When Hawgs Could Fly: The Harley-Davidson Tri-Hawk
Yes, the legendary manufacturer of the classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle now long past celebrating its 100th Anniversary did indeed sell an automobile… well, kind of.
For many years in addition to its Big Twin cruisers and lighter weight Sportsters. Harley-Davidson made three-wheelers in the form of utility and police “trikes,” but they were Barney Rubble lumps compared to the svelte Mirage Fighter looks of the short-lived, but fast-paced Tri-Hawk, circa 1984. Chances are you didn’t ogle one in your local Harley dealer’s showroom for they appeared only briefly, and were chalked up to a marketing miscalculation and rather rapidly deselected from the Milwaukee line-up.
The two-passenger Tri-Hawk had already been in limited production before the Motor Factory decided to take it on as their own ostensibly to fill some exotic niche which had no name. In the previous year, H-D had made a deal with the Austrian Rotax company for engine-gearbox racing units destined for 500 cc short track racing, so maybe it was in this euphoria of internationalism that Milwaukee opted for a three-wheeled machine powered by a French-built Citroen four-banger. And yes, “Citroen” does seem to loosely translate as “lemon.” But this lightweight, knife-edge handling bird-of-prey was no bit of sour citrus.
Decades earlier the fuel-economical, albeit quirky German Messerschmidt “car”, a recycled bit of Luftwaffe fighter plane, had carried two passengers around post-WWII Germany. Since then all kinds of other motorcycle engine-powered three-wheeled car/bike hybrids have been born in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, but none ever caught on. In the early ’80s, the Tri-Hawk appeared at a time when experimenters were again looking for alternative designs and better power to weight options. The Tri-Hawk was a product of this enthusiasm, the design conjured up by race car engineer Robert McKee while the deep pockets underwriting the project was millionaire sportsman Lou Richards. The finished product was assembled in a small plant located in a beachside town called Dana Point that basks in the SoCal sun betwixt Los Angeles and San Diego. The 1299 cubic inch flat four air-cooled engine rode up front while the frame and suspension echoed McKee’s racecar experience. Again borrowing from French technology, the builders incorporated a hydraulic braking system manufactured by Renault.
Tipping the scales at 1300 lbs., and powered by 80 horsepower through a 5-speed transaxle transmission, theTri-Hawk has what could be called “exhilarating performance characteristics.” Also it was not shy in the exhaust note department, a snarling Formula One rapture issuing from the pipes.
If you wanted to buy a Tri-Hawk back in the autumn of 1984 at the time of Harley-Davidson’s acquirement of the company, you had to cough up $12,000 which today will buy only about two-thirds of a Big Twin. Back then 12K seemed a lot for a vehicle with no top and only three wheels. Yet it had appeal, and substance, both in performance and in the looks department. It coulda, shoulda…but the Factory game plan was lacking in the area of infrastructure to support sales. Milwaukee decided not to sell them through their dealers, leaving only the factory in Dana Point and three other franchise locations to sell the Tri-Hawk… not exactly universal availability nor were there Super Bowl ad spots in the way of promotion. Even then, only about eleven Tri-Hawks were leaving the factory nest on a monthly basis, again not exactly flying out of the assembly door into the waiting arms of the motoring public. So like many endangered species, the Tri-Hawk died not from intrinsic design flaws, but from neglect.
Bottom line, the Tri-Hawk is an intelligently designed, seriously made sports machine that shares much of the adrenaline producing qualities of the Cobra’s eyeball sucking performance and the Lotus car’s nimble handling, but with motorcycling licensing and insurance perks, plus a bit of jetfighter tossed in. It could carry two in relative comfort, and safety thanks to the integral roll bar and safety belts. And you didn’t need to know French to drive one. They weren’t delicate or temperamental, gave good gas mileage, and were easy to park. And in the curvies, they ate big Beemers and Benz’s for breakfast. Today 12 grand seems a bargain, except the last Tri-Hawk this author knows about sold for $25,000. You might catch it near Los Angeles flying around the Malibu Canyons piloted by a guy with a big grin.