Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Three-Wheeled Cars (Again)

Why has the three-wheeled car been so popular in history and yet never succeeded?

The year is 1980, and we are sitting in the elaborate three-story "tree house" behind the Sigma Chi fraternity at General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, smoking an awful lot of pot.   The topic is cars, of course, and given than the economy is in the toilet, gas is available only on even and odd days, and the 1980 Corvette 305 "California" is maybe cranking out a pitiful 180 HP on a good day, it seems that the days of high-performance cars are behind us.   The Chevette is one of GM's best-selling cars at the time.

"What about a three-wheeled car?" someone says, exhaling marijuana smoke.  And no, his name wasn't Elio, but maybe he had the same conversation in the same tree-house, a decade later, when he also went to GMI.   The speaker passes the bong, and a marijuana-fueled discussion ensues.

The appeal of the three-wheeled car is very simple.   Emissions controls and safety standards meant that cars of that era got shitty gas mileage, had poor performance, and cost a lot of money to build and buy.   A three-wheeled car would sell like hotcakes in the recession era of 1980!

A three-wheeled car, which could be registered as a motorcycle, would avoid emissions and safety standards, and thus be very cheap to make, have good performance, and get fantastic gas mileage.   For simple commuting and going to the grocery store, it would make a good second car.   A few more bong hits, and it starts to sound like a viable idea.  The bong hits being the key.

The Reliant Robin was made in the UK until 2001, as severe taxes on cars made three-wheelers far less expensive to own.   However changing economic conditions and regulations put an end to the three-wheelers for the most part.  As the UK slides into depression following Brexit, perhaps the new Nissan plant there can crank out these poverty-mobiles once again.

And it is an idea whose time has come and gone, time and time again.   Whenever a recession hits - or a depression - or government regulations make building an ordinary car too expensive, people start thinking about three-wheeled cars.   And a lot of them have been made over the years.   Probably the largest market was in England, where three-wheeled cars were taxed far less than ordinary cars, and thus a lot were made and sold for many years.  They also had three-wheeled "motorized wheelchairs" which were leased to handicapped people for a minimal cost, so they could get around.   For an island that is so small you can walk  drive across it in a day, such vehicles might make sense on low-speed secondary roads.

The Queen next to an "invalid car" which were leased to handicapped people in the UK to help them get around.   Few exist today, and likely many handicapped people ended up dead or further handicapped if they got into an accident in one of these deathtraps.

In other markets, not so much.   After World War II, shattered economies in Germany, Japan, and Italy turned to three-wheeled cars (or tiny four-wheeled microcars) as their solution to the problem of no work, no money, and no gas.  In Italy, the Vespa scooter was born.  These cars are poverty-mobiles that become popular when an economy crashes.  They were even briefly popular (in concept if not in execution) in postwar America, when new cars were in high demand and factories couldn't make them fast enough.   The Davis Divan, (shown at the top of the page) sat four across and was developed during the post-war car shortage - but quickly faded from the scene.   The Tucker was also born during this era.

As you can see, transitional economic conditions often result the development of oddball cars.   The problem is, of course, that recessions end.   People make more money and they no longer want poverty-cars.   In the 1970's, maybe such a "car" would have sold, in limited numbers.  And yes, people tried back then to build three-wheeled cars - it turned out to be a scam.   But by the mid 1980's, when the economy started to recover, sales would taper off to nothing.   In a way, it is like the recession of 1958, which spawned the Chevy II, the Falcon, and the Valiant (and put VW on the map in the USA).  Small, cheap cars started to sell well in America, then, but by the mid-1960's, everyone wanted a big-block "Muscle Car".   When the oil crises hit in 1973, we got the Vega and the Pinto.  The car business is cyclical this way.  Remember how many Honda Fits were sold in 2009 - and how many monster SUVs have been sold since then?

By the way, if you want to see a collection of three-wheeled cars and microcars, check out the Lane Museum in Nashville, Tennessee (yet another good reason to go there!).   Sadly, the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum here in Georgia closed a few years ago and the collection was auctioned off.   You can still "virtually" visit that museum online, though.   As you can see, the idea of a simple basic mico-car or a three-wheeled car is one that has been popular many, many times in the past, usually in response to harsh economic conditions.  And in nearly all instances, such poverty-mobiles had a brief heyday in the sun, or were utter failures in the marketplace.   They never really took off for the long haul.

So why, other than in the heavily regulated UK, did three-wheeled cars not succeed in the marketplace?   There are a number of reasons, used cars being one of them.   No matter how cheaply you think a three-wheeled car can be made (and they are more expensive than you think), they are not competing with conventional brand-new four-wheeled cars, but inexpensive used four-wheeled cars.   Why would you buy an Elio for $8000 when for the same money you could buy a pretty lightly used Toyota Corolla?   And let's face it, the Elio is never going to be made, and if it was, it would cost more than $8000 to make, particularly as presently envisioned.

The vaunted advantage of the three-wheeler is that it avoids nasty environmental and safety regulations (which actually protect you and the environment).   As a motorcycle, you'd have to wear a helmet and obtain a motorcycle driver's license - a barrier to customers who might not want to have to take a motorcycle driver's test (and might not be able to pass it) in some States.   But if you could avoid airbags and pollution controls?   That would be sweet!  You could make one of these cars for cheap, right?

The problem is, you are one government regulator away from going out of business.  If you made a car with three-wheels, the government might argue it is a car and thus has to meet all the appropriate safety standards.   There goes your cost-savings right there.

More puzzling still, the vaunted Elio car is said to be equipped (in theory, anyway, none have been built, other than rough prototypes) with airbags, pollution controls, etc., negating the cost advantages of the three-wheeler.   If you equip such a car with all of that stuff, you might as well cut to the chase and add the fourth wheel and just make a regular car.   Airbags aren't cheap, and neither are emissions controls.

Will we see three-wheeled cars in our future?   Probably not.   The Elio seems to be slowly fading from view, as each date for production or other goals comes and goes with no activity in their used Hummer plant happening (other than, apparently, selling off the machinery!).  And economic conditions worldwide are getting better, overall, not worse, even if it seems that a recession is on the horizon.  Even in India (especially in India), Tata motors  is trying to wean the public of the "tuk-tuk" type three wheelers in favor of their new four-wheel nano car.  When people have a choice and they can afford to do so, they favor a more traditional four-wheeled car.   Three-wheeled cars are usually not a choice but something people are forced into buying.

Sadly, like with the Tucker, or the Bricklin, or whatever, there are always a few rabid "true believers" who are willing to suspend disbelief to put a religious-like fervor into a vehicle or other product, for no apparent valid reason.  And often these sort of folks lose their shirts as a result.   Never make a consumer good into a religion or believe it will change the world.   Don't invest - or put down payments on - wild-eyed dreams.   Sadly, the people who are losing money on these sorts of deals are people who can least afford to lose what little money they have.   But then again, they have no one but themselves to blame for being so blind to the obvious.

I realized, even back in 1980, that the three-wheeled car was little more than a marijuana-fueled fantasy.   It made a lot of sense after a number of bong-hits, but then you sober up and realize that it really makes no sense, economically or environmentally or from a safety standard.   And maybe right there is a good reason to give up on pot and pot-fueled fantasies.

The Bricklin car was going to revolutionize the car business and provide much-needed jobs for New Brunswick.  Sadly, not only was the car a piece of crap (the few that were made, anyway) but a lot of people lost a lot of money in the deal and the politicians who backed it lost their jobs.   A lot of elected officials in Shreveport, Louisiana are no doubt sweating right now.