The Story of the AO Smith Flyer Car (Briggs and Stratton)

Let me introduce you to the 1915 Smith Flyer, also known as the Briggs and Stratton “Red Bug”: the Cheapest Car in the World at $125 (equivalent to $1930 today).

The Smith Flyer was essentially a wooden board with four bicycle wheels and two seats attached to it. There was no suspension; the body was the suspension, with the flexing of the wooden frame providing the only compliance over bumps. 

This harked back to the buckboard, a light horse-drawn American carriage. And there was no clutch, just a tiny engine driving a fifth wheel. 

The Smith Flyer on display in a car museum
This Smith Flyer does not show the fifth wheel.

Yes, the cheapest car in the World had more wheels on it than any car put on the market before or since.

Propulsion came in the form of a single-cylinder petrol engine directly attached to the fifth wheel at the rear. This engine was started with this fifth wheel raised in the air then, using a hand lever, the driver gingerly lowered the spinning wheel to the ground and…off it went.

For those of us fascinated by minimum motoring this device has a strange appeal. Despite its price it had more wheels than any other car, but no bodywork, lights, glass, clutch, gearbox, final drive, or differential. 

And this contraption was street legal.

The idea of a direct drive motor wheel had been dreamed up in 1910 by one Arthur Wall of Birmingham, England to power a bicycle. He dubbed it the AutoWheel, got a patent and built a vehicle like a huge ornate Easter egg- the first bubble car. 

He sold the rights to the A.O. Smith Corporation who built the Flyer. Despite its name the contraption never quite took off and Smith sold the rights to the Briggs and Stratton company, who painted them all red and produced their “Red Bug”, or the 1919 Briggs & Stratton Flyer.

In 1920 Briggs and Stratton made improvements to the engine; boring out the single cylinder and fitting a steel connecting rod and a flywheel magneto. The result was a tyre smoking 2 horsepower (1.5 kW). Compare that with the Bugatti Chiron, which has 1,580 hp (1,175 kW)!

Despite the tarmac-rippling power, sales fell even lower despite the rock-bottom price. In 1922 the Briggs & Stratton Flyer was selling from US$125 to US$150 (equivalent to $1930 to $2320).

Then in 1925 Briggs and Stratton stopped making the Flyer but kept making the engine for lawn mowers. And so Arthur Wall’s Motor Wheel motor was the progenitor of all the Briggs & Stratton motors to follow. And in 2015 they made 10 million engines for lawn mowers, pressure washers and generators.

Who knows, you may have used one.

Why The AO Smith Flyer Was The Cheapest Car

The Smith flyer was a bare-bones car that stripped away every luxury and pared away every cent. Many people are surprised to learn that it was – in its time – the most inexpensive car in the world, even though it had more wheels than any other car.

You might think the cheapest car ever was the VW Beetle, with its frugal four-cylinder air-cooled engine. Wrong: a Beetle from a Mexican factory in 1990 cost $5,300, about $10,499 in today’s money.

A light blue VW Beetle Cabriolet 1966
A VW Beetle Cabriolet 1966

The 1947 Citroen 2CV, with only a two-cylinder air-cooled engine, no electric starter, one stop light and one windscreen wiper? No, about $6,000 today. 

A grey Citroen 2CV 1958 ft
A Citroen 2CV 1958

Model T Ford? Nope, way more expensive back in 1908 at  $850, equivalent to $24,483 today.

An open Ford Model T
A Ford Model T

OK, then it surely has to be the 2008 Tato Nano, a kind of egg-shaped Indian car with two cylinders made with cheap labour. No? No. That cost $3,056.

But the Smith Flyer comes in at the grand present-day total of $2,000!

Frequently Asked Questions about the AO / Briggs and Stratton Flyer Car

Lots of people want to know more about this strange early vehicle, so here are some of the most asked questions about it:

What’s the Value of the AO Smith / Briggs and Stratton Flyer? 

The value of the AO Smith/ Briggs and Stratton Flyer today is anywhere between $8000 to $27000, depending on the condition.

On 9 June 2007 Sotheby’s sold one for $12,100, Bonham’s sold one on 11 Nov 2017 for $8,800, and on 10 Oct 2019 Sotheby’s sold another one, this time for $27,500. 

Where to Buy a Smith Flyer (Briggs and Stratton Flyer) For Sale

If you want to buy an AO Smith/ Briggs and Stratton Flyer your best bet is motor auctions or online auction houses like eBay. As you can see from the answer above, Smith Flyers seem to be auctioned more than they’re offered for private sale.

The other option is to build one yourself, of course. It may not be as original, but it will be just as much fun – and much cheaper.

Can I Get Briggs and Stratton / Smith Flyer Blueprints or Plans? 

You can still buy AO Smith/ Briggs and Stratton Flyer Blueprints, and some are freely available online. You can find them on Pinterest and also there are some plans available on Scribd. You could also try searching car forums and similar, to see anyone who has completed this project themselves.

Can I Build a Briggs and Stratton / Smith Flyer?

Anyone could build an AO Smith/ Briggs and Stratton Flyer as it’s such a simple machine. Average DIY skills and a box of ordinary tools will suffice. Go for it!

Check it out here on youtube.

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