No grown-up vehicle can match the thrill you felt as a kid on your Big Wheel. Cars and motorcycles are fun, but at day's end they're serious machines. Recapturing that unbridled euphoria requires a dedicated device. And the SFD Industries Drift Trike is the three-wheeled, petrol-powered tool for the job.
What Is It?
A Big Wheel that grew up but never got old. A kid's trike that's too big for a kid, but perfect for a six-footer, and fast enough for that adult to never, ever want to stop riding it. A toy built to exacting specifications using serious hardware, with a petrol engine that hurtles you right back into childhood, sideways.
Drift trikes started showing up a few years ago, and they all follow the same basic formula: Bicycle front wheel and handlebars, tiny rear wheels from a go-kart, and a low seat in between. The rear tyres wear sleeves cut from PVC pipe, to reduce grip and let the rider kick the tail of the trike out and drift around turns. They're really big in New Zealand.
If you've been living under a Vin Diesel-proof dome for the past thirteen years, drifting means skidding a wheeled vehicle around a turn, sideways, in a controlled slide. Old-time racing drivers used this technique to go around curves faster than their slippery low-tech tyres could grip, finessing an out-of-control skid into the shape of the turns they were navigating.
Nowadays, street hooligans and professional drivers hold drift competitions to see who can go around a track with the most sideways style, rather than the most outright speed. Think BMX halfpipe, as opposed to the Tour de France.
With the right amount of controlled loss of traction, just about any wheeled vehicle can drift: Cars, motorcycles, bicycles (sorta), shopping carts, and, yes, purpose-built adult-sized three wheelers.
Most drift trikes simply coast; others are pedal-powered. But as with anything wheeled, speed freaks have started putting motors to these machines. Some use a motorised front wheel pilfered from the electric bicycles that big city pizza delivery guys ride. But the best and baddest drift trikes use the highest-adrenaline fuel around: petrol.
SFD Industries founder August Agner with his creation.
August Agner started playing with drift trikes while he was laid up from a nasty motorcycle accident. Recovering from a shattered pelvis and hip surgery, he couldn't push his three-year-old son around on a normal kiddie trike. So the professional welder, fabricator, and motorcycle builder threw a go-kart engine into the mix. Folks saw what August had built and wanted trikes of their own, and soon North Carolina's SFD Industries was born.
Plenty of drift trikes, motorised or not, are cobbled-together wrecks, one-offs indifferently built by well-meaning hobbyists. August's machines earn the same attention to detail he bestows on $40,000 motorcycle builds. The CNC-bent, .095 chromoly tube chassis I rode in was shaped with the exacting geometry used on motorcycle frames to stay stable at speed. And topping out at 60km/g, there's plenty of speed to be had.
The basic SFD trike comes with all the necessities to get you going sideways: A complete chassis, motor, brakes, tyres and seat. The one we tested, though, went way beyond that.
The trike you see here is August's personal ride, built as a rolling business card for SFD Industries. It's a gorgeously detailed riff on the Radio Flyer theme, redolent in red and white with enough custom-painted and anodised details to make a Rat's Hole Custom Bike Show judge smile.
This trike wears pretty much every custom touch SFD Industries offers: hydraulic disc brakes front and rear, a digital tachometer, a motorcycle-style twist-grip throttle, dash-mounted Bluetooth speaker and more. The attention to detail is breathtaking, from the beautifully TIG-welded joints of the frame to the colour-matched spoke nipples on the 26-inch front wheel.
The only upgrade we didn't test was a monster engine. SFD Industries offers upgraded powerplants capable of putting out way more horsepower than a tricycle riding on 5-inch rear wheels could ever need. August will build you a trike that's as powerful as your wallet and lust for danger can handle, but we decided to stick with the stock 6.5 horsepower mill. It was more than enough.
Sitting on the Drift Trike is like going back to your first-grade classroom and finding out you still fit perfectly at your desk. The seating position — feet-first, arms outstretched, arse hovering a burrito wrapper's thickness over the pavement — is exactly how you left it the last time you hopped on your Big Wheel as a kid.
But your Big Wheel didn't have a pull-start, and it wouldn't motor itself along no matter how convincingly you twisted your wrist and made engine noises. To master this beast, you've got to have some grown-up experience operating a throttle and dabbling in countersteer.
August, giving me some riding tips after yet another spin-out. And probably regretting the long drive up from North Carolina.
The first few times I hopped on the Drift Trike were disastrous. I'd roll out slowly under control, then crack open the throttle, and instantly spin out. The PVC-shod rear tyres slide wildly with even the slightest kick of gas, and before I could catch it by steering into the skid, I'd end up a helpless passenger on an unintended 360. The flying saucer impression would starve the engine of fuel, leaving me skittering backwards, front brake locked up, engine stalled.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of agonizing start-spin-stall-repeat, I asked August to take a turn at the helm so I could watch a pro in action. He immediately launched the trike into the most graceful sideways three-wheeled drift I've ever witnessed. It was effortless, but it took a lot of counter-steering: As he drifted by, August had the front wheel cranked over practically perpendicular to the rear tyres.
Watching August handle the beast, I finally built up the guts to do some serious turning. Roll out, crack open the throttle, whip the handlebars around; suddenly, long-lost driving instincts honed on snow-covered parking lots as a reckless teen were kicking back in. I was way, way sideways, but I wasn't spinning. I was drifting.
To really get it right, I had to un-learn my tendency of blasting the rear wheels with as much gas as the engine could give. This isn't a 1800kg car on sticky rubber tyres; it's a spindly sibling of a go-kart that two people can lift out of a pickup truck, with as much traction as a puppy on a waxed linoleum floor. It wants to go sideways, and the mere glimpse of a steering input is enough to initiate a skid.
Keeping it controlled means steering farther into the skid than you might first expect, and doling out just a little bit of extra gas to keep the back wheels sliding. You don't need to coax it into drifting; you just need to know how to sustain that drift once it starts. After an hour or so, I was able to initiate a drift just by swinging my hips to the side, the closest to actual dancing I'll ever get.
It's tempting to say riding the Drift Trike made me feel like a kid again, but that's a disservice to the Drift Trike. It's better than that. This thing gives you the feeling you envied in adults as a seven year old, back when you assumed being grown up meant eating ice cream whenever you wanted and never having to put away your toys.
This real-life vehicle is as capable as the imaginary machine you pretended you were riding as you pedaled and made motor noises so many years ago. Concentrate hard enough on keeping it aimed in a straight line, and the Drift Trike will hit chest-pounding velocity. Top speed may only be around 56km/h, but with your eyeballs at the level of a grown up car's headlights, it might as well be 200km/h. And it will zip around all day, hills — and the fatigue of physical exertion — be damned, on a few bucks' worth of petrol.
And once you get the hang of the drift, piloting this thing will make you feel like the professional stunt driver you always assumed you'd grow up to be. In the course of our afternoon at Gizmodo's top secret drifting facility, I grew confident enough to ask photographer Nick Stango to pick the exact spot he wanted me to cross as I'd skid by for an action shot.
I think I hit Nick's mark exactly zero times during our test. But the trike made me feel like such a pro, I thought I could pull off this master precision. And the reality of my shortcomings didn't bother me one bit. Just like being a kid again.
The Drift Trike is a blast, but it's no comfy cruiser. With no suspension whatsoever, every bump, crease, or expansion joint you traverse is telegraphed directly to the cushionless fibreglass seat and foot pegs. That's not a problem on smooth asphalt, but the choppy surfaces at our test site caused vibrations that occasionally knocked my feet off the pegs, a potentially ankle-snapping situation.
It's also got the ground clearance of a vacuum cleaner, and rear tyres purposefully shod in plastic to reduce traction. It will handle the gentle hills of your subdivision OK, but don't expect to traverse any kind of challenging terrain whatsoever. The trike thrives on high-quality pavement.
And as I learned over and over while getting my drift groove back, if you overcook a turn and spin out, the engine will want to stall. You can catch it, if you've got the foresight to rev the engine a little as you launch into an uncontrolled spin you weren't expecting. If not, you'll have to hop off and give the pull-starter the old heave-ho. It's not hard to start, and if you've ever yanked a lawnmower to life you'll know the drill. But it does take a little finessing — and some fiddling with the choke lever — to get it lit again. The upside: It's a great way to teach your kids (or yourself) how carburetors work.
Why Does It Matter
By now I hope I've made it abundantly clear how much I loved riding the SFD Industries Drift Trike. And not just because it gave me a reason to wear my custom-striped Skratch helmetfor work.
If you understand the appeal of drifting, you'll implicitly know the itch that a toy like the Drift Trike scratches. You have perilously few chances in this life to go skidding sideways down an open patch of pavement, throttle, steering, and foolish grin all opened up as wide as they will possibly go.
SFD's Drift Trike, like so many motorised freak machines dreamed up by creative gearheads the world over, gives you the chance to realise that primal urge without risking your car and your driver's licence to the harsh realities of law enforcement and immobile obstacles. At $US2000 for the basic build, SFD's big-kid toy ain't cheap, but it's worlds less expensive than plowing your leased economy car into a concrete barrier because you wanted to feel Fast and Furious on your commute home from work.
Should You Buy It?
Testing the Drift Trike is the most fun I've ever had at work. It's arguably the most fun I've ever had, period. But as well-built and precisely-engineered as it is, the Drift Trike is still a toy. And it's not for everyone.
First off, I know what you're thinking, and the answer is no: You cannot ride this thing on public roads. You need access to a nice clear expanse of pavement to really get this thing going. A long driveway would be great. An empty parking lot is even better. An abandoned airfield? Score.
With a stance so low it would push a pack of smokes around like a snowplow, the Drift Trike isn't built for rough terrain. And with its plastic-shod rear tyres, the only way it wants to go around a turn is sideways. It makes no concessions toward visibility — there's not a single light or reflector on this thing — and regardless, it's too low to ride anywhere near traffic. In short, this is a vehicle, but you'd never use it as a form of transportation. But if you have $US2000 to spend on an unabashed toy for grown-up kids, and a vehicle capable of transporting it, and a place where you can ride it with reckless uncorked abandon, the Drift Trike is perfect for you. Consider it a gift to yourself, a reward for becoming the kind of adult who still appreciates the Big Wheel dream and has the kind of life that allows such indulgences. Trust me, it will make you feel like a kid again — only better.
Pictures/videos: Nicholas Stango