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Age of Three : a brief history of Trikes

The aberration of three-wheeled vehicles in mainstream mobiles on your highway

by Ujjwal Dey


The three-wheeler is any vehicle with three wheels. Some of these are motorized tricycles, which may be legally classed as either automobiles or motorcycles, or the newer term autocycles. Others are tricycles without a motor but these are human powered vehicles or animal powered vehicles.


Motorcycles were the birth of motorized transport. The modern car owes its origins to the two-wheeled motorized cycles. Many motorcycle makers in the 1910s were migrating to four wheeled motorized vehicles.


At the same time, there was always a concept of a three-wheeled vehicle. The tricycle that got motorized. Most of these were owner-created by auto enthusiasts who wanted to custom build their own mean machine for the roads. Now of course, we have really powerful ATVs on three wheels which can give any 4WD a run for its money.



Three-wheeled automobiles can have either one wheel at the back and two at the front such as the 1947 Davis Motorcar Company which made the iconic Davis Divan. Davis even had a jeep-like prototype which had arrangements ongoing with the Pentagon to run tests at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. It was the first three-wheeled military vehicle actually used by American military.

Founder Glenn Gordon "Gary" Davis (d. 1973) acquired a prototype called "The Californian" from designer Frank Kurtis, who built it for millionaire race car driver Joel Thorne. Davis operated in a 57,000 sq. ft. former aircraft assembly building in Van Nuys creating two prototypes named “Baby” and “Delta” before the third model “Divan” was released for production.
Since workers and engineers were not paid, the company shut down in 1948. Due to investor loss and lack of wages for employees, Gary Davis was convicted on 20 of 28 counts of theft (he was acquitted on four counts of theft and four of fraud) and was sentenced to eight months to two years in jail. The assets of Davis were sold for back taxes in May 1950. The remainder of the company now belongs to Wayne Miller who resides in a small town in Arizona.



The trike was an increasingly popular form with the front-steering "tadpole" or "reverse trike" sometimes with front drive but usually with rear drive. This was practical due to better safety when braking.


Three-wheeler cars, including some cyclecars, bubble cars and microcars, are built for economic reasons. For example, in the UK there were tax advantages, or in the US to take advantage of lower safety regulations when being classed as motorcycles. As a result of their light construction and potential better streamlining, three-wheeled cars are usually less expensive to operate.



Three-wheeler transport vehicles known as auto-rickshaws are a common means of public transportation in many countries in the world, especially Asian countries such as India. They are an essential form of urban transport in many developing countries. Auto-rickshaws are a form of novelty transport in many Eastern countries.



Age of Motors

Early automotive pioneer Karl Benz developed a number of three-wheeled models. One of these, the Benz Patent Motorwagen, which is regarded as the first purpose-built automobile. It was made in 1885. In 1896, John Henry Knight showed a tri-car at Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. In 1897, Edward Butler (inventor) made the Butler Petrol Cycle, another three-wheeled car. A Conti 6 hp Tri-car competed in (but did not complete) a 1907 Peking-to-Paris race sponsored by a French newspaper, Le Matin.


Two wheels ahead

A configuration of two wheels in the front and one wheel at the back presents two advantages. It has improved aerodynamics and it readily enables small lightweight motorcycle powerplant and rear wheel to be used. This approach was used by the Messerschmitt KR200 and BMW Isetta. With two wheels in the front (the "tadpole" form or "reverse trike") the vehicle is far more stable in braking turns, but remains more prone to overturning in normal turns compared to an equivalent four-wheeled vehicle, unless the center of mass is lower and/or further forward. Motorcycle-derived designs suffer from most of the weight being towards the rear of the vehicle.


A tear drop shape is used to get lower wind resistance improving fuel efficiency. The single rear wheel allows the vehicle to taper at the back. Examples include the Aptera 2 Series and Myers Motors NmG.



Two wheels behind

When the Trike has one wheel in front and two in the rear for power the cost of the steering mechanism gets reduced. But it will greatly decrease lateral stability when cornering and while braking. With a single wheel in front (the "delta" form, as in a child's pedal tricycle), the vehicle is inherently unstable in a braking turn. The combined tipping forces at the center of gravity from turning and braking can rapidly extend beyond the triangle formed by the contact patches of the wheels. So this type of motorized Trike, if not tipped, also has a greater tendency to spin out ("swap ends") when handled roughly.



Tilting with the Turn

To improve stability recent three-wheelers are designed as tilting three-wheelers so that they lean while cornering like a motorcyclist would do. The tilt may be controlled manually, mechanically or by computer. A tilting three-wheeler's body and or wheels tilt in the direction of the turn. Such vehicles can corner safely even with a narrow track. Some tilting three-wheelers could be considered to be forms of feet forwards motorcycles, or cabin motorcycles, or both. 


Bandit at Bikernet.com has been covering the progress of Tilting Motor Works, USA in his weekly Thursday News broadcast in January 2017. Tilting Motor Works has developed a breakthrough leaning 3-wheel conversion that offers the stability and safety benefits of 3 wheels with the handling of a motorcycle. The conversion involves removing the front fork and the front wheel and replacing it with a new front end that bolts to the frame. Conversions are performed by TMW or its authorized dealers. It is not available as a do-it-yourself kit. A TMW-equipped 3-wheeler steers, counter-steers, leans and handles just like the original motorcycle.


Visit http://www.tiltingmotorworks.com/ and tell them Bikernet.com sent you and you will get a royal reception for your Trike.



Need for Solar Speed

The world's fastest solar-powered vehicle, Ashiya University's Sky Ace TIGA, is a three-wheeler. It achieved 91.332 kilometres per hour (56.751 mph) at Shimojishima Airport, in Miyakojima, Okinawa, Japan, to win the Guinness World Record, on 20 August 2014. It took the record from another three-wheeler, Sunswift IV, designed and built at the University of New South Wales in Australia, by a margin of almost 3 km/h.


The Steam Powered Roadways

Way back in 1770, there was the European steam engine mania which wanted to run steam powered vehicles on roads running horse carriages. The world's first full-size self-propelled land vehicle was a three-wheeler. French Army Captain Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's 1770 fardier à vapeur (steam dray), a steam tricycle with a top speed of around 3 km/h (2 mph), was intended for hauling artillery.


Another of the earliest preserved examples is the Long steam tricycle, built by George A. Long around 1880 and patented in 1883, is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.



Laying down the Law

Due to the surge of incidents with serious injuries related to ATV Trike use the Government placed an entirely voluntary 10-year ban for manufacturers. This was applicable on sale of new three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles in the United States in January 1988. Consumer Product Safety Commission later found that "no inherent flaw was found in the three wheel design”. The drivers of the ATV Trikes simply did not have the technique to ride three-wheels and also did not wear any protective gear such as boots or helmets.


USA and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines and regulates three-wheeled vehicles as motorcycles. However, driver's license requirements will vary on a state-by-state basis.


More confusion and step-motherly treatment is offered to Trikes by other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, Canada, and Connecticut, where a three-wheeled vehicle with an enclosed passenger compartment or partially enclosed seat is considered an automobile.


Hawaii is the only state still legislating on vehicle classification.


Just call it a Custom Ride and make legislation for accommodating custom vehicles, will ya?



Global Trends of Trikes

17th century - 1600s - Stephan Farffler's trike.


18th century - 1700s - Copeland steam trike in 1888 and Cugnot's "Fardier à vapeur" (Steam powered)


19th century - 1800s:

§ Ariel 2.25 hp tricycle (1898)

§ Benz Patent-Motorwagen (Internal combustion engine) (1886-1893)

§ Buckeye gasoline buggy (1891)

§ De Dion-Bouton tricycle (1897–1905)

§ Léon Bollée Voiturette (1895)

§ Long steam tricycle (c. 1880)

§ Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede (1884 Tricycle version)

§ Motrice Pia (1894)

§ Orient tricycle (1899-1901)



BSA Motorcycles had a 1100cc trike in production between 1929 to 1936 having two front wheels. Morgan V-Twin and F-Series were popular in England for a long run from 1911 to 1952. Morgan Super Sports 2-Seater 1937 was a legend of its time. There was a German 1951 Hoffmann with 2 seats, aluminium body and engine mounted on the rear wheel steering pivot. UK saw the three-wheeled version of the Italian Isetta built to take advantage of tax and licensing regulations from 1957 to 1962. The smallest production car ever built was a Trike named Peel P50 in 1963 at Isle of Man. The Bond Bug was a Trike with two Rear Wheels and was very trendy in UK during 1965 to 1974. GM came up with GM Lean Machine in 1980s America with a tilting concept car. The Harley-Davidson Servi-Car was designed during the Great Depression when Harley-Davidson was desperate to expand its product base to increase sales. Servi-Car was a three-wheeled utility motorcycle manufactured by Harley-Davidson in production from 1932 to 1975. It allowed towing of cars for delivery to customers and hence available with a tow bar at the front and a large 60 Ah battery. The Servi-Car was designed for the road conditions of the day, where surface roads might still be crude and unpaved. They became particularly popular with the police departments, some of which still used Servi-Cars into the 1990s.



A modern revolution in Trikes started in 1996 in Canada with the Campagna T-Rex. BRP Can-Am Spyder was yet another Canadian Trike and was manufactured by Bombardier Recreational Products launched in 2007 to much popularity and mainstream acceptance on the roads. Polaris Industries which successfully revived Indian Motorcycles of USA got into the Trike game in 2015 with its Polaris Slingshot. Polaris claims it is a three-wheeled motorcycle. It has a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, side-by-side bucket seats and does not lean. Motorcycle helmets are mandatory on Slingshot in certain jurisdictions. It has no roof, doors, or side windows. Windshield is optional. Steering wheel, gear stick, and brake, clutch, and throttle pedals have a conventional automobile layout. Depending on which state the Slingshot is registered in, it will either be registered as a motorcycle, or as an auto-cycle. Polaris Slingshot has a proven GM Ecotec engine originally used in GM Pontiac and Saturn Sky sports cars.



The 21st century saw the American behemoth Harley-Davidson jump into the Trike bandwagon. Harley-Davidson Tri Glide Ultra Classic was introduced in 2009. It has an air-cooled OHV V-twin engine, 6 speed manual with optional electric reverse. In 2015, they rebranded their Trike model as the Harley-Davidson Freewheeler. The target market for them are motorcycle riders who are experiencing health problems due to aging or injuries and to female riders. Reverse is now a standard feature on Harley Trike. Freewheeler adds hippie style with its mini ape hanger handlebars and bobtail fenders for a low profile.



The Carver is a tilting three-wheeled vehicle using an automatic balancing technology to balance the passenger compartment under all conditions. Carver combined aspects of a motorcycle and a car, in appearance as well as in design. The first commercial Carver product, the Carver One, was designed to seat two people, and manufactured and distributed by Carver Europe (formerly named Vandenbrink) in the Netherlands. It had a Rear-engine Rear-wheel drive. The Carver One, as standard commercial product, has a top speed of 185 km/h (115 mph). It was officially launched at the Geneva Motor Show on 7 March 2007. "Dynamic Vehicle Control" system or DVC system allowed full stability under all conditions and was even licensed to be used on ATV three-wheelers. However, in June 2009 Carver Europe declared bankruptcy due to lack of demand at its 30,000 euro price tag and ceased commercial production and sales. As of 2011, the technology is owned and licensed by Carver Technology. The PAL-V (Personal Air and Land Vehicle) is an autogyro developed from the Carver which made its first flight in April 2012. California based Venture Vehicles company promoted the VentureOne in USA using Carver’s DVC system in 2007. Venture Vehicles was renamed as Persu Mobility in 2008.



Another three-wheeled concept is the Flike, a sort of flying motorcycle / helicopter featured in our September 2016 edition here: http://trikes.bikernet.com/pages/Ultralight_Electric_Flying_Trike.aspx


A Whike is a sail-powered trike.



Battery operated Toyota i-Road is a Trike offered as a personal mobility vehicle first shown at the March 2013 Geneva Motor Show. It is a 3 door hatchback with front-wheel-drive using two 2-kilowatt (2.7-horsepower) motors powered by a lithium-ion battery that can be charged using a household outlet. Toyota introduced i-Road with an "Active Lean" – a new technology that helps provide the centripetal force to make the vehicle go around a corner and smooths the ride over rough ground.

Active Lean uses on-board computers on both the front suspension calculating leaning angles with respect to steering input, gyroscope and speed. The width of iRoad is 850 mm (33.5 in), approximately the same width as a motorcycle and you can park four of these vehicles in a single car parking space. Toyota has however boxed it up as a concept car envisioned for urban use in the future and there are no plans for general production at this time.



While the first world aims at lifestyle and fashion, the third world has more practical need of a Trike. An auto rickshaw (in India), or rickshaw (in Pakistan) also known as a Bajaj (in Jakarta, Indonesia) Bemo in Bali, Indonesia, three-wheeler or tuktuk (in Sri Lanka), tuk-tuk (in Thailand), trishaw, autorick, bajaji (in Madagascar and Tanzania), keke Napep or Maruwa (in Nigeria), rick, tricycle (in the Philippines), mototaxi, baby taxi, lapa or tukxi (Piaggio Ape Calessino) in popular parlance, is a motorized development of the traditional pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw.


Indian two-wheeler major manufacturer Bajaj is also the largest manufacturer of auto-rickshaws which may run on petrol or diesel or CNG variant versions. India is the destination to the annual Rickshaw Run, an event where teams drive Auto Rickshaws along various routes across India. The event is brainchild of Adventurists who also hold the Mongol Rally, a car rally that begins in Europe and originally ended in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The seating capacity of a normal rickshaw is four, including the driver's seat.



In 1947, Corradino D'Ascanio, aircraft designer at Piaggio and inventor of the Vespa, came up with the idea of building a light three-wheeled commercial vehicle to power Italy's post-war economic reconstruction. The Piaggio Ape followed suit.


Piaggio and Bajaj seem to have the bulk of the market-share of utility trikes for passenger transport or for transport of goods in what is locally called three-wheeled tempo in India. Asia, Africa and now Central America seem to have their basic transportation needs met by auto-rickshaws.



If you really want to dive into the deep end of Trikes and its history, heritage, culture and models then I recommend you check out the book “Three-Wheelers A-Z: The Definitive Encyclopaedia of Three-wheeled Vehicles from 1940 to Date” published in Hardcover in March 6, 2014 from author Chris Rees. Its 240 pages give a comprehensive picture of three-wheeled vehicles with references in visual and text content.


ISBN-13: 978-0992665104



If you liked this brief history of Trikes, then do check out my earlier epic history of two-wheeled motorcycles at Bikernet.com



It has always been a learning experience for me at Bikernet.com since I joined in 2003 to present. If you dudes and dolls have better knowledge to share then please do care to send us a mail at bandit @ bikernet.com or to me at support @ happymen.org


We always work towards satisfying the automotive and custom needs of bikers everywhere. So, send us your queries and solutions and designs. If you own a unique Trike, we would love to feature it here. So send us the photos and the adventures.


Ride On !!!


-       Ujjwal Dey

Your Editor at Trikes.bikernet.com


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