Does Your Trike Lean Bro? Hustling on a Tilting Motor Works Harley
The reaction is universal, double takes and head scratching. Deeper inspection and scrutiny follow as people crowd in for a closer look, perplexing stares in their eyes. How can you not be curious when you see a big Harley rockin’ Tilting Motor Works (TMW) conversion for the first time? One doesn’t run into a Street Glide with twin front wheels that turn in like a standard motorcycle every day. Sure, some manufacturers have developed a reverse trike before, Piaggio’s MP3 coming to mind, but seeing them on a Harley is a different beast altogether.
At one point The Motor Company did, indeed, dabble with the concept of a tilting trike with two wheels in the front and one in the one rear called the Penster.
“So I hired a guy by the name of Johnny “Little John” Buttera, a famous customizer who built Indy race cars for Rick Mears, 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 Clyde Fessler, former V-P of Business Development for Harley who worked for the company almost 25 years. Twelve of those years he served on Harley’s Product Planning Committee.
“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. The wheels were still leaning and when you wanted to turn the handlebars they wouldn’t crank over.”
Despite the Penster project ultimately being scratched, Fessler still strongly believed the two-one concept was something the Baby Boom generation was going to want. Later in his career, Fessler served on the Board of Directors for Lehman Trikes where he was introduced to Bob Mighell, owner of Tilting Motor Works.
“I took one look at the product, 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 motorcycle but it’s a three-wheeler,” said Fessler.
I first met Mighell at the 2014 Rat’s Hole Custom Bike Show in Sturgis where he had a 2010 Street Glide with his conversion kit entered in the show. Even at the Rat’s Hole, a competition that annually attracts the top custom motorcycles around, Mighell’s Street Glide with its two front wheels pitched over in a mid-turn stance garnered more than its fair share of attention.
Tilting Motor Works’ bolt-on conversion fits Harley-Davidson Tourers, Dynas, and Softails. Fessler even has one on his V-Rod. Installation requires removal of the stock front fork and wheel so the tubes on the system can slip in to where the fork was mounted. There’s a steering shaft as well. The rest of the front end bolts on using three points on either side of the frame. The kit weighs about 120 pounds.
Mighell’s creation is based on sturdy coaxial A-arms, two coil-over Progressive 490 shocks, and leaning linkage. It has a patented steering knuckle designed to keep the geometry of the trike correct regardless of lean angle. Inside the wheels are 13-inch perimeter rotors with six-piston calipers. The package also includes Dunlop tires, front fairing, fenders, mounting hardware and hydraulics.
While TMW’s “Standard Conversion” requires a rider to still put their feet down at a stop to balance the vehicle, Mighell’s also developed a second version with a self-leveling “TiltLock” system that will automatically right the bike at a stop. The “TiltLock” has an accelerometer chip added to the circuit board that measures whether the bike is level or not as well as speed sensors on the wheels. As a rider slows down, if the trike’s not level, a hydraulic pump and motor will activate two hydraulic cylinders on both sides of the centerline that muscle the vehicle back to an upright position. The “TiltLock” feature can be switched off and on and returns the trike to vertical at speeds below approximately 3 mph or when stopped. Mighell said that because “TiltLock” and the front suspension operate independently, the bike doesn’t become rigid or difficult to handle at low speeds. The fact a rider never has to remove their feet from the floorboards is a strong selling point for people who might not be able to muscle a 900 pound bike around like they used to.
One of the major advantages Tilting Motor Works system has compared to a standard trike is that it countersteers like a conventional motorcycle. The suspension system remains neutral throughout the lean angle so the vehicle maintains full suspension travel. Providing a riding experience that’s comparable and familiar like a motorcycle is paramount to Tilting Motor Works’ success.
Mighell stated that one of the advantages of having two wheels on the front comes during hard braking when 70-80% of a bike’s weight is transferred to the front. With twice the rubber on the road, there’s twice the braking power. The extra contact patch also comes in handy when a rider encounters gravelly or slippery roads because even if one tire slips, the other helps maintain control.
The sum of the Tilting Motor Works parts tally up fine on paper, but there’s no substitute for seat time to find out if claims truly add up. We met up with Mighell on a sunny day during the Sturgis Rally where he had a 2014 CVO Road King with the “Standard Version” of the Tilting Motor Works kit ready to ride. The system is built solidly, from the tubular A-arms to the thick aircraft-grade mounts for the shocks to the perimeter brakes nestled in the wheel. The front fairing and fenders have been color-matched to the original paint of the CVO, boosting its curb appeal.
After a quick briefing by Mighell on the characteristics of his creation, we rolled out of Black Hills Harley-Davidson to a rural stretch of South Dakotan road where we opened them up a bit. If I didn’t look down at the front I didn’t realize I was riding a three-wheeler. Heading into the first series of turns, there’s definitely a learning curve. While I expected the front end to be heavy considering it gained around 120 pounds and turn-in to be sluggish considering the width of the wheels, steering is surprisingly light, almost touchy. It took a little time to get used to how easy it turns in and I oversteered and entered turns too early several times until I got the feel of it. Once I stopped trying to drive it and started riding it like a motorcycle, it all came together. And that’s the key. Ride it like a bike.
We eventually found a big sweeper to make photo passes on and with newfound confidence upped our pace through the turn. The stability at speed, at lean is impressive with no noticeable sway. It provides a confidence-inspiring amount of traction thanks to the extra contact patch on the ground. With a good squeeze on the brake lever the six-pot calipers deliver a strong initial bite and progressive power. The arrangement definitely shortened stopping distance, a boon when you’re riding an 800+pound machine. Unlike a standard motorcycle, dive on the front end is negligible.
Flipping around to make another run, the Tilting Motor Works Road King does require a little wider berth to execute U-turns. On one occasion I deliberately drifted into the gravel-covered dirt and ripped the throttle open. The rear pitched to the right and countersteering instinctively kicked in. The front end kept its composure nicely as the back end fishtailed then whipped back into alignment. In a situation which generally is wrought with fear of being thrown highside, the dual front kept me cool and in control.
Our day ended with a blast up the interstate. At 75 mph the Tilting King was rock solid, void of the floating sensation of most standard trikes and early generation Can-Am Spyders I’ve ridden. At the end of the day, I came away impressed with what Mighell has achieved – a three-wheeler you can hustle like a motorcycle that provides a comparable riding experience. It helped me maintain control when I intentionally tried to make it slide out and the braking power is notable.
Mighell has been his best brand ambassador, riding a TMW trike to Sturgis and back from his home in Snohomish, Washington. He’s gotten former host of The Tonight Show Jay Leno in its seat for an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage and the avid gearhead was also impressed with its engineering and ride quality. Mighell’s also taken a Titling Motor Works Yamaha V-Max out to the Salt for Bonneville Speed Trials where he set a couple of speed records. In 2012 he grabbed the record for fastest three-wheeler over the measured mile with a flying start at 132.245 mph. In 2013 he upped the ante by going 134.708 mph.
It’s no secret that the average age of Harley’s riding demographic has been continually creeping up. As a result, the trike market has grown exponentially. These facts bode well for the company. The Tilting Motor Works kit with the “TiltLock” function seems like a natural fit for wounded warriors who want to ride or people of smaller stature that might find manhandling a big Harley intimidating. But it doesn’t come cheap. The “Standard Conversion” sells for $9,995 plus installation, while the “TiltLock” version costs $12,995 plus installation. The kit also has to be installed by a TMW-certified dealer, which there are only four – the parent company in Snohomish, Rocket Moto in Nashua, NH, Gene’s Gallery Touring Motorcycle Accessories in Springfield, MO and Cherokee Cycles out of Greer, SC.
But when you think about its cost, consider this. The 2017 Harley Tri Glide Ultra starts at $34,339 while the 2017 Freewheeler sells at $26,339. The Tilting Motor Works kit fits all of Harley’s Tourers, Softails, Dynas, and V-Rods. Many riders already own one of these models or could pick up a used one, throw on the TMW conversion, and still be under the price of a Tri Glide. Best of all, it’s 10X funner to ride and more like a motorcycle than any other trike on the market.