EL SEGUNDO, California—My first thought upon seeing the three-wheel, one-seat, zero-door Vanderhall Venice Speedster was that it was a ridiculous waste of money. But then a Lamborghini Aventador cruised past—a surprisingly common occurrence here in Los Angeles—and I asked myself, is the Vandy any more of a ridiculous waste of money than a Lambo? No, it isn’t—and in the Vanderhall, you don’t have to worry about scraping its chin on the driveway and doing thirty grand in damage.
In fact, the only way to do thirty grand in damage to the Vanderhall Speedster is to total the car and then burn another $3,050 on its carcass. As Vanderhall’s entry-level model, it lists for $26,950. If the Aventador is the car you buy when you have FU money, the Speedster is the car you buy when you only have buzz-off money.
The Speedster shares its layout and mechanical bits with the regular Venice I tested last year, including a GM-sourced 1.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers 180 horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. In this version, the missing right seat is covered by a cowl and the windshield is cut down. The Speedster’s paint scheme and wood-rimmed steering wheel are designed to invoke classic sports cars from the early half of the 20th century.
Indeed, driving the Speedster does make one feel like they’re piloting some sort of experimental runabout from the pre-Eisenhower era—especially as the miniaturized windshield, too short to actually shield the driver from the wind, necessitates driving goggles, which Vanderhall generously supplied. (Sunglasses won’t cut it above 45 mph or so.) A helmet isn’t required for operation in all states, but it’s a good idea, even if it does make you look a bit like someone who isn’t playing with a full deck. When I drove the Venice, other drivers stared; in the Speedster, they seemed afraid to make eye contact.
But once out on the open roads, man, did I fall in love. My favorite thing is the way it accelerates: When you ask it to go, it goes. The side-mounted exhaust pipes deliver all the noise and fury of a vintage race car, but the acceleration is modern-day quick. Vanderhall’s stated zero-to-60-mph time of 4.5 seconds feels about right. I expected the car’s low stance (the driver can literally touch the ground) to emphasize the feeling of speed, but the opposite is true—the Vandy never feels like it’s going as fast as its speedo says but checking with a GPS app showed the instruments to be spot-on. For those prone to speeding tickets, you have been warned.
I was impressed with how well the Speedster behaved when driven hard, but perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: The Vanderhall is a front-wheel-drive car, and it’s tuned to act like one, gripping heroically until letting go with a squeal of the tires and some manageable understeer. (I do wish the driver’s seat offered more lateral support, though, because the thin wooden rim of the steering wheel isn’t much to hang onto.)
The only time the Speedster gets a little dodgy is if you hit the brakes hard in anything but a straight line—and given the poor (read: high) placement of the brake pedal and its sensitivity, it’s difficult to hit the brakes any other way. Brake abruptly in a left bend, and the Speedster feels like it’s going to spin. Brake hard in a right—remember, with one seat, the weight is skewed to the left side—and it can come perilously close to lifting the right-front wheel. There’s also the matter of only having one tire contact patch at the rear.
But, hey, what fun is old-school motoring without the specter of impending death?
The Speedster has other traits that can be either endearing or enraging depending on your opinion of the car. There’s the constant creaking of the bodywork, the relentless whooshing and hissing from the turbo, and the sheer awkwardness of getting in and out. And I don’t understand how a vehicle this small can have such a ridiculously wide turning radius.
On the plus side, the single-seat Speedster fixes my one major complaint about the two-seat Venice, which is the lack of storage space. The empty half of the fuselage makes a great trunk, though I’d advise jerry-rigging something with bungee cords to keep your stuff in place. Sure, the single seat limits its practicality, but chances are your significant other won’t set foot in the thing anyway.
Some of you might be wondering how the Vanderhall cars compare to a Polaris Slingshot. Well, it just so happens that I reviewed one of those, too. (I seem to get all the three-wheel reviews, which can make a fellow feel a bit expendable.) The Polaris feels like the more thoroughly engineered solution, as opposed to the Vanderhall, which strikes one as having had little development beyond the maniacal brainstorm by which I imagine it was conceived. Naturally, as an enthusiast, I prefer the Slingshot’s manual transmission to the Vandy’s automatic, its manual-shift function (actuated by an almost comically oversized chrome lever) notwithstanding. But overall I prefer the Vanderhall. A three-wheel car is a crazy idea, and the Vanderhall—and especially the Speedster—is just that much crazier.
Now, some of you might dismiss the Vanderhall as nothing more than a Morgan knock-off built from surplus GM parts. Perhaps you’d be right. But think of the advantages: The Vanderall is super simple to operate; anyone who can pass a road test can drive it. It’s built in the U.S. of A. The modern fuel-injected powertrain and automatic transmission all but eliminate tuning and adjustment. Powertrain parts are plentiful, and any mechanic who can turn wrenches on a Chevy can figure out how to fix it. And in the 25,000 miles or so you’re likely to put on it over the years, is it even going to break?
Every time I review a car, I ask myself if I would buy it—and in the case of the Vanderhall Speedster, the answer is resounding “I’m afraid so.” Okay, maybe a Miata is a more practical solution for the same money. And $27K is a lot for a toy you’ll only want to drive on special occasions, but so is $300K for the aforementioned Lamborghini. And unlike the Lambo—for us Angelenos, at least—chances are you’ll never pass another Vanderhall unless you’re on your way to an owner’s convention. Bottom line: It’s silly and extravagant, and that’s why I love it.
Vanderhall Speedster Specifications
|PRICE||for Driven: $26,950 (base)|
|ENGINE||1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 180 hp @ 4,950 rpm, 185 lb-ft @ 2,450 rpm|
|LAYOUT||0-door, 1-passenger, front-engine, FWD autocycle|
|L x W x H||141.0 x 70.0 x 60.0 in|
|0–60 MPH||4.5 sec (mfr est)|
|TOP SPEED||140 mph (mfr)|