Anyone who has watched rally champion Ken Block’s YouTube driving videos will know it’s all the rage to make films of cars being piloted on public roads at absurd speeds and with supernatural precision – and, even more, all the rage to watch them. Block’s Gymkhana Five, in which he slides, jumps, “donuts” and J-turns a Ford Fiesta around the streets of San Francisco has racked up more than 84m views.
In March, Minnesota-based Polaris Industries – which made its name exactly 60 years ago by building its first snowmobile – produced a similar performance video to draw attention to its latest product, the Slingshot SL. The footage (500,000 views in the first week) shows US rallycross champion Tanner Foust haring around San Diego in the early hours of the morning before demonstrating the manoeuvrability of the Slingshot by driving into and around a multistorey car park like a man possessed.
Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking Foust really had “driven the wheels off it” because the Slingshot has only three, being the latest development in the field of high-performance “reverse trikes” that have two wheels at the front and a single, powered wheel at the rear.
The idea is not new, of course. Indeed, the reverse-trike format dates back more than a century to when the International Federation of Motorcycle Clubs created a worldwide cyclecar classification to take advantage of reduced taxation on lightweight, small-engined vehicles – a move that led to a burgeoning of three-wheelers such as those made by the then-fledgling Morgan Motor Company, which produced its first in 1909.
Morgan reintroduced the design five years ago in a bid to capitalise on the three-wheeler’s decidedly retro, no-frills driving experience that the firm’s former strategy director Charles Morgan liked to describe as being akin to “flying on the ground” – and, at the Geneva motor show in March, it was announced that an electrically powered version called the EV3 (estimated at about £40,000) will enter production towards the end of this year.
But while the Morgan three-wheelers are very much based on the appearance of the original, skinny-wheeled reverse trikes, the Slingshot SL (£23,000) brings the concept right into the 21st century through the use of modern materials and design techniques. Resting just a few inches off the ground on fat tyres, it features a lightweight, tubular steel frame wrapped in aggressively styled polymer body panels. At the front, beneath a reverse-tilt bonnet, sits a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder General Motors engine producing around 170hp and driving through a conventional, car-type five-speed transmission connected to the rear wheel by a right-angle drive in addition to a carbon fibre-reinforced drive belt. A motorcycle-style, single-sided “swing arm” links the wheel to the powertrain, with sport-tuned suspension being taken care of by a trio of gas-filled shock absorbers and stiff coil springs.
To provide maximum thrills for both driver and passenger, the Slingshot’s seats are positioned side by side behind either a low “blade” windscreen or individual wind deflector “bubbles” – but if it rains you’re going to get wet, since there is no form of roof or weather protection.
Indeed, an essential rawness is the basis of the Slingshot’s appeal – although it is, surprisingly, equipped with Bluetooth, a media console, six-speaker audio system and a reversing camera. There’s also electronic stability control, power-assisted steering and even a traction control system programmed to activate only in extreme situations.
But while the Slingshot has been designed purely for fun (despite two lockable storage bins and a glovebox, you won’t want to take it shopping), one of the key benefits of the reverse- trike set-up is that it is extremely stable. The wide track of the front wheels makes for high levels of grip and should the rear-driven wheel lose traction the machine is more likely to slide than to tip as might a conventional trike with a single front wheel.
Essentially, the Slingshot provides the same type of driving experience as similarly performance-orientated four-wheelers such as the Caterham Seven, KTM X-Bow and Ariel Atom, but with the benefits of having a single, driven wheel – notably its lightness, sharp handling and more direct connection to the vehicle’s powertrain.
By dint of its low-slung stance and open-to-the-elements cockpit, however, the Slingshot may feel considerably more rapid than it actually is because, at around 800kg, it’s perhaps not quite as light as it could be (the basic Caterham Seven 160, for example, tips the scales at just 490kg to provide a power-to-weight ratio of 163hp per tonne, despite its engine being only half as powerful as the Slingshot’s).
The Slingshot is no sluggard, though, and its handling is nothing short of sublime – but it’s not the only option in the world of high-performance reverse triking, with one of the best alternatives being provided by the latest version of the more bike-orientated Can-Am Spyder.
Can-Am – the road and off-road vehicle production arm of Canadian firm Bombardier Recreational Products, which makes everything from snowmobiles to jet-skis – introduced the original Spyder in 2007. With its handlebar steering (as opposed to the Slingshot’s car-type wheel) and fore-and-aft seating layout, the Spyder is more ridden than driven and by last year’s launch of the latest F3 models (£18,400) 100,000 Spyders had been sold worldwide. There’s even an annual gathering of owners called SpyderFest that takes place in Springfield, Missouri, over five days each spring..
And, while reverse-trike “antis” (and there are quite a few) regard them as combining all the disadvantages of a car and a motorcycle with few of the benefits of either, these machines are very much intended to appeal to a specific demographic – that is, wealthy buyers in the 40-plus age group who feel uneasy with the risks associated with two-wheelers or, in some cases, have reached a point where they feel they are simply too old for bikes but still want to enjoy the rush to be had from riding one.
“We sold 90 machines last year,” says Ian Taylor, who has a long-established relationship with Can-Am through his dealership in South Woodford, London, which began by selling the firm’s jet skis and quad bikes. “The Spyder has proved really successful since we took on the original model in 2009, but we don’t sell that many to motorcyclists – the more usual customer is someone who has always wanted a motorcycle but has been put off by the safety implications. What many people find appealing is the fact that the Spyder is such good fun and so easy to ride.”
But for anyone who does step directly from a conventional motorcycle to a Spyder, a certain period of adjustment is required. Having two widely spaced wheels at the end of the handlebars inevitably feels alien and, while a regular two-wheeler requires minimal steering movement once underway, the Spyder must be turned just like a car. The size of the thing needs to be regularly accounted for in traffic, too, and, it’s certainly more tiring to manoeuvre – both mentally and physically – than the Slingshot.
The performance, however, is nothing short of rocket-like, thanks to the F3’s three‑cylinder, 115hp Rotax engine that is required to propel less than 390kg (in the basic model), resulting in a 0-60mph time of just 4.5 seconds.
But, while fun and performance are undoubtedly the basis of what the Spyder is all about, an increasing number of buyers are using them as touring machines – which has resulted in models such as the F3-T that is supplied with a capacious luggage system, comfortable footboards and a tinted windscreen, while the latest RT Limited version also gets armchair-like seating, GPS navigation, iPod connectivity and a radio. You can even specify effortless, semi-automatic transmission in place of the standard manual gearbox.
If the growing sales of Slingshots and Spyders reduce their appeal, however, you could go bespoke and order a reverse trike from Worcestershire-based Mark Grinnall who developed his Scorpion III (from £16,000 to £22,000 ready built) more than 23 years ago. Currently produced at the rate of around 10 per year, the machine was inspired by the Morgan three-wheeler and examples have been sold around the world. Powered by BMW engines (which can be supplied as new or used units), the 390kg Scorpion III offers a power-to-weight ratio of up to 460hp per tonne – dwarfing the figures of both the Slingshot and the Spyder.
If, on the other hand, you demand the iPod connectivity, reversing cameras, media consoles and high-end audio available with a Spyder or a Slingshot, then Grinnall’s beautifully handmade creations are probably not for you. But if you simply want to fly on the ground, it’s difficult to imagine a better way of doing so… even in a Morgan three-wheeler.