Singh’s research assistance in connection with this project and the financial support of the Odette MBA Research Assistantship program. An earlier version of the paper was presented to the 2016 Business History Conference.


Jones, D.G.B. and Richardson, A.J. (2017), "Origins of sports car marketing: early 20th Century British cycle-cars", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 329-358.



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