Tribulations of Three-Wheeled Car Companies

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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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