Tribulations of Three-Wheeled Car Companies

Aptera 2e

Recent news regarding a boardroom putsch of Aptera's founders further clouds the future of the three-wheeled EV maker. Those rumors have been denied by Aptera, but the company is one among many that are struggling to make ends meet. The Aptera 2e was about to reach production but the current CEO has decided to wait for financing from the Department of Energy and slash costs in the interim.

Three-wheeled vehicles have a checkered history at best. The design, either a single wheel in front or single wheel at the rear, are inherently more unstable around corners than a four-wheeled vehicle. It turns out that in the US the companies producing three-wheeled cars are inherently more unstable also.

The occasional emergence of three-wheeled vehicles is usually presaged by a crisis in petroleum availability or cost. In the US, three-wheeled cars are considered motorcycles and are not subject to the same rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). This gives the manufacturer an ability to avoid some of the costly design and testing considerations needed to pass the FMVSS requirements.

In the past several US three-wheeled makers have found themselves foundering and facing legal troubles. The story starts with Davis. In 1945 Gary Davis took over a three wheel car that Frank Kurtis had built for the Los Angeles tycoon, Joel Thorne. Several prototypes were built and franchise fees of over $1 million were collected. By 1948 employees were suing for back wages and Davis was being investigated for fraud. Eventually convicted, Gary Davis spent some time in prison and the Davis three-wheeler floundered.

In the 1970s another three-wheel car maker, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, unveiled a high tech looking car, known as the Dale. Powered by an 850cc air-cooled engine, the Dale promised to get fantastic gas mileage. The plot unraveled when the founder, Elisabeth Carmichael, turned out to be not what she presented herself as. Carmichael had been wanted by police since 1961 and, of course, the investors money went missing with her. She was eventually sent to prison after being identified by a viewer of the TV show, 'Unsolved Mysteries', noticed her in an episode.

In the 1990s the Corbin-Pacific Company started making a single passenger three-wheeler known as the Sparrow. The Sparrow was a diminutive electric vehicle with the styling of a clown shoe. With a range of 40 to 60 miles and a top speed of 70 mph, the Sparrow could have been a useful runabout, but Chapter 7 bankruptcy intervened. The upside of the story is that around 300 Sparrows were produced and a new company, Myers Motors, is working on updating the Sparrow and returning it to production.

The odds of three-wheeled cars catching on are very long. They have existed since the dawn of the automobile, have often wowed early adopters, and have fizzled as mainstream products.

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Comments (4)
  1. Unfortunately for the 3 wheel industry, no one created a single vehicle with the performance, utility, styling and price the market wants. It could be argued by some that the Aptera misses on styling, but its performance, utility and price will certainly sell thousands per year.
    Aptera has an excellent chance if it receives DOE funding.

  2. I don't know anything about what really went on, of course, but by chance I recently saw the movie "Tucker". The last 20 minutes or so are food for thought on the troubles at Aptera.
    I, for one, will be sorry if it never sees the road.

  3. The Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion was another 3 wheeled car that promised great advances and like the Tucker, is sometimes thought to have been suppressed by an auto-industry conspiracy.
    It seated 11 people(!), got 30 mpg, and is documented exceeding 90 mph. A prototype was destroyed in a mysterious crash (a witness claimed another vehicle drove it off the road). And investment subsequently dried up.
    "In his 1988 book The Age of Heretics, author Art Kleiner maintained that the real reason why Chrysler refused to produce the car was because bankers had threatened to recall their loans, feeling that the car would destroy sales for vehicles already in the distribution channels and second-hand cars" -Wikipedia

  4. I always regarded Preston Tucker as equal parts huckster and businessman. My mom worked for United Airlines right after WW II and was in the same compound as Tucker's Chicago plant. I believe that it was a serious effort but the vehicle really wasn't as good as the hype.
    The Dymaxion was an odd duck. Built up of balsa wood and duralumin, it was astonishingly lightweight. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile actually shows a 40 mpg, 120 MPH figure for the car. The accident referenced occurred near Chicago and resulted in two fatalities.
    There's a part of me that applauds efforts like the Aptera and then the reasoning part says that they're doomed from the get go.

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