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When Hawgs Could Fly: The Harley-Davidson Tri-Hawk
Well, the famous classic motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson is now celebrating its 100th Anniversary by actually selling the car…
For many years in addition to its large fleet of Twins and light-weight Sportsters. Harley-Davidson made tricycles that were useful for police “trying to beat,” but they were Barney Rubble lumps compared to the svelte Mirage Fighter look of the short-lived, but fast Tri-Hawk, circa 1984. you didn’t notice one at your Harley dealer showroom because they only appeared so briefly, and were chalked up to a marketing error and quickly discontinued from the Milwaukee lineup.
The Tri-Hawk two-rider was already in limited production before Motor Factory decided to take it on as their own to apparently fill a strange niche with no name. Last year, HD made a deal with the Austrian company Rotax for engine-gearbox racing units designed for short 500 cc racing, so perhaps it was for this worldly pleasure that Milwaukee chose the French-built three-wheel drive Citroen four-banger. And yes, “Citroen” seems to loosely translate to “lemon.” But this lightness, and handling the bird-against the knife was not part of the sour citrus.
Decades earlier the fuel-economical, albeit quirky German Messerschmidt “car”, a used Luftwaffe fighter plane, carried two passengers in post-WWII Germany. Since then all sorts of other tricycle motorcycle/bike hybrids have been born in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, but none have ever caught on. In the early ’80s, the Tri-Hawk appeared at a time when experimental pilots were again looking for alternative designs and better power in weight options. The Tri-Hawk was a product of this interest, a design put together by race car engineer Robert McKee while the deep pockets underwriting the project was sports billionaire Lou Richards. The finished product was assembled at a small plant in a coastal town called Dana Point in sunny SoCal between Los Angeles and San Diego. A 1299 cubic inch air cooled engine mounted up front while the frame and suspension matched McKee’s racing experience. Also borrowing from French technology, the builders integrated the hydraulic braking system developed by Renault.
Weighing in at 1300 lbs., and powered by 80 horses through a 5-speed transaxle transmission, the Tri-Hawk can be called “performance-enhancing.” It was also unashamed in the exhaust note department, with a shrill Formula One rumble coming out of the tailpipes.
If you wanted to buy a Tri-Hawk back in the fall of 1984 during Harley-Davidson’s acquisition of the company, you had to cough up $12,000 which would only buy about two-thirds of the Big Twin. Back then 12K seemed like a lot for a vehicle with no top and only three wheels. However it was impressive, and meaningful, both in performance and in the looks department. It could be, it should be…but Factory’s game plan was lacking in the area of infrastructure to support sales. Milwaukee decided not to sell through their dealers, leaving only the factory in Dana Point and three other franchise locations to sell the Tri-Hawk… not universal availability and there were no Super Bowl commercials in the way of promotion. Even then, only about eleven Tri-Hawks left the factory nest every month, again not flying right out the door of the assembly line into the waiting arms of the motoring public. So like many endangered species, the Tri-Hawk died not because of internal design flaws, but because of neglect.
Bottom line, the Tri-Hawk is a smartly designed, seriously engineered sports machine that shares many of the adrenaline-producing Cobra’s eyeball-sucking performance and Lotus car handling, but with a motorcycle license and insurance, and a small jetfighter. . thrown in. It can carry two comfortably, and safely thanks to the integrated roll belt and seat belts. And you didn’t have to know French to drive one. They were not weak or noisy, gave good gas mileage, and were easy to set up. And on the side, they eat big Beemers and Benz for breakfast. Today the big 12 seems to be a bargain, except for the last Tri-Hawk this writer knows about that sold for $25,000. You can find it near Los Angeles flying around the Malibu Canyons driven by a guy with a big smile.
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