Jerry Woodward's Vortex 2000

Your car has too many wheels. Knock one off already, okay? An intern dropped this 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics on my desk this morning, which has a little feature on a three-wheeled car built by one Jerry Woodward of Provo, Utah. Bravely, he chose to put the single wheel in front. More on that after the article.

So, yeah, the end of the car with just one wheel is the front end. It looks better that way, of course, because cars should be dart-shaped. Even a senator with a nose full of coke and a yield sign through his temporal lobe will tell you that.

The trouble with a single-front-wheel design is braking related dive. See, most cars lack the power to mash you back into your set while accelerating, but almost every car can squeeze the brakes hard enough to throw your weight forward with the equivalent of a few hundred horsepower, if you get what I mean. When that happens in a regular car, the nose of the car squishes down on the front suspension as the weight of the vehicle dives forward with the force of several engines. This is called "brake dive". Think how long your car takes to accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour. Unless yours is a particularly sporty model, it's probably around nine seconds. Now think about how quickly you sometimes need to get from sixty to a dead stop without wrecking anything or dying. In those situations, three seconds feels like an eternity. You want to stop, post haste. Your brakes are powerful. This from what-when-how.com:
The brakes must be capable of decelerating a vehicle at a faster rate than the engine is able to accelerate it. Normally brakes have to absorb three times the amount of engine horsepower energy in its equivalent form.
If you jam on the brakes in your square car while turning, it will maybe slide straight anyway, regardless of what you're doing with the steering wheel (understeer), or maybe spin around (oversteer). But, if your car has one wheel in the front and two in the back, braking while turning will throw the weight of the car (with lots of force) to one of the front corners of the vehicle, where there are exactly zero wheels. In addition to understeer and oversteer, this introduces a potentially thrilling new driving dynamic called "rolling your car onto its roof". If this happens, you can't always rely on Phil Oakey from the Human League to stroll on by and roll you upright again. (See the video below.)

In The Seventies, personal ATVs had three wheels, with one in front and two in the back. The tallness of ATVs relative to the width of their base made them prone to rolling over on top of you if an unlicensed pilot (You didn't need a license to use one.) made the mistake of braking while turning. This design was abandoned in 1988 in favor of the more common four-wheeled design we see today.

The most notable production vehicle with the pointy-at-the-front three-wheeled design was a British thing called the Reliant Robin, famously made famous on this side of the pond, courtesy of television,  by Jeremy Clarkson as one of the most baffling design decisions in automotive history. Observe...

You can still buy a vehicle with three wheels, but they tend to put the single wheel in the back. This looks less intuitively "right", one may say, but it is much less potentially "head scrapey", as a design.

A T-Rex and a Can-Am Spyder. Motorcycle guys will probably tell you your training wheels are cute.

So, as part of our standard due diligence, the P.A.G! Research and Googling Brigade spent several seconds and literally tens of keystrokes checking up on Jerry Woodward and his Vortex X-2000, the car of The Future. Guess what? He's still around! He owns an auto glass shop in Provo, which features a museum of not only the Vortex, but a number of cars, all built by Jerry himself, with various wheel counts, including five and six wheels, because why not? Right on. There are enough "customz" around consisting of slamming the suspension and sticking on a set of hideous wheels and calling yourself a hot rod builder. Here's Jerry's shop.

As it states in the Pop Mech article, Jerry has done hard turns at 60mph without undue upside-downiness. Why's that? Well, details are unavailable, but casual speculation suggests it may have something to do with the wheelbase of the car being comfortably longer than the Reliant Robin's, and the positioning of the hefty V8 at the back of the car, helping to keep the rears on the ground. Job one, when pencilling out your three-wheeled car design, is geometry and weight distribution. Jerry seems to know what he's doing.


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Anonymous said...

Three wheel cars in the delta configuration are dynamically brake stable if designed correctly, everyone knows of the reliant robin with typical British engineering (pretty terrible). If the trivette had been more successful, 3 wheel cars would be the norm. See http://www.vigillante.com/ for more info.

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