My colleague had an earnest request. “Jacob, would you please review a Harley-Davidson trike?”
This is a man in his 50s, recently returning to motorcycles after several decades away. He finds cruisers cumbersome to the point of frightening when traveling at low speeds. His knees make holding up a bike, even one with a low seat height, somewhat of a challenge. The trike, he feels, would be the perfect vehicle to get him back on the road, and allow him to ride with his partner, who has her own Indian cruiser.
And so, because I like my colleague, and out of sheer curiosity, I booked a trike from Harley’s fleet. A cherry-red, 2018 Harley-Davidson Freewheeler. The Motor Company is the only company that offers factory trikes – Honda Goldwings are popular (and expensive) aftermarket conversions, but Honda doesn’t have anything to do with them.
My friend’s belief is that a trike is more stable at low speeds, and therefore easier to manage. And he’s right. If you can’t put your feet down easily, then a trike is a good option, because you don’t need to.
But if you think having three wheels will increase your stability in all cases, you are very, very wrong. There is, after all, a reason three-wheeled ATVs were banned decades ago. A trike at speed is inherently unstable and twitchy. A fast lane change threatens to unseat you, and you’d better be good at reading the yellow “suggested speed” signs for on-ramps – you’ll need to adhere to them.
If you ride motorcycles because you like cornering fast, and you think a trike will allow you to continue to do that, you’re wrong. Buy any convertible four-wheeled roadster instead. If you think it will allow you to keep the wind in your face, the sense of breath-taking acceleration and the sheer self-satisfied aura of cool that you get from riding – then you’re absolutely right.
As a trike, the Freewheeler is well-enough sorted. It turns when you want it to. It is reasonably composed. It brakes surprisingly well. A steering damper helps arrest some of the twitchiness, but the belt-driven live rear axle clatters over bumps.
Should you happen to hit a bump or curb the wrong way, especially while cornering, it is very easy to cause the trike to have a conniption. The front and back ends are not good friends, they just happen to both be connected to the lump in the middle.
Highs and Lows
That lump is very Harley-Davidson. It’s the 114 cubic inch edition of the Milwaukee Eight V-twin. This is a well-loved motor in Motor Co circles, but polarizing elsewhere in motorcycle land. Here it makes all the right noises, and surges forward off the line with conviction, but runs out of RPM and breath quickly.
I think this hot-rod version of the trike hits its aesthetic marks with precision. The cherry-red paint, ’38 Ford-inspired tail curve and flashings of chrome incite appreciative looks from others on the road. As a trike, I expected more comfort. This one is a little stiffly sprung, and while I appreciate that it’s the “sporty” version of The Motor Company’s trike, one wonders how much the trike audience is looking for such a thing.
My colleague summed it up, “Oh. I was hoping you’d get the full-dressed one with the fairing and the back rest and things – that’s the really interesting one”.
Ergonomics on Point
As a cruising rig, the Freewheeler isn’t bad. No great fan of foot-forward controls, I can see the appeal here, and the bars fall nicely to hand. They’re a good width: any wider and you’d find it hard to hang on around corners, any narrower and the front end would be a wrestle. For all the instability inherent in this set-up, these bars are well-designed to keep you in control of the situation.
Likewise the indicators, clutch and levers all fall nicely to hand, making for a fuss-free ride out.
Back Up a Bit
My driveway is uphill, narrow, and features two large obstacles – ridges that even my truck often gets hung up on when I’m backing a trailer. So it was a perfect test for the H-D trike. To access Reverse, you need to be in Neutral, then press and hold the “R” button on the right handlebar. Once “r” is flashing in the gauge cluster, just press and hold the button again to back up. It’s a neat trick and the small electric motor is more than capable of scaling the moderate challenges of my driveway.
How Does it Work?
The Freewheeler and more luxurious Tri-Glide Ultra are both built from the ground up as trikes. The front end is aesthetically and mechanically similar to the Fat Boy, with only the wider bars and steering damper giving it away from the seat forward.
The five-speed gearbox drives a belt, which in turn drives a solid live rear axle, turning both rear wheels in unison.
In the absence of a side-stand, there is a foot-operated parking brake on the left to keep it in place when you’re not with it.
The other factory three-wheeler on the market goes about its mission in a very different way. The Can-Am Spyder/Ryker puts its two wheels at the front and third out back, mimicking the geometry of a snowmobile, kind of. The Ryker is probably the closer competitor to the Freewheeler, and allegedly has most of the intrusive electronic nannies dialled back when compared to its older Spyder brethren. This is important, because the Spyder is over-nannied and neutered to the extreme.
The Ryker though, is an automatic, and the Freewheeler is a manual. The Freewheeler has traction control, but it can be fully defeated at the touch of a button. In theory, you could rip a big dirty skid on the Harley-Davidson. I didn’t try, because scared.
The Motor Company doesn’t release horsepower figures officially, but the 114 Milwaukee Eight donk is generally good for about 100 hp and 119 lbs.-ft. from its 1,868 cc displacement. Against the 77 hp and 56 lb-ft of the Ryker’s 900 cc engine, those numbers are better – but versus other engines on the market they are mediocre.
Lastly, the Ryker can be had for $10,499 with the 600 cc engine, which you don’t want, so that means you want to spend $12,499 for the 900 cc unit. Or, if you don’t mind the nannies, you could step up to a Spyder F3 with its 1,330 cc, 115 hp/96 lb-ft engine. That one is $24,499.
The Freewheeler starts at $33,999. Our tester was $1,000 more on account of the fancy red colour. Long story short: You pay more to play with the Harley-Davidson.
It is also much, much more cool. And brings with it a great deal more street cred. Not only that, but the H-D trike is a lot more fun to ride. Whether that’s worth the money will depend on your personal preferences. In this segment of three-wheeled vehicle, it probably is. Once you climb into the ultra-pampered, fully-dressed segment, that question grows difficult.
Should You Buy a Trike?
The answer is simple. If you can easily handle two wheels at low speed and hold up a conventional motorcycle at a standstill, then you should buy a conventional motorcycle.
If you can no longer do so, and aren’t ready to give up on riding, then you should absolutely buy a trike. And I think this one, despite the price difference, is the three-wheel option worth choosing.
It’s important to be aware of the shortfalls of this set-up, and adjust your riding to suit, but doing so means you’ll be a rider for a lot longer than you otherwise would be. If a trike keeps you on the road, then kudos to Harley-Davidson for keeping you on the road.
Because more bikes is more better, no matter the wheel count.
Key Specs: 2018 Harley-Davidson Freewheeler
Pricing: $33,999, as tested $34,999
Engine: 1,868 cc v-twin
Curb weight: 507 kg
Power: @ 100 hp
Torque: @ 119 lb-ft
Wheelbase: 1,670 mm
Length: 2,615 mm
Seat height: 665 mm
Brakes: Front: 32 mm 4 piston fixed Rear: floating 36 mm piston integrated park brake
Front suspension: 49 mm Dual Bending Valve forks, 117 mm travel
Rear suspension: Hand-adjustable springs, solid rear axle, 76 mm travel
Tires: 130/60B19 M/C front, P205/65R15 rear