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A Brief History of Three Wheeler Cars

When Del Boy trundled onto our screens in his bright yellow three-wheeler, a car without four wheels was considered – rightly or wrongly - as a bit of a joke. So, how did these odd-looking vehicles come to fruition and who on earth decided to build something like that? The simple reason is that they were cheaper to make but more solid than a motorcycle and side car.

Three-wheelers are still available today and, depending on the engine size and design can be classed as a motorbike or car. In either case you’d still need a licence to drive them and pass your theory test. Just for fun, let’s take a look back at the history of these quirky but much loved vehicles.

The ‘first’ three wheel model (1885): Early car pioneer Karl Benz developed a number of motorcar models with the three-wheeled Benz Patent Motorwagen regarded as the first purpose-built automobile in 1885.

Peking to Paris (1907) – a Conti 6 HP Tri-car took part in the Peking to Paris race, sponsored by French newspaper Le Matin. Sadly, it did not complete the distance.

The Morgan sports car company (1910): Morgan is renowned as one of the world’s most famous sports car companies (and is still around today) and unveiled its three-wheeler thanks to its easy construction and weight benefits.

Three wheelers gain popularity (early 1900s): Many big motor companies such as BMW, Bond, Messerschmitt and Reliant, saw the benefit of three-wheelers, taking advantage of tax restrictions and new laws by producing low cost and characterful three wheelers that families could afford.

The Mini and Fiat arrive (post World War II): For a while these nippy compact cars killed demand for three-wheeler cars in Europe. They were good value and practical but….

The 1970s fuel crisis arrives: American firms began to downsize engines and UK three-wheeler specialist Reliant brought out its Robin as a much more economical solution for drivers, quickly followed by America’s equivalent the ‘Dale.’ Three-wheelers became popular again.

Smart cars (1998): Once again car manufacturers were experimenting with smaller engines and designs and the bubble style Smart car arrived, offering a nippy way to get around town and being cheaper to run. We were back to four wheels for this corner of the market. The Mini regained its popularity and further smaller cars on four-wheels came on the market.

Aptera Motors (2006): Using a tadpole design the Aptera 2e took on a more futuristic look bringing back three wheels. This time we had two wheels at the front and one at the back, offering ‘less rolling resistance and more aerodynamics.’ It was hoped to be a more coefficient option for customers but was not to be as it did not qualify for a loan from the US Department of Energy. (It needed four-wheels!)

Toyota’s i-Road (2013): This was an electric three-wheel model able to weave easily in and out of traffic. It felt like a motorcycle when taking corners but looked like a car and tops out at about 37 miles an hour.

Elio Motors (2016): Elio has been working on producing an aerodynamic, fuel efficient (84 mpg) and low cost $6,800 USD three wheeled vehicle. When produced it is hoped to sell through retail stores. 

Is there still space and a market for fuel-efficient three-wheeler cars? Only the future will tell. One things for sure though, these vehicles continue to grab our imagination and interest today.


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