There's a maxim we have used here at Jalopnik for many years: four wheels good, two wheels bad. Why do we say this? To put it simply: safety. Cars are inherently more stable than bikes, and they offer greater protection to their driver and passengers. That's why the motorcycle crashes that get posted here tend to be spectacular, cringe-inducing wrecks.
So where do cars with three wheels — some of which are cool enough to draw the attention of lingerie models and R&B star Frank Ocean — into our philosophy?
Well, it's kind of complicated. It turns out that three-wheelers are kind of all over the place. These are vehicles that quite often blur the lines that separate cars and bikes. Some of them are simple, light, efficient and great at meeting basic transportation needs. Others have a serious performance bent and are unlike anything else on the road.
And some of them just happen to be among the wackiest vehicles ever fitted with internal combustion engines. Look at the Reliant Robin, which we'll get to in a bit. I know it seemed like an excellent idea on paper, but in reality, it's hard to believe anyone actually climbed into that thing and drove it.
Ideally, buying a three-wheeler means you're getting something that's small and maneuverable like a motorcycle that offers the protection of a car. It doesn't always work out that way.
You've got two basic setups for three-wheel cars. Having one wheel up front and two in the back is called the delta configuration, like the aforementioned Robin. If it has two up front and one in the back, it's called the tadpole; the Morgan we wrote about recently had this configuration. The tadpole is much more stable because it has two wheels doing the steering, and its tapered shape gives it an aerodynamic advantage.
While many three-wheelers were produced in the early days of motoring, a tremendous amount of them popped up after World War II. We have the Brits to thank for this. They made more of these crazy things than anybody. With gasoline scarce after the war and during the Suez Crisis of the 1950s, many people turned to the smaller three-wheelers to meet their basic transportation needs. A big reason for this was because three-wheel owners weren't required to have an automobile driver's license. In the U.S., many of them are legally classified as bikes as well.
But while it may seem like three-wheelers are these rare oddball cars, they're actually more prevalent in the automotive world than you might think. The first car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, had three wheels. Several major car companies have also dabbled in three-wheelers including BMW, Mazda, Kia and Daihatsu.
Given the spate of concepts we've seen in recent years, there's still some interest in putting out three-wheel cars. Check out the Volkswagen GX3 or the Peugeot 20Cup. Those look like they would be an awful lot of fun if someone gave them the production green light. And due to their inherent lightness, simplicity and small size, three-wheelers almost always seem to show up as concepts for efficient city cars.
So we could take a page out of Animal Farm and start saying it this way: Two wheels bad, three wheels good, four wheels better. What do you think?
Take a look at the gallery to see the stories behind some of our favorite three-wheelers. What are your favorites? Do you think three-wheelers are due for a big comeback, and would you ever own one?
Photo credit andy_carter
Mazda's Three-Wheel Trucks
Mazda would not exist if not for three-wheelers. The first vehicle they ever produced was the Mazda-Go truck, built in 1931. Essentially a motorcycle with two back wheels and a small truck bed behind the driver, the Mazda-Go took them from being a company that sold cork and tools to an actual automaker. The Mazda-Go was a huge hit among people looking for small, inexpensive cargo carriers.
And as Motor Trend tells it, people even raced them. Mazda continued to build three-wheel trucks for years, like the K360 pictured above, even as they ventured into four-wheel vehicles.
Photo credit sunatomohisa
Reliant Regal, Robin and Rialto
With a kind of stubborn tenacity you really don't see in car companies anymore, the Reliant Motor Company stuck to making small, three-wheel vehicles longer than probably anyone. They made four-wheel cars as well, but three-wheelers like the Regal and Robin are likely what they're known for best. Powered by efficient, sub-1 liter engines and benefitting from lightweight fiberglass bodies, the Reliant trikes were quite popular in parts of Britain, even if their goofy looks made them the butt of many jokes on TV.
But their handling is a bit, um, suspect, to put it politely. If you need a demonstration of why the delta configuration — with one wheel up front — is such a bad idea, just ask Jeremy Clarkson. The Reliant Robin's stability issues made for what may be the single funniest Top Gear segment of all time.
Here it is, ladies and gentleman: the Morgan Three Wheeler, the vehicle we called the best car you can buy for $36,000. Most people know Morgan today by their BMW-powered throwback coupe, the Aero 8, but the British car company actually got off the ground with three-wheelers. Morgan's original Cyclecars were a huge success in the UK on the sales floor and on the track.
Morgan would keep making bigger, better and faster three-wheelers until 1953 when they were discontinued in favor of four-wheel cars. But in 2011, they decided to bring out a new Three Wheeler with the same classic looks as the original but with a modern V-Twin engine and a Mazda five speed transmission. The end result is pretty raucous.
I think Morgan is to be saluted for giving us such an insanely awesome vehicle — and for being so cognizant of their own history.
Photo credit Martin Pettitt
Like I said earlier, three-wheelers blur the lines between cars and motorcycles, and the T-Rex from Quebecois automaker Campagna is a great example of this. It's also fitting that it's named after the king of dinosaurs, because this T-Rex offers the kind of performance that makes it eat four-wheel cars for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Powered by a Kawasaki bike engine, the 1,040 pound T-Rex does the 0-60 dash in about 3.9 seconds. While it's actually got a few practical features in addition to its complete roll cage and carbon fiber fittings, if that's somehow not hardcore enough for you then Campagna also makes a race-ready version called the T-Rex 14RR. I wouldn't kick one of these out of my garage.
Photo credit Howard N2GOT
Californian startup Aptera spent years developing the 2e, an all electric three-wheel car they said would achieve 100 miles on a single charge. The 2e caught a lot of attention in green car circles because of its striking looks. The world never got the chance to find out what it could really do, though. Due to financial problems, the company shut down in December 2011 after several production delays.
The Aptera did have some promise. Car and Driver tested one in 2009 and praised its stability and cornering, but noted it was still very much a prototype.
So it's not a balls-out performance trike like the T-Rex or the Morgan. It's still a clever idea, and it shows what a lot of engineers want to do with three-wheelers in the future. Plus, it just looks awesome! Wouldn't you want to drive around in a spaceship? Maybe we'll see the Aptera — or something like it — again one day.
Photo credit loiclemeur