Have you heard this joke? A large motorcycle manufacturer hires a group of traffic safety experts to study how to make motorcycles safer. After six months of intense research, the experts submit their unanimous findings. In the middle of a single sheet of paper are three words: “Add more wheels.”
Many have tried to envision a “four wheel motorcycle,” even though the concept is technically an oxymoron. While the automotive press applies the term to every tiny car that handles okay and can get out of its own way, I present to you three vehicles that are perhaps the best attempts yet at combining car and bike traits to create a real “four-wheel motorcycle” — never mind that a couple of these vehicles technically have only three wheels. The amazing characteristic that makes this group of vehicles unique is that all three are (or were) production vehicles that anyone can buy. Well, okay; anyone who’s much richer than you or me can buy.
The Vandenbrink Carver is probably the closest in spirit to the motorcycle. It was fully enclosed with a removable roof panel, had three wheels, but tilted like a motorcycle. Despite a small 660cc engine and 8 second 0-60 times, the Carver looks to be an absolute blast to drive. The electro-hydraulic system that managed the tilting function is ingenious, much more transparent to the user than many earlier systems, and seemed to be fairly fail-safe. If you’ve ever seen the Carver segment on Top Gear, you at least have some sense of its sky-high giggle factor. [Clarkson: “Hand on heart, I’ve never had so much fun in a car, really and truthfully, and I don’t think I’d ever tire of it.”] But it didn’t make it in the marketplace and Carver folded last summer.
The Carver is not totally unique. A long line of homebuilt attempts at tilting three-wheelers is documented on Max Hall’s website, www.maxmatic.com. Several major manufacturers have even displayed leaning concept cars, such as GM’s Lean Machine, Mercedes’s F300 Lifejet, and the BMW CLEVER concept (which was remarkably like the Carver). The Carver, however, remains the only tilting car that anybody could go down to the corner and pick up for his or her very own. (It was a long walk to the proper corner, however, unless you lived in Holland or Zurich; the Carver was never imported to the USA.) Persu Mobility of California is supposedly developing a hybrid tilting trike using technology licensed from Carver’s inventor.
While the Campagna T-Rex is not as sophisticated as the Carver, it sits squarely in the middle ground between bikes and cars. Half enclosed, with three wheels, it neither leans like a bike nor would be as comfortable in the rain as a fully enclosed car. What it does have is a very light chassis with a big bike engine that packs a heckuva kick. It even uses motorcycle saddlebags for storage, though they are oddly placed. Then again, where could you mount saddlebags on a three-wheeler where they wouldn’t look odd?
The Ariel Atom is probably the least bike-like (though Top Gear couldn’t resist making a sportbike comparison here, too). Indeed, the Atom would have more in common with a Can-Am racecar than a motorcycle, except for its remarkable bodywork. It is remarkable in that it doesn’t have any. It doesn’t mimic the look of a bike, but it shares a motorcycle’s mechanical exhibitionism. The odd but visually pleasing mix of Indy car and rail-frame dune buggy styling seems deliberately undressed; as with a bike, the Atom wears its insides on the outside. Think of the Atom as a motorcycle’s exhibitionistic soul trapped in a roadster’s body — a really fast motorcycle in one very athletic body.
This “best of” article is based on one I wrote for Indusurreal.com,
a blog I authored from June 2005 through August 2006.