When Hawks Could Fly: The Harley-Davidson Tri-Hawk

August 5, 2022 0 Comments

Yes, the legendary maker of the classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle, long past celebrating its 100th anniversary, sold a car… well, sort of.

For many years, in addition to their Big Twin cruisers and lighter Sportsters. Harley-Davidson made three-wheelers in the form of utility and police “trikes,” but they were lumps of Barney Rubble compared to the short-lived, but fast-paced Tri-Hawk’s lean Mirage Fighter look around 1984. Chances are you didn’t ogle one in your local Harley dealer’s showroom because they only appeared briefly, and were attributed to a marketing miscalculation and quickly deselected from the Milwaukee lineup.

The two-passenger Tri-Hawk had already been in limited production before the Motor Factory decided to take it on as its own, apparently to fill an exotic niche that had no name. The year before, HD had struck a deal with the Austrian company Rotax for engine and gearbox racing units intended for 500cc short-track racing, so perhaps it was in this euphoria of internationalism that Milwaukee opted for a three-wheeled machine powered by a French-built four-cylinder Citroën. And yes, “Citroen” seems to loosely translate to “lemon.” But this lightweight, knife-edged bird of prey wasn’t some tart citrus.

Decades earlier, the fuel-saving, yet quirky, German Messerschmidt “car” is a recycled part of the Luftwaffe fighter plane, had flown two passengers around post-World War II Germany. Since then, all sorts of other motorcycle-powered three-wheeled car/bicycle hybrids have been born in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, but none caught on. In the early ’80s, the Tri-Hawk appeared at a time when experimenters were once again looking for alternative designs and better weight-to-weight ratio options. The Tri-Hawk was a product of this enthusiasm, the design conjured up by race car engineer Robert McKee while millionaire sportsman Lou Richards bankrolled the project heavily. The finished product was assembled in a small plant located in a coastal town called Dana Point that basks in the Southern California sun between Los Angeles and San Diego. The 1,299-cubic-inch air-cooled flat-four engine rode up front while the frame and suspension echoed McKee’s race car experience. Again borrowing French technology, the builders incorporated a hydraulic braking system manufactured by Renault.

Weighing in at 1300 lbs. and 80 horsepower through a 5-speed transaxle transmission, the Tri-Hawk has what might be called “exciting performance characteristics.” He wasn’t shy in the exhaust note department either, a snarling Formula One ecstasy pouring out of the pipes.

If you wanted to buy a Tri-Hawk in the fall of 1984 at the time of Harley-Davidson’s takeover of the company, you had to shell out $12,000 which today would only buy about two-thirds of a Big Twin. Back then, 12K seemed like a lot for a vehicle with no roof and only three wheels. However, it had appeal and substance, both in the performance and in the looks department. Could, should have… but Factory’s game plan was lacking in the area of ​​infrastructure to support sales. Milwaukee decided not to sell them through its dealers, leaving only the factory in Dana Point and three other franchises to sell the Tri-Hawk…not exactly universal availability nor were there any Super Bowl ads in the way of promotion. Even then, only about eleven Tri-Hawks made it out of the factory nest monthly, 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 did not die from intrinsic design flaws, but from neglect.

Simply put, the Tri-Hawk is a smartly designed and seriously built sports machine that shares much of the adrenaline-producing qualities of the Cobra’s eyeball-sucking performance and the nimble handling of the Lotus car, but with licenses from motorcycling and insurance benefits, plus a little jet fighter. thrown in. It could carry two in relative comfort and safety thanks to the integral roll bar and seat belts. And you didn’t need to know French to drive one. They weren’t touchy or temperamental, they had good gas mileage, and they were easy to park. And in the curves, great Beemers and Benzes had breakfast. Today, $12,000 seems like a bargain, except the last Tri-Hawk this author knows of sold for $25,000. You could catch him near Los Angeles flying around the Malibu canyons piloted by a guy with a big smile.

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