The Perpetual Death And Rebirth Of The Revolutionary Three-Wheeler

Whenever I see an email from any scrappy new startup company touting about how they’re going to “revolutionize personal transportation” I can almost always sketch the car they’re talking about without even seeing it: a sleek, low, three-wheeled wedge of a car. It’s not always the case, but it’s pretty incredible how often throughout the past century it’s been so. What I want to know is both why this design keeps getting reborn, and why it can’t ever seem to quite survive?


The most recent one of these I saw that started this tri-wheeled train of thought was from Elio Motors, who are planning on revolutionizing personal transportation with a sleek, low, three-wheeled wedge of a car. This is truly a revolutionary vehicle, especially if you’re willing to ignore the Velorex, Messerschmitt Kabinroller, HM Freeway, Corbin Sparrow, Mercedes-Benz Life Jet, Aptera 2e, or many others I’m not mentioning.

Some of these are electric, most gas, at least one hybrid and one with an articulated, leaning suspension, but all are vehicles built on essentially the same plan: small engine, three wheels in a tail-dragger formation, streamlined teardrop design, tandem seating. They all tout low cost and extreme fuel efficiency in a day-to-day commuter car.

And, I’m not including the wonderful Morgan three-wheelers in this list because they’re designed to be open-topped niche sportscars. Same number of wheels, but very different goals.


Hell, even that most famous of the automotive hoaxes, the Dale, used this very same layout and design for the car they never really intended to build. But the fact that they picked this particular design speaks a great deal about why it keeps recurring: for some reason, people always find this basic design appealing, at least in the limited context of being told it’s revolutionary. But not necessarily in the context of the real world.


Looking completely objectively, it’s really not a bad design for the (usually) stated goal of a cheap commuter car. In fact, some of the earliest examples of the breed, like the Velorex or Messerschmitt, were reasonably successful cars that were exactly what the still-recovering economies of war-torn Europe needed to get people moving again.

It’s a sensible design for a small company making an attempt to start and compete with established car makers for many reasons. It’s a good bit cheaper than a conventional four-wheel design, it’s inherently lighter and as such can use a smaller engine and do much better on gas mileage, and it can usually be classified as a motorcycle, which frees the small companies from expensive crash and other regulations associated with cars.


Styling-wise, almost all of these cars have generally the same semi-futuristic look about them, little teardrop wedgie things, that I think most people find appealing. Well, maybe not the Velorex, with its leather bodywork (I love it, but nobody listens to me). Yet time and time again, these cars are (re)developed, teased, discussed, and then usually die quietly. Why?

I think much of the issue has to do with a principle industrial and automotive designer Raymond Lowey called “MAYA,” which stands for “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.” These three wheeled designs fall short on the YA part there. Most drivers just don’t really accept them as cars.


The tandem seating is pretty foreign to most non-motorcycle drivers, and the usually dramatically smaller size causes many drivers (this is especially true in the US) to feel nervous and unsafe. There’s also still a lot of stigma associated with driving something so counter to the usual status-related look most cars aspire to. Sure, there will always be people who appreciate an unusual or very futuristic or even retro-futuristic looking car, but the majority of people just want to not be noticed so much.


Also, I think people like to sit next to their passengers. Motorcycle folks are used to being in line, but car drivers never really warmed to that idea. How can you hold hands or punch or slap or give stink-eyes to someone behind you?

In a way, I think it’s kind of a shame that people have never been really willing to give the Revolutionary Three Wheeler a shot, but I think the basic concept has been tried so many times that it may be time to put it to rest. At least for a while. I don’t think Elio motors is going to revolutionize anything, because their revolutionary product, however great it may actually be, has already failed so many times before.


So, my advice for small, scrappy companies looking to revolutionize motoring? Don’t fall into the three-wheeler trap. Time to try some other new radical idea. Eggs seem like they may be the next design conceit to fall into this trap, so maybe pass on that. I’m sort of partial to funny little cubes recently — maybe try some of those for a while?

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)