The Campagna T-Rex is confusing. It's sort of like wearing a ridiculous hat with a unicorn horn on it and eating something fried on a stick at a carnival — it's a lot of fun while you're doing it, but it's completely impractical for normal life, and you look a little like an idiot. Also, like driving an actual cloned or reincarnated T-Rex, people are likely to stare at you.
(Full Disclosure: Campagna wanted me to drive one of their Quebec-built tripods so badly that they brought one of the poutine-burners right to my house and left it with me. Then they took it back, because what are they, running a charity?)
Three-wheeled cars generally only exist for two very different reasons: poverty and fun. And those differences are defined by the layout of those wheels. Three wheelers with one wheel in front, in the tippy-over layout, are usually used as super-cheap, basic working transportation. Think all the autorickshaws in India and the Reliant Robin (the Bond Bug is an exception).
The tail-dragger three wheel layout, with the one wheel in the rear, is usually used for cars that give practicality the finger in favor of eccentric fun. Like the Morgan three-wheeler and this T-Rex. Officially, the T-Rex is classified as a motorcycle, but thanks to California's Byzantine DMV rules, you can get away with driving it without a motorcycle license or a helmet.
Those two details — that you can drive it without a helmet or motorcycle license — I think is key to exactly who is buying these crazy things. As best I can tell, the real target market here is people who really want a motorcycle, but can't have one or don't want to bother learning to drive one.
Because, really, this is about as close an experience to driving a motorcycle as a non-motorcycle rider is likely to get. The whole drivetrain is from a BMW 1600cc 6-cylinder motorcycle making 160 HP, and it all weighs only 1100 lbs. When you drive it, you're exposed like a motorcycle rider is, you have noises like a motorcycle, and a similar contempt for comfort, practicality, and safety.
I should also mention here that the one loaned to me was described as 'pre-production,' and had to be repaired for a couple of the days I had it. Reverse quit working, and then all the pedals stopped working as well. I was told a faulty connecting pin from the pedal assembly was confusing the engine computer, and there was some more vague solenoid issue with reverse. It worked fine after the repairs.
It's ridiculous. It's a loud dude magnet that's frankly way too expensive for the exhibitionistic toy that it is. It would be miserable to use as a daily driver. It's tricky to get used to driving it, but when you do it's impossible not to have fun in it.
Oh, and just because I know someone will ask, it will absolutely not baby. I did let Otto sit in it and I'd rev the engine (maybe we drove a few feet — shhh) but no rational person should take a baby/toddler in this thing anywhere.
I had to score this one right in the middle because there's two very polarizing things going on in the T-Rex that cancel each other out. On the plus side, it looks like nothing else on the road. It's absurdly low and purposeful looking, and it looks like something our great-great-great grandkids will call a terrapod or something like that, and use when they decide they want to roam the surface instead of staying in their hover-pods. It's striking.
On the minus side, it's also a bit ugly. To me, it feels a bit overworked and overcomplicated. It's so crammed full of vents and holes and hoses and scoops that it's almost hard to look at from the side. It's a sort of cool kind of ugly, though, and in a way it reminds me of an actual tyrannosaurus skull with a motorcycle jammed in the back.
Also, if you're in witness relocation or hate being noticed, do not get one of these. Everybody — and by 'everybody' I mean dudes and little kids — notices this car. Most women didn't really give it anything more than an eyeroll, but males were stopping me and asking questions, taking cellphone pictures from car windows, screaming approval as I roared by, all that. Even a cop yelled to ask me about it from across a street.
And, right across the road from my house is an elementary school, and when I pulled up in this thing a huge pack of them charged the gate and started yelling. "Is that a racecar?" "Does it fly?" "Are you from space?" So you are bringing wonder to people in this. Which is why I'm giving it a 6 instead of a 5.
I really shouldn't have expected much from the interior of the T-Rex, because even calling it an "interior" is pretty generous. It's completely open, with no doors and only partial overhead covering in the form of a big central engine intake. Mine had an optional, simple plexiglass windshield that reflected light like crazy at night. That's pretty much it for weather protection.
The seats aren't bad, considering they're just marine-grade vinyl over thin padding on molded fiberglass. You sit very, very low — as in your knuckles can easily drag on the asphalt and other cars' wheels and exhaust pipes are at face level. The base of the seat is fixed, but the back can be moved forward with a pin-and-hole system, as can the pedal assembly (which is pulled from a Mini). That's it for adjustment.
The removable steering wheel is small but comfortable, and the instrument cluster is clear and useful — it may be right from the donor motorcycle. There's a little open shelf on the dash which looks like a great way to fling your cellphone out onto the road at 70 MPH, and there's a small shelf deep in the upper part of the passenger's footwell. That's about all the storage you have in the cabin.
The key thing to note about the cockpit is that it's main goal is to relocate motorcycle parts to places car drivers are used to — and in that, they succeeded. The clutch is a pedal on the floor, and the gearshift is right where you expect it, even if it is a sequential, motorcycle-style 1-N-2-3-4-5-6 up-and-down lever.
Getting in and out, even for a short guy like me, is a clumsy, ungraceful process, involving grabbing the tubing by the windshield to guide yourself to drop inside, and then cramming your legs in. Oh, and if you have luggage, there's two small pods on the side that could possibly hold a small overnight bag, or maybe a pair of good-sized pumpkins.
It's functional in there, but not exactly comfortable. With two people it's quite cramped, and if you're substantially-built, you likely will end up wearing the car like loud, fast underpants.
In many ways, this is the best part of the car: the acceleration is fantastic. At 160 HP/129 lb-ft of torque and only 1100 lbs, it'd better be. When you stomp the gas, the fat rear wheel is like a bull you've just shoved an anal probe into, and lurches forward with an incredible amount of determination and speed.
That also means that very often on hard acceleration the rear wheel will decide it wants to be up front where the action is, and the whole rear of the car gets squirrely. This happens a lot, and while it's not hard to manage or correct, it is pretty alarming.
But it's quick, that's for damn sure. All through the gears the acceleration is strong and determined, and it's lots of fun. Of course, it's also fun because it's so open, and you're so close to the ground that 45MPH feels like 90MPH, which I think is a big plus.
I know I shouldn't expect much from this category, based on what this car is — essentially a three-wheeled toy. Still, it's a $65,000 toy, so I think it's fair to make some judgements here.
That said, the ride in this thing is punishing. Around town, having fun, it's not a problem. The bumpiness, the harshness can all be taken as part of the charm of driving such a raw, unapologetic machine. And I'm a big fan of mechanical-feeling things, and of cars that don't over-insulate you from what it is — but this is a different level of that.
Every bump in the road is a mountain. Potholes become canyons. Road debris becomes the sorts of things that you imagine puncturing the bottom of the car and impaling you. Sure, it's fun and a little hypnotic to watch those separate front wheel and their visible suspensions working and bouncing around, but you feel each and every bound.
I tested the general practicality and ride out in two tests. The first was a simple grocery store trip. It was fun getting there, but once I entered the parking lot, the disadvantages of being in something lawn-gnome height became clear. Finding a parking spot from a dog's eye view is almost impossible, and driving over even gentle speed bumps was tricky. Plus, the hair-trigger 1st-gear clutch and slow-engaging reverse made actually parking a chore.
The second, more ride-oriented test was a 2 and a half hour highway trip on the 5 from LA to San Diego. That was, charitably, terrifying. Well, not always, but often enough as semi trucks drove by, wheel lugs whirring right by your ear, SUV exhaust pipes bellowing in your face, and every elevation change on the road making you grip the wheel in near panic. It was a pretty tense couple of hours. And on the way home, there's the blindness caused by rear-view mirrors perfectly situated to do nothing but reflect headlight beams.
Also, the windshield had a cutout in the top seemingly designed to funnel 70 MPH air, dust, and bugs right into your eyes. I was told by the nice Campagna rep that there's people who have driven thousands of highway miles in these. I know it's possible, but it's not exactly a relaxing ride. At all.
Once you get used to the rear wheel's twitchiness, the T-Rex handles pretty well — certainly entertainingly. The steering is a real pleasure — very direct, light and pleasingly mechanical-feeling. The car is so light you can really toss it into corners with abandon, and once you get used to how the single rear tire grips (I'm not sure I totally did, but I could tell one could) I'm sure you could do a lot of great track driving with this car.
I didn't have an opportunity to take it on an actual track, just some twisty roads near my house. This is a contraption you can have a lot of fun in at 40 MPH or so, thanks to the lowness, the noise, and the engaging handling.
I think on a track you'd find some serious limits to what you could comfortably do until you learned the quirks unique to a three-wheeler, but I bet that process would be a good time.
The thing to keep in mind is that the T-Rex is using a motorcycle gearbox, and it's fundamentally a bit different than a car's. The shifter is where you expect it, but it's just an up-and down lever, going through 1-N-2-3-4-5-6. Just like a motorcycle's shifter pedal, but in your hand. Most car guys will find themselves accidentally going back to N from 2nd because the muscle memory to go up to 3rd is so strong.
Once you get used to the linear pattern, the shifting isn't bad. It feels very chunky and mechanical, and I do like that. You hear each gear engage with a satisfying kerchunk, and the ratios seem well-selected.
There's some big annoyances, though. Neutral is very hard to actually find, with the lever wanting to jump to 2nd or 1st. A light on the dash shows you when you actually hit neutral, which does help. Also, for first gear only, the clutch is absurdly sensitive. In 1st, there's about a half a quark's thickness of travel between lurching forward into the trunk of the Camry in front of you and stalling out. To take off, you have to ever-so-slightly let off the clutch without any throttle, and don't accelerate until you feel the engine engage. It takes a lot of getting used to, and on hills it can be a real bear.
Reverse feels a bit kludgey, too. It sort of is, since the donor bike never had it. To engage, you put the T-Rex in neutral, clutch in, hit the 'R' button atop the shifter, and listen for the solenoid to engage. Then you're in reverse. To get out, you stop, clutch in, hit the button again, and listen for the solenoid to pull out. It's not really fluid.
And, of course, it broke while I was testing it.
Once again, the polarizing T-Rex ends up right in the low-middle because good points get cancelled by equally (or more s0) bad points.
The good is that the T-Rex is a symphony of great sounds: that little six' engine roar, the gearbox clunkings and thunkings, the rhythmic dumdumdumdum of the brake discs' cross-drilled holes pulsing, the road noise right by you, the wind, all that. In small does, it's great stuff.
The problem is the T-Rex only knows how to be a glutton about any of this. The noise never stops, and while the engine is pleasant to hear, in its original location in the motorcycle is down there between your legs — here it's right behind your head. And it's loud.
After almost any trip there's a bit of disconcerting abused-ear quiet right when you shut it off, and on a long trip the noise gets exhausting. The pretty full-featured audio system (including satellite radio and USB inputs) can be heard if you crank it up loud enough, but not really heard well, especially on the highway. Sure, it's cool to be that guy blasting All Things Considered in your superfast three-wheel spacepod, but you're only hearing every other word at best.
There's no way around this cop-out: this thing is, clearly and unashamedly, a toy. And a fun toy. Sure, we've said this about cars before, but this is the truest it's ever been.
I don't want to diminish the real, basic motoring joy you can have in the T-Rex, especially when so many modern cars do so much to keep you from really engaging with the machine itself. Driving a T-Rex is visceral, mechanical, and connects you with both speed and machine in a way very little else does.
SThe Campagna T-Rex 16-S is starts at about $62,000 and goes up to around $65,000 or so. That's crazy. Sure, this thing is a blast in the right, occasional circumstances, but $65 grand? It feels like this should be a $25-$30,000 track/weekend toy for someone. The Morgan 3-wheeler, for example, is only $45,000 or so out the door. The T-Rex's quality isn't awful, but it's not that spectacular, either. There's some rough edges to the body in the passenger compartments, the interior is incredibly bare-bones, and there were some quality issues I ran into even on my short loan.
Also, the gas mileage isn't really an issue on a car like this, but I was still surprised at how bad it was — about 24 in the city, and 28 on the highway. Now, for most 0-60 in 4 or so second cars, that'd be amazing, but for an 1100 lb three-wheeler with the absolute minimum of safety and amenities, you'd think that it would be much better. It may be because when you're in this thing, there's no part of you that wants to drive it with rationality, too.
This thing could be a really interesting option for a fun third car if the price was about half, but at this price, it doesn't really make a lot of sense.
Still, if you're a wealthy exhibitionist who hates normality and practicality and loves crazy fun, boy are you in luck.
Engine: 1.6L BMW Inline Six
Power: 160 HP at 7750 RPM/ 129 LB-FT at 5250 RPM
Transmission: Six-Speed Sequential
0-60 Time: 4 seconds (est)
Top Speed: 160 mph (est)
Drivetrain: Single rear-wheel drive by chain
Curb Weight: ~1100 LBS
Seating: 2 people
MPG: 24 City/27 Highway (observed)