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Why 3-wheeled cars never caught on

Kai Ryssdal Feb 11, 2015
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Why 3-wheeled cars never caught on

Kai Ryssdal Feb 11, 2015
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 In a piece for WIRED Magazine, Jordan Golson breaks down the history of the three-wheeled car.  

It is taken as gospel that vehicles should have an even number of wheels. Two, four, even six. But that hasn’t kept more than a few people from thinking three was the magic number.

 From the very earliest days of motoring, engineers have toyed with three-wheeled automobiles. In fact, the Benz Patent Motorwagen, generally considered the first motorcar, rolled on three wheels. Since then, the idea has come and gone, usually adopted by lovable, slightly eccentric boutique automakers like Morgan Motors or startups like the dearly departed Aptera Motors, although big players like Toyota have played the game too. (For the sake of this discussion, we’ll focus on cars, which we’ll define as having side-by-side seating and at least some semblance of an enclosed body.)

 But four wheels work just fine, so why take one away?

 “Car companies are always looking to sell something that’s different,” Golson says.  

 According to Golson, three-wheelers have plenty of setbacks too.

 “People typically buy their cars so they can haul around their families and their stuff, and a three-wheeled car doesn’t really do that very well,” he says.  

 So why were three-wheeled cars like the Reliant Robin so popular in England 30 years ago?

“They were popular because they were taxed as motorcycles,” says Golson. “So they were cheaper to own, and you only had to have a motorcycle license to ride them.”

Three-wheeled cars of old weren’t the safest either.

“You basically have as much protection as you would on a motorcycle, which is to say, none,” Golson says.  “It has all the bad parts of a motorcycle, and it has all the bad parts of a car.”

Don’t expected a resurgence of the three-wheeled car any time soon. But that doesn’t mean four wheels is the pinnacle of car formats.

“If the car companies can figure out a way to solve a problem that no one else has solved you might see one that’s really popular,” says Golson. “But until they do that, the demand just isn’t there.”

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