A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the 6 wheeled cars that were developed primarily in the 1970s and I have written about 5 cylinder engines, now, we’re reducing the number further to three: 3 wheeled cars to be precise.
Many of the very early cars including some designed by Karl Benz were 3 wheel designs – perhaps these were an extension of the 2 wheeled horse pulled buggies that were in existence before motoring really took hold.
There are 3 types of 3 wheeler – the “delta” – one front wheel that steers with two at the back, think Reliant Robin, the “tadpole” with two wheels at the front and steering also at the front, think Morgan and the reverse tadpole where the rear wheel steers. Early 3 wheelers were inherently unstable thanks to a lack of technology holding them down and it was possible to tip them over. Today’s 3 wheelers have more electronics and even tilting mechanisms that help with the physics of cornering!
Although there were many 3 wheelers built in the early years, probably the most well known were the Morgan V-twin and F-Series models. Morgan built 3 wheelers for about 25 years until the 1950s when they dropped them in favour of 4 wheels! Over the past few years, Morgan has gone retro like many other manufacturers and their 3 wheeler is back. For many years in Britain 3 wheelers or “cyclecars” were classed as motorcycles and as such had a much lower road tax applied to them, so they were cheaper to run – not only taxation wise but because they had much smaller and economical engines. Morgan built v-twin engined cyclecars from 1911 to 1939 and then after the Second World War they switched to Ford side valve engines. The last of the original 3 wheeler Morgans were built in 1952.
Another British car was the Reliant Robin. This was a lightweight fibreglass bodied car with a 750cc Austin 7 engine. The founder of Reliant was a designer at Raleigh, the bicycle manufacturer. In 1930, Raleigh had bought the Ivy Karryall, a motorcycle with a cabin that was used for commercial deliveries. This became the Raleigh Light Delivery Van and when they stopped production, TL Williams the designer, bought the rights and equipment and formed Reliant to continue the manufacturing. He added the Robin, Regal and Rialto models for passenger use.
Reliant bought Bond Cars and during their ownership built the Bond Bug with its swing top roof and door assembly. This car used a 700cc Reliant engine – again based on the old Austin 7 motor. Incidentally the designer of the Bug also designed Luke Skywalker’s Land Speedster for the first Star Wars film!
The Peel P50 was another micro car with 3 wheels. Not many were produced and it can claim the title of the world’s smallest car. It had a 49cc DKW engine. Go to the old Top Gear web site and search for the video of the car. It is one of the funniest car reviews you’ll ever see!
Apart from the new (old) Morgan, there are other 3 wheelers built today – some as cars and some as 3 wheeled motorcycles. The Canadian Campagna T-Rex is a sexy tadpole style 3 wheeler that now uses either a BMW or Harley Davidson motor (they did use a Kawasaki motorcycle engine for a while). Also from Canada is the Can-Am Spyder, more motorcycle/jet-ski/snowmobile than car but still a 3 wheeler with a Rotax 990cc motor and who can forget the amazing Tanom Invader! The other modern one of note is the Polaris Slingshot – one of which I saw at the Blackhawk Cars ‘n’ Coffee a year or so ago.
The very latest addition is from Elio Motors who are due to start proper production and delivery soon – although they have pushed the dates back a few times. The Elio looks like fully enclosed Campagna or Tanom, not that ground breaking – but could be a very economical city commuting car.
And finally, with new vehicles being designed for electric and hybrid engines, the California based Aptera 2e and 4e were to be the future of green technology. Aptera had designed a futuristic looking electric car with firstly 3 wheels and then 4. Sadly a combination of Government delayed paperwork and an inability to raise private capital sunk the company at the end of 2011. Initially their 3 wheeler was not deemed to be a car (despite other 3 wheelers available in the market at the time) and after redesigning the car to have 4 wheels, the Government then recanted and allowed a 3 wheeler to be a car! After another company lost it’s bid to gain Government loans against the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program, Aptera’s potential investors bailed and that was the end of proceedings.
Who knows, if the loans had flowed, the market could have had a full complement of 3 wheeled town cars using motorcycle or ever more powerful electric motors providing greater personal transportation choices.