In the past few years, three-wheelers – or three-wheeled motorcycles and cars, in a sense – have kind of become a thing, or at least a much bigger thing than they were. Since it’s something more people are going to be exposed to, some education is in order.
The basic forms of three-wheelers
There are two basic configurations for all three-wheelers. There are Delta three-wheelers and Tadpole three-wheelers.
Delta configurations have one wheel in front and two in the back. Tadpoles have two wheels in the front and one in the back, which sort of resembles a tadpole.
The Delta configuration is more common in three-wheeled motorcycles than three-wheeled cars, such as trikes. Tadpoles are more common with three-wheeled cars. That said, the very first car, was a Delta – the Benz Patent Motorwagen was steered via a tiller attached to a single wheel in front.
Where they begin to differ
All three-wheelers have three wheels, but that’s where they start to differ. Some are three-wheel cars, some are three-wheel motorcycles. There are also autorickshaws, but that’s another thing entirely. The difference between a three-wheel bike and a three-wheel car is pretty obvious; one has a body and stuff like a car and the other is a motorcycle with two wheels at the back, or the front in the case of the Can-Am Spyder.
The Delta design almost universally has two driven wheels at the rear and front-wheel steering. Tadpoles can have front- or rear-wheel drive, and also front- or rear-wheel steering.
There are some drawbacks. The Delta design, for instance, is infamous for instability; when ATVs were first released, they were of the Delta variety, which coincidentally is why ATVs are now almost universally four-wheelers and thus referred to AS four-wheelers. The reason is that a single wheel requires a large turning radius; take a corner too sharply and the lateral momentum will pick the inside rear turning wheel up and put the rider into an eggbeater.
Tadpoles, on the other hand, are known for…well, not doing that.
All things to all men
Obviously, there are myriad sporting applications for three-wheelers. Trikes have a certain popularity and a bunch of small sports cars – some think they are, some think they aren’t – that are only sporting three wheels. There’s the Morgan Three-Wheeler, the Polaris Slingshot, the Carver – a number of sporty models.
However, there have also been a plethora of three-wheeled economy cars. There were well-known microcars from the 1950s and 1960s such as the BMW Isetta, which is now a collector car. The Reliant Robin, roundly mocked on pokey BBC motoring show “Top Gear,” actually sold in large volume despite the Delta-configured economy car’s tendency toward rolling. The Aptera, the failed futuristic greenmobile had a gorgeous tadpole design.
Right now, Elio Motors is just a hop, skip and a jump away from putting out a two-seat, three-wheeled commuter special. That company’s design has three wheels, a three-cylinder motor, not much horsepower but potential economy better than 70 mpg and an MRSP in the neighborhood of $8,000. Four wheels don’t sound as good anymore.