A Brief History Of Three-Wheeled Cars

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Elio Motors 84 mpg 3-wheeler [Image: Elio Motors]

Elio Motors 84 mpg 3-wheeler [Image: Elio Motors]

What do the Elio, Aptera, Toyota i-Road concept and the spectacularly awful Zap Xebra have in common?

They--and many more small-volume economical vehicles and concepts besides--all use one fewer wheel than the norm.

Yet giving fuel-saving cars just three wheels is not a new phenomenon, stretching right back to the dawn of the motor car--with periodic resurgences in popularity when the market demands it.

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Depending on what history book you read, the world's very first true motorcar, the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, rolled along on just three wheels.

It had been preceded by several similar vehicles, often steam-powered, whose layouts were dictated by the simplicity of tiller steering for the single front wheel.

And, with less than one horsepower, and very tall, widely-spaced wheels, Karl Benz's customers never really had to worry about the lack of stability that would characterize a similar layout decades later.

In 1910, one of the world's most famous three-wheel car producers was formed: Morgan. Still around today, the Morgan sports car company turned to three wheels for the simple construction and weight benefits they presented.

These are still beneficial to the company today with the latest iteration of the 3-Wheeler sports car. Narrow tires and a low center of gravity ensure grip runs out before lateral forces become a problem, but the fun factor of such a light car powered by a hefty V-twin engine and rear-wheel drive can't be understated.

Morgan 3 Wheeler

Morgan 3 Wheeler

Several other manufacturers introduced three-wheel vehicles between the early 1900s and the middle of the century, but it was the after-effects of World War II that changed the market completely.

Many European countries, crippled both physically and financially following the war, saw demand for cheap transportation that could carry whole families. Materials were in short supply, but the traditional motorcycle and sidecar option was neither safe nor practical enough.

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Step forward the microcar: companies like BMW, Messerschmitt, Bond, Reliant and others all took advantage of tax restrictions and new laws by fielding inexpensive but characterful three-wheelers for the next decade or so.

Here were cars that were economical to both buy and run--where light weight, tiny and thrifty engines and dinky size meant that regular families and individuals could afford an actual car. Design was dictated by purpose, but these cars are now appreciated by collectors for their design as much as their motive.

Europe's market could hardly be in greater contrast to that of the U.S, where a more hopeful and financially flush market turned out some of the most spectacular (and profligate) cars the country has ever produced.

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