The Curious Case of Harley’s Tilting Three-Wheeler the “Penster”

Clyde Fessler on the first generation Harley Penster

Clyde Fessler sits on the first generation Harley Penster. “That was my project. I called it Project 21.” (Photo courtesy of Clyde Fessler)

The Harley-Davidson Museum calls it “Collection X: Never-before-seen Harley-Davidson prototype bikes created as concepts but never manufactured or sold.” Among those prototypes is an unconventional three-wheeler dubbed the “Penster.” We say unconventional because not only does it have two wheels in front and one in back ala Can-Am’s Spyder, but the front wheels tilt into turns. According to an article by The Kneeslider, the first version was built in 1998, while a final rendition was completed in 2006.

While information about Harley’s prototype is scant, we were privy to a little more of its history courtesy of Clyde Fessler. Fessler was employed by Harley-Davidson for 25 years, working his way up to Harley’s Vice-President of Development. He also served on its product planning committee for 12 years and has written a book about his time with The Motor Company called Rebuilding the Brand: How Harley-Davidson Became King of the Road.

Fessler said that Harley purchased a company called Trihawk back in the early ‘80s. The company made vehicles with two-front and one-rear wheel. They were powered by a 1299cc flat-four Citroen engine, had front wheel drive, and side-by-side seating. Fessler said he was V-P of marketing at the time and claimed “Citicorp killed it for financial reasons.

Trihawk was purchased by Harley-Davidson in the mid-80s

Harley purchased a company called Trihawk which made two-front, one-rear wheeled vehicles, back in the early ‘80s. (Photo courtesy of Clyde Fessler)

“Harley was in straights and we were looking to diversify but they said consolidate and the project was killed. But I fell in love with three-wheelers and always believed in two-ones,” said Fessler.

“So I hired a guy by the name of Johnny Buttera.”

Buttera, aka “Little John,” cut his teeth as a customizer in the hot rod scene before his career evolved into building front-engine dragsters, funny cars and Pro stocks. Known as a chassis master, “Little John’s” clients included Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Don “Stardust” Schumacher.

“He built race cars for Rick Mears for Indy and he built beautiful Softails. All his stuff looked like jewelry. He did the prototype for the project Penster. That was my project. I called it Project 21,” said Fessler.

Harley Penster first generation prototype was designed by John Buttera.

The Harley Penster first generation prototype was designed by hot rod legend John Buttera. (Photo courtesy of Clyde Fessler)

Fessler believed a titling three-wheeler was something the Baby Boom generation would want going forward.

“The mistake we made when designing the Penster was it was from an automotive standpoint. In other words, castor and camber, just like the Can-Am. We’d roll around corners like a truck. The problem with the Penster is that it leaned, but when you wanted to switch lanes, it didn’t react the right way. And even Delphi couldn’t get it. So if you were taking a right hand turn and all of a sudden you had to switch lanes to the left like you can do on a two-wheeler, well it wouldn’t respond but the wheels were still leaning and then you wanted to turn the handlebars they wouldn’t crank over.”

Harley Penster first generation

You can definitely see hot rodder Buttera’s influence on the first rendition of Harley’s Penster prototype. (Harley-Davidson Museum photo)

Still holding onto his love of three-wheelers and belief in two-ones, Fessler later served on the Board of Directors for Lehman Trikes where he was introduced to Bob Mighell. Turns out Mighell owns Tilting Motor Works, a company that has developed a bolt-on, two-wheeled tilting front end kit for Harley Tourers, Dynas and Softails.

“And I took one look at the product and got on it and rode around the block and said this is the magic answer. This is the design that really gives you the feeling of a two-wheeler with counter-steering and has all of the action of a two-wheeler but it’s a three-wheeler,” said Fessler.

He believes in Tilting Motor Works so much Fessler’s invested in the company and was helping out with marketing at the 2016 Sturgis Rally, which is where we first met him.

Harley-Davidson Penster Prototype

The second generation Harley Penster prototype was reportedly completed in 2006. (Harley-Davidson Museum photo)

“I think there’s a place in the marketplace for it. I predict, my gut feeling is Harley’s going to be launching one within the next two to three years, their own two-one,” stated Fessler.

He believes this in part because Fessler claims Harley sent an engineer out to spent five days with Mighell. Later, Fessler tried to make an appointment in Milwaukee with Harley CEO Matt Levatich when Mighell was making a promotional swing through the Midwest, but “they didn’t want to look at it.

“The fact that they didn’t even want to look at it and they had an engineer out there tells me that they got their own project going and they don’t want anything to do with potential legal action later on down the line,” surmised Fessler.

While this is purely conjecture, a three-wheeler that counter-steers like a motorcycle and provides a comparable riding experience would most likely appeal to Harley’s aging demographic. It’s a concept foreign competitors have embraced as well, from Yamaha’s LMW 08H concept to Hoonda’s NEOWING.

Time will tell how this plays out. Erstwhile, we’ve hitched a leg over a Harley equipped with Mighell’s bolt-on conversion. But that’s another story for a later date. Stay tuned.

Harley-Davidson Penster Prototype

The Penster, a three-wheeler with two front wheels that tilt into turns, is in the Harley-Davidson Museum’s “Collection X.” (Harley-Davidson Museum photo)