The Tiny HMV FreeWay Promised Up To 100 MPG And Highway Speeds With A Lawnmower Engine

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The 1970s brought a major change in how cars were built. A fuel crisis and a rough economy began pushing out land yachts powered by thirsty V8s. In their place would be a wave of smaller, more efficient vehicles. The era also brought some wild ideas on saving money at the pump. One of them is the rare High Mileage Vehicles FreeWay, a lightweight trike promising up to 100 MPG with the use of a lawnmower engine.

It’s remarkable how many weird and awesome vehicle designs trace their roots back to the oil crisis. Americans in the 1970s learned real quick that their rides got horrific fuel economy, leading to buyers and companies downsizing. The era brought on smaller cars, some pretty wild vehicle designs, and even challenged the airline industry. We’ve written about a few of these from the Creative Engineering Jutta, to fiberglass camper trailers, and even the failed Dassault Mercure airliner. Just before the decade closed out, production started on a real neat piece of what is now automotive history.

In 1979, Apple Valley, Minnesota resident Dave Edmonson believed that he found the solution to America’s fuel woes, reported Minnesota newspaper Sun This Week. His HMV FreeWay didn’t just advertise 100 mpg, but guaranteed it so long as you kept the vehicle in operating order and drove it just 40 mph.

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Backing up Edmonson was his research. In 1970, he was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota when he began looking into economical vehicles for a course. And Edmonson, like the fellow that built that 75 mpg Geo Metro, felt that taking the family car to work was wasteful. From the Sun This Week:

“I thought it would make a lot of sense for people driving to work or when they don’t need a big car to be driving something smaller and more economical,” said Edmonson, a father of six and grandfather of 19. “I did studies on how much power it took to move a small vehicle down the road and what kind of mileage you could expect. I began building a prototype in 1974 and finished it in 1976. That’s when I tried to start getting the business going.”

In 1978, Edmonson secured funding for his car and set up shop in Burnsville, Minnesota. High Mileage Vehicles moved around a couple of times before settling its assembly line down in a building that is now a church.

Inside of that building, a team–that was at its highest, just 22 people–assembled the little FreeWay.

And what you got with this trike is, well, not much. The body consists of two pieces of fiberglass molded in color. The body is draped over a steel tube frame with a perimeter frame that includes the vehicle’s crash structure. And yes, that small strip of black is the vehicle’s steel bumper. The Burnsville Historical Society shows us what that structure looks like.

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Burnsville Historical Society Archives

And out back was a Tecumseh single cylinder that you’d normally find in a lawnmower. [Editor’s Note: To be fair, a riding mower, I’d think. – JT] The smaller 345cc model made 12 HP and was the one guaranteed to get 100 mpg so long as you drove 40 mph. And if you didn’t like internal combustion, you could get a FreeWay with a 4 HP electric motor paired to just enough battery power to reportedly get you as far as 20 miles.

If you were a speed demon, there was a 453cc variant that made a ravenous 16 HP. Top speed with the bigger plant was noted to be 65 mph. That one was supposed to get you 80 mpg as well.

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And no matter what powertrain you got, it came with a CVT driving the rear wheel through a chain. As an owner interviewed by Sun This Week noted, that guarantee was that if the car didn’t hit 100 mpg, HMV would take it back.

The interior of a FreeWay is best described as spartan. You have basic instrumentation, an oil cooler used as a heater, and the interior was covered in carpeting.

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But, given the vehicle’s about 700-pounds of weight, there’s not a whole lot going on. I mean, it has just a single headlight!

Robert Dunn of Aging Wheels got to take one for a spin and it’s clear that these were put together on a shoestring budget. The example he tested has plastic windows (including the windshield) that were sort of just there, and the trunk window isn’t even sealed from the elements. And while it features a full independent suspension, it wasn’t anything sporty.

I highly recommend giving Dunn’s video a watch; it’s really entertaining. Apparently, that FreeWay gets nowhere near 80 mpg, and instead averages closer to 50 mpg. Of course, remember that the 100 mpg claim was very specific, requiring you to drive exactly 40 mph in a FreeWay with the smallest engine.

Most states reportedly classified them as motorcycles, while others, like Illinois, classified them as a car. And at least one state wouldn’t even allow them to be registered at all. According to the FreeWay Newsletter in 1981, Connecticut was one such state. Connecticut did not consider the FreeWay to be a motorcycle and thought that the vehicle was “unreasonably dangerous” among traffic and semi trucks.

In 1979, you could buy one of these for $3,400, or $14,750 in today’s money.

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The FreeWay wasn’t a success. Talking to the Sun This Week, Edmonson noted that gas prices came down and the economy was rough. Eventually, sales dwindled to the point to where High Mileage Vehicles couldn’t stay open. In 1982, the company filed for bankruptcy after building 700 FreeWays. Apparently there were still orders that the company could no longer fulfill. D&A Vehicles later bought the FreeWay and made 17 microcars based on its running gear and frame.

Today, the FreeWay has a bit of a cult following. FreeWay owners have gathered for their own rallies and even participated in microcar meetups. At my local Illinois Secretary of State office there’s a slightly faded photo on a board showing a bunch of colorful FreeWays that gathered for the Micro/Mini Car World Meet 2010.

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Micro/Mini Car World Meet 2010. Credit: Nerfer

Of course, FreeWay owners even set up a club. The site for it is now down, but you can visit it through the Wayback Machine. There, you’ll find that there was a 390cc engine and a diesel advertised, but apparently nobody picked up a FreeWay with either.

The website also told some questionable stories about safety. It claims that the FreeWay was so well-built that people have rolled them and crashed into pickup trucks without getting any more than bruises. That pickup truck story seems to go as far as to claim that the truck came out worse than the FreeWay. Since there are no citations I’m taking those stories with a grain of salt.

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If you made it to the end and still want one, I’m right there with you. And incredibly, I’ve found five for sale. Three are all about the same price at about $5,000, one’s a definite project at $2,500, and one is $7,000.

In the end, the HMV FreeWay was yet another failed attempt to sell a super-high mileage vehicle. But, I’m glad that it exists. A lot of people have dreams, but few end up being like Dave Edmonson and can actually say that they built a handful of their own car.

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69 Responses

  1. Ala last week’s discussion of how to represent oil pressure, does that speedo actually attempt to provide a symbolic representation of the gauge’s function? The little vehicle with the arrow?

    1. Yeah, I think I could tolerate the cold (as long as the “car” wasn’t too drafty) but my concern would be the windows fogging/frosting up. The speed wouldn’t be an issue since when I commuted in St Paul, the 454 never got over 40MPH, taking Minnehaha Parkway was way more enjoyable.

      1. You say that, but after having my heat go out this winter I discovered it is quite miserable driving a car without heat in a Minnesota winter. You can dress for it to some extent, but clothing suitable for single digit temperatures is not generally suitable for comfortable driving.

    2. From the manual:

      “Adverse weather conditions include snow storms, sleet, heavy slush or high winds. In situations like these, driving the Free-Way is not recommended although it is an all weather vehicle. If you must drive in these conditions proceed at lower speeds.”

      I’ve never driven mine on snow or ice. I’ll add that there’s not enough clearance to put a snow chain on the drive wheel, as the gap at the rear between the tire’s tread and the body is 0.75″.

        1. The heater is best described as aspirational, in the quite literal sense that the company aspired to provide a heater but never finished designing it. There’s a small heat exchanger under the dash which is fed by oil lines from the engine and little round holes in the top of the dash on either side of the speedometer for warm air to escape, but no fan. Without a fan there’s no real air movement for practical purposes, so the heater doesn’t provide any useful heat for the driver nor does it defrost the windshield, although it may perhaps help keep the oil itself cooler to a worthwhile extent simply by virtue of the added circulation outside the engine. The factory literature refers to a heater fan for the system but that part of the project never happened. As far as that goes, the factory literature also refers to a reverse gear and that never happened, either.

          It’s still worthwhile to switch on the electric oil pump from time to time while driving, though, as this forces oil not only through the “heater” but also through the remote-mounted oil filter. The Tecumseh engine itself doesn’t have a filter, so the heater system is, in this sense, better than nothing.

    1. Every 10 years ago, some person acts like they had a genius idea to make a 3 wheeled, 1 or 2 seat, deathtrap that gets great fuel economy. They all think that folks will break down the doors to get their tiny penalty boxes. The only people that might consider buying one of these are hyper milers or weirdos that come to sites like this.

  2. Based on the timeline it seems that he decided he could succeed where The Dale failed to ever produce a real product. It’s amazing how evergreen this concept is. “It has 3 wheels and therefore it will be incredibly cheap, efficient, and practical and it sounds too good to be true but it’s because 3 wheels!” and people go nuts!

    Dale, Elio Motors, Aptera. Never ending.

    I gotta say, I do respect the complete lack of self preservation from anyone who drives one of these things

        1. 3 wheelers always seem to me to combine the worst driving attributes of bikes and cars into a single machine – not as stable as a 4 wheeler, but not as maneuverable as a 2.

          And on the current ones, you have to (should, anyway) wear a helmet and you don’t get much hauling space or a top. But they do seem to come with a lot of neon lighting and a loud stereo, so perhaps for the target market, that makes up for it?

          1. Tadpole trikes (2 in front 1 in back) are pretty stable but can have traction issues as I saw last week when a guy in a Can Am Slingshot mad an angry left turn and not only chirped the rear tire but also slid a bit.
            Can Am’s more conventional Spyder 3 wheel motorcycle things are much more successful than the rather niche 3 wheel sort of car

    1. It seems a bit odd that, at least in the US, the only 3-wheelers that have any semblance of success are the more expensive “rich-guy toys” like the Morgan and Slingshot.

      Note to Elio Guy, toss the old Geo Metro-based 3-cylinder, put a Hayabusa in, and charge 4 times as much. Instant success!!!

      1. The only people who can afford a single purpose car are rich folk. Regular people typically need a single vehicle that is good enough at everything. Hence the popularity of crossovers. A super efficient commuter is a great idea on paper but in real life, you would need access to a normal car.
        I would totally add a Morgan 3 wheeler to my fleet put they are a bit pricey for me.

        1. Someone should make a compact mid-engined electric CRZ-sized hatchback/crossover series-hybrid with maybe 8″ ground clearance in a sub 2,500 lb vehicle, but have it streamlined to where it had a drag coefficient around 0.17 and a frontal area of about 20 sq ft, give it AWD, fold-down rear seats, and about 200 electric horsepower pushing it. The gasoline engine could be a tiny 100cc 15 horsepower 1-cylinder generator made to run at a constant speed, nothing fancy, easy to package into the vehicle, and cheap to make. It probably wouldn’t be used often. The vehicle would be much smaller/lighter than a Corolla Cross, with a height comparable to a Honda Civic sedan, to keep frontal area down. The batteries would be kept down low where a driveshaft in a RWD car would normally be to keep the center of gravity low, in spite of the high ground clearance. Keep the unnecessary features to a bare minimum to keep the cost down and target the sub-$25k price point. It would be practical to use as an “only” car for many, be very efficient, the performance would be scary due to the low weight and even if it had a modest 200 horsepower it could still be geared to top out at like 180 mph due to the streamlining, it would be competent off-road in a way that the Suzuki Jimny is because of the low mass and AWD, there would be no range anxiety, and thus the vehicle would appeal to enthusiasts as well as those looking for cheap basic transportation but are otherwise afraid of pure EVs. It would be a very bland, but also economical and fun to operate vehicle, with few things to go wrong.

          Don’t compromise the streamlining for aesthetics. Don’t add fake vents and other stylistic crap. It needs to be PRACTICAL, part of that ethos being to keep the operating cost to a minimum by focusing on load reduction to reduce energy costs and wear and tear on parts. It would likely resemble the 2005 Mercedes Bionic concept, but with more ground clearance and slightly less overall height.

          Due to the efficiency of the aerodynamic form, it wouldn’t take much battery to go fast or far. 150 Wh/mile at 70 mph on the highway becomes possible when drag is that low. A 20 kWh pack is all that it would need for “acceptable” all-electric range, thus helping to keep the cost down, and there’d be that tiny gasoline engine and maybe a 5-gallon fuel tank for backup that would allow it to get 60+ mpg on longer trips.

          Toyota certainly has the expertise to build such a vehicle. Maybe Volkswagen.

          If well executed, it would probably sell buttloads in the U.S. just on the brutal value proposition, regardless of what it looked like. It would also take away sales from higher margin vehicles if it had the performance AND economy described, which is why we’ll probably never see such a thing.

    1. I think it actually looks quite terrible to drive. Watching the video, I was genuinely concerned for the guy’s safety. The brakes appear nearly useless, it doesn’t have enough power to get out of its own way (much less get out of the way of traffic), it appears nearly uncontrollable at any speed over 15 mph, and it looks like it would tip over.

      After seeing that video, I can’t believe 700 people paid the equivalent of $14,000 for these things. I can appreciate weird, quirky cars, but this one has no appeal.

  3. I saw one of these in perfect condition at an classic car meet thing here in The Woodlands TX. Yellow and rad sauce. Most raddest dude that owned it too. He had this and a perfect car to compliment it….. a 1997?-ish Viper GTS lol.

    Also…mmm Mercedes! How the heck are you buddy, loooooong time no chat!

    1. EL_ULY!!!! Now you’re an old online friend that I haven’t seen in a long time! I’m doing better than ever. I’m surrounded by cool co-workers/friends, soon to be married, and am drowning in dream-level (for me) cars. A far cry from my earlier Oppo days, in part thanks to our David Tracy. 🙂

      How are you?

  4. As a person living in central CT, I can confirm I was thinking this thing would be a deathtrap if I tried commuting the 7 miles across town. Then I came across that paragraph…. I’m not embarrassed.

  5. This rolling deathtrap Vibrator is to the sense of speed what Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is to the sense of time.
    That video is hilarious. Drive one? Oh hell yeah! BUY one? Not on your (or my) life.
    Thanks Mercedes, this was awesome!

  6. I like the stories of people putting lawnmower engines in vehicles… First one I remember was a kid and a Dodge D50 truck…put a 5hp brigs in a d was using it to drive to school. I e thought about making a light truck runabout just for my fiance and my shop.to go go grab parts in. I wish alot of these ventures took off for them.

  7. Stories like this make me even more appreciative of my 1st gen Insight made out of Aluminum and oddly able to eek out 70-100mpg easily from it’s 1.0 liter engine with lean burn and a manual trans.

    Just recently poured new Urethane Bushings for the transmission mount for a total cost of $29 dollars when the replacement mount was 265 and a week out.

    I think the trick is the lean burning. That small briggs and stratton is likely running a basic carb that is not nearly as lean as it could be. My guess is the engine is too small to have enough power running lean to accelerate or maintain speed, at roughly 19-20:1 AFR in my Insight I barely have enough power to keep speed with a 1.0 going through a 0.71 overdrive and 3.2 final drive at 1800lbs.

    I’d love one of these to tinker with and see what improved engine management would do for mileage. Or maybe a 35 horsepower 14,000rpm built Harbor Freight Predator engine with lots of race parts on alcohol 🙂

  8. If it had an integrated roll cage, it would be a lot safer. This vehicle is still decently efficient. Slightly less drag-inducing than and roughly the same weight as a motorcycle, so its claimed fuel economy figures make sense.

    If it had better aerodynamics, even with a 5 horsepower lawnmower engine, 100+ mph top end and 500+ mpg is doable. A Milan SL velomobile can do 60 mph on 1 horsepower. For a single person vehicle, that sounds like a good starting point. Then build it up and add features only as needed.

    Another vehicle to take a look at is the GM Lean Machine, using a 2-cylinder 38 horsepower engine. It had a drag coefficient of 0.15, weighed 400 lbs, and could do 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds wit an 80 mph top speed. Unfortunately, GM never produced it.

    With today’s technology, we could easily have not only affordable 1,000+ mpg single seat enclosed commuters with rapid acceleration, but also for little to no added cost versus what is currently available we could have 100+ mpg diesel sports cars that do 0-60 in under 4 seconds, 300 horsepower midsized cars capable of seating 5 that get 80+ mpg and do 0-60 mph in under 6 seconds, crossovers and SUVs that get 60+ mpg, V8 musclecars making 1,000+ horsepower that get 40+ mpg, V12 supercars that get 40+ mpg, and full size trucks and SUVs that get 40+ mpg.

    Aerodynamics is key. Modern vehicles have 2-3x more drag than what they should have.

    1. “Another vehicle to take a look at is the GM Lean Machine, using a 2-cylinder 38 horsepower engine. It had a drag coefficient of 0.15, weighed 400 lbs, and could do 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds wit an 80 mph top speed. Unfortunately, GM never produced it.”

      WOAH! That might be one of the coolest concepts GM has never put into production.

      1. There are many other cool concepts they made but never put into production that I could share. I’m particularly fond of the GM Ultralite. 80+ mpg car that could seat 4, and its performance would hold up well today, in spite of the car being more than 30 years old.

        1. Ms. Streeter is still doing good work. The content on this site lured me in. I like articles on fuel efficient cars, so I’ll gladly share what I know so that we can see more content like this. Aerodynamics has been known since the 1920s as a path towards very high efficiency. Modern cars have just BARELY started to match the 1921 Rumpler Tropfenwagen when it comes to drag coefficient, and that thing had open/outboard wheels which already impose a massive aerodynamic penalty!

          The auto industry has been selling us products that deliberately consume far more fuel than necessary for a given amount of purchase cost, utility, performance, and safety in the name of planned obsolescence, and I’d like for that to change. I’m tired of being offered nothing but watered down crap thanks to marketing departments and accountants. There’s an old saying that “you’re selling the sizzle, not the steak.” I want the damn steak, otherwise it’s a waste of money. I don’t need it to look flashy, and I don’t want it to be obsolete on the next model. I want the best that’s possible, wrapped up in a timeless package. Note how cars that look timeless tend to hold their value well! Eg. Alfa Romeo Disco Volante, Citroen SM, Jaguar E-Type, ect. Streamlining is the ultimate way to avoid a car ever becoming dated regarding aesthetics, AND the fuel economy benefits are massive.

  9. I’ll admit to having briefly considered one of these at various points, but the “highway speeds” thing is kind of optimistic. 65mph flat out, which means, realistically, you’re holding somewhere in the 55-60 range in sustained cruising, and there’s lots of country back roads around me with 50 or 55 speed limits, and the real highways are 65 or 70. And, of course, add anywhere from 5-20 on top of those to get the speeds most traffic is actually driving at.

  10. I own an HMV Freeway with the smaller engine but I’ve got to say that even at a steady 40 mph I’ve never seen anything approaching 100 mpg. About half that, or slightly less, is more realistic.

    I do, in fact, drive it on the freeway. It will cruise at 60 mph or so on level ground, although ascending even modest hills will slow things down considerably. My longest trip so far has been about 300 miles; on the one occasion I took it farther from home I towed it:

    https://live.staticflickr.com/1692/24104006120_e356d170f5_c.jpg

  11. I know these are an absolute death trap, and they would be unacceptable today without modern safety features, but I kinda wish vehicles like this were still available.
    Super light and simple, minimalist, can be repaired with a screwdriver and a vice grip, with a sub-500 cc gas or diesel engine.
    Barely anything more than a motorcycle with an ultra light body so you don’t get soaked in rain.
    It’s all about the bare minimum required to move a human occupant from point A to B.
    And I feel bad every time I think about we (including me) drive 5000 lbs SUVs just to get groceries and drop off the kids at daycare.
    All that wasted energy, fuel, and raw materials.
    I know it’s because of safety, but still feels total overkill sometimes.
    I guess that explains my weird affection for, tuk-tuks, motorcycle rickshaws, and all sorts of odd 3-wheelers.

  12. Post 2nd world war Europe had a lot of these micro cars available, but as they rebuilt their nations, these things died out. Ya know why? Decent public transit. At some point, there are better ways to solve the problem, it’s just that Americans can’t even agree on the problem to be solved.

    On a another note, I was shocked, years ago to discover how bad the fuel economy of many motorcycles is. I mean, I knew they had horrible emissions performance, but when a friend joked that his early 90’s Taurus SHO with the venerated Yamaha motor got better mileage than his Yamaha cruising bike, it was a shock to me. Since then I have been told it is actually a thing. Can these ‘motorcycles with an extra wheel’ be that much better? Perhaps they aren’t tasked with hauling around an overweight dentist/accountant… /s

    1. I’d rather Daily one of these than take public transportation. NYC can’t figure it out but supposedly it can be done in every city snd town across the USA? Even if everything else comes together the unions would continue to screw everything up.

    2. Anecdotally, my ancient Rebel 250 (plus 200ish lbs of me+gear) averaged ~46mpg/5.1L/100km over 4000km of riding. Some of that is likely just the state of tune on an old carburated bike, but as well, highway aerodynamics are horrendous. The effect is really noticeable on 125cc bikes where 100km/h+ pretty much isn’t happening without tucking.

      1. “Anecdotally, my ancient Rebel 250 (plus 200ish lbs of me+gear) averaged ~46mpg/5.1L/100km over 4000km of riding”

        Not that much better than my Honda Fit that has averaged 39mpg or 6L/100km over the last 3+ years for me. And something like a Prius gets that mileage or better, likely with far lower emissions.

  13. Just, no. $3400 for that? Parents bought a Rabbit in ‘82 for $8200. That was basic, but a car: it kept the elements out. For 2/5 of that I would want more than that floppy ‘frame’ and a fiberglass clamshell.
    The shot under the dash shows literal backyard gocart steering setup. And he said the brakes were squishy. If it’s gonna be small and lightweight it HAS to be agile or you’re gonna die–or feel that way so it’s no fun driving it

    1. So, now I kinda wish I hadn’t made the above comment-or, at very least, hadn’t given it such a strong dickhead flavor
      Given the zeitgeist of the time—gas crises, inflation around what we have now, the political mess at home & abroad—people needed some hope. Seems like the builders tried to provide that, or at least a commuter that wouldn’t break the bank. They are definitely optimistic vehicles. There’s a lot more I could say about my tolerance for sketchy diminishing, etc, etc, but I know that I don’t have any place telling others they shouldn’t spend their own money on their kind of fun ( or utility ).

      SO,
      my apologies to the FreeWay community for raining on your parade. Sincerely.

  14. the speedo has 80 mph, that seems very “aspirational” lol

    As to the safety claims, that frame looks pretty decent, but the fiberglass shell would still crumble… I would def NOT take it on the highway.. EVER.

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