Home » This Cheap 1974 TriVette Is An Ultra-Rare Three-Wheeler Built To Conquer The Oil Crisis

This Cheap 1974 TriVette Is An Ultra-Rare Three-Wheeler Built To Conquer The Oil Crisis

Trivette For Sale Ts
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The Internet’s been around for a while now, and we’ve all used it to share pictures and stories of weird cars, particularly the brownest, manuallest, and wagoniest of them all. Every so often, though, something strange pops out of the woodwork that you haven’t seen before. This 1974 Trivette up for sale on Facebook Marketplace fits neatly into that category.

Let’s get the fundamentals out of the way first. It’s being sold in Cary, Illinois for the grand sum of $3,500. It’s in rough shape, it’s not running, and it looks vaguely like an earlier generation of that wacky futuristic motorcycle from the short-lived Mighty Ducks cartoon. Oh, and there are no seats. So where did this oddball come from?

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The TriVette hails from the depths of the Malaise Era, amidst the turmoil of the energy crisis that would forever alter the automotive history of the nation. Big cars with thirsty V8s were a huge liability, and smaller, more efficient cars were suddenly highly desirable. Enter Bob Keyes, a physicist with experience in the aerospace world who set his mind on solving America’s transport woes. He planned to do so with a new lightweight vehicle that would barely sip fuel.

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The barely-recognizable Fiat four-cylinder could use some love.

The starting point for Keyes’ design was a simple statistic that said 93% of vehicles on California’s highways had just one passenger. These cars were hauling around many thousands of pounds of steel to get one person to work and back. Keyes figured the solution was to create a pared-down 3-wheeler with just enough room to carry a driver and a single passenger in tandem behind them. The vehicle would be known as  the TriVette for its three-wheeled layout, and the new creation was licensed as a motorcycle due to this configuration.

The TriVette, like so many other weird 1970s cars, featured a fiberglass body over a welded frame. Twenty-seven examples were built in total between 1974 and 1978, and 25 of those were equipped with engines from the Fiat 850 as well as some of the Italian car’s running gear. The other two TriVette examples received turbocharged Volkswagen engines. This used example features the four-cylinder Fiat 850cc engine driving the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission. In its prime, the engine was good for 58 horsepower and 47.7 foot-pounds of torque. That may not sound like much grunt, but the TriVette weighed just 1100 pounds. According to Hot Rod’s April 1975 test, the trike made the dash from zero to sixty in 9 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 82 MPH. Road Test had less luck, recording times of 12.9 seconds and 18.89 seconds in their January 1976 issue.

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The real benefit of the light body and tiny engine was fuel economy. The TriVette could achieve 68 mpg on the highway, or 55 mpg in the city according to contemporary testing. That was a huge figure when large domestic sedans were struggling to reach 20 mpg at best. With a nicely-sized 15 gallon tank, refills would be few and far between—a boon in an era when lines at the gas station were a big deal.

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Unlike some three-wheelers of the era, the TriVette wasn’t derided for poor handling. In fact, it performed admirably in road tests at the time. Hot Rod noted its stability as “rock solid,” while Road Test credited Keyes for building “a little three-wheel vehicle that really handles.” The latter magazine recorded lateral acceleration figures on the skidpad up to 0.77 g on the radial tires of the era. That was enough to best everything from the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT to the Fiat X1/9 and even the Lotus Elite.

Trivette1

Car and Driver was even cheekier about the matter. “We didn’t do any documentation on its cornering,” wrote Ted West. “We just let angry and perspiring BMW drivers find out that their cars did not handle as well.” It was credited with a safe design that would deliver rear-end oversteer before rolling over. This key point was mentioned in multiple contemporary reviews; unsurprising, given public wariness around oddball three-wheelers.

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[Mercedes’ Note: Many builders and even some well-known automakers have all tried to solve the problem of people driving to work by themselves in a large car, truck, or SUV. Many of these ventures, even well-funded ones like Smart USA, didn’t work out. Perhaps buyers would rather have one car that does it all than have to take care of and pay for multiple vehicles. Reportedly, the TriVette came as a kit bearing a price of $3,926, or $23,184 in today’s money.

The TriVette’s fuel efficiency becomes less impressive when you compare it to other trikes of the era. Another weird 1970s trike, the HMV FreeWay, promised 100 mpg, provided you drove no faster than 40 mph and specced your machine with the smallest lawnmower engine available. Just a decade later in the 1980s, Tritan Ventures would figure out how to get 80 mpg out of its A2 rotary-powered three-wheeler through extreme aero. Sadly, all of these wicked three-wheelers met the same fate eventually. – MS]

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Ultimately, despite plenty of positive coverage, sales didn’t flood in for the TriVette. The total production run closed at 27 units built in the Ventura, California factory. Keyes didn’t completely abandon the idea, later building the V8-powered Vigilante along similar lines, and developed a kit for a TriVetteTwo later on. The TriVette and its later siblings never made big waves, and Keyes would sadly later pass away due to heart problems in 2006. The model’s story is still fondly remembered on TheTriVette.com, which collates pictures and articles on the model from its heyday in the 1970s.

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Here’s a TriVette looking its best, via a 2014 Ebay auction.

The TriVette was one of many offbeat solutions that sprung up as America tangled with the Arab oil embargo. Ultimately, it was the major automakers that would adapt and shift the market to meet consumer needs. The fiberglass upstarts never really had a chance against that sort of industrial muscle. Regardless, it’s neat to see a physicist’s ingenuity put to the task of creating a efficient new conveyance for a troubled motoring era. If that really appeals to you, there’s a rare example waiting in Illinois with your name on it.

Image credits: Facebook Marketplace, Ebay

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MEK
MEK
4 months ago

Is it just the perspective or doe the shifter look like it’s directly under the steering wheel? It’s apparently not connected due to the rotting wooden floor but it sure looks like it falls right between the drivers legs.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
4 months ago
Reply to  MEK

That would appear to be correct going by this picture:
https://www.thetrivette.com/MY-8.JPG
From this website:
https://www.thetrivette.com/MINE-PICS.HTML

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
4 months ago

I’m commenting purely because I want Torch’s take on the headlights of this vehicle, and being on the rear fenders.

Was this ever done on any other car?

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

The Nissan DeltaWing had headlights both up front and on the rear fenders.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

It’s not quite the same thing but the AeroVisions California Commuter has its headlight in a raised pod at the extreme rear of the vehicle:

https://smallcarsclub.com/catalog/aerovisions/aerovisions-california-commuter/

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

155 mpg @ 55 mph is impressive, especially given the technology of the time. 82 mph on an 85cc engine rated for 10 horsepower is also damned impressive.

As an EV, stock-bodied, the California Commuter would probably be a 100 Wh/mile car at 85 mph, and a 50 Wh/mile car at 60 mph, judging by the power vs top speed with that body.

Consider that modern engines are much more thermal efficient than the Honda engine that was used in it.

A modern Hayabusa engine in a more refined/streamlined/fully enclosed version of the California Commuter has potential to regularly obtain triple-digit mpg when you go easy on it, and would be very hoonable when you want it to be(like maybe 9s in the 1/4 mile hoonable). A diesel, possibly double that economy, but nowhere near as fast.

And with the sort of drag reduction making it fully enclosed would allow, as an EV, a more refined/streamlined/fully enclosed version of the California Commuter would possibly have a Wh/mile consumption at 85 mph around 50… This is how you can start getting some decent ranges with small/affordable battery packs, wrapped in a light-weight high-performance inexpensive enthusiast’s sports car package.

Last edited 4 months ago by Toecutter
ADDvanced
ADDvanced
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

Didn’t know that ever existed, thanks! Love the meme at the end. 🙂

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

You’re welcome! A few years ago I bought a set of the plans just to learn more about it.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago

This looks like the Ambiguously Gay Duo’s car in dire need of some medical care.

Brau Beaton
Brau Beaton
4 months ago

Pretty sure this is Ace & Gary’s car. Something ambiguous about it. Hmmm.

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
4 months ago

Woo Hoo! I sent in the tip on this one! Or at least, I was at least one person who sent this in. Mercedes and I probably have the same stuff popping up in our feed because of geography.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago

Just the tip?

LuzifersLicht
LuzifersLicht
4 months ago

I kind of like the way this thing looks. Stick some fake chromed exhausts through the nose of one, maybe throw on some chrome accents and it’d be dieselpunk as heck.

Iwannadrive637
Iwannadrive637
4 months ago

The headlight location is spit-take worthy. I love it!.

A. Barth
A. Barth
4 months ago

Is that a wooden floor in there? This is like a reverse Morgan.

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
4 months ago

I have a fetish for wonky 3 wheelers! If this was nearer to me I would be tempted.

Scott
Scott
4 months ago

It’s interesting, but not very attractive (which isn’t an actual sin in my book, but certainly affects sales). I do like the headlight on the rear fenders though. 🙂

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
4 months ago

Those headlights are insane! Think how much shorter your viewing distance is, just because the lights are behind your seat!

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
4 months ago

I was thinking that there would be a huge unlit spot dead center because the long nose throws a shadow. These headlights would really only light the road shoulder and oncoming traffic.

Cerberus
Cerberus
4 months ago

It’s terrible, but I’m glad it’s too far away to impulse buy!

Loren
Loren
4 months ago

I own muscle cars and a pickup truck but my belief has always been that a one-thousand pound car is all people need for the vast majority of driving, especially commuting where millions of single-passenger vehicles are all going one way on one side of the freeway and the other on the opposite only to reverse at the end of the day; a huge waste of the earth’s one-time gift of petroleum and a problem electric cars do not solve. However, there would need to be special infrastructure, and insurance and DMV considerations to blunt being punished for owning an additional such car on top of the regular one you still need for Home Depot or soccer practice. My vision wouldn’t look like the TriVette but they had the right idea.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
4 months ago
Reply to  Loren

Well, the MkIII Reliant Robin weighed 992lbs, had a top speed of 84mph, and got 60-100mpg (UK)/50-83mpg (US). Also had a double wall fiberglass body, a galvanized chassis, solid rear axle, and a carburetor fed aluminum engine.

But, it also had 4 seats and a hatchback with a usable sized cargo area.

Honestly, I kind of think if Elio had just built an updated version of that basic car instead of screwing around with whatever they’ve been screwing around with for the past 14 years, they could have had something on sale by 2011. Might not have been a strong seller, but it would have at least been something

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
4 months ago
Reply to  Loren

Ehhhh, that’s still a lot of space for something that can only hold one person.

IMHO the perfect commuter vehicle already exists; the first gen Honda insight. 1800lbs. 50-70mpg. Holds two people, and big cargo area in back. Available with manual transmission. Steering wheel and gauge cluster are like an S2000. Aluminum chassis so it won’t ever rust out.

I’m at almost 300k with mine, and it’s paid for itself so many times over in fuel savings. It’s how I can spend more money on other car projects.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago

This vehicle appear as if it could have influenced and/or inspired GM’s Lean Machine concept.

It’s obvious that the Trivette’s aero wasn’t all that great.

For comparison to the Trivette’s specs, the GM Lean Machine had a 185cc Honda 2-cylinder engine making 15 horsepower(A 39 horsepower version was also made which could do 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds), weighed 350 lbs, the original prototype had a drag coefficient of 0.15(later prototypes were as high as 0.35), was governed to 80 mph(the 39 horsepower version could reach 100 mph), and got about 120-200 mpg depending on which body. It could also lean into corners, improving the maximum possible lateral Gs and braking into corners that could be sustained without tipping over.

A narrow tandem two-seater vehicle has great potential for fuel economy, especially if it were a tadpole layout instead of the delta layout of the Trivette. I think a diesel 3-wheeler with a CdA value comparable to a velomobile, roughly 400 lbs mass, and the ability to seat 2 in tandem could approach 1,000 mpg. The VW 1L from 20 years ago got about 250 mpg, but it was a bigger car with more frontal area and more drag than what I’m proposing, and had 4 wheels instead of 3 wheels which limited its potential for rear tapering and the reduction in rear wake size that can come with it.

Anoos
Anoos
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

I appreciate your deep knowledge of these MPG heros. I learn something every time.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Anoos

Here’s another, the Zelfbouw WMZ3:

https://lowenergybricoleur.blogspot.com/2014/05/een-zelfbouwwagen-de-wmz3.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOPvnh0k05g

This tandem 2-seater has a 153cc 1-cylinder 4-cycle gasoline powered engine making 15 horsepower and 10 lb-ft of torque, and is able to get 120 mpg cruising at its maximum speed of 87 mph.

Last edited 4 months ago by Toecutter
Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Even though a diesel is more efficient no matter the displacement, I think for little engines the trade offs aren’t worth it. A modern gasoline engine can be almost as efficient, with much less NVH, and maybe less complexity as well, particularly if you need expensive emissions equipment (which you do in most markets). If you have ever driven a 3 cylinder diesel with a bit of mileage, you know what I mean.
The truth is that most of the advancements that were applied to diesel engines are now used in gasoline engines as well, and the potential fuel savings just don’t matter very much in a small lightweight car. In Europe, even during the enormous diesel push in the early 2000s (which lasted until Dieselgate), small diesels weren’t very popular, and there’s a reason for that.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Kurt Hahn

A small diesel engine in a motorcycle vs gasoline-ICE can mean 200 mpg instead of 100 mpg. Consider the Royal Enfield.

Gasoline direct injection does have enough efficiency to approach diesel efficiency, as do Atkinson cycle engines, but in the latter only in very narrow portions of the BSFC map. In the case if GDI, there is often more maintenance because intake valves can develop carbon deposits, fuel systems can more easily become clogged, and the manufacturer may restrict what brands of gasoline you may use without voiding your warrantee.

Diesels on the whole tend to be more reliable and less prone to wear.

Last edited 4 months ago by Toecutter
Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

I’m not sure if this is still true today, (your last statement, particularly reliability), but it would be conjecture (or I could try and see if there are statistics about that, but I’m too lazy for that 😉 ). A modern diesel engine is just as complex as a gasoline one, if not more. For instance, all modern diesel engines (in passenger cars) are turbocharged, whereas my 999cc 3 cylinder is naturally aspirated, and has probably a simpler injection system, should it ever go wrong. It certainly won’t break any mileage records, but it’s reasonably economical, silent and comfortable, even though there is very little insulation, phonic or otherwise. Plus the difference between driving it hard or economically isn’t huge, certainly much smaller than with a turbocharged (gas) engine. It’s a ‘descendant’ of the well known Japanese 3 cylinder (its first iteration came either from Daihatsu or Suzuki, but it has been used in multiple versions, by multiple brands). It has over 60k miles, but it can do over 150k miles with little maintenance, it’s very solid.
I haven’t looked up the specifics of the example you gave (the Royal Enfield), but I would almost bet that there’s more to it. For instance, is that diesel engine as powerful as the gas engine you’re comparing it to? How about the displacement? There’s no way you could take a modern small passenger car and double its mileage by converting it to diesel, unless you’re comparing the most powerful with the least powerful version. If it drives similarly, its mileage won’t be more than 10-15% better (again , we’re talking about small, lightweight and economical cars). Which isn’t nothing, to be sure, but for me the trade offs (particularly NVH) wouldn’t be worth it.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
4 months ago

Swap the engine for a turbo triple from a Chevy Sprint Turbo/Suzuki Cultus backed with a RWD transmission from a 2WD Suzuki Samurai. ??? Profit.

Bobfish
Bobfish
4 months ago

Looks like an experiment by AMC to keep reducing after the Gremlin! Also, that Mighty Ducks cartoon pops into my head a lot, what a weird idea.

Cal67
Cal67
4 months ago
Reply to  Bobfish

I got Gremlin vibes from it as well, more so from the blue one than the shiny red one.

Doctor Nine
Doctor Nine
4 months ago
Reply to  Bobfish

Looks like someone sliced a Gremlin into thin pizza wedges.

Dead Elvis, Inc.
Dead Elvis, Inc.
4 months ago
Reply to  Doctor Nine

Having seen a few glitched Google Street View pix featuring similar effects, I’d have bought this as a Gremlin in that context.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago

“Another weird 1970s trike, the HMV FreeWay, promised 100 mpg, provided you drove no faster than 40 mph and specced your machine with the smallest lawnmower engine available.”

That was indeed the promise but mine only delivers about 40 to 50 mpg under those conditions despite having the small engine. Maybe what I really need is a TriVette.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

I think the highest mileage claim I’ve seen from a FreeWay owner is 60 mpg. Shame that even under HMV’s super specific scenario you still can’t get 100 mpg.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

C’mon: we all know Big Oil bought the patent for that carb—then ‘silenced’ the inventor.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Now that you mention it, it is rather suspicious that Tecumseh went out of business only a few short decades later, then reappeared under different ownership…

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago

The HMV factory literature claims that even the larger engine is expected to deliver 80 mpg but I don’t know of anyone who has seen anything like that in practice. The only guaranteed figure was 100 mpg for the smaller engine under specific circumstances but again, nope. Unfortunately the guarantee was only good for ninety days after purchase, and only for the original owner, so I may be out of luck.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago

The car’s CdA value was too high to get that claimed 100 mpg economy.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

The factory claimed an estimated drag coefficient of between 0.3 and 0.35 and the frontal area is certainly not large but I’ve never seen anything to suggest that the 0.3-ish claim was based on more than just guesswork.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

Just looking at its real-world delivered fuel economy of 40-50 mpg, it’s Cd is probably closer to double that claimed value. The much lighter GM Lean machine variant with a 0.35 Cd and similar frontal area got 120 mpg and could top 80 mph with a 15 horsepower engine, compared to the HMV Freeway’s 16 horsepower getting it to 65 mph, which is another datapoint that suggests the Freeway’s drag is about twice that of the Lean Machine.

Last edited 4 months ago by Toecutter
Rapgomi
Rapgomi
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

An actual Freeway owner! My hats off to you.

In the early 2000s I regularly saw one commuting across the Seattle 520 bridge.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  Rapgomi

Thanks! The last I checked there are at least three of us with Freeways in the Seattle area but I’ve only had mine for about a decade. I’ve driven it on 520 but not as part of a regular commute.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
4 months ago

Paging Toecutter to the white courtesy phone.

Mr Toecutter, please come to the white courtesy phone.

Bobfish
Bobfish
4 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Literally rushed here for this.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
4 months ago

That’s quite the knife edge styling!
Or is a wedge?
I kind of like it!

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