Driving a Heinkel

Now that we’re back in driving season I thought I’d write about what it is like to drive a three-wheeled Heinkel. I’ve made a video too! 

A Heinkel is not like a modern car, which can be the source of both frustration and enjoyment.  Here’s a few examples:

  • Shifting: A Heinkel standard transmission uses straight-cut gears that don’t mesh like a modern transmission.  At their best you get a bit of a “thunk” when shifting, at their worst expect some grinding sounds. I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with mine to make it not grind (especially from reverse through neutral to first and second gear), but I’ve learned to live with the fact that it going to at times.
  • Acceleration:  Heinkels weigh about 600 lbs empty and have a 10 hp engine (when tuned well). Compare these statistics to a Smart car, which weighs three times as much and has seven times the horsepower.  Driving solo the car is slow but will get up to 30 mph in a workmanlike manner.  With two people, acceleration is practically non-existent by modern standards, but the car will eventually get to over 50 mph.
  • Braking: The Heinkel has hydraulic front wheel drum brakes. There is a hand operated parking brake on the rear wheel; I suppose that could be used in an emergency. You have to press hard on the pedal to get a good grip, but the brakes will stop the car. Like everything else, they just take their time in doing so.
  • Handling: Making your car drive in a straight line is not as simple as it seems. Three wheeled cars have interesting handling characteristics and require adjustments to your driving technique. Road conditions also play a major role in your driving experience, especially if you want to go more than 30 mph (and who doesn’t want to!).
Here are some handling tips:
1. “Unlearn” straddling. Have you ever driven down the street to avoid a manhole cover or depression by straddling the obstacle? I tried that with my car. I straddled a raised manhole cover at speed and a fraction of a second later the whole back of the car was airborne! Quite an experience; luckily the sunroof was open (it truly is a safety feature).  Instead of straddlingyou need to slalom, which is more fun anyway.
2. Road Conditions:  I live in Massachusetts and the roads are bad. The worst driving conditions are caused by crowned roads; i.e. roads where the middle is higher than the ruts caused by the tracks of cars. Under this condition the back of the car wanders around as it falls off of the top of the crown, and then wanders back up as the road bends or you steer.  If the road is wide enough you can put the rear wheel in one of the travel tracks, but then at least one wheel is on the crown and the second is in the debris that accumulates on the side.
3. Cornering:  Consumer Reports magazine would not like the Heinkel. I don’t know if it’s possible to flip a Heinkel, but if you go fast and try to take a sharp corner the weight will shift rapidly to the outside of the car, which is fun for the driver and terrifying for the occupants!
It’s almost unfair to compare a Heinkel to the car you drive every day. It’s clear that 50 years of automotive advances have essentially divorced the driver from the experience of actually driving most cars. The Heinkel demands your full attention; things don’t happen in the background to smooth your way. A more fitting comparison is against the other options a person had in postwar urban Europe; walk, bike, or scooter. In many ways the car performs like the Heinkel scooter; shifting is similar, the acceleration and sound are too;  just the handling is a little different. It’s way faster than a bike or walking over the average trip length this car was designed for, which I guess is 3-5 miles each way. That didn’t stop people from racking up the miles on these cars. My car has an odometer reading of over 42,000 miles, which is a lot of trips to the grocery store.


But, if you want the illusion of speed any time you drive, or put a smile on the face of anyone who sees your car (except maybe the person in a hurry behind you at a traffic light), the Heinkel is the car for you!




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