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Three-point turn

Though rarely glimpsed for 60 years, three-wheeled cyclecars are about to make a comeback. Just remember your goggles, says Simon de Burton.

March 10 2011
Simon de Burton

Conventional automotive wisdom says that cars should have four wheels – but it wasn’t always that way. Throughout the second decade of the 20th century, the natural progression from a motorbike was to an often-three-wheeled cyclecar. These vehicles were nifty, nippy, not-for-the-faint-hearted personal transport solutions that you drove by the seat of your pants while wearing flying helmet, goggles and gauntlets.

Production burgeoned after 1912, when the International Federation of Motorcycle Clubs created a worldwide cyclecar classification in response to a decision by several countries to cut the tax on lightweight, small-engined cars as a way of democratising motoring. At the peak of cyclecar popularity there were around 250 manufacturers spread throughout Europe and the US, more than 100 of which were in the UK.

While many imitated the orthodox four-wheel arrangement of their grander, full-sized cousins, the best cyclecars made do with three wheels: two at the front and one at the rear. It might sound precarious, but the setup made for remarkable handling, while exciting performance was guaranteed through the combination of a featherlight chassis and a powerful, usually twin-cylinder motorcycle engine up-front.

Three-wheelers regularly held their own in hill climbs, sprints and races, and cyclecar Grands Prix were even staged in France up until the mid-1920s. Undoubtedly the most successful manufacturer was Britain’s very own Morgan Motor Company, whose founder, HFS Morgan, produced his prototype single-seater, three-wheeled cyclecar in 1909.

This quickly developed into a more commercially viable two-seater that, partly thanks to publicity achieved by a remarkable run of competition successes, remained in production until 1952 – long after the majority of other cyclecar makers had gone to the wall. Morgan moved on to the famous four-wheeler sports cars that, more than a century after the company started, are still built at its factory in Malvern, Worcestershire.

Morgan celebrated its centenary in 2009 with various events around the world, many of which were attended by the firm’s affable managing director Charles Morgan, grandson of HFS. But no matter where the top man went, he found himself answering one question more often than any other: when is Morgan going to make a new three-wheeler?

The slightly tongue-in-cheek response was to launch a £3,012 children’s pedal car based on the original 1909 Morgan, built to two-thirds scale in an edition limited to 500. But what Morgan fans didn’t know was that it would not be long before a real 21st-century three-wheeler bearing the Morgan badge would, in fact, become available in the form of a car called the Morgan Threewheeler (expected price about £30,000).

For the past two-and-a-half years, Seattle-based engineer Pete Larsen – whose main line of work is making sidecars for Harley-Davidson motorcycles – has been building his own version of a Morgan three-wheeler called the Liberty Ace, which has glass-fibre bodywork and a Harley engine. He perfected the design after several years of development and has currently completed 13 of the cars, which cost about $48,000, for buyers in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Australia and the US.

Morgan has bought the intellectual property rights to the Liberty Ace, but when the wraps are pulled off the Morgan Threewheeler at March’s Geneva Motorshow it will become apparent that the British firm’s designers and engineers have been using all the factory’s resources to upgrade Larsen’s design to their own specifications.

The most obvious difference is in the bodywork; instead of being glass fibre, it is made from lightweight, super-formed aluminium. Cosmetic changes also abound, most of them aimed at evoking the “chocks away” nature of the original Morgan three-wheelers that, so legend has it, were much favoured by fighter pilot types. The black anodised dashboard of the new version bristles with aircraft-style toggle switches, the starter button is inspired by a plane’s bomb-release mechanism, and the tan or black leather seats and door trims are intended to provide a “cockpit” feel.

The exact engine specs were still under discussion at the time of publication, but with a kerb weight of less than 500kg, the Threewheeler has a top speed of around 115mph and a nought-to-60mph time of just 4.5 seconds.

But, says Morgan, there is more to the Threewheeler project than simply reprising an old favourite. “From 1909 to 1952, around 30,000 Morgan three-wheelers were manufactured in Malvern and a lot more made under licence by Darmont Morgan in France. For many owners, this was their first experience of the freedom that car ownership could bring and, although the world is a very different place in 2011, we felt the time was right to relaunch what remains an exceptional design.

“The future of road transport in the 21st century has two big issues: the conservation of precious resources and the protection of our environment. Downsizing and a philosophy of simplicity are ways of dealing with these problems; the pressure is on to minimise and to lower our carbon footprint. It would appear that things have come full circle; three-wheelers that are small, economical and inexpensive to run seem to make a great deal of sense once more.”

Don’t imagine, however, that you’ll be trading your luxury saloon for the Threewheeler. In order to provide the full prewar experience, the cars will be sold without a roof – although a wet-weather tonneau cover will be available as an optional extra, and the firm promises graphics packs, branded clothing and myriad options to enable buyers to personalise the look of their car (prices yet to be set).

“The feeling of freedom and contact with the road through the front wheels will bring to mind the joy of driving cars from the 1920s and 1930s, but with none of their fragility or temperament. I liken the experience to flying on the ground,” says Morgan.

Since the Threewheeler is homologated under motorcycle Type Approval regulations, there is no requirement for airbags or complex crash structures – all you get is a couple of rollover hoops. Nevertheless, with a projected production of 300 per year, the Morgan Threewheeler is likely to put the joys of cyclecar motoring back on the map, making it as cool today as it was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when fans included Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot.

A Morgan is not, however, your only option. Many enthusiasts believe the Norfolk-based Triking is the best modern-day cyclecar on the market. Founded in the 1970s by former Lotus technical draftsman Tony Divey, the firm is now run by engineer Alan Layzell and produces up to 10 cars per year. They are available as a basic kit from a mere £2,700 or fully built from around £20,000, while Cradley Motor Works of East Sussex offers its Citroën 2CV-based Lomax, which has endured for decades, as a popular self-build alternative (£1,860 for a basic kit; £8,400 for a factory-built car).

Cornwall’s Blackjack Zero is another beautifully engineered trike (£4,150 for a starter kit; around £12,600 for a complete set of components for self-build), although many cyclecar purists object to the fact that it rides on fat, modern tyres instead of the more authentic tall, skinny versions worn by the Morgan, Liberty Ace and Triking.

Three-wheelers of any description are not, however, suitable for shrinking violets. According to enthusiast Johnny Yorke, who likes nothing better than tooling around London in his BRA (Beribo Replica Automobiles) CV3, “If you’re going to get behind the wheel of a cyclecar, you simply have to be an extrovert.

“I regularly drive mine through Chelsea on a busy Saturday morning when there are Ferraris and Porsches and Maseratis all around me – but the car everyone stops to stare at is the BRA. Rather like the new Morgan, it has no weather equipment and the interior arrangements are very intimate, but the fact that it provides the true feel of vintage motoring with crowd-stopping looks more than makes up for any shortcomings.

“I concur, too, with Charles Morgan’s belief that small, lightweight, unobtrusive cars of simple design should be taken seriously as a means of helping the environment. You could say that they got it right 100 years ago and we’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”