Motorcycles: for many, the last frontier of automotive freedom. These machines are still largely analogue and learning to ride—and ride well—is a precious skill honed only through time and patience. The community spirit is strong, friendly and supportive and a draw in and of itself. I sampled but a taste of this, once, when I got my motorcycle license a couple months ago.
Unfortunately I pretty much vowed never to use it because I just couldn’t accept the physical taxation and risk that accompanied riding. Thankfully, though, there are other options that exist for people like me.
Enter the Vanderhall Venice, the second three-wheeler offering from boutique Utah-based three-wheeler company Vanderhall Motor Works.
Would this three-wheeler give me the same sense of freedom that riding would, but with more safety assurances? I went to find out.
(Full disclosure: Vanderhall wanted us to drive the Venice so badly that it shipped one out from its facilities in Utah and let us spend the afternoon blasting around Harriman State Park in it.)
Depending on which state you’re in, you either do or don’t need a motorcycle license to drive a Vanderhall. We were in New York, which categorized the Venice as a motorcycle and required drivers to have a motorcycle license.
Hand-built over the course of about five hours by a staff of 35, the Venice has a custom aluminum frame and a GM-sourced 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox. It weighs 1,450 pounds and has a claimed 180 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque.
And it is low. I lowered myself into it, carefully, without using windshield as a handhold, and looked around. The three-wheeler had an incredible amount of legroom, but it was as short as a go-kart. If I reached out of the cockpit, I could easily drag my knuckles across the ground. There were no blindspots.
The Venice was, to my surprise, front-drive. Vanderhall marketing guy Daniel Boyer explained that if they went with the rear-drive set up, like in the Morgan 3 Wheeler or the Polaris Slingshot, it would have been a “donut machine” and that’s not what they wanted. They wanted something very planted.
Taking the Venice on the highway was mildly terrifying at first. Sure, motorcyclists are harder to see than cars, but at least they’re still sitting high enough to be spotted over belt lines. The Venice was so low that if you were driving on the right side of an average car, there was a good change that the driver would not be able to see you through the passenger side window.
The solution for this, of course, was to punch the throttle and pass everyone.
This particular model had the optional bump-shifter on the left-hand side, meaning that you can put it in manual mode and sequentially shift the gears. With your fingers wrapped around the thin wooden steering wheel, the shwoosh of the turbos washing over you, you’ll want to tuck the thing into tight corners just to see what it can do. The Venice comes with a set of sticky summer tires and the three-wheeler attacked the twisted and narrow roads with abandon.
It clung on in the turns and changed direction so quickly it would move under you before you body caught up with it. It never gave the sense that it would oversteer and, even though it was front-drive, the torque-steer was non-existent. The low stance made it seem like I was going faster than I was. Yes, I only had 180 HP, but when the Venice was that light and that maneuverable, that hardly mattered.
Strangely, the most difficult part of driving the Venice actually had nothing to do with the Venice at all. It was everyone else. Nearly everyone on the road gawked openly at the odd, three-wheeled vehicle with two helmeted people riding in it.
People buzzed closer in their cars for a better look or to take a picture. And when you’re only sitting a couple of feet above the ground and your face is right next to a wheel on the highway turning at 65 to 70 mph, it’s not enjoyable.
Because the Venice is striking. Boyer revealed that Vanderhall founder, Steve Hall, was very taken with vintage Formula One cars from the 1960s and 1970s. He wanted to create a modern open-wheeled vehicle with the same timeless and classic aesthetic flair.
Ultimately, the company went with a three-wheeled design because three-wheelers do not have to adhere to the same regulations that normal four-wheeled vehicles do. That’s why the Venice doesn’t have airbags or bumpers—things that would really interfere with that vintage look that Hall wanted.
The Vanderhall Venice can be had for just under $30,000. The one I tested came to about $32,000, because it had options like the bump-shifter and stainless steel footplates. Though that brings it squarely into Mazda Miata territory, the person who is looking at a Miata certainly is not cross shopping a Venice.
The Venice is a toy. It’s for taking out on nice days when you don’t have a lot of cargo or people to move. In a pinch, it can be used for long distances (there are seat heaters), yet I would think most people would use their Venice for bombing around on the weekends.
It’s for people who perhaps don’t want to deal with riding a motorcycle, bit still want that open-road freedom that a motorcycle offers. I still wouldn’t say a Venice is any safer than a motorcycle—there aren’t really any crumple zones to speak of.
But it’s sure as hell easier to deal with. And way more comfortable. If that appeals to you, you’re fine with having your picture taken constantly and you don’t mind being dwarfed by even the smallest of cars, then this might be your next plaything.