Duke's Den - That's Not A Motorcycle!

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

I’m really anxious to drive the new Slingshot Polaris recently launched. With 170 horsepower in a 1725-lb package with side-by-side seating and an open top, it promises to deliver a fun factor unlike almost any other machine currently in production. But it’s not a motorcycle.

2015 Polaris Slingshot Review – First Ride/Drive + Video

You see, the Slingshot and other three-wheeled vehicles are commonly classified by state and federal governments as motorcycles. I believe that’s asinine. If it can’t fall over at a stop, it’s not a motorcycle. If it doesn’t lean into corners, rather than leaning away from the inside of corners, it’s not a motorcycle, despite what some governmental organizations purport.

The conversation about what is and what isn’t a motorcycle goes back to the dawn of motorized transportation. In the late 1800s, motorcycles, or moto-cycles, were either beefed-up bicycles or powered tricycles, typically with two rear wheels.

Motorcycle History: Part 1

Packaging an early internal-combustion engine into a bicycle chassis was problematic, so several 19th-century builders used a three-wheel format. Shown here is an 1899 DeDion Tricycle.

The most obvious motorcycle-like three-wheel vehicles are sidecars. Bolted to the side of a motorcycle, a small carriage with extra wheel to support larger loads supplied a smaller and cheaper option than a car. The sidecar format continues today, most famously in the Ural Gear-Up. But it’s my contention that a motorcycle equipped with a sidecar transforms a motorcycle into something that’s not quite a motorcycle.

Note how this so-called motorcycle is leaning the wrong way in a right-hand corner.

Harley’s Servicar was another variant on the tricycle theme, using two rear wheels to help support bigger loads. In production from 1932 until 1973,the Servicar was primarily used for delivery purposes. Trike conversions of Harleys and Gold Wings, also using two hind wheels, began to emerge in the 1980s, eventually spawning the Harley Tri Glide and, just this year, H-D’s new Freewheeler.

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle History

Three-wheelers also were available in the cyclecar format, most famously the various models offered by the British company Morgan, beginning in the teens of the last century. The minimalist Morgans employed two front wheels and were powered by motorcycle engines. They were relatively inexpensive compared to automobiles, and their running costs (in the form of the UK’s Road Tax) were drastically reduced by the government classifying them as motorcycles.

It’s the government that continues to perpetuate the myth that three-wheelers are motorcycles, opening the door to non-leaning vehicles that don’t have to meet the same safety and emissions standards as proper automobiles.

Can-Am’s innovative Spyder, using the tadpole-style configuration with two front wheels, burst onto the moto scene in 2007. The low-slung Spyder’s reverse-trike arrangement delivered much greater cornering stability than the delta-style trikes with one front wheel. The straddle-style Spyder delivered a motorcycle-like open-air riding experience without the danger of tipping over, and its popularity went beyond what most pundits expected. In fact, our first review of the Spyder is one of MO’s most-viewed articles of all time.

The handling dynamics of the Spyder have more in common with snowmobiles than motorcycles. Just because the feds classify this as a motorcycle doesn’t mean I have to!

Sensing an opportunity, Polaris has now thrown its hat into the three-wheeler game with its Slingshot. Rather than a contraption to straddle and carry a passenger inline behind you, the Slingshot replicates the cyclecar design with side-by-side chair-type seating. MO’s Content Editor Tom Roderick says it’s more fun to drive/ride than a Spyder, and I believe him. But to me, it’s more of a car with a missing wheel than a motorcycle. Heck, it doesn’t even have a handlebar. Same for the Travertson Striker 2.0 we recently previewed. In it, I proffered the term tricycars to describe these three-wheel car configurations, as they are more car-like than motorcycle-like.

As far as three-wheelers are concerned, the Piaggio MP3 is one of the few that gets my endorsement as an actual motorcycle. Most trikes are steered by turning the front wheel in the direction of travel, which is unlike how a motorcycle is counter-steered – push on the left bar to turn left, etc. Yamaha’s Tricity performs the same leaning trick as the Piaggio, and it’s only the first of more leaning three-wheelers yet to come from the Japanese OEM.

So, even though the Spyder and Slingshot (and other tricycars, cyclecars and trikes) are classified by the guv’mint as motorcycles, I prefer to avoid the trap of describing all three-wheelers as motorcycles. If the vehicle leans away from the inside of a corner, it’s not a motorcycle.

Despite an abundance of wheels, the Piaggio MP3 leans the right way, earning my endorsement as a motorcycle. Er, motor scooter …
Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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4 of 40 comments
  • Bigjames Bigjames on Sep 26, 2014

    As an owner of both a Ural (Retro) and a Servicar all I can say is phooey. Freaking elitist poo poo head.

  • Diesel Driver Diesel Driver on Sep 26, 2014

    So, what would you have us call the "not a motorcycle" type of vehicle? They sure aren't cars if you're straddling them and steering with a set of Handlebars. I would place that as the dividing line myself. If you straddle and steer with bars and a passenger rides astraddle behind you it's a motorcycle. If it has seats side by side and a steering wheel it's a car.

    Really, what would you call them???

    • John A. Stockman John A. Stockman on Sep 27, 2014

      Chris, I always thought the same way about straddling the seat and using a pair of handlebars vs a steering wheel and sitting side-by-side. With straddling the seat and using handlebars, you still have the left-hand clutch, right-hand throttle/front brake, gear-shift with your left foot and rear brake with right foot. But I'm not making laws or determining what moniker goes with what, it's just my personal determination and how I classify it. Either way, fun will be had, so who am I to judge? I was forced to decide if I wanted to quit riding all together, or seek an alternative to a single-track vehicle. I'm glad I decided to keep on going, even if it was with a 3-wheel "motorcycle" option.