Every year, foreign-owned General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota turn millions of vehicles out of Canadian factories. Sure, north of the border, here, we’ve tried to come up with our own automotive brands – Bricklin, MCV, and HTT, to name a few – but all of our efforts have failed.
Enter Campagna, the one exception, a Montreal, Quebec-based company started by Daniel Campagna back in 1988.
Campagna made his car-motorcycle hybrid dream a reality decades ago, but hit a hurdle when he tried to enter the Ontario market, which simply didn’t know how to categorize his strange three-wheeler.
But as of 2016, motoring enthusiasts in the province can finally register a Campagna for the street—if they can get used to its transmission and don’t mind shelling out more than $50,000 for a vehicle down one wheel than usual.
Lose a wheel, lose weight
When he founded his company in 1988, Daniel Campagna knew a thing or two about quick-moving vehicles—after all, he used to be the lead mechanic for Formula One icon Gilles Villeneuve.
Campagna always dreamt of a vehicle that offered a racing car experience for the road, a minimalist machine that only had one purpose: to give its occupants a thrilling ride.
At some point he realized the best way to achieve that race-car feel was by reducing weight, and so designed a vehicle with just three wheels—not having a fourth saves you a few kilos, at least.
His first prototype surfaced in 1988 looking like nothing more than a grown-up go-kart. It needed some polishing, and that’s where Dr. Paul Deutschman came in.
A visit from the doctor
Deutschman, one of Canada’s most accomplished designers and a graduate of the automotive engineering program at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire) near London, England, got his industrial training at Jaguar and Rover. He followed that with a stint at Rover’s styling department before moving to Canada to set up his own design firm, which is renowned for its work with Callaway Corvettes.
A mutual friend introduced Deutschman to Campagna, and the two soon began work on this new project. “I really liked the basic layout of the Campagna. You have two wheels at the very front, and a big wheel at the very rear,” Deutschman told Autofocus.
“In the middle are the occupants and the engine, both placed low to the ground to aid in stability. This is the right way to do a three-wheeled vehicle.”
After it got the Deutschman treatment, the project became the Campagna T-REX. It initially went on sale in 1995 with either a Suzuki or Kawasaki drivetrain, but since Campagna hadn’t struck a deal with either manufacturer, it had to buy complete bikes and disassemble them to use the bits it needed—a very costly way of doing business.
But as the T-REX was moving closer to production, it hit a hurdle regarding classification for road use. In Canada, Quebec was the first to register the T-REX for road use, followed shortly after by British Columbia and Alberta. Ontario, however, couldn’t figure out how to classify the thing, and so set its application aside.
Campagna Motors decided that instead of wrestling with the Ontario Ministry of Transport (MTO) it would concentrate on the much larger American market, where it saw classification in 2001.
Finding pull—thanks to Polaris
Ontario, however, was always a target market for Campagna Motors, so its conversations with the MTO never quite stopped. That’s when some negotiating help came from an unlikely source.
Polaris, an American company manufacturer of recreational vehicles, had just come out with its new Slingshot—like the Campagna vehicles, this was a three-wheeler with two passengers seated side-by-side, like in a car, rather than tandem like on a motorcycle or trike.
Being a much larger company with much higher sales targets, Polaris really put some muscle behind getting their vehicle full road-use status in all of North America, including Ontario.
When it had talks well underway with the MTO, Campagna Motors jumped on board the conversation, in hopes of securing its own vehicle’s classification, too. The effort paid off, and approval from MTO came earlier this year.
How to drive a motorcycle with no M licence
“Effective March 1, 2016, Ontario launched a new pilot program to permit three-wheeled vehicles (TWVs) on Ontario roads,” Bob Nichols, Senior Media Liaison Officer for MTO, explains.
“For the purposes of the pilot, the Ministry has determined that TWVs are best suited to be registered as a motorcycle.”
“TWVs combine design, handling and driver behaviour elements from both a passenger vehicle and a motorcycle. This is consistent with the approach taken by the majority of other Canadian jurisdictions that already allow TWVs on-road.”
But in an interesting twist, despite its classification as a motorcycle, operators in Ontario don’t need an M (motorcycle) licence, just a regular full G driver’s license.
If you ask Campagna, that makes sense, particularly since “you don’t need any of the skills of a motorbike rider to operate these TWVs,” according to Campagna Motors President Andre Morissette (no relation to Alanis).
“You sit side by side, as in a car, and when you corner, you don’t lean into it like on a motorcycle, so it drives much more like a car.”
Like a car, you have three-point seat belts, but unlike a car, you also have to wear a motorcycle helmet to operate the vehicle (sorry, no bicycle helmets allowed).
Taming the T-REX
Campagna currently offers two models in its lineup, a much-revised version of its original T-REX, and a newer model called the V13R.
The T-REX has evolved quite a bit since over the past 20 years. The styling updates didn’t involve Deutschman, but stay fairly true to his original design. The bigger differences are powertrain-related.
Campagna no longer has to buy and dismantle Suzuki or Kawasaki motorbikes, thanks to an engine-and-transmission supply deal with BMW that was, in fact, struck by the veteran motorcycle manufacturer.
BMW didn’t just sign a contract and start crating off its 1.6-litre six-cylinders to Campagna as-is, though. Due to the faster-gear-shift nature of the T-REX and the extra weight compared to a bike (some 595 kg—still very light compared to a car) the engine needed some tweaking to operate smoothly and efficiently.
When I jumped into the driver’s seat – a not-so-easy feat that requires some twisting and turning of your body – I set off in “rain” mode. This limits the power going to its single rear wheel, and hence makes it a bit more manageable for a first-timer.
Setting off is a bit tricky, because the flywheel is very light and the clutch has a very short travel, making stalling not that difficult. You’ll have to get used to the gearbox—unlike a car, it doesn’t shift in an ‘H’ pattern, but sequentially. For motorbike riders, it’ll feel natural; for car drivers, it’ll take a bit of mental reprogramming.
To engage first gear, you push the lever forward, and from there, the next five gears (it has a total six forward speeds, plus reverse) are found by pulling the lever backwards. (The logic is when you’re accelerating, your body is pushed into the seat, so pulling a lever back is easier.) It took little to no time at all for me to get used to it, and I really started enjoying banging through the gears.
The driving position looks awkward, but when you’re in it, it’s actually quite ideal, and remarkably comfortable. Even the ride quality of the T-REX is better than I had expected, soaking up bumps with ease. The vehicle is exceptionally stable, even at high speeds, and you soon forget you only have one wheel propping up the vehicle’s derriere.
Since this is a performance vehicle, let’s talk numbers. Thanks to 160 hp from its BMW motor, the T-REX is supercar-quick, sprinting from zero to 100 km/h in just 3.9 seconds. It tops out at about 240 km/h—in other words, fast enough.
On city streets and on a decent highway run, the T-REX proved it can build speed quite easily. The acceleration feels relentless, and the noise from its BMW engine is ever-shrill—it’s not for those who like having in-depth conversations while driving.
A hot-rod-engined three-wheeler
The T-REX is a true superbike, only with a cockpit and three wheels, but Campagna’s other offering, the V13R, is more like a cross between a muscle car and a muscle bike. Hence, it gets an engine from what is possibly the greatest motorbike built in America, the Harley-Davidson V-Rod.
This 1.2-litre two-cylinder (V-Twin) motor was jointly co-developed with the help of Porsche, and produces 122 hp. The gearbox is also sequential in the V13R, only it has five forward gears, plus reverse.
Launched back in 2011, the V13R was the result of a design competition, of which Quebec-based Brio Innovation was the winner. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the company did the new Bombardier Metrolinx public streetcar and the Magnum MK5 sports car.
The driving feel between the T-REX and the V13R is very different. Whereas in the T-REX you feel like you’re in an oversized go-kart, the V13R feels like you’re seated in a bathtub with wheels—a bathtub that can sprint from zero to 100 km/h in just 4.5 seconds and top out around 200 km/h, mind you.
The ride and handling of the V13R was also surprisingly good. It takes bumps quite well, and its ability to change direction was astonishing. The V13R might be the hot rod model, but it can surely dance with just about any sports car you care to throw its way.
Better late than never
If you want to park a Campagna vehicle at your home, you’ll need at least $53,900 for the V13R, and $57,900 for the T-REX. That’s not cheap – you can buy a new Mazda MX-5 and a new motorbike for that kind of outlay – but that might be missing the point.
These Campagna vehicles are not just about speed and thrills, but about giving their owners a very unique driving experience. And trust me, if you’re looking for attention, not even a $2-million LaFerrari will turn as many heads as these do.
Ontario may have taken a very long time to get on board with the three-wheeled vehicles program. But you know what? It’s better late than never.