All Trikes Are Created Equal (...But Some Are More Equal Than Others)
Historically, trikes have been something of an oddity. Sure, you had the old Harley-Davidson Servi-Car, a utility trike that saw production from 1932 until 1973. Widely used, the model that was popular with delivery services and for basic transportation actually saw service with police departments into the ’90s (tell me more about how unreliable those old Harley engines were...). Consequently, many of these civilian and surplus army/police models found their way into circulation, and a new type of rider was born.
After an early short spike in interest, Servi-Cars were relegated to the realm of collectors and riders with special needs. During the ’60s and ’70s, the trike culture boomed again with lots of home-job rides on the road that ran with a wide variety of engines, to include a few designs that were basically a motorcycle front-end welded to the ass-end of a VW Beetle. This particular sub-culture also waned, but never completely went away, and you can still see these Frankenstein creations from time to time out on the road, and especially at motor shows and events such as Cruisin’ the Coast around the nation. This kind of ride exists, true enough, but it’s still rather niche.
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Part of the reason for this narrow share of the market is due to the handling characteristics inherent with traditional, two-wheel-in-back trikes. Engineers tell us that three points define a plane, so the trike is very stable at rest, but this stability works in all the wrong ways once you get moving. The most obvious of which is the lack of cornering ability. The inside rear tire fights the turn, and a significant portion of the centrifugal cornering forces work on the “weak sides” of the triangle formed by the triad of wheels, so the trike winds up feeling as though it wants to dive to the outside-forward corner of its footprint. Riders are forced to shift on the seat and lean into the turn to counter the “throw you to the outside” feeling and help prevent the equivalent of a high-side rollover. With traditional trike setups, this is what you can expect, and there is nothing for it.
One of the newer trike concepts under the sun is the Spyder line from Can-Am. Spyders come with three tires like any other trike, but carry two wheels up front and one in back for the “funny backwards trike” configuration. The advantages are immediately apparent. True, you still can’t lean into the corners as you would on a two wheeler, but owner/riders don’t seem to mind. The lack of lean allows for the use of wide, automotive-style tires with generous flats and huge contact patches, and placing two points of the triangle up front prevents the highsider tendency like you get with two in back.
Rearranging the weak corners works wonders for handling, and since the front brakes account for 70-percent of stopping power on a conventional bike, I expect the front binders on a Spyder to provide even more. Naturally, you still get the “sling you off to the outside” feeling and so must shift weight a bit to the inside on hard corners, but the fact is; Spyders corner like they are on rails, and much like a four-wheel vehicle, think little of crossing the oil stripe or a little gravel in the curves. In short, much better than the old days, but still a stable platform that feels less like you are flying down the road and more like you are driving an open-cockpit sports car. Still fun, but not quite the same experience two-wheelers enjoy.
And now for something completely different.
Tilting Front Wheels
Still in the development stages in general, and available as shop-or-self installed kits, is the next step in the evolution of three-wheel transportation. I’m talking about the funny-backwards-trike setups that are articulated so that they lean into the corners. You can get such packages from companies like Tilting Motor Works and TreMoto to name but a few, and though only one of the big-name global manufacturers are on board yet, Honda, I guarantee the rest have their bean counters working feverishly to determine market viability, and engineers and other pocket-protector types playing with chopsticks and rubberbands to figure it all out.
Honda’s Neowing brings it all together in grand style by placing the leaning front end on a sportbike chassis. Another nugget that is cool, however irrelevant to this particular subject, is the fact that the Neowing runs a hybrid drivetrain with a four-cylinder boxer engine, large battery and electric drive motor. The benefit of that would be the instant availability of gobs of torque far beyond what the little gas engine would put out by itself.
Lean versus No-Lean
What is more relevant is the fact that the Neowing leans into the turns, so you get that motorcycle-like flying sensation, and while I have yet to have the pleasure myself, owners claim to be able to keep up with, and sometimes surpass, two-wheel riders in the twisties. There is predictably much wailing and gnashing of teeth on this assertion from the two-wheel sector. Sport-O’s rarely like to discover that they aren’t at the top of the food chain after all, and I expect this argument to rage until some top-notch riders make a very scientific test to see which is really better.
I say “top-notch” so there will be no charges of a great skill disparity influencing the outcome, though some on both sides will whine and bluster no matter what, or come out with the typical, droll, “I’d like to see him beat me” comments. As for myself, I can’t wait to see that matchup, and even if the leaning-backwards-trike loses, just the fact that there is a point of contention at all suggests that trikes have come a long way indeed.
All that aside, this arrangement gives the best combination of features. You get the stability and extra traction of the three wheels in a triangular pattern along with the “Superman” feeling as you bank around corners. Best of all, you don’t have to exert much effort to hold the thing up — it’s basically self-supporting — so riders looking for a bike-like experience but don’t want a wrestling match every time they stop will certainly find a friend amongst the Red Riders.
And there it is, folks, the short version of trike evolution and a peek at what’s just over the horizon for three-wheel enthusiasts. I’ve said before that I won’t ride a trike until I have to, but the thought of a Duc or even a CVO cruiser from Harley with a leaning, dual front end induces a feeling in me that leaves little doubt that given the opportunity, I would bail on my Sporty in a heartbeat. I expect I am not alone in this, and I expect this sector to continue to grow as these technologies spread to more production models.
Rejoice, three-wheeler fans, the future looks bright indeed!