Flying ACE

Sometimes I forget about things. I’ve been meaning to post this onto Jaxworx, if only to share the transcendent joy of stone knife-simple — yet purposefully refined — open air motoring of the kind espoused by Mr. Peter Larsen. This article was originally written in the autumn of 2008 for Motorcyclist magazine which, after some dithering, decided to pass on it. “More of a car than a motorcycle,” was the editorial comment. I don’t know about that. The day I can’t balance a bike at the stoplight, I may think about one of these…

It’s all a bit moot, now. In a full-circle turning, Pete Larsen sold the rights to his design to Morgan Motor Co., the original progenitive company whence came the three-wheeler that inspired Pete in the first place.

Today, I saw an advertisement for a special Gulf Edition, three-wheeled Morgan and remembered: I’ve been meaning to post this onto Jaxworx, if only to share the transcendent joy…

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Helmets on, we wriggled into the ground-hugging projectile and prepared for launch. Pete thumbed the stainless steel starter button and 103 cubic inches of high compression twin, strapped Sopwith Camel-style to the sloped aero nose, crack-boomed into Columbia City’s pre-dawn. Lowering his leather-trimmed goggles, Pete made a quick head check, fed in 2,000 rpm to keep the oil moving, then let out the clutch.

The ACE Cycle-Car leapt into the darkness.

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By 0600, we had boomed over the I-90 bridge and were circumnavigating Mercer Island, cackling out loud while railing corners at double the posted limits without beginning to strain the little missile’s composure. It was 40 degrees out when we squeaked round a tight corner and skittered across a slick of wet leaves. Pete feathered the throttle, salted in a dash of countersteer and dodged a stray purebred as we pelted past a sign reading CHILDREN AT PLAY.

DSC_0590“Truer words were never spoken,” I yelled over the wind, grinning hard enough to freeze my lips onto my teeth.

What exactly is an ACE Cycle-Car?  

Not a motorcycle, certainly – although it registers as one, small license plate and all. A three-wheeler allows you to fly solo down the diamond lanes, and even up to the front of the ferry line in Washington State.

Surely it’s not an automobile, not in this land of DVD player-equipped minivans and SUVs encompassing more cubic pork than a Costco butcher counter.

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A flivver perhaps, in the classic sense – a throwback to motoring’s ancient origins, when people dressed the part and hared about in cars for the sheer lip-chapping, life-squeezing joy of it all. It’s what technology is for: to make life happen better, not just faster.

The progenitor of this happy madness, Pete Larsen, is unhelpful with definitions.  His dreams are best described in fiberglass and aluminum, subtly accented with pinstripes and unsubtly accompanied by burbling fishtail exhausts.

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“It is what it is,” Larsen said. “It had to feel right, look right. This is my motorcycle, but it’s also my car. I could drive this car every day for the rest of my life, take it places or let it take me places.

“You’ve got nothing to compare it to.”

The ACE is a toy, but a toy with an exponent; a quite amazing toy with racecar fabrication, antique looks, American power, Japanese final drive and the concentrated DNA of a thousand English madmen. If the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, the ACE is the brightest red Radio Flyer wagon with oak side slats that ever showed up under a Christmas tree.DSC_0641

ACE is also the singular vision of Pete Larsen, 18 years the proprietor of Liberty Sidecars. Liberty produces bespoke sidehacks, exclusively for big twin Harley-Davidsons, boasting a vintage 1930s look overlaying current technology. The Liberty cars are pretty things, quaint and richly finished. They keep the crank turning at Larsen’s shop, and doubtless enhance the lives of their owners. But the ACE is to a Liberty hack as a mink is to a tree sloth: quicker, lower, sleeker and far more aggressive…

Larsen turns every bolt himself. He keeps a large, spotless, thoroughly fenestrated shop on Rainier Avenue with a staff consisting of himself, a part-time welder and occasional bookkeeping work from his wife. Like Caractacus Potts in his woodshed, Larsen has banged, cut, forged, synthesized and emerged with something perhaps not unprecedented, but entirely unique.

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There are other three-wheeled cars out there, modest successes including Britain’s Triking Cyclecar – and any number of well-funded failures. There are sleek hybrid prototypes like the tilt-a-wheel Persu and the Aptera, which looks like something George Jetson’s boss might drive. The ACE alone synthesizes effortless steampunk style with top-shelf technology in an unprecedented fashion – and it exists. You can drive one today.

“It became an obsession,” Larsen said of the notion to build an updated Morgan three-wheeler, a notion that first took unyielding hold after he upgraded to his current, larger manufactory a few years back. Judging by the high finish level on his product, you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of one of Pete Larsen’s obsessions.

He’s gobbled up premium components from anywhere and everywhere to produce a toy with Faberge polish and the guts and pedigree to run hard on tight roads. What he couldn’t find, he built or commissioned. His files contain over 200 precision drawings, each one hand-drafted by Larsen.DSC_0159

The results are dazzling.

Larsen’s attention to detail evokes the fanaticism of Bimota and Fritz Egli. I pored over the car for hours in an unapologetic search for the cheesy hallmarks of kit car mentality, but found not a single shortcut or cop-out throughout the vehicle.

Chassis and suspension are laser-coped tubing, all TIG welded. Every fastener is properly finished and “dress right, dress.”  You can see the chrome reflected in the paint almost as clearly as the paint reflected in the chrome.

Three hydraulic reservoirs for front brakes, rear brakes and clutch are tidy CNC aluminum bits because “I just couldn’t stand to put black plastic under there” – not that anyone can see them unless you pop the bonnet. The boot is trimmed with a fitted shroud that sub-fenders the rear drive, covers the battery and incorporates a tidy bucket ideally suited to jugged Chianti, crusty pumpernickel and a wild blue Stilton that travels well.DSC_0620

The ACE is built the way you might build your own special project – if your education combined the exactitude of mechanical engineering with the flowing integrations of landscape architecture; if you had access to a wealth of carefully nurtured motorcycle industry relationships; if you were immune to investor pressures for instant return on investment.

And if you had a close working relationship with serendipity, knew exactly who you were and maintained a careful respect for the indescribable rightness of proper things.

Larsen describes his ACE as “an enthusiast project – you either get it or you don’t. I want to see my cars on the road.

“I don’t see this as an investment opportunity.”

Nor much of an employment opportunity, it seems. Larsen is a lone artiste who keeps his own two hands around every step of the production process. Seven mornings every week, Larsen shows up before sunrise to start his shop day. He spends most of his work time alone, selling the occasional hack, building three-wheelers and solving problems. He’s not in it to build a company, but to build ACE Cycle-Cars.DSC_0263

Larsen’s evocative styling riffs on Brough Superior, deHavilland’s Gypsy Moth and the ACE’s conceptual sire, a Morgan Super Sports Aero parked quietly at the end of a row of its smartly polished legacies.

The seminal “Moggie” appears cute but cobby, a sporty 1930s update on its econo-bucket origins. The exposed valve springs of its ohv Matchless engine, flimsy mudguards and pigeon-toed sliding pillar front suspension are reminiscent of the once-saucy auntie now comfortably settled into dowdiness. The ACE sitting adjacent is her hawt niece, sexier in a period flapper dress than any number of today’s tattooed, belly-ringed skanks.

Beauty is skin deep, but engineering goes to the bone. The 103-inch Screamin’ Eagle crate motor chuffs along contentedly and snarls when you poke it. At 950 lbs. with ten gallons of premium in the tail, this romping raindrop weighs less than a Heritage Softail Springer with sidecar, and is orders of magnitude more agile and aerodynamic.

DSC_0095Borg-Warner T-5 transmission, graced with a short-throw linkage of Larsen’s design, shifts precisely and pulls this funky little bullet firmly out of the kit bike category with solid synchromesh feel and a real reverse gear. The hydraulically actuated dry clutch rings at idle with a pur sang Ducati rattle.

Damped by custom-built Works Performance shocks, the house-built front suspension cambers eagerly in toward corner apexes, channeling cornering forces much in the manner of motorcycles. The rear wheel, mounted to a swingarm sourced from a GL1800 trike conversion shop, maps the road surface closely with its single 195/55-16 all season radial.

The rumpety bass line articulates through Kerker fishtail exhausts, handsomely heat-shielded.DSC_0523

Where he can’t source perfectly optimized parts, Larsen welds them up, machines them down, or draws them and sends out for CAD work. His power coupling, the key secret to keeping drivetrain components sound behind the thudding twin-cam, is a taste of engineering elegance too proprietary to discuss. For a little under fifty grand, you can have your own special coupling delivered – and it’ll come with a really cool landspeeder wrapped around it.

Considering the challenge to lash it up properly, why the Harley mill? It’s a precise homage to the original air-cooled, bike-derived v-twin Morgans, of course, but it runs deeper than that. Harley crate engines – including the considerably peppier Screamin’ Eagle versions – are available off the shelf with full factory warranties. Larsen’s long history in the sidecar business meant that H-D power fell right in his comfort zone.

DSC_0086This also may be the best application in recent memory for Milwaukee’s recent bottlings. It pulls the passenger pod along with smooth alacrity, sounds mellow through the sidepipes, and has always exhibited car-like flywheel characteristics. It also looks like the top cylinders of a radial engine when you sight down the rounded snout of this latter day Stearman.

“If we were going to make this in America, it had to have a Harley engine,” Larsen said. “People respond to it – it has the look, the sound.

“It just feels right.”

People do respond, but not just to the chick-baiting soundtrack. Hipper-than-thou Seattle bicyclists, predisposed to sneer at poseurs on butt jewelry, smiled with surprised delight and waved furiously at the wholly unexpected veloci-tub zipping past. The ACE may be seriously over-engineered, but it’s puppy cute, too.

DSC_0588Down by the lake in Seward Park, I took the wheel. “Taking the wheel” carries a certain Bugs Bunny resonance with the ACE’s NASCAR-style detachable helm. Unsurprisingly, the wheel is fabricated in-house. Larsen couldn’t find the perfect one, and perfection is his benchmark.

Stuffing my full-figured body into the Kate Moss-sized passenger seat had been distracting – statistically few men desire a rigid driveshaft knocking up their back door – but the driver’s cockpit is proportioned more in the L to XL range (XXXL pilots should give it up, buy a Gold Wing trike conversion and donate the swingarm to make an ACE for someone more lithe). This rig features sportbike seating – i.e. one full-sized operator and a real skinny copilot – but there’s room to maneuver on the left. While I have trouble moving my size 12 Börns around the footbox of an MG Midget, Larsen’s ACE gives adequate room to tap dance on its Tilton Racing pedal set.

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In common with hyperbikes or a Pitts S2S stunt biplane, the ACE demands commitment. In that way, she resembles a motorcycle more than, for instance, scooters do. Strapping on a helmet, clicking into a three-point racing harness and snapping the wheel on after you bespeaks imminent serious driving.

And drive she will. Snappy acceleration scampers to a 120 mph top speed that should pull any Harley running the same mill (for enhanced git, an optional 120bhp engine from JIMS will raise the ante – and your pulse). She corners flat and hard with a nicely neutral balance, but you need to stay on your game in this beast. Drivers only need apply.

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While the track is wide and stable, the ACE’s vanishingly short wheelbase means that spins develop quicker than ground looping a Cessna 190. Try to steer this critter with one thumb while texting with the other hand, and it will turn from puppy to pit bull and bite you in the A.D.D. No video game with a steering wheel, any drive in the ACE quickly becomes a full-immersion episode that taxes your skill set as pleasurably as a shifter cart disguised under a license plate and vintage styling. Like vintage Porsches and English motorcycles (and American girls), the ACE makes constant demands on your attention. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom…

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RPM should stay in the two to four thousand RPM sweet zone.  She’ll pull from lower, but Larsen says the power plant oils better over 2K and I wasn’t about to abuse an engine still on its break-in miles.

Those unwilling to double-clutch and match RPM to road speed should buy tickets on a different ride.  You may crush downshifts through the synchros if you insist, but such clumsy box wrangling can crow-hop the tail. There is no dead pedal, because this is not a touring car. If your clutch foot goes idle long enough to need a resting plate, you’ve mistakenly gotten onto the wrong road.

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You sit right there in the cheek-burning wind where you belong, and if you require entertainment beyond a winding road skimming by close enough to strike a match on, you’re not paying sufficient attention.

There is no heater, no radio, no doors, no windows, no roof – nor are they options. The dashing windscreens – vestigial salutes to Fangio – mean that you will not merely experience the weather; you will wear it. And if none of this makes any sense in a car produced in the Pacific NW where it rains 150 days a year, please remember that the Morgan and virtually every other stripped roadster you can think of emerged from the drippy isle of England. Such audacity of hope also explains why Seattlites own more sunglasses than you do.

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Still, this is one of the few cars built since World War II with fewer “luxury” options (and one less wheel) than a Lotus Seven. It’s also the only car in America built to such a glossy production standard, from such a singular vision, by one man working alone.

In the end, it’s a “special” in the old-time idiom. If the ACE were a rifle, it would be an Ed Yost Schuetzen; if a motorbike, an Egli Vincent. The ACE was born of cleverness married to fanaticism by a reverend named Art.

So call it a toy, if you wish: a car, more or less – more to a driver, and less to a family of four. A motorcycle, legally. A retro ride for the nostalgic, and a Porsche-zapping autocrosser for the committed.

Pete Larsen doesn’t care what you call his creation.  You either get it or you don’t.

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Either way, he’ll be back at his shop again tomorrow before sunup, as he is seven days a week. You’d expect no less from the ace of ACEs.

But before he sets into his chores, Pete will roll out a crab-eyed sports machine with an invisible rear wheel, tug weathered goggles down over his gimlet squint, push the go-button… and smile like the Red Baron.

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Comments

  1. Kid in a flippin’ *candy store*, he is. WANT. Wonder if he’d make one right-drive, or flip the offset of the driveshaft around? Because Reasons….

    ‘course, then again, perhaps Herself will want to drive. In that case, the stock arrangement will do just fine. Though it might need a Jeezus bar in an appropriate location… 🙂

  2. Monte Miller says:

    I get it, jack. I really get it.

  3. In this video, Jay Leno runs a new 3 wheeled Morgan into a ditch – about 2:30 minutes on video
    http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/cars/morgan/morgan-3-wheeler/index.shtml

  4. Yessiree, I get it, too. I’ll have to go see what Morgan is up to…

  5. And they should have run this.

  6. Jim Scott says:

    I read this story in your book, and then I decided to follow up to see what this looked like. I think my wife needs one so I can use it. Handy on the 100 mile grocery run through the Kettle Moraine.

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