When four wheels are too many and two aren’t enough
Everyone knows that cars have four wheels and motorcycles have two, right? But what about three-wheelers? Over the last century and a quarter, they’ve come in all shapes and sizes; sometimes they look like cars and sometimes like motorcycles. In some cases, they’ve offered the performance and comfort of an automobile with the economy and taxation benefits of a motorcycle. Other times, they've been limited in performance, comfort and even usability.
The first truly viable automobile was the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen, which used a single front wheel with two bringing up the rear. In fact, many of the greatest names in motoring have three-wheelers in their pasts, like De Dion Bouton, AC, BMW, Bugatti, FN and Lagonda. Some manufacturers, like Morgan, have done them well. Others, like Davis and Dale, not so much.
Though by no means the first three-wheeler, the British Morgan is certainly the longest-lived and best-known. The very first one, in 1909, featured a two-cylinder engine nestled between the front wheels, with a single wheel bringing up the rear. Unusually for the time, front suspension was independent. The following year, H.F.S. Morgan showed two single-seat runabouts at the Olympia Motorcycle Show: a single and a twin. Production of a two-seat single began in 1911, followed soon after by a V-twin, and the car was continuously developed, proving reliable on the road and nearly invincible on the track. The most famed of the three-wheelers were the Super Sports Aero (J.A.P. power) and Super Sports (Matchless power) models, with their classic beetle-back bodies.
Even though Morgan introduced four-wheel cars in 1936, it continued to build three-wheelers until 1952. Those final F-Type Supers were based on the four-cylinder Ford-powered F-Type models first introduced in 1934. Though quieter and more comfortable than the earlier motorcycle-engined Morgans, today the F-series aren’t nearly as coveted.
In 2013, Morgan resurrected the three-wheeler with an updated model powered by an S & S V-twin mated to a Mazda six-speed transmission driving the single rear wheel with a beveled belt. With 80 horsepower at the rear wheel and a weight of about 1,000 pounds, this tiny car will scoot to 60 mph in around six seconds.
According to collector and mechanical engineer Jeff Lane, “The new Morgan three-wheeler is fantastic. Very gokartish. If you blindfolded someone and put them in it, they wouldn’t know it was a three-wheeler.”
Where most three-wheel cars were studies in minimalism, the Davis Divan was meant to be a viable alternative to a four-wheel automobile. With a width of eight feet, it was claimed to seat four abreast, but the four women shown in the car on the sales brochure look mighty squeezed. Lane actually tried to squeeze four modestly sized adults into a Davis and they did fit, just, but it was impossible to drive fully stuffed.
The original concept was conceived by race car builder Frank Kurtis at the request of employer Joel Thorne. By the time the third prototype was built and super salesman Gary Davis became involved, power came from a 2.6-liter four-cylinder flathead Continental engine rated at 63 horsepower and driving the two rear wheels through a BorgWarner three-speed manual transmission. The steel-channel chassis was topped by aluminum panels shaped, as Jim Donnelly wrote in the April 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Cars, like a “computer mouse.” The balance of the mechanicals were fairly conventional, with hydraulic drum brakes, coil springs up front, leaf springs in the back and shaft drive. The turning circle was a remarkable 12.75 feet.
By 1948, Davis had a factory in Van Nuys, California, more than a dozen cars in progress and a team of unhappy workers who hadn’t been paid. Investors and would-be dealers who had bought franchises were up in arms, and it all ended badly in court, when Davis was found guilty of 20 counts of theft.
Several dealers attempted to revive the car before it sank with little trace. About 12 Davis cars are known, although as many as 17 are believed to have been built. It’s a shame that Davis’ financing model was so flawed, because the engineering was excellent — performed by aerospace engineers promised payment once the car was in production.
Compared to the Morgan, Lane says, “the Davis is a little higher in terms of ground clearance and center of gravity. It’s less sporting, yet it still handles really well thanks to that front swing arm, long wheelbase and wide track.”
When it comes to three-wheelers, the Dale would be completely forgettable were it not for its larger-than-life entrepreneur, Liz Carmichel, the driving force behind the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation.
In 1974–75, Carmichael raised funds to promote the 70-mpg, three-wheel Dale. The specifications were impressive: a rear-mounted, air-cooled 850-cc BMW boxer engine and a body of “rocket” structural resin and circuit boards that obviated the need for a wiring harness. Carmichael boasted an 85-mph top speed and said that, despite the light 1,000-pound weight, the Dale was incredibly safe. She claimed to have survived a 30-mph test crash into a wall with no injury.
Designer Dale Clift had been enticed into the project with promises of millions in royalties. In reality, he received $1,001 plus a $2,000 check that bounced. Things went south from there, and investigators found a largely empty building with a running prototype but no manufacturing capability. Carmichael, meanwhile, had vanished.
It turns out that Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael — who was an imposing figure at over six feet tall and 200 pounds — had been born as Jerry Dean Michael and was wanted on counterfeiting charges. The transgendered woman was eventually apprehended and sent to prison on multiple convictions of fraud and theft.
Two Dale prototypes survive, however. The running car is in private hands, while the other resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Although at the time of writing gas prices are at their lowest point in years, hybrid, electric and other economical cars are still growing in popularity. The Morgan is back, but as a relatively inexpensive super car. Other modern offerings include the Elio, due out in 2015. Like the Dale, minus the fraud, this small three-wheeler claims 85 mpg and a modest ($7,000) pricetag, as well as many advance orders. In Grenoble, France, Toyota is partnering with the city to offer a car-share program with the three-wheeled I-Road electric, which may be picked up or dropped off at one of 27 stations. And in California, the Persu V3 isn’t currently available, but the 80-horsepower three-wheeler is based on the technology of the recently departed Carver tilting three-wheeler from the Netherlands. It is said to be fully enclosed, amazing to drive and good for more than 55 mpg.
While there are exceptions, most three-wheelers, whether endowed with two wheels up front or in the rear, have enough wheelbase, a sufficiently wide track, and a low enough center of gravity to make them perfectly stable, like the Messerschmitt, which Lane insists “only an idiot could flip.”
If you like cars that are a bit outside the box, a three-wheeler may be just the ticket. Like their four- and two-wheel siblings, they come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of powerplants. As for me, I’m sorely tempted to go see my local Morgan dealer.