Three Wheeled Bikes A Novelty or a New Direction?

8 minute read

While three wheel cars - or “bikes” as they are legally defined - are nothing new, see the Reliant Robin below that Jeremy Clarkson hilariously rolled in Top Gear, recent headlines show that 3 Wheeled Vehicles could be on a way for a comeback as safety regulations and fuel economy constraints outprice new commuters and performance vehicles.

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[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”1024”]three wheeled Reliant Robin Reliant Robin (Image by Flickr user Yaffa Phillips, used under CC License 2.0)[/caption]


As the above Reliant showed; however, a single wheel in the front can lead to some interesting stability issues with weight cantilevered on either side. With the exception of “trikes” or 3 wheeled motorcycles that you or I would consider a motorcycle, these new (and those still surviving) 3 wheel vehicles use a much more stable configuration of two wheels in front with one in the back. Tied with a small engine and a small footprint, the vehicles prove to be agile and nimble and can return great fuel economy. To that end, in the United States, 3 wheeled vehicles are considered motorcycles, which brings about an interesting result of that definition.

High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes

High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) Lanes have been around the U.S. since the late 60s and early 70s in Northern Virginia having now spread to 24 states, broken up as follows:

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Unless designated as a bus lane only, no state in the U.S. with an HOV system has exercised its ability to preclude motorcycles from the lanes, citing the grand safety benefit for conventional motorcycles to ride in the HOV lanes. For autocycles and three wheeled vehicles, as it stands within these 24 states, they are eligible to ride in the HOV lane without any passengers, which could prove to be a large selling point for three wheeled vehicles. With recent shifts in more motorcycles on the road to combat high gas prices and to take advantage of the commuter lanes [1] [2] [3], 3 wheeled vehicles could a be more attractive option to inexperienced riders and those concerned with riding during rush hour alike looking to save money.

Helmet May Still be Required

In 1975, 47 states required motorcycle helmets while riding; that number has now dropped to 19 and the District of Columbia.

[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”695”]Compulsory Motorcycle Helmet Use from IIHS Law Requiring Motorcycle Helmet Use [Source: IIHS] [Editor’s Note: NH actually has a partial law for 18 and Under][/caption]While some states have provisions for cab enclosed 3 wheeled vehicles (21), many other states, at least by statutes, don’t make concessions for enclosed 3 wheeled vehicle pilots and passengers to not wear helmets as seen below:

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Of course, whether in practice that will be adhered to or those states will simply change the law remains to be seen. It also stands to reason whether any enforcement in those states would expose the “violation.” Similarly for non-closed three wheeled vehicles (those that do not have a roof) the result is somewhat slightly different:

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Overall, for the majority of drivers targeting a 3 wheeler (aged 21 and over) few states legally will require a helmet (or in the state of Delaware, helmets to be present but not worn (for any motorcycle/autocycle for some reason)), and that may change out of practicality if this small niche survives.

Enough about the law, what are the options?

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[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”580”]three wheeled Elio Motors Elio [Source: Elio Motors][/caption]In the average person’s budget and more likely to be considered as a commuter option, Elio Motors is set to release their vehicle at the end of 2015 to deliver a 2 person (passenger sits in the back) commuter for about the same price as a new motorcycle: $6800. With 84 mpg hwy rating due to its 0.9L three cylinder engine and somewhere near a 1200 lb curb weight, it has many things going for it and 29,500 have already preordered one. While physical crash tests and other things still have yet to be done, its success will ultimately hinge on how it is perceived and to which the founder Paul Elio points to as an alternative to a used car. As preorder sales come in, wealthier middle class and upper middle class buyers dominate the demographic mix which may change once the Elio starts selling in key markets around the country a la Tesla’s direct sales to consumer in many states. You can find out more here: [1] [2]

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[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”976”]three wheeled Morgan Three Wheeler Morgan Three Wheeler [Source: Motor Trend][/caption] 

Brought back to life 60 years after the last Morgan 3 Wheeler was built, the modern remake of the original Morgan 3 Wheeler is really all about performance, although its original model’s success hinged from avoiding UK’s car fees. As the Morgan’s history showed, all kinds of vehicles were produced during the design’s heyday between WWI and 1950. When Morgan (which had switched to producing four wheel vehicles after 1950) was re-introduced to the popularity of a modern Morgan done by the now U.S. importer Liberty Motors, it teamed with noted motorcycle engine manufacturer S&S to create the beast that you see here. With it’s $45,000 base price and minimal comforts, expect to see very few - if any - using this a “daily commuter”.

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2013 Morgan 3-Wheeler
Base price $45,000 (MT est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 0-door, roadster
Engine 2.0L/80-hp/103 lb-ft DOHC 4-valve V-twin (mfr est)
Transmission 5-speed manual
Curb weight 1200 lbs (MT est)
Wheelbase 94.0 in
Length x width x height 127.0 x 55.9 x 39.4 in
0-62 mph 6.0 seconds (mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ N/A
CO2 emissions N/A
On sale in U.S. Now, to order

Read more:

Polaris Slingshot


[caption id=”attachment_144” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]Three Wheeled Polaris Slingshot Polaris Slingshot [Source: Green Car Reports][/caption]Surprising bike fans and car enthusiasts alike, this summer Polaris released the $20,000 Slingshot as a performance “side by side” for the road using a mix of car parts and a motorcycle rear end to deliver sport bike like feel in a stable three wheeled package. Although its open cockpit will require helmets (as seen in their marketing [by no accident]), a $20K base price may not necessarily price itself out of being a commuting option for upper middle class buyers if they want to use this for recreation as well.

[caption id=”attachment_145” align=”aligncenter” width=”707”]Three Wheeled Polaris Slingshot Powertrain Polaris Slingshot Powertrain[/caption]

[caption id=”attachment_146” align=”aligncenter” width=”770”]Three Wheeled Polaris Slingshot Exposed Polaris Slingshot Underneath[/caption]

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Polaris Slingshot
PRICE $19,999 (base), $23,999 (SL)
LENGTH 149.6 in.
WIDTH 77.6 in.
HEIGHT 51.9 in.
WHEELBASE 105.0 in.
FRONT TRACK 69.1 in.
ENGINE 2384cc dohc inline-4
HORSEPOWER 173 hp @ 6200 rpm
TORQUE 166 lb.-ft. @ 4700 rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual
BRAKES 11.7-in. vented rotors front and rear, ABS
STEERING rack & pinion, electric assist
FUEL CAPACITY 9.8 gallons


[caption id=”attachment_147” align=”aligncenter” width=”700”]Three Wheeled Trike - Can Am Spyder Can-Am Spyder[/caption]

While still a far away from becoming a large vehicle niche, this bubbling emergence (especially the popularity in the recreational vehicle market of the Can-Am Spyder) of three wheeled vehicles has the potential to alter (for some) mobility patterns and may allow for some commuters to move farther away with the promise of smooth rides into and out of work or small trips solo.

With current regulations defined as 4 wheels for a car, 3 wheeled options could pave the way - mainly if Elio has some success - towards other city-focused cars, especially for ride-sharing services such as ZipCar or Car2Go if motorcycle license requirements go away for such “autocycles.” With reduced weight, less mechanical complexity, and to a certain extent a reduced crash structure requirement, these vehicles could help to reduce some of the fuel used by families in large metro areas while also forcing consumers to think about their vehicle choices and modes of transit more closely.

Three wheeled vehicles won’t replace conventional automobiles or take a large share of the vehicle market but will rather lead to smarter decisions by urban planners, automotive engineers, and families alike to define best capabilities of cars / trucks and where alternatives like 3 wheeled vehicles or electric bikes are better options to cars or other forms of  transit. Some of this has already started in the U.S. due to gas prices and the Recession pushing consumers into smaller cars slowly as the car sizes they leave grow bigger and more expensive.

Ultimately, in some sense three wheeled vehicles are subject to becoming victims of their own success. Much like the original reason to buy a hybrid for the commuter lane [which in large metro areas first allowed anyone in a hybrid to drive the HOV lane solo, but quickly became overcrowded), if a lot of three wheeled vehicles populate the road, especially in the event of multiple accidents involved autocycles without care and design into car-level safety, it won’t take long for states and finally the federal government to classify these “autocycles” as automobiles. With the classification as an automobile, three wheeled vehicles will be subjected to the same rules and regulations that will nearly eliminate almost all of their benefits due to the increase costs and weight to meet  safety and emissions standards. Until or if that happens, it will be interesting to see if Elio is able to attract new competitors to the market that it is creating (as an alternative to used cars) and how state legislatures respond to not only another automaker selling direct to consumer (foregoing dealers) but to one selling within a murky grey area that some states have yet to define. More than anything, how safety advocate organizations respond to the Elio could ultimately force the hand of state and federal regulators alike.


Sources for Motorcycle Helmets comes from the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) and each state’s most recent version of their Statutes