Are They Motorcycles, Or Are they Cars?
July 12, 2014

Are They Motorcycles, Or Are they Cars?

Three-wheeled vehicles — or trikes, as some call them — have evolved a long way since I was a child. When I was young, the three-wheelers were tricycles or the infamous “Big Wheels” that were powered by human muscle. Many times I thought it would be awesome to have a motor in such a thing.

Actually the concept of the three-wheeled motorized vehicle began with the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1885. It was followed in 1896 by a tri-car built by John Henry Knight, and later in 1897 the Butler Petrol Cycle built by Edward Butler.

These were just the first of a long line of ever-improving three-wheeled vehicles. Today, there is wide range of styles and motor options available for a three-wheeler. Factory-built as well as custom-built machines are becoming a popular trend nowadays. Especially with summer here, you can’t drive very many miles without seeing one.

The typical three-wheeled vehicle seen as I was growing up had one wheel in the front and two rear wheels, most of them were customized motorcycles using a VW rear drivetrain. However, times have changed and more and more three-wheelers are being made with two front wheels and one rear wheel.

Many three-wheeled vehicles have come and gone, being manufactured for one year only or some for a 20-year stretch. However, there are some that have stood the test of time, like probably the most recognized and abundant three-wheeler, the Can-Am Spyder, built in Canada from 2007 to present.

The longest-running three-wheeler was made by the Morgan Motor Company. It was first built in 1911 and was produced until 1939. Then again from 1932 to 1952. Then again from 2012 to present. They had two front wheels and one rear wheel, with two seats side-by-side.

The longest, continuously-produced three-wheeler, and still in production is the Twike. This three-wheeler was first developed in Canada in 1986 by a group of students and won first prize in an innovative vehicle competition. The original was human-powered. In 1995, the Twike III was produced with an AC motor and batteries, which are still being utilized in today’s Twikes. In 1998, it began production in Germany and is still being produced today.

The fastest three-wheeled, road-legal vehicle is rightly named the Blastolene Rocket II. It has a 1,000 hp supercharged V-8 HEMI engine and is owned by Tim Cotterill in Santa Cruz, California. Its top speed is estimated at 200 mph, but it has only gone 160 mph to date. It was produced in 2009.

There have also many companies that are just joining the new age of three-wheeled vehicles. Eilo Motors for one, is producing a three-wheeled vehicle with two seats, a fully enclosed cockpit, AM/FM stereo and airbags. It will be offered to the public later this year or early 2015.

Now, the latest three-wheeler coming to the market is the Polaris Slingshot. It features side-by-side seating with two front wheels and one rear. It won’t feature a typical Polaris engine, though. Rumor has it that it will be an Ecotec four-cylinder from GM, with an estimated 200 hp and 130 mph top speed. It will also feature ABS brakes, power steering, traction control and stability control, all standard. Full details of the vehicle won’t be released until July 27, 2014.

Now that we have briefly covered a few of these three-wheelers, how are they classified? Are they a three-wheeled motorcycle or a three-wheeled car? Let me shed some light on the question. It all depends on the vehicle’s design and where you live. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a three-wheeled vehicle is classified as a motorcycle. However, in some jurisdictions like British Columbia, Canada, and Connecticut, if the vehicle has an enclosed or partially enclosed cockpit, it is an automobile.

The best solution is to check with your local registration office to find out how to register your three-wheeler and what type of license is required to operate it.

Image Credit: Mr. Choppers

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