vandenbrink carver - the lean machine

and now for something completely different. andy enright looks at the refreshingly off-kilter vandenbrink carve

As anybody who's been humbled by an eight year old at a go-kart track will attest, there are ways and ways of taking a corner. As long as you've got a steering wheel in your hand, none of them involve a great deal of leaning which, when you pause to consider it, is a trifle odd. Put us on skis, on a bike, on a snowboard or even in a pair of running spikes and we soon realise that the quickest way to negotiate a corner is to lean well into it. Put us behind the wheel of a car and we seem to disregard this basic nugget of physics. Until now. Vandenbrink, a Dutch engineering company who have a distinctly unconventional take on the fact that motorcycles and cars represent separate entities, have released the Carver, a three-wheeled, twin seat tilting vehicle.

Having been fascinated for some time by the concept of Man Wide Vehicles, Chris Van den Brink and Harry Kroonen started experimenting in the early nineties with a three-wheeled narrow-bodied vehicle. By 1994 they had developed a vehicle control system they dubbed Dynamic Vehicle Control (DVC), which automatically translated 'car-type' steering input given by the driver into 'motorcycle-type' tilt of the chassis. With the rear pair of wheels staying flat on the floor with the engine nestling between, this creates a solid platform around which the passenger cell and thus the front wheel can freely pivot. Further developments to the prototype honed the hydraulic tilting mechanism and the steering system.

The finished product is definitely not for the shy and retiring. Elvis would attract less attention were he to streak across the pitch at the FA Cup Final than a pair of Vandenbrink Carvers negotiating the streets of South London. The response is typical. You spot a look of amused curiosity on people's faces as the Carvers approach that then gives way to slack-jawed befuddlement as the cabin tilts over as much as 45 degrees and scoots around a corner at a speed that none would credit. Experienced pilots can wind down the windows and trail a (gloved) hand on the tarmac at maximum lean - it's that extreme.

But what's the experience like for those of us whose last experience on two wheels was the day before they passed their driving tests? Few vehicles I've driven feel so intimidating at first, especially when the firm's managing director has parked himself behind your hamfisted attempt to pull away. Fortunately after the first corner it all becomes a good deal more intuitive. After a handful of corners you begin to feel like Valentino Rossi and get the impression that the door mirrors must be scraping the tarmac such is the magnitude of your angle of dangle.

Vandenbrink MD Frank Vermeulen somewhat takes the wind out of my sails when he cheerfully interjects with the information that a beeper sounds when you hit 30 degrees of lean and then gets quicker right up to forty-five degrees. So far I've heard no beeps. Despite claiming that the beeper is broken, I finally admit to myself that my maximum lean angle was roughly equivalent to that of Nelson's Column. Somewhat chastened, I find a quiet roundabout, some resolve and finally that beeper. What Vermeulen refers to as the Fun Indicator indicated I was having a moderate amount of fun. That thing needs recalibrating. This was funnier than watching a home movie of John Prescott tap dancing in the buff.

The steering is super direct in a way that defies belief. Any vehicle that can make the helm of a Lotus Elise seem like that of an early Land Rover Discovery will appeal to those who relish a razor sharp response. Vermeulen claims the steering is so quick in order to satisfy EC emergency lane-change regulations and on slow corners, such as pulling out of a T-junction its possible to weave a little as inexperienced pilots instinctively try to 'catch' the lean with a minuscule amount of opposite lock. Trust the Carver, however, and steer with one hand at the top of the wheel and you can slice through corners with elan. You need to rely on the power of the engine to skittle you through, but the 66bhp Daihatsu turbocharged powerplant delivers enough torque throughout a useful rev range to make this relatively simple.

Although that may not sound especially powerful, with just 620kg to push, it's amply quick for most. 60mph is eight seconds away and the Carver can run on to 119mph, due in no small part to its dinky frontal aspect. Nevertheless, it does give cause to ponder what a Carver fitted with, say, 125bhp worth of Honda Fireblade engine would feel like. Manic, I should imagine. The propulsion 'unit' consists of a tubular steel frame onto which the engine, transmission, rear suspension and wheels are mounted. A double hinge design provides a rigid and reliable connection between the front body and the rear frame. Two solid hydraulic cylinders control the tilting as part of the DVC control system. As you pull away, you feel the system relinquish its upright 'locking' position at about 5mph by a faint clunk from the back end. Drop below this speed and the hydraulics re-engage to prevent you adopting a rakish angle when stopped at traffic lights.

Accommodation is one-behind-one, with the rearmost passengers legs splayed to each side of the driver's seat. It's a snug fit, but not uncomfortable. The rear roof panel lifts out to provide fresh air motoring and to render the various whooshes, hisses, chuffs and zings of the four-cylinder engine in surround sound. With leather and alcantara upholstery, aluminium fascia and a decent CD-based stereo, the Carver is well appointed, but the customer is very much king in the specification process. If you want it, and Vandenbrink can reasonably fit it, you get it.

The Carver is a huge buzz. It's fast, fun, economical, a doddle in city traffic and seems very well built. Where's the catch? Why isn't Frank Vermeulen sitting in the Dutch equivalent of a mock Tudor mansion sipping Bolly and watching the profits roll in? At present the sticking point is pricing. As much fun as the Carver is, it's difficult to envisage few but the very wealthy motoring enthusiast parting with £45,000 (around £28,000) for the privilege, given that that's about the same money as a brand new Lotus Elise and a Kawasaki ZX-7R.

Given that it operates in a field of one, the Carver may well chalk up some sales, much as it has done in its native Holland. The product is currently caught in something of a Catch-22 - if production ramps up the price can be reduced, but it's just this pricing that ensures the Carver is destined to be a niche plaything. Vandenbrink may need the cashflow to hire some decent lawyers because if success and innovation have taught us anything it's that the big boys will be sniffing around the formula very soon. Keep that Bolly on ice Frank.

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