Can We Ever Love a Three-Wheeled Car?

04 October 2017 | by Karl Smith

There’s a fundamental problem with three-wheeled cars.

We hate them.

There is just something about them that offends our very basic design sensibilities. Something is missing, and it is not just that fourth wheel. The proportions are off, and there seems no opportunity to develop a coherent theme that can inform the design of the entire car.

A Format with Issues

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“The Plastic Pig,” poster child for everything wrong with three-wheeled cars, but actually a strong seller in the UK for a few years

There are, of course, practical and technical issues with the three-wheeled format. Three-wheeled cars are unbalanced at speed, with some configurations worse than others. They are more sensitive to loading dynamics – i.e. where the engine and passengers are placed – and more susceptible to rollover, as the video of the roly-poly Reliant Robin (below) shows in comic detail.

    The poor Reliant Robin being abused on Top Gear

As our colleague, Matteo Licata of EDAG group pointed out, three wheelers are also a curious mixture of large footprint and compromised interior volume. Because the track of the two-wheeled end of the car is as wide as a traditional car, the footprint of a three-wheeler is often the same as a conventional car of the same size. But, because the three-wheeled car narrows to the single wheel, the passenger cabin is compromised in width.

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Aptera – futuristic three-wheeled fun. Huge footprint though...

The most extreme example of this might be the Aptera, which was very wide up front (2100mm) and as long as a standard sedan, yet had a snug cockpit for two. An executive-class car with the same footprint can hold four in comfort, with a performance car’s powertrain and handling, and generous luggage capacity.

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The Aptera Interior – better than most three-wheeled cars

As for design, Drew Meehan, Principal of Mensen Auto, notes “generations of busses, trains, cars and aircraft have created an expectation of visual stability and interior continuity that means three-wheelers will never be more than a niche, or simply a vehicular oddity.” Other designers and correspondents we interviewed noted the same fundamental design issues. No matter how well it is designed, we are trained to see that fourth wheel and we gravitate towards a four-wheel architecture.

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1966 Peel Trident. Tip your hat to the most bubbliciuos of all bubble cars

Also, there’s a certain ‘poverty mentality’ that runs through the history of three-wheeled cars. Many of the ‘bubble cars’ and other such tricycles were developed in response to periodic petrol supply crises, while others were tax dodges; semi-cars classified as motorcycles to evade full taxes. Then of course, there’s the ‘tuk-tuk’ class of the vehicles in the developing world – humble but rugged little utility three-wheelers.

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The Benz Patent Motorwagen – Three wheels! Show some respect…

You might think these automotive tripods would get more respect – after all it was the format of the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, widely acknowledged as the first true car – but the intervening century-and-a-quarter has not been kind to the three-wheeled car. And yet, hundreds of three-wheeled car models and kits have been proposed or manufactured. There are even two different encyclopedias published to document the quirky cars.

Morgan – The Gold Standard?

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The exception to most of the issues the above is, of course, the Morgan 3-Wheeler. Single rear wheel, exposed V-twin up front and old-school cyclecar, Spitfire-cockpit charm. An item of pure joy. We love it. The Morgan almost single-handedly rescues the three-wheeled car, no matter how eccentric and impractical it may be.

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The Morgan is old-school fun, but could it be a model for the future?

But the Morgan is still a cyclecar – as much a motorcycle as a car, if not more. “It is literally from another era”, notes Drew Meehan. Another correspondent noted, “It’s part-biplane, part-vintage motorcycle, and while highly amusing when accessorised with a tweed cap and goggles, isn’t much use for anything … unless you somehow live in 1932.

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Nevertheless, every designer and correspondent we consulted mentioned the Morgan as the sort of “Gold Standard” of the three-wheeled car… yet all acknowledged its practical shortcomings. Our correspondent Joe Simpson of Car Design Research, said, “To choose a Morgan three-wheeler is an extreme statement and to be right up on the edges of automotive craziness and commitment – so clearly you’d have to love it, simply to own one.

Towards A New Architecture?

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So, if the Morgan, the ‘Gold Standard’, is so eccentric and impractical, could anything related to a three-wheeler’s design or architecture convince us to buy one – and if so, what would be the features of such a car?

Let’s look at three options:

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Elio three-wheeler – economy commuter of tomorrow?

Economy commuter
The majority of three-wheelers in the past fitted into this category and gave the format the poor reputation it has today. There have certainly been some entertaining designs – the Messerschmidt Kabineroller, the Isetta (or some versions thereof), the Peel Trident, the Reliant Robin, and a host of others – which make for an amusing presence on the road. Tiny, underpowered and bug-like, their oddity may make them lovable at a car show. But as a daily driver? Hmm...

Elio Motors is the latest to boldly go into this territory, and is still taking reservations. The three-wheeled, tandem-seat commuter seems well designed, if rather anodyne, but at its anticipated price point there seems to be zero room for any profit margins that might sustain the start-up company, much less grow it.

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Piaggio Ape – lovable utility truck at an approachable urban scale

Utility
The Tuk-tuk class of three wheelers, which includes the lovable Piaggio Ape, is getting renewed attention in the age of the urban car; with ever-increasing vehicle restrictions in inner city areas, these little trucks just might be a nice solution for utility vehicles in urban areas. As designer Niels van Roij pointed out, an updated, electric version of these little utility haulers would be popular in many cities, especially ones with ancient centres and narrow, winding streets.

They are already making inroads at some luxury hotels and central city attractions. These little trucks could be lovable, but not necessarily desirable as personal vehicles.

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A surprising number of kit car designs were penned by industry veterans, resulting in such clean designs as this Tri-Magnum

Sports car
A three-wheeled sports car seemed the most popular with our correspondents, perhaps because of the Morgan. An aspirational, fun car, with (or without) a top, a bit more cockpit room and perhaps electric power could make for a fun city or canyon cruiser. Tim Huntzinger pointed out that in a forthcoming era of generic, autonomous commuting appliances, a fun and eccentric three-wheeled car would be a highly desirable vehicle, even for a city dweller.

Many of those surveyed, including Lem Bingley and Joe Simpson, mentioned the Aptera for its futurism and fun aerodynamic/organic shape. Simpson remembered first seeing the Aptera on the street and recalled, “it looked like a spaceship had landed in downtown.

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2006 Volkswagen GX3 concept – frugal fun, but the accountants said no

None of the above options is built around an air-tight business case, which in any case probably doesn’t exist, except perhaps for some of the utility trucks. After all, just how expensive is that fourth wheel? Our colleague Aidan Walsh pointed out that the functional/value proposition must be present; there must be some compelling reason beyond just novelty to justify placing the car in the marketplace.

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Vandenbrink Carver One

A sports three-wheeler, clearly the favourite of those we surveyed, would have to be a halo car, an eccentric, fun, brand-enhancing car that would be subsidized by the sale of more conventional models.

Both Walsh and Huntzinger noted that the possibilities in flexible or leaning chassis might provide the fun necessary to justify the development of a three-wheeled sports car – as explored by Dutch engineers at Carver Technology during the previous decade with the Vandenbrink Carver (as seen on TV), whose self-balancing technology is now licenced to other manufacturers.

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Morgan EV3 – halfway to the future...

The Morgan might otherwise be a conceptual starting point, but our hypothetical car must move forward to the twenty-first century and embrace the realities of electric propulsion, urban driving environments, and perhaps driver assist technologies, as well as amenities like a spacious, all-weather cockpit (with removable hardtop).

Summing It Up…

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1956-66 Heinkel Trojan

So where does that leave us?

Business, brand identity, design, and handling limitations probably guarantee that the three-wheeled car will always be an outlier in the automotive world. But there definitely could be a case made for a fun sports car that adds spice to a traditional model lineup. It might even be possible to add an economy three-wheeler to the lineup of an existing marque, if the design could dovetail into the larger brand identity.

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Bond Bug – as '70s as it gets

But there’s only so much of a business case one can make for such a car in these rapidly changing times. New conditions require new solutions, other than what we are seeing at the car shows. New architectures, new powertrains, new interiors, and new understandings of what the car can be are required of us as designers.

And perhaps, along the way, the three-wheeled car will be redeemed.

Designing the lovable into the unlovable is the key.