Three young cyclists looked like they might be about to crash and add their number to the leaf bodies piled up by the side of the road. The one in front called to his little flock of migrating friends and they all slowed. "What the fuck," he said, doing a slow figure eight while keeping a fixed ballerina stare, "is that?"
Two wheels in front, one in back, all three weirdly wide and the body of the car slung low, like the Batmobile. The body was little, though, and its curves antique or weird some other way, like a homemade world speed record vehicle intended only for the salt flats but now parked on an ordinary road in New York.
There was an odd little roof attached to nothing in the back, just perched paradoxically on two little side-by-side roll bars. Down the side: V A N D E R H A L L.
The three-wheeled vehicle enjoys a special cultural status in any place they have been common, I think. On the old UK television show Only Fools and Horses—the phrase conventionally ends with the word work—the entrepeneurial brothers Trotter drive a Reliant Robin.
A little under 100,000 of these three wheelers sold in Britain. It had one wheel in front, two in back (the "tadpole" formation), making the Reliant famously unstable. As a work vehicle it embodied the Trotter brother's short-termism. (On a site I've never heard of called Marqued there's a story on one of the few Reliants in the US, resident in, you guessed it, Utah, and there's also a whole book about them by Giles Chapman, author also of The Worst Cars Ever Sold in Britain). For some reason these are known to me as Robin Reliants, not Reliant Robins.
In Germany, Elektromaschinenbau Fulda made the sweet little Fuldamobil in the 1950s and '60s, the first vehicle to be dubbed a "bubble car" and to boast a negative scrub radius—a measurement that essentially means more stability in the event of brake failure. It had two wheels in front, which made it a lot more ... reliant.
I'm pretty sure they had cool three-wheeled motorbikes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s but the Fuldamobil and the Robin Reliant—two ungainly little lovelies, one rectangular, the other curvaceous—are the only three-wheelers my involuntary brain could summon up before getting to the other side of the road where the three cyclists had slowed before going on, chattering gleefully about the "tiny Batmobile."
Vanderhall Motor Works hand-makes three-wheelers. I have never seen the vehicle pictured here moving, and in case anybody is worried about the owner getting in trouble, three-wheelers are classed as motorcycles in New York and are allowed so long as it has two wheels in front (Reliants fuck off) and you wear a helmet.
Me on my feet, the cyclists on their two wheels, my dog on four paws, the motorists all around on four wheels and invisible, whirring axls: Nobody else had three. The three-wheeler has an intrinsic wrongness about it that draws the eye; but the "wrongness" feels right, maybe because it has migrated into heroic fiction in the form of superhero stuff. I'm not sure. I found this wonderful archived thread on three-wheelers in movies, citing Police Story 2 and Diamonds are Forever, among others.
I think I'm going to get deeper into three-wheeler culture and report back.
There's got to be an ATV three-wheeler driver around here, for example. When I see people riding those ATVs down Atlantic Avenue it obviously scares me if I'm driving but if I'm not I want to jump up and down and cheer for them. They have the spirit of the three-wheeler. Don't you wish you loved something that much?