Monday, November 1, 2010

Those Wacky Tri-Cars

Due to a quirk in the taxation and drivers licensing laws in the UK, a phenomenon called the tri-car came into being. These three wheeled cars were most often powered by motorcycle engines and all of them were in a class of their own.

Tri-cars are always three wheeled but there are differences in how the wheels are laid out and the car is steered:
  • "Delta" layout cars are steered with one front wheel and have the other two fixed on a common axis at the rear.
  • "Front-Steering Tadpole" or reverse trike layout cars have a single fixed rear wheel and are steered by the two front wheels.
  • Rear-Steering Tadpole" layout cars also have two front wheels but are steered by the single rear wheel.
Automotive pioneer Karl Benz designed several tri-cars including the acknowledged first gasoline powered production car, the Benz Patentwagen. It was steered with a tiller acting on the single front wheel. You can occasionally see photos of this vehicle in Mercedes advertising.

In the UK, tri-cars were an inexpensive way to get into motoring with numerous small (and some not-so-small) manufacturers building cars for this market starting in 1902. Some of the more familiar builders are:
 Tri-cars were an excellent alternative to motorcycle/sidecar combinations in the UK and since they had the same number of wheels on the ground, as motorcyle & sidecars, they were licensed and taxed as such.

With all tri-cars had to offer, they were (in delta form) somewhat ungainly to drive. It was not unusual to lift an inside rear wheel on even the slightest turning maneuver.Where a four wheel car will slide, a three wheeler will likely tip up.

Morgan Three Wheeler
 Here in the US, we are most familiar with Morgan "Trikes"which have a devoted following. It is not unusual to encounter three wheeled Morgans at historic race meets. The Morgan Super Sports was a force in tri-car (or cycle car) racing in the 'teens through the 1930s. Morgan tri-cars were powered by J.A.P., Matchless or other two cylinder motorcycle engines in vee form mounted in front, usually outside the bodywork.

Reliant Robin
Reliant, like Morgan, started out producing three wheeled cars and then expanded into four wheeled vehicle manufacture - they just lagged behind Morgan by a couple of decades in this expansion. The most recognizable Reliant three-wheeler in this country is the Reliant Regal delivery van as seen in Only Fools and Horses - the UK sitcom with a small cult following here in America.  Additionally, a Reliant Robin has been in an ongoing gag on the UK version of Top Gear with the car regularly rolled over by various drivers including host Jeremy Clarkson, American rally driver Ken Block and the anonymous Top Gear test driver known as The Stig. I understand that at least one SABCC'er has first hand experience with a Reliant Robin.

The only tri-car I ever saw in the flesh was a Bond Bug that was entered in SABCC's  British Car Festival in the late 1990s at Bellingrath Gardens. It was highly unusual in that the entire windshield and roof lifted up to allow entrance or exit from the car. The Bug was powered by a 700cc engine and the car was steered with the single front wheel. The Bug's predecessor, the 875 was similar in layout to the Bug, but was more conventionally styled. This vehicle was dropped from production when the Bond firm was absorbed by Reliant in 1970.
Bond Bug

Today, tri-cars are making a bit of a comeback, helped by stability control, better powerplants and innovative engineering. The Carver built in built in Europe was a tilt- technology enclosed three wheeled vehicle. Sadly, Carver went bankrupt last year.

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