Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

Three-Wheeled cars; the story, the history, the scandals

The original three-wheeler, the Benz Patent Motorwagen which Karl Benz’ wife drove with her sons on an unauthorized journey around Germany.

The original three-wheeler, the Benz Patent Motorwagen which Karl Benz’ wife drove with her sons on an unauthorized journey around Germany.

After a hundred years of motoring, four wheels seems preordained, but that wasn’t always certain. In fact the very first internal combustion powered car was a three-wheeled vehicle by Benz with a single, steerable front wheel. Experiments were the name of the game as the automobile was being developed, the Octoauto taking home first prize with its eight-wheel configuration, but four wheels soon became a near universal standard. 

But dreams of a three-wheeled car died hard. Legendary British sports carmaker Morgan introduced their first three-wheeler in 1911 and re-introduced it in 2012, scoring the record for being the longest producer of three-wheeled cars in the world. 

Recognized as the world’s smallest car, the three-wheeled Peel 250 of 1962 was produced in a run of fifty examples. Built on the Isle of Man, it’s so small that a presenter for the show Top Gear was able to drive one through the halls of the BBC.

Buckminster Fuller’s legendary Dymaxion car bragged of its ability to swivel 360 degrees in its own length, but dedicating a single rear wheel to steering the car led to dangerously squirrely handling and only three aircraft-styled examples were produced. 

Several ambitious automotive experiments failed in the super-heated market of the immediate post WWII period, but the strangest might have been the three-wheeled Davis Divan, named after a sofa because its single seat accommodated four sitting side-by-side. A single front wheel allowed the 1948 Davis to turn around in its own footprint, a handy feature that wasn’t enough to guarantee success as the company closed after producing just seventeen cars. Its promoter was sent to jail for fraud, later emerging to design bumper cars for carnivals. 

Japan’s post WWII economy didn’t encourage elaborate automotive dreams. Banned from producing airplanes, Hitachi Aviation switched to producing the Fuji Cabin, a tiny three-wheeler with a production run of eighty-five examples in 1955. Its five horsepower engine propelled the Cabin to a blistering 37 MPH top speed. Cute as a cartoon, survivors are now blue chip collectibles, one having sold for $126,500 in 2013.

The Reliant Robin ranks as the world’s second most produced fiberglass car. Introduced in 1963, its single front wheel design didn’t help high-speed handling.  Top Gear did a hilarious segment showing one rounding corners and continually tipping over. A funny bit, but word is, they monkeyed with the car to make it capsize more easily.  The quirky-looking plastic Robin enjoyed a production run of 25 years.  

Germany’s Messerschmitt Kabinenroller (cabin scooter) was another Axis power’s solution to a ruined economy by an aircraft company forbidden to make planes. A three-wheeler with tandem seating for two, it featured a clear Plexiglas canopy just like a Luftwaffe fighter plane along with a small motorcycle engine percolating away at the back end. Four thousand of the two-stroke motorcycle powered coupes were produced from 1955-64.

The three-wheeled configuration has attracted some shady promoters over the years. Besides the aforementioned Davis Divan, there was the mid-seventies Dale. Two prototypes of a three wheeled coupe were shown widely in an attempt to gain investors. One even appeared as a prize on The Price Is Right, but luckily, no one won it. Promoted by a two hundred pound, six foot tall transvestite fugitive from the law, the Dale saga ended badly when the California Securities Commission shut the company down and its promoter went on the lamb.

Much later the two-seater Elio appeared. Slick marketing offered early depositors preferred spots in line, but after promising start of production, “late next year” for several years, the car that promised 84 MPG and a $6,800 price tag seems as doomed as the Davis with just a handful of prototypes to show for the millions of dollars sacrificed by depositors. 

Resembling a wingless private airplane on three wheels, the futuristic electric Aptera peaked with its appearance in a Star Trek movie and sadly went bust soon afterwards with just a couple of promising prototypes having been built and shown; a sad case of underfunding rather then malfeasance. 

Though there’ve been several successful three wheeled motorcycles, the same can’t be said for cars despite some noble (and not so noble) attempts to introduce the configuration as a mainstream vehicle. 

By Jim Cherry