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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Jay talks about his fascination with three-wheelers

I like three-wheelers. Even if there’s no really inherently sane reason to buy a three-wheeler other than as a tax and MoT dodge. Almost all of them were built specifically as a tax dodge. In England anything with less than four wheels was not considered an automobile, it was regarded as a motorcycle. So consequently Morgan could make anything from tiny two-seaters to pick-up trucks to four-seaters, all with three wheels on them.

The thing you soon realise when you drive a three-wheeler is that if there’s a pothole in the road, it’s almost impossible to miss it. Handling takes on a whole new meaning with three-wheelers. It’s not that they handle particularly well; it’s just amazing if they handle at all. That’s not to say they’re not great fun. My Morgan three-wheeler has got a Matchless MX4 motor, air-cooled, the big vee-twin that was in the later Brough Superior; you’ve got a hand throttle and you sit low to the ground.

One day I’m screaming down Mulholland Drive and I come around a corner and the rear wheel is hopping and I’m on the throttle, wide open, and as I’m going down the straight… there’s a cop with a radar gun. D'oh!

I pull over and I sit and wait. I can see him in my rear-view mirror. And I sit and wait and nothing happens. I turn around and I go ‘How are you doing?’ and he says ‘Good’, so I say, ‘Am I OK?’ and he goes ‘Yeah, you were only going 35.’ I thought I was doing 70. He goes ‘No, you were only doing 35.’ I went ashen-faced. I was going round the corner and the rear wheel was hopping and the throttle was wide open and it’s going pop, pop, pop and I’m flying down this road and I’m bouncing. I cannot believe I was ten miles under the limit.

The crudest example of three-wheelers is probably that Morgan, the most sophisticated the new Bombardier Canam Spider. I was fortunate enough to do some work with the Bombardier people; I introduced the Canam Spider to North America, so I got number 001. It’s a fascinating piece of kit. It’s got anti-lock brakes, it’s got traction control, so you really can’t lose it. It’s the perfect vehicle if you like motorcycles but you’re wary about riding them in the rain. You can fly it around and you’re not going to tip it over.

The other three-wheeler I have is one that was built by a guy back in the 1930s. It’s called the Shotwell. When he was 17 in 1931, this guy told his father he wanted a car and his father said, ‘Well, if you want a car you can build it yourself.’ And being a rather ingenious young man who later went on to become an airline pilot and engineer, he went down to the junkyard and found a Model A frame and an old Indian motorcycle engine and he built this three-wheeler.

He and his brother drove from Minnesota to Alaska to San Diego all during the Depression. Every town they went into, they were the two brothers with the homemade car that they were driving around the US, and people fed them and they got into the newspapers. It was quite an adventure.

When he was well into his 80s, this man had seen me on TV and knew I liked cars so he called me up and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got this thing I’ve had my whole life and it’s kind of falling apart, and I’m afraid that when I die someone’s going to bust it up and take the Indian motorcycle engine and throw the rest of it away. If I give it to you, would you promise to fix it up?’ I said ‘Sure.’ I went up to Minnesota and then we dragged it back, and it was a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun to drive. It’s rather odd to be in a closed three-wheeler with a roof on it.

I don’t think there’s any future for the three-wheeled car, especially in America with the liability laws that we have here. Volkswagen had a wonderful little three-wheeler that had been built in one of the design studios here, which it came very close to producing and selling as a $10,000-13,000 two-seater car, but then of course the lawyers stepped in – ‘Oh oh, it only had three wheels and, oh my God, if only they had just put a fourth wheel on it then these people wouldn’t have been killed in the accident.’

So Volkswagen turned away from it. I think it’s an era you will never see again.


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