The three-wheeled power-sports market is growing fast, driven largely by newbie bikers and aging riders attracted to big motorcycles but afraid of their heft and weight.
Many love the stability of a three-wheeled machine, but an equal number are put off by the handling: Trikes don't lean when they corner. They steer, a little more like a car than a bike.
Now the Seattle-based engineer behind Tilting Motor Works may have found the solution. Company founder Bob Mighell has developed a kit that will turn any Harley-Davidson cruiser into a "reverse trike" — two wheels in the front, one in back — that leans like a bike but won't fall over.
The invention is timely. Harley-Davidson says its three-wheeled Freewheelers and Tri Glides represents the motorcycle giant's third-most-popular model. Sales of three-wheeled Can Am Spyders and Polaris Slingshots are up too.
The numbers will only go up as the male-dominated motorcycling cohort ages and as more women enter the sport — both trends that the trade group Motorcycle Industry Council already has noticed.
Although many female riders are jumping on traditional two-wheelers, and riders of both genders continue to make Harley-Davidson the country's biggest motorcycle brand, the popularity of the three-wheeler is likely to grow.
Mighell's contraption, which fits all Harleys except the V-Rod and is being altered now to fit the Honda Gold Wing, doesn't come cheap. The base unit costs about $10,000. It includes a new front end, complete with wheels, tires, brakes, suspension and the hardware connecting all that to the motorcycle.
The more complex unit, which includes technology that automatically stabilizes the bike should it tip over too far for the rider's comfort, goes for $13,000.
That's a lot, but it still may be cheaper to convert a new Street Glide (base price: $20,899) than buy a new Tri Glide Ultra for $33,499.
On the road, the Tilting Motor Works conversions feel surprisingly like traditional motorcycles. On a recent swing through Southern California, Mighell brought a Street Glide and a Softail Heritage fitted with Tilting Motor Works front ends.
The bikes handled nicely and felt light, even though the Tilting kit adds about 100 pounds. They carved the curvy roads around Griffith Park just as well as the original two-wheeled versions would have, shifting gracefully from side to side, cornering effortlessly compared with other three-wheelers, which require considerable upper body effort and deliver limited cornering confidence.
And they offer an added benefit of stability, which is a key thing for many riders — especially female riders, Mighell said.
"We're getting a whole lot of interest from women who want a big bike but want the stability of three wheels," Mighell said. "We also hear a lot from guys who like riding with their significant others but who would like them to have their own bikes."
Mighell's Seattle area shop is busy. He says he sold the first 12 kits he built, then sold out the next run of 25 and is already taking orders for the next wave of 50.
Mighell said it appears that the market can bear the cost.
"We did the math," said the tall, Nordic-looking Washington resident. "Harley sold 15,000 trikes at $35,000 each. So that's half a billion dollars. The market is there."
Ruth Zebb of Tucson is one of Mighell's satisfied customers. A longtime Honda Gold Wing owner, she rode for 17 years without an incident, then hit a patch of gravel and went down hard. At 64, she decided she was done riding on two wheels.
She tried a Harley Tri Glide and a Can Am Spyder. "It was like driving a tractor," Zebb said.
But then a friend sent her a Los Angeles Times article about three-wheeled motorcycles, and she saw the Tilting Motor Works trike, and said, "That's what I want."
A year later, she has a new Gold Wing that's been made into a Tilting Motor Works machine. "I'm thrilled," Zebb said. "I love it."