Gigs, Cabriolets and Curricles

What are the differences between gigs, cabriolets, and curricles?

Mr Thorpe is very boastful of his newly acquired gig in "Northanger Abbey". He has just purchased it and he describes it as 'curricle hung'. He goes on to say, "seat, trunk, sword case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding, all you see complete, the iron work as good as new, or better." The whole cost him only 50 guineas. Much of this is, of course lost to us now, but while we might not know the detail, we understand that he is as proud of his gig as any young man might be of his first car. So what was a gig and what was all that detail about? For a start, a gig referred to a light two-wheeled vehicle which usually comfortably seated two people and was drawn by either one or two horses - in Mr Thorpe's case he has a single horse to draw his vehicle along. Another gig mentioned by Austen can be found in "Persuasion", and with much less pretension. It is driven by the Admiral, and can fit three when Anne squeezes onto the seat with him and his wife. Cabriolet Mr Thorpe clearly felt his vehicle suited the young aspirant of fashion which he thought himself to be. Many of the beaux of the day would be found tooling their curricles around, most notably the 1st Marquis of Anglesey. The advice of the time was that a gig needed a horse of less than 16 hands high and that the horse's action could never be deemed too extravagant. However, like any fashionable item, they too were subject to the vagaries of taste. Around 1815 the Cabriolet superseded the Curricle as the most fashionable form of gig. This was a one-horse chaise in a newer more elegant form than the Curricle. It had room for two people and came with a movable hood. It was possible to close the curtains to gain privacy and a fashionable 'Tiger' (a small boy) could be carried behind but cut off from communication. Its shape resembled a nautilus shell and there was a knee flap with a graceful curve to it - even the shafts were curved. Other types of one-horse gigs that later became fashionable included the Dennett, which took its name from the Dennett springing system (This was three springs: two at the ends and one crosswise.) William Bridges Adams, in the 1837 book English Pleasure Carriages, says the name came from Miss Dennett, who was an exceedingly popular stage dancer at the time when the springs were first used. Also popular for the young men were the Stanhope and Tilbury. We can well imagine Mr Thorpe keeping up with fashion in one of these showy vehicles. Stanhope The simplest kind of two wheeled carriage consisted of a few simple parts: the wheels, axle, springs, carriage (the shafts and cross bars) and the body or sitting part where the steps and lamps were attached. When Mr Thorpe refers to his gig as 'curricle hung', he indicates the system used to attach the 'carriage'. Of the curricle's suspension, Adams says, "The body is suspended in a similar mode to the cabriolet, on a frame consisting of two side pieces and two cross bars at each end." Adams is rather scathing on the subject of Curricles. "The shape of the body is extremely unsightly, the hinder curve and the sword-case are positively ugly, the elbow and head are ungracefully formal, and the crooked front line and dashing iron in the worst possible taste. . .The mode of attaching the horse is precisely that of the chariot car, only more elegant. A pole is fixed to the square frame and is suspended from a bright steel bar, resting in a fork on each horse's back." Perhaps fashion choice rather than a tasteful one? Finally, the sword case that Mr Thorpe speaks of was, according to Adams, was part of the trunk, although Mr Adams calls the sword-case the trunk, Mr Thorpe refers to them separately.

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1 comment

As a carriage museum researcher I would like to make a couple of corrections. A gig is indeed a light 2 wheel cart but drawn by a single horse. A curricle is a different thing entirely. it is one of very few 2 wheel designs drawn by a pair with the pole suspended between the two horses attached to a bar across the back of the driving saddles. The curricle was a popular see & be seen vehicle in Regency cities. Because of the bar across the horses it was important that they were well matched in height & movement. Being of the fashion of the time they usually matched & were very spirited leading the Curricle to be considered a dangerous vehicle. this was mainly because it was often driven recklessly by gentleman cutting a dash, invariably overhorsed in terms of power to weight of vehicle & I’m sure a tipple or two may have assisted in the disasters that often occurred. An issue for all two wheeled carts (a carriage has four), is that they have a need to be balanced front to back or the poor horse ends up carrying too much on his back or the cart wants to lift the shafts pulling uncomfortably on his belly through the overgirth that stabilizes the tugs. As you can imagine I particularly love the references to historical vehicles in Jane Austin’s works.

camelot July 26, 2020

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