How Come Three-Wheeled Vehicles Are So Unbelievably Badass?

$60,000 is far too much for a super sports bike and far too little for a supercar, but it is  just right for an automobile sitting between the two. There are few manufacturers who create three-wheeled vehicles, and even fewer that are sold in the United States (where they are classified as motorcycles). Tough safety laws usually prevent these curiosities from seeing road use, but when one does make it past the NHTSA, the rarity of the beasts practically necessitates an owner’s manual of frequently asked questions that the new buyer will surely be asked by curious passerby. An article appearing at Autoblog yesterday got me thinking: what is it about three-wheelers that is so compelling, and how come we never see them in the US?

Morgan 3 Wheeler Front

Morgan 3 Wheeler, from Morgan’s website

The configuration most stable for three-wheelers is two tires in the front, one in the back in the middle. Reversing that setup results in a vehicle completely unusable for tight turns at even modest speeds, demonstrated by Jeremy Clarkson in his review of the rollover-prone Reliant Robin:

Most three-wheelers are similar to motorcycles in that they are very light, very sparsely appointed, and very fast. Three-wheelers, however, typically have room to comfortably seat a passenger and maybe a handbag. Most three-wheelers are driven by motorcycle engines, adding to the similarities between the two vehicle types.

The upcoming Campagna T-Rex 16S, for example, utilizes a 160hp inline-six from BMW, likely the same one found in the K1600 touring bike. The mechanical bits like throttle and clutch are operated uniquely in motorcycles, but for the 16S, the traditional three pedals found in roadgoing cars are retained, greatly lowering its learning curve. A standard H-pattern for the shift gate does not make an appearance here, however. Rather, the driver pulls the shift lever backward for upshifts, and the clutch pedal is depressed between each. The 16S only weighs 1,100lbs, or about half as much as a Lotus Exige, and combined with the 160hp engine, 0-60mph arrives in only 4 seconds, less than an Audi R8 or Porsche 911. The complete lack of a sound barrier between driver and engine makes the 16S slightly less practical than those grand tourers (Autoblog reviewer Michael Harley notes “the sound is damn near deafening” without a helmet or earplugs). Practicality is traded for the unadulterated connection between man and machine, an experience echoed in the Morgan 3 Wheeler.

The 3 Wheeler initially debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 2011, an updated version of the Runabout that was the marque’s first car in 1911. The result is a very retro, very British roadster that experienced such an overwhelmingly positive reception that the initial run of 200 cars that Morgan originally considered was immediately deemed wholly insufficient (as reported by Road & Track). The 3 Wheeler also weighs in at 1,100lbs, but is powered by a much less powerful S&S 1,990cc V-Twin that produces roughly 100hp. The engine sits comfortably between the two front wheels, completely exposed to the elements with no covering whatsoever; it’s refreshing in an age where even my GTI’s engine is fitted with an ugly plastic privacy screen. The 3 Wheeler is designed to evoke images of classic motoring, with its bullet-shaped exterior and available WWII RAF, Flying Tigers, and pinup girl decals. The only problem with the 3 Wheeler is finding one. There are very few Morgan dealers in the US, and given the demand for the car, the selling price will likely greatly exceed the MSRP of $55,000.

Aptera 2e

Aptera 2e, from Aptera’s Facebook page

Unfortunately, some three-wheeled vehicles don’t quite make it to market, especially when paired with an unusual motor. Case in point: the infamous Aptera 2e electric car and 2h plug-in hybrid. In contrast to the Morgan and Capagna, the Aptera utilized an enclosed design and was powered by the front wheels, rather than the single rear. The design was extremely slippery, with a drag coefficient of only 0.15, and the electric version had a range of roughly 100 miles. The hybrid would get between 130 and 300mpg, depending on how long the Aptera’s trip was, existence of a passenger, etc. Following multiple production delays, management changes, and loan denials by the federal government, Aptera shut its doors due to lack of financing. It was unclear whether the revolutionary EV could have been sold at the proposed price of $20,000 anyway.

So what is the appeal of a three-wheeled car? Is it the novelty, or aesthetic? Over the last decade or so, there have been numerous examples of successful retro designs, like the 2005 Mustang or 2001 Mini Cooper, and perhaps the appeal of the Morgan 3 Wheeler is because it exists at the intersection of retro and novelty. After all, Morgans have never been considered much more than a niche manufacturer in the United States, but maybe the idea of wearing a cap, goggles, and scarf while driving an aluminum cylinder emblazoned with a shark’s head on the side is too romantic to be overlooked. In the days when an entry-level Honda Civic can be optioned with satellite navigation, a technology detox sounds just about right for modern enthusiasts. And what better way than being exposed to the elements and commanding a doorless car with three pedals, body-hugging seats, and an uncontrollable urge to DRIVE FASTER!


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About Cameron Rogers

Cameron Rogers is the founder and lead writer at Downshift Autos, the only automotive blog on the Internet*. Born in the back of an AMC Gremlin, Cameron vowed to never let this extraordinarily embarrassing detail define him, so help him God. He drives a GTI but absolutely will not shut up about it if somebody asks. He will not hesitate to let people know that no, they shouldn't get a Porsche 911 when a Morgan 3 Wheeler is so obviously the superior choice. He is obsessed with the seats of a Carrera GT and the steering wheel of a Fisker Karma. He once sat in the driver's seat of a Tesla Model S, his greatest accomplishment to date. He is just now realizing that writing an autobiography, however miniscule, in the third person is odd and unnerving. *As of this writing, Cameron has been informed that there are, in fact, many websites and blogs centered around cars and car culture. He regrets his grievous error.

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