#306 – It’s About the Ride…Isn’t It? Three wheelers ….

Three-wheelers are an option or even a preference for certain riders. But three wheelers can’t always take you to that “special” place.

It’s about the ride … isn’t it?

I take my place in line at the Vashon Island terminal for the ferry to Fauntleroy in West Seattle, Washington. In the next lane is a 1936 Morgan Super Sports three-wheeled car with its 1000cc OHV Matchless V-Twin engine proudly naked in front of the hood.
Morgans were widely popular (and quite desirable) in 1930’s Britain, both on the street and the track. Because of their light weight (around 400 kg) and relatively powerful engines (the air-cooled Matchless pumped out 39 hp at 4,600 rpm) they were capable of performance way beyond a typical British family sedan. For comparison, my Dad’s 1934 Morris Minor weighed nearly 700 kg, and its 847cc side-valve four-cylinder engine made just 16.5 hp. It would accelerate, if that’s the right word, to a top speed of just 77 kmh.
Another advantage that Morgan exploited: owning a car and learning to drive in pre-WWII Britain was expensive. But most red-blooded males already rode motorbikes; and a quirk in the law allowed lightweight three-wheelers to be driven on a bike licence.
It’s the arrival of a Can-Am Spyder in the lineup that makes me do a double-take. While the Morgan’s pilot wears a T-shirt and ball cap, the Spyder’s occupants are in full motorcycle gear, including helmets. Yet functionally the two vehicles are very similar—two wheels at the front and one at the back, and no ability to lean. The main difference is the seating: the Morgan offers open-top side-by-side seats with a steering wheel, while the Can-Am’s occupants sit in tandem behind handlebars.
Washington State law groups motorcycle combinations, trikes and Spyders into a separate licence class requiring a special endorsement. Ironically, it’s the vehicle considered to be a car (the Morgan) that’s clearly powered by a motorcycle engine!
So, when is a motorcycle not that?
As a reminder, a motorcycle is defined as a single-track vehicle with an engine. That is, it has two wheels, one behind the other; and it necessarily leans to one side or the other to change direction. For me, motorcycling is about the skill and thrill of threading through a challenging series of curves, the ability to negotiate trails too narrow for an SUV, and (as I hope and pray may one day become legal) filtering through congested traffic. Without those advantages, the extra risk and cost penalties of motorcycle riding start to outweigh the benefits.
So are trikes and Can-Am Spyders motorcycles? By the definition above, they’re not. But can they deliver the “motorcycle experience?” Trikes have been with us a long time, of course, ever since a backyard bodger chopped the front off a Volkswagen and tacked on a pair of 10-inch-over springer forks. But as baby boomers become too frail to prop up an 800-lb. battle-cruiser plus a passenger and luggage, the trend toward trikes seems inevitable.
So if your motorcycle experience includes cruising the Interstate with your friends to a mega-rally, a trike works just as well. Maybe better. And if ripping around the city from bar to bar in a Hallowe’en costume is your thing, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Attitude, it seems, can transfer from two wheels to three.
On the other hand, Bombardier Recreational Products is tapping into a niche market—potential riders who want the “motorcycle experience” without the negative aspects of riding a two-wheeler. For example, a Spyder won’t fall over when you climb off. And by choosing a two-in-front-one-behind wheel layout, BRP created a platform inherently more stable and safer than a trike (as did Morgan). Braking loads are typically higher than acceleration loads, so if you only have three wheels, you want two of them at the front. (For more evidence, look up BBC-TV show Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson driving a Reliant Robin on YouTube. It illustrates handily why three-wheeled ATVs were banned!)
Of course, part of the attraction of trikes (car/bike hybrids excepted) is that they channel the essence of the motorcycle on which they’re based. So they fit more easily into the motorcycle mindset than a Spyder. It’s now common to see a group of touring riders include a trike or two. But there’s just one snag …
It’s been noted that, because a motorcycle turns in a similar way to an aeroplane, riding is like flying, but in two dimensions instead of three. Coaxing a motorcycle closer to its lean and/or adhesion limits in a curve requires skill, practice, nerve, and the confidence born of experience. It’s a wickedly seductive blend of adrenaline and excitement. And like looking into the sun, as The Boss told us in Blinded by the Light, that’s where the fun is.
Just south of Britannia Beach on BC’s Sea-to-Sky Highway 99 is a curve, a full 180-degrees in length and with a radius of a couple of hundred metres. BC’s Transportation Ministry rose above its normally mediocre engineering to create a sweep of tarmac—creamy smooth, subtly cambered and consistent of radius—that is so deliciously tempting, I defy any sporting motorcyclist to resist leaning in and opening the throttle to their personal sphincter-clenching point. On a competent motorcycle, it’s 20 seconds of bliss—and it’s exactly where the trike-based motorcycle experience can’t go.
When I get too old and feeble to enjoy “my” motorcycle experience, I’ll pass on a trike, thank you, and buy a sports car. A Morgan, perhaps?