It sounds pretty strange when you say it now, but back in the 1940’s the National Health Service of the United Kingdom built and maintained a huge fleet of vehicles for people with a disability.
In the years that followed World War 2 there was a push in the UK to help injured ex-servicemen and people with a disability to get more mobile and achieve a degree of independence.
So, in 1946 engineer Bert Greeves designed and built the first motor-drive trike for his paralysed cousin, Derry Preston-Cobb. Greeves went on to create the Invacar company, and together with the Ministry of Health and the newly formed NHS they subsequently launched a new service for disabled people that built, supplied and maintained these motorised tricycles, delivering them free of charge to people who were eligible.
Over the years there were many different designs, with the vast majority of vehicles being built by either Invacar or rival firm AC. The famous duck-egg blue finish and the distinctive appearance makes the Invacar one of the most well-known vehicles of all time (for people in the UK of a certain age anyway).
Based on motorbike technology and driven by a chain, the Invacar (abbreviated from 'invalid carriage') was designed to transport just one person and controlled entirely by hand, with enough space to store a folding wheelchair.
Speaking to the BBC in 2013 Sir Bert Massie, a disability rights campaigner and former governor of the Motability Scheme, explained that, in contrast to today, those in charge at the time didn’t see the scheme as a service to give people their independence back through the use of a vehicle:
"The government didn't see these as cars... they saw them as a prosthetic. There was a strange logic to their thinking. They saw the role of the NHS as being there to get you mobile. If you were not disabled, you'd be doing that with your legs. So, if you were disabled, and couldn't do that, they gave you a one-person invalid carriage as a leg replacement to get you from A to B."
The driving test to be able to drive an Invacar was very different to today. Massie got his first vehicle at the age of 16, but before he could drive away he had to visit an artificial limb appliance centre in Liverpool where he met an assessor.
"The guy who assessed me was an engineer and he said: 'Sit in this, I'm going to push you and I want you to push the brake down to see if you can stop.' So we did that, I stopped it and he said, 'Right, you're quite capable of driving' - and that's how I passed my test."
By the time they announced the closure of the scheme in 1977 to make way for the newly created Motability Scheme there were an estimated 21,500 invalid carriages in use on UK roads. Today, over 640,000 people with a disability and their carers use the Motability Scheme to lease a conventional or a specially adapted vehicle.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why the Invacar ended. There was very little in the way of protection if the vehicle crashed (some models could reach 82 mph), they often caught fire and they were notoriously unstable, with drivers often keeping heavy items (like a sack of potatoes) in the back of the vehicle to weigh it down.
Some people loved them though, so those who wanted to keep their Invacar could for a time but the scheme eventually came to a complete end. It became illegal to drive an Invacar on UK roads on the 31 March 2003, and as they were all leased to drivers the government was able to recall the vast majority of them and they were all scrapped, along with the vehicles stockpiled in government warehouses.
Today very few Invacar models have survived. Those that have can be found in motoring museums or are privately owned.
These days Motabiity customers don't need to worry about safety issues like a flimsy build quality or unreliable brakes and steering as all the cars leased through the Motability Scheme are handed over to customers brand new.
Every new vehicle comes with the comprehensive Motability package, which includes comprehensive insurance for up to 3 drivers, servicing and maintenance, full RAC breakdown assistance, replacement tyres, replacement windscreens and a 60,000 mileage allowance over 3 years (or 5 years and 100,000 miles for Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles).
The Invacar was a common sight at Football matches in the 1960's and 1970's.
Special thanks to Ian Seabrook at HubNut for permission to use his images for this article.