By on February 26, 2019

Image: Electra Meccanica

One man’s vision of untouchable beauty is another man’s 2019 Chevy Silverado 1500, or something like that. Each one of us filters a fellow human’s or vehicle’s looks through a network of individual biases and neuroses to arrive at a verdict.

Dishy. Stunner. Sort-of cute. Dog. We’re a shallow species, and only a select few of us can see the beauty in everything.

If symmetry is indeed a key aspect of perceived beauty, then it explains the particular revulsion I feel with a certain class of vehicle, one which numerous upstart automakers seem intent on returning to our streets. If buyers are willing, of course.

I’m talking three-wheelers, and not those open-air Polaris and Campagna trikes with the 61-year-old driver behind the wheel. Upon viewing an offering (make that a would-be offering) from Elio or Electra Meccanica, yours truly is struck by the same feeling of something’s not right he felt while watching Goldmember hop into his Corbin Sparrow all those years ago.

Gesturing frantically at the backside of the car, I struggle to come to grips with the broad front end and teardrop ass of these closed-cabin three-wheelers. They look okay coming at you, then turn into a Stephen King novel going past. It’s a different story for fuselage-bodied open-top cars like the Morgan 3 Wheeler or Vanderhall Venice, both of which look pretty fetching.

There’s a practicality issue. Designed with low-cost, ultra-efficient commuting in mind, closed-cabin three-wheelers offer either a single chair or a 1+1 seating arrangement — limiting their role to that envisioned by the manufacturer. No work truck turned family sedan turned off-roader here. Regulations vary, too. Depending on jurisdiction, that three-wheeler could be classified as a motorcycle, requiring the driver obtain an additional license, an autocycle, or even a car. Things are falling into place for three-wheelers on that front, at least, which is great news for companies like Polaris.

But a Slingshot is a debatably fun plaything, not a Focus replacement. It ain’t a nerdy teardrop on three wheels.

As well, you may have noticed that gas remains cheap and very plentiful. It’s not hard to make the case for a low five-figure Mirage over a greener, high four-figure trike. So, will a mass-market three-wheeler ever take off in the United States, or will the vehicle type remain forever an oddity?

[Image: Electra Meccanica]

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45 Comments on “QOTD: Three’s Company, or a Crowd?...”


  • avatar

    A total vision is usually lacking with these entrepreneurs. Btw, a three-passenger layout is feasible, which will dramatically enhance practicality:

    https://www.keepandshare.com/doc/8229847/ev2-smart-mobility-device-pdf-229k?da=y

  • avatar
    DedBull

    Three wheelers will never take off in the US, regardless of gas prices.

    Compact “city cars” regardless of wheel configuration have a very limited market. They fit well in the tight, old cities of Europe, where speeds are minimal and distances short. Here in the US, outside of a few major metro centers,we are too spread out for something like this to be practical.

    These vehicles are too small to be perceived as “safe” especially as we strap ourselves into 2+ ton SUVs because everyone else is doing it. I have never driven a Smart, but I can imagine the terror of being sandwiched in between a few Yukons or other full size BOF vehicles in traffic.

    Even if they manage to get these things off the ground, the first time someone gets maimed in what would otherwise be a fender-bender these things will be legislated out of existence.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. Gas prices are approx. three times higher in Europe. Makes more sense there. But when a three-wheeled EV manages to be on par price wise with a small gasoline car in the U.S., then I see possibilities. Think: urbanites, singles, couples, hipsters and early-adopters, two-car households, and of course greenies.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Agreed.

      The only thing worse than a 3-wheeler is a 3-wheeler with outriggers (Elio, Aptera). Morgan survives based on nostalgia alone.

    • 0 avatar
      King of Eldorado

      Smart cars don’t actually feel all that unsafe because the driver sits relatively high, and one quickly forgets that there’s only a couple of feet of structure ahead of and behind you. The much-loved butt-on-the-pavement Miata and Corvette feel unsafe driving between two semis whose tires seem as tall as the car, all though I assume that feeling goes away once you get used to it.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        My wife felt far more comfortable driving around in heavy traffic and even surrounded by big 18-wheelers in her Fiat 500 than she does in her only slightly larger Jeep Renegade. The Fiat gave her a sense of quickness and agility due to its size that the bigger Renegade doesn’t offer because it ‘feels’ so much larger, despite having more power and only a slightly longer wheelbase.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Forever an oddity, because above all else a car that can only carry you and a bag of groceries is a glorified motorcycle without the cool/fun quotient. When it gets right down to it people are going to spend their money on practicality before anything else

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Practical can still be fun, Lie2. The problem is, there are too few truly FUN cars on American roads today.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        The most fun car I ever owned was my ’96 Camaro with its lift back rear window… it was also extremely practical as it got great fuel mileage (over 32mpg highway) and could carry a surprising amount of “stuff” for its size. My second-most enjoyable was my JKU Wrangler, though it got terrible fuel mileage by comparison (still managed 25mpg highway, and I have the photo to prove it.)

  • avatar
    jatz

    “only a select few of us can see the beauty in everything”

    That’s probably lucky since “everything” includes beheadings, severe birth defects and Maxine Waters.

  • avatar
    jatz

    If production lines have sphincters that thing in the photo didn’t quite make it all the way through.

  • avatar
    TR4

    Fiat 500s and SmartCars are too small for present day American tastes, so it is quite obvious that the small three wheeler would be even more so.

  • avatar
    EGSE

    Depending on pricing, a Smart car may be strong competition for something like this and that’s a damning statement. And the Smart has backing from an established manufacturer, has a dealer presence and some customer history to make it a known quantity, such as it is.

    But the nail in the coffin isn’t a Smart, it’s a reasonably decent used car which is vastly more usable for the transportation needs of the budget-minded buyer.

    There’s no hint on the price point this is targeting, but being caught between start-up and manufacturing costs and the price the market would accept makes it a non-starter.

    All the above is just my opinion…..

  • avatar
    Maymar

    My minimal experience with 3-wheelers is riding a couple of Can-Am Spyders – depending on the road, the rear wheel gets a little nervous and wanders, since it’s sort of straddling the crown of the lane. I think if there’s genuine desire for something this small (and even being an advocate for small city cars, I still know it’s a very niche market), I’d think buyers would be better served by regulations making it easier for something like this to have a fourth wheel, rather than forcing a compromised loophole.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Interleaved parking (every other car front and back) is a big plus for 3 wheelers if things get dense enough. Add a 4th wheel, and that disappears.

      • 0 avatar
        Maymar

        Fair, although the logistics of that require being able to pull out from either side, right?

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          Twice as many cars in a single row of parking. What’s not to like?

          • 0 avatar
            Maymar

            Twice as many cars, but also two access rows required to service a single lane of parking, which maybe isn’t the most efficient use of space, if it’s at that much of a premium. I mean, I’m sure a use case exists where that combination, a row of 3-wheelers parked in alternating directions (and also enough 3-wheelers to fill a row of parking), as the best solution exists somewhere, but it seems unlikely.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            Rather than looking for excuses NOT to do something, maybe you should try looking at the benefits–like the ability to park twice as many trikes in the same space as two aisles of normal parking.

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    Without a significant performance or economic advantage (e.g. GND incentives), these things are going to remain curiosities in the US.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    It is all about symmetry. The most beautiful faces in the world have nearly perfect symmetry. Eyes are on the same horizontal plane, lips are identical on each side of the vertical, and the nose and chin are in perfect horizontal alignment on both sides. Brooke Shields’ face (https://proxy.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fhbz.h-cdn.co%2Fassets%2F16%2F22%2F1600x800%2Flandscape-1464717124-hbz-brooke-shields-00.jpg&f=1) is a perfect example of facial symmetry. If we were to superimpose a grid pattern over her lovely face, we would see all the lines align perfectly. The human mind and eyes seek symmetry, and it perceives perfect symmetry into correctness.

    Successful automotive designs have perfect symmetry. When designs don’t have vertical symmetry, like the tailgates on Nissan Cube or Land Rover LR3, some just seems “wrong” even though the design may be more functional than symmetry could provide.

    As such, and 3 wheeled car will ALWAYS look “wrong.”

  • avatar
    902Chris

    Elio after 10 years is $50Mil in the hole with 0 production cars.

    Electra is not practical at $16KUSD and up, when you can get a Toyota Yaris with double the seating and airbags for the same price.

    To be successful a 3-wheeler needs to be better than the problem it’s trying to solve.

    • 0 avatar
      EGSE

      It needs to be better than the competition that’s already solving the problem. A 3-wheeler is answering a question no one is asking.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        Obviously somebody is asking the question, otherwise somebody else wouldn’t be trying to answer it. You just happen not to be the intended customer.

        • 0 avatar
          EGSE

          Really? Show me these “customers”.

          Companies like Bugatti and Koenigsegg can exist because there are the wealthy few that can support their business model.

          The 3-wheel cars are targeting the masses. The problem is there are no masses that want to buy them. Without a sufficiently large customer base they’ll never turn a profit, given the tight margins dictated by a niche product that will sell in low volumes.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            “The 3-wheel cars are targeting the masses. The problem is there are no masses that want to buy them. Without a sufficiently large customer base they’ll never turn a profit, given the tight margins dictated by a niche product that will sell in low volumes.”

            — That’s where you’re wrong. They’re targeting a specific niche where fun and utility can come together. They’re trying to address those for whom traffic congestion is an issue and parking is a problem, yet still can be fun on the open road, like those throwback bikes and even more modern cruisers.

            The problem is that to build to mass-market clientele, they are severely restricted by safety regulations, which drive the price upwards because they have to be so over-engineered for structural strength. At least in the States, with 3 wheels they still qualify as cycles but the enclosed cabin puts them in a grey area for enforcement.

          • 0 avatar
            EGSE

            Vulpine, you clearly know nothing about manufacturing a product. Oh yes, maybe a couple or a few or eventually 50 will buy one. It would take many thousands to buy them to:

            Support non-recurring engineering costs
            Provide support to suppliers
            Handle compliance/legal issues
            Acquire manufacturing infrastructure
            Fund marketing and distribution
            Meet recurring G&A and overhead costs
            Provide customer support

            And still have enough left over for a reasonable P/L expectation.

            If there is sufficient demand as you seem to think there is, how come no one has ever successfully filled this market space that you think is there?

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            I recommend avoiding personal attacks, EGSE; you have no idea what _I_ know about manufacturing.

            It seems you also have a bad case of Tunnel Vision–seeing the whole world the way you want to see it rather than what is really there.

          • 0 avatar
            jatz

            Come now, Cartoon Fox. You don’t think an experienced engineer can tell we’re not engineers from our plethora of comments?

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            @jatz: Well, it certainly seems an engineer can tell when somebody knows what they’re talking about. Can you say the same?

      • 0 avatar
        jatz

        “A 3-wheeler is answering a question no one is asking.”

        But it’s a mutation that has reoccurred throughout automotive history.
        Why? What did anyone ever see in it?

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Just as a side note to everything I’ve said above… once the OEMs started dropping the 2-door coupes, I quit buying CARS as such. The last true CAR I owned was my ’96 Camaro while the two before that were an ’86 Toronado and an ’85 LeSabre ‘T-type’ coupe.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    There’s only one three-wheeler that deserves to live, the Morgan. It’s dangerous, impractical and completely insane, and that’s why it’s the only three-wheeler to have.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    3 wheel vehicles were implemented to dodge legal loopholes requiring licensing, taxation and insurance. Once those loopholes were closed the market for 3 wheeled vehicles with the exception of the Morgan dried up.

    The Can-Am Spyder is marketed as a ‘toy’ for those who want the ‘feeling’ of driving/riding on a bike, but with an added wheel.

    As noted on many other posts/articles regarding the entry of mult-sized CUV’s the offsetting cost savings quickly becomes minimal as there is a sunk cost regarding development, materials, labour hours, etc. So a 3 wheeled ‘car’ would ultimately not cost much less than the most inexpensive 4 wheelers, which provide greater utility.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    In a dense city, there is minimal advantage to this over mass transit and ride sharing, and many disadvantages.

    In a suburban/rural environment, there is no advantage to this over a larger and more stable car, or a motorcycle as a fun vehicle, and many disadvantages.

    I’d be shocked if this concept ever got off the ground in this country.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Right now, the only fertile market for three wheelers are motorcycles. Can-Am has done pretty well with the Spyder, despite the prices for them climbing into the high Electra-Glide range.

    This year Can-Am has come up with the Ryker: What I can best describe as a motorcycle for someone who is too scared and two stupid to ride a motorcycle. Three wheels, 600 or 900cc’s, CVT transmission and integrated brakes with only a foot pedal to actuate. Prices between $8000.00 and $10000.00 dollars. And it’s actually kind of a fun ride, although I’d be embarrassed to be seen on one.

  • avatar
    TheDutchGun

    R.i.p. Quebec’s own campagna motors, makers of the insane T-Rex.

  • avatar
    Gedrven

    Just about the only reason for three-wheeled cars’ existence is regulatory loopholes. If they get adopted on a large scale by the general population of the vehicle-ignorant (and often stupid as well), and statistics start piling up about general-population incidents, those loopholes will eventually close.

    A Personal Transport Vehicle, a size class down from the “Smart”, a car optimized for the mission that most cars perform most of the time anyway, really needs to be available to drivers. It’s just wasteful to carry four extra seats, all the sheetmetal to contain them, and the powertrain to move all that crap, when all you need is one good seat with a roof and climate control. If available, I would buy something like a 80mpg Elio in a heartbeat, use it 95% of the time, and have my 15mpg 4×4 truck (or 20mpg minivan) for that other 5%.

    Manufacturing such a car would be a technical cakewalk, but a legal impossibility. So one exploits a loophole whereby removing one wheel – making it less capable and less safe – legally exempts it from normal car regulations. A fundamental design flaw becomes the price to pay for degrees of freedom elsewhere in the design. Some find it a fair price; reasonable people can disagree here. But there’s no disagreement that the price is artificial.

    The reason for many of the regulations is to reduce the incidence of the vehicularly clueless maiming themselves and their passengers by driving things whose safety depends more on personal responsibility and competence, than electronannies, cages, and airbags. At the same time there’s (arguably) a legitimate societal interest in preventing people from driving “unsafe” vehicles only because they can’t afford better.

    One solution might look something like this: allow things like a 4-wheel Elio, but restrict its use. Not to the rich, not to the poor, but to those who demonstrate that 1. they know what they’re getting into, and 2. they can handle the machine itself. We already do this for motorcycles and large vehicles; surely the rules for those can be adapted to small 4-wheelers?

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    As a kid I saw the GM “Lean Machine” at Epcot Center and it has always stuck in my mind:
    https://futureprobe.blogspot.com/2009/08/lean-machine-transcenter-artifact.html

    It seems like the single wheel belongs at the front. Put a BEV powertrain in it with half the battery size of your sedan – could still get more range and performance (better aero, lighter weight, less cost compared to a sedan). Safer than a motorcycle, stay out of the weather – ideal for commuting to work.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      There are two different versions of that “Lean Machine” in the works today; one just like what you present and another that uses a pair of outrigger front wheels and a single rear. Let me correct myself–three versions… at least.
      • https://inhabitat.com/synergethics-3-wheeled-tilter-electric-vehicle-is-part-motorcycle-part-car/
      • https://newatlas.com/terracraft-tilting-3-wheeler-vehicle/28453/
      • https://www.motorauthority.com/news/1029074_carver-one-tilt-car-to-return-with-electric-power

      Now, whether any of these will reach the open market, I don’t know. But to get the exposure they need to expand their market, people will need to buy and drive them when they do.

      But here’s a problem: Three wheelers with the single wheel in front have been proven unsafe in so many ways. Most maneuvering is done under braking and has a tendency to throw weight to the opposite side of the maneuver, which far more often than not has resulted in the vehicle tipping over. The British Reliant Robin is the most glaring example of this but if you recall about 20 years ago when the little off-road cycle market first opened, there were a number of three-wheelers with single front wheel and far too many crashes with major injuries (and fatalities.) Unfortunately, they got legislated out and we’re now stuck with four-wheel versions of everything.

      Personally, the tilting cycle is an improvement but it’s not an ideal solution because at low speeds it could tilt too far towards the maneuver and end up sending the vehicle over onto its side that way unless most of its weight is between its rear wheels. Then you’ve got the old three-wheeler problem of differential slippage (or lack thereof) which would have the wrong wheel producing torque for the maneuver. Limited slip is a help but it’s not a full solution.

      As such, for safety and reliability, even if it tilts, it needs a wider stance up front than in the back. The TerraCraft is a very interesting concept but if you click the link on that article you can see they’re still pretty much working on the concept of tilt steering for it with a very visible shift in body style for the moment. I’d like to see them drop back to a more practical model but I do understand what they’re doing here for now. I kind of wonder if they would build to the older style using the newer tech. It seems they do offer the option of a fully custom build.

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        Thank you Vulpine for your considered and well thought-out response – food for thought.

        Maybe my commuter vehicle has 4 wheels – maybe the layout resembles a Plymouth Prowler. Maybe all *4* wheels are the ‘outrigger’ style of the TerraCraft.

        But I know it is electric and has a smaller battery than a typical BEV sedan. And it should be *less* – less weight, less cost, less frontal area for aero.

        My kids still get a kick out of the TopGear Reliant Robin segment:
        https://youtu.be/QQh56geU0X8

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          Heh.. I know that episode well. That said, it almost sounds like that triangular car that Nissan, I believe, ran for a couple years in one of the race circuits could work for you. I seem to recall that it was pretty fast on the straights but apparently its handling for cornering was questionable… Not sure tilting could affect that sufficiently though, even with wings to hold that nose down. And I don’t think a rudder on the nose would help much at lower speeds. Definitely need a way to reduce ‘push’ (understeer) at speed.

          By the way, I am quite the fan of the Prowler but it would always be a ‘toy’ car, impractical for everyday driving. And with the prices of cars today, it has become more difficult to own a daily runabout, a family hauler and a ‘toy’ all at the same time.

          Oh, I think we all know what we want–that differs for everybody–but we can’t afford to get all of them.

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