How BRP Hatched Its Spyder Trike

The Spyder offers all the zoom of a motorbike, but its eye-catching three-wheel design makes it easier to master

Rolling through Manhattan traffic on a Can-Am Spyder, a Bronze medal winner in this year's IDEA, you realize this: Radical design can be dangerous. No, not because the Spyder's unconventional design is unsafe. If anything, its two-wheels-in-front arrangement makes this trike more stable than a motorcycle.

No, the danger is from others. There are the distracted drivers, trying to get your attention in stop-and-go traffic, mouthing the question: "What's that!?" There are the kids on the sidewalk, tugging at parents' hands and pointing excitedly. And then there's the stress from having a cop eyeballing your ride covetously and asking if it's really street legal.

The man responsible for all the commotion is Denys LaPointe, executive vice-president of design and innovation at BRP, the maker of the Spyder. Until 2003, when BRP was spun out as a private company, it had been a subsidiary of Bombardier (BDRPF), the Montreal-based manufacturer of trains, planes and other heavy transportation gear.

Innovative Trike

The Spyder, which went on sale last fall, was first conceived in 1996 when Bombardier wanted to expand its portfolio of recreational products, which includes Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Sea-Doo waterjet craft, Evinrude boat engines, and offroad Can-Am four-wheelers. "The CEO came to us and said: 'We do snow, we do dirt, and we do water, but we don't do the road,'" recounts LaPointe. So the 30-plus design team got to work.

One early concept called for a single large wheel, with the driver suspended inside. The motorized wheel would be self balancing—at least hypothetically. A later concept included a third wheel that offered stability when the vehicle stopped but would retract when the vehicle gained speed.

As the sketches evolved, LaPointe's team came to realize a three-wheeler offered the best all-around solution. It was innovative and eye-catching, yet could be built by evolving and adapting existing designs and manufacturing processes. The team mixed and matched designs from BRP's other sports vehicle lines. For example the Spyder's basic architecture—with propulsion from the rear and two wheels in front, as well as its long nose—is a close cousin to BRP's snowmobiles. The driver's upright position and the Spyder's sculpted body panels share design DNA with BRP's snow, water, and off-road kin.

By building the Spyder at its corporate headquarters in Valcourt, Quebec, BRP has been able to keep design, manufacturing and marketing in tight sync. The same factory makes its Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo craft, so assembly knowhow, not to mention common internal parts, can be shared easily.

Stable Ride

For those who may have craved a motorcycle in the past, but were anxious about stability, Spyder's three-wheel design is an easy sell. The Spyder is arguably easier to master: While motorbikes typically rely on a combination of a hand-operated clutch and a foot-pedal to shift gears, the Spyder is available with a clutchless, push-button system. There's a reverse gear too, rarely seen on motorcycles, and both brakes work from a single pedal. In Europe as well as in California and some other U.S. states, a separate motorcycle license isn't required. With a punchy, gas powered 998-cc V-twin engine, made by Rotax (a BRP subsidiary), the Spyder offers all the zoom of a motorbike, but "with a little less intimidation," says LaPointe.

Before the first models of the $14,999 Spyders were even delivered last spring, the factory's entire first production run of 2,500 sold out. For now, BRP is focused on meeting current demand, and there's no discussion of future design iterations. But it's a safe bet that more exotic Spyders will turn up in years to come.

For more on what it's like to drive the Spyder, check out this BusinessWeek review.

Return to The Best Product Design of 2008 Table of Contents

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.