Canada’s attempts at building its own automobile have been somewhat feeble. We’ve seen it with the Seth Taylor Steam Buggy, or the Bricklin SV-1. Apart from putting together American cars, Canadians haven’t really hatched anything that has contributed to the automotive industry lately, have they? If you think so, that’s where you’re wrong, because the Campagna T-Rex may just be the true car of Canada.
And yes, the T-Rex is a car. Although it’s legally classified as a motorcycle, or an autocycle, it still requires you to sit down in a seat and buckle up. There’s even a steering wheel and three pedals. It may look unusual with that rear swing-arm and all, but the T-Rex may well be the closest thing to a road-legal automobile Canada’s ever produced.
Did I mention it will outrun a lot of very fast sports cars?
In my quest to test my theory about whether the T-Rex should be splayed across the Canadian flag inside the Maple Leaf, I decided to head over to the tiny yet impeccably efficient Campagna assembly plant in Boucherville, Québec to learn more about how these three-wheel contraptions are built.
“For weight reduction.”
That was the answer Chloé Lafrance, Campagna’s comms person, gave me when I asked her: “Why three wheels?”
Extreme weight savings, it seems, was always on top of Daniel Campagna’s list of priorities when he sought to build the ultimate thrill machine.
Campagna was a Formula Ford driver in Québec from 1976 to 1979, and was a close friend to F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve. He was also part of his technical team during his short-lived Ferrari career. For Campagna, the idea of building his own F1-inspired street-legal vehicle had always been simmering in his mind’s eye. And it would most definitely have three wheels.
1988 marked the first inception of a high-performance, three-wheeled concept. But it was only in 1994 that Campagna hired designer Paul Deutschman, who was renowned back then for working on several cars for Callaway like the Sledgehammer and the CT3-R. Deutschman had the mandate of conceptualizing a design that would evoke the cross between a Formula 1 car and a superbike, not a tyrannosaurus skull with a motorcycle jammed in the back as Jason described it in his review of the thing.
What resulted would become one of the most iconic and quirky vehicle designs ever created.
The name, T-Rex, according to Lafrance, refers to the fact that the vehicle is shaped like a T. The letter T, also refers to three points. In Latin, “Rex” stands for “King”.
What you end up with, she said, is the king of three-wheelers. Now that’s a bold claim.
Love it or hate it, I do believe that T-Rex is the best name that could have been given to that menacing and very polarizing creation.
The first official T-Rex, with a full skeleton, new skin and a 1100 cc Suzuki GSX-R sport bike engine, was released in 1995. Up until 2013, each T-Rex engine was sourced from a sports bike purchased directly by Campagna. Sometimes from Kawasaki, sometimes from Suzuki.
A sports bike motor not only proved to be ideal for packaging reasons, but also allowed all mechanical components to remain as lightweight as possible. Bike engines also tend to produce a much higher specific output per liter than most automobile engines.
Imagine that. Campagna would literally go out and buy a brand new super bike, directly from the dealership, bring it back to their shop, and strip it out just for its engine, switchgear, and transmission. Call it the direct approach.
And since none of the engine suppliers would recognize Campagna as an official partner, no after sales support or notifications of upcoming specification changes were issued by the bike manufacturers. This would cause massive last minute complications and challenges for Campagna, heavily affecting customer support and retention.
If the T-Rex was to remain alive and competitive, it needed an official engine supplier.
In came BMW Motorrad, BMW’s motorcycle division. After a thorough analysis of the product, its history, and where it was heading into the future, BMW liked what they saw, and agreed to secure a partnership with the Québec-based car, err, trike-maker. The T-Rex finally had a real heart, and not just any heart. A German heart.
The engine in question would come from the BMW K1600. It’s a 1,649 cc, straight six with a hollow camshaft, and cylinders configured forward in a 55-degree angle. It’s also, according to BMW, the narrowest in-line six-cylinder engine ever produced. Campagna Motors and BMW engineers worked closely together to determine the ideal engine that would benefit the T-Rex by giving it the lowest possible center of gravity and weight distribution.
The current T-Rex 16S develops 160 horsepower, weighs in at only 1 157 pounds, and is capable of generating 1.3 Gs of lateral acceleration. On a racetrack, it will trade punches with iconic sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette. 0-60 mph is claimed at 3.9 seconds. Power is delivered to the rear wheel via a 6-speed, sequential gearbox, and it sells for an entry price of $57,999. It’s also backed by a one-year warranty.
So as of 2013, BMW crate engines, transmissions, harnesses, gauge clusters and switchgear are sent directly to Campagna Motors in Boucherville, along with CAD designs, and a full technical support program from BMW engineers. Great.
But for Campagna, that wasn’t enough. If the T-Rex was to be a car, it needed a reverse gear, something most motorcycles do not have.
I think this is what impressed me the most about my visit at Campagna Motors, the fact that their team of engineers and mechanics literally open up each BMW transmission to add their own, home-engineered reverse gear. Seriously cool. This also explains why the T-Rex is chain-driven, unlike the K1600 motorcycle which is shaft driven.
Also, since the T-Rex is a considerably heavier vehicle than the K1600, and is typically submitted to much higher G-forces, the T-Rex gets its own custom-made oil pan.
Fast forward to today, and Campagna Motors is now a full-fledged company that produces both the T-Rex 16S and 16SP (a performance version with upgraded wheels, brakes, steering and adjustable suspension) as well as the V13R, a Harley-Davidson V-Rod-powered hot-rod version of the T-Rex.
So, in case you were wondering, Campagna is still very much alive. More so than ever actually.
The company employs only 25 people. Their focus is on building a high-quality product on par with other competitive performance three-wheelers such as the Morgan Three-Wheeler, and most recently, the Polaris Slingshot.
Together, this team of passionate engineers, designers, mechanics, and welders produce, on average, 150 vehicles per year. Each T-Rex and V13R is built on demand, and customers must go through a five to six week gestation process before they can light that rear-wheel into a big fat burnout for themselves.
Campagna’s plant is mindblowingly effective. There are no robots in there. Just humans, T-Rexes, and V13Rs sitting around everywhere. It’s calm and serene, and everyone seems happy to be part of this project. The entire manufacturing process complies with strict industry standards.
Each year, Campagna must submit to actual crash test results, like a car, and go through with emissions testing as well as constantly adapt their product to meet the changing safety regulations of each state or province.
All T-Rexes begin their lifecycle as a tubular steel frame. There’s actually a dedicated welding area in the shop where all the frames are put together using prefabricated segments that are provided by a third party supplier. Seriously, if I were a welder, I’d want to work there, check it out:
Once the frames are put together and pass initial inspection, they are sent to an external paint shop, along with their corresponding fiberglass panels.
Very much like at the Morgan Motor Company, each employee at Campagna Motors focuses on one specific component, yet, each employee is also capable of fully assembling a T-Rex on their own. They know the vehicle like the back of their hand.
Once the painted frames are returned to the shop, they sit on a rolling cart outside each mechanic’s workshop, where mechanical and electrical components are first put together by their respective employee, then grafted on the vehicle by hand.
The entire production run is a 20-step process, where body panels are added along the way. Each mechanic’s work is verified by another mechanic using a checklist to make sure no one screws things up. In other words, everyone has each other’s back. The old fashion way. And It’s brilliant. All vehicles are performance tested outside the plant after final assembly is complete.
Wouldn’t you like to have that guy’s job?
When asked if the company plans on increasing production in the future, Lafrance told me that, at the moment, Campagna is comfortable with its current production rate, and doesn’t feel the need to increase that number, unless, of course, demand increases. At the moment, their focus is to expand their distribution network, especially in the US, and reach out to more potential buyers.
She admitted that ever since they partnered up with BMW, the Campagna name is now better recognized as a serious player in the performance three-wheeler segment, which instantly translates into better sales.
“It was never Daniel Campagna’s goal to become huge, he always wanted to remain a niche player in the industry, and we count on staying true to his vision for the years to come,” she said.
Lafrance added that the emergence of larger players in the segment, such as Polaris, isn’t seen as a threat, but rather as a helpful hand to their business as they help opening debates with state and provincial legislation.
Big strides have been made so far, thanks to other startup trike builders such as Elio, autocycles are currently road-legal in 41 US States.
At the moment, the T-Rex can be driven with a car licence in 26 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces. It is road-legal across Canada, as long as you wear a helmet. In the US, most states require the helmet, but there are some exceptions like California.
Campagna sells its vehicles in the U.S. and Canada only, but plans on commercializing them in Europe and Asia in the future.
It admits its target clientele are hardcore performance junkies, typically sportbike riders, who have money to spare in the bank and look for a different kind of adrenaline rush behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, will never lead the T-Rex into mass production status.
The Canadian manufacturer is also in the process of developing and testing a race-spec’d T-Rex, which, Campagna hopes, will soon be accepted in the Formula Libre category.
In my book, the fact that these performance autocycles, or whatever you want to call them, were born out of the Villeneuve days and hand-built by a small crew of Québécois on the South Shore of Montreal, makes them more Canadian than spotting Avril Lavigne eating crêpes covered in maple syrup at a Cora restaurant. The T-Rex is just a different kind of car. A little weird, a little quirky, a lot of fun. Just like we are.
Also, compared to what we’re seeing from recent automotive startups, it isn’t autonomous, or tries to fly. It actually lets you drive it. A lot. I guess the only thing left for me to do now, is get behind the wheel of one to sense what that actually feels like. Eh?
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com