Monday, August 17, 2009
The Lean Machine: A TransCenter Artifact
If you ever got to spend a few minutes in the TransCenter, World of Motion's post-show area, chances are you at least caught a glimpse of the Lean Machine, a concept car developed by Frank Winchell of GM. I saw it when I visited EPCOT Center with my grandfather in 1989. He was general manager of a GM dealership at the time, so naturally we spent a while in the TransCenter looking at the displays. Near the Lean Machine prototypes, a video was playing of the vehicle in action, leaning into turns on a winding mountain road just like a motorcycle. At the time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, when it was time for me to go car shopping in just six short years, I'd be able to walk into my grandfather's dealership and make a deal for my very own Lean Machine.
Of course, things didn't exactly work out that way. Until gas prices spiked at over $4 a gallon last summer, there didn't seem to be a market for such a tiny vehicle, even if it did give you 200 mpg. Although fuel prices have been under $3 for the better part of a year, fuel economy remains a concern for new car buyers. So why is the Lean Machine still in mothballs? Primarily because it really isn't a car. If anything, it's an enclosed recumbent three-wheeled motorcycle. Visit any automobile dealership, and you'll see five basic type of vehicles: sedans, sports cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans. A tiny, one-person transportation pod does not fit neatly into any of those categories.
It would be a great idea for GM to sell or license the Lean Machine to a company like Honda or Mitsubishi that also makes motorcycles. That way, at least they'd make some money off the thing. And while car shoppers are not likely to opt for a small, one-person vehicle with little to no cargo space, the Lean Machine would be a great option for someone who really wants the low cost and fuel efficiency of a motorcycle or scooter, but would like the protection from the elements that an enclosed design provides. I live in a college town, and lots of students already use scooters to get around campus and around town. How many more would go for something like a Lean Machine with air conditioning? And how well would the Lean Machine do in emerging Asian markets like China and India, where consumers need something small and inexpensive to drive? Finally, electric car technology has come a long way since the Lean Machine was first conceived. Would it be feasible to make a fully electric Lean Machine?
Clearly, selling or licensing the Lean Machine to a company who can market it to motorcycle/scooter buyers is an intelligent thing to do, which is why I'm certain that the company that gave us the Pontiac Aztek will never do it. But maybe, when gas prices go up to five or six dollars a gallon, as they inevitably will sometime in the next decade, the ensuing tidal wave of demand for fuel efficient vehicles will force GM's hand, and we'll see the Lean Machine in some form.
For more information on the Lean Machine, including pictures of its display area in the World of Motion and scans of the informational brochure that was distributed there, check out these websites:
Tilting Three-Wheelers: GM Lean Machine
The New Cafe (Racer) Society: Vintage 1980: the GM Lean Machine
Lean Machines: Preliminary Investigations- A UC-Berkley study on the feasiblity of the Lean Machine in California.