The turbo screams as I approach the next turn. The ocean-tinged wind battering my helmet-less dome combined with the fact that I am a mere couple of feet off the ground intensifies the sense of speed. As I downshift, the blow off valve dumps in a sonic cacophony. A giant grin breaks across my face and suddenly…I get it.
Story and photos by Nathan May
There is a moment for me, where man and machine become “friends.” Where we come to understand one another. Or let’s face it, where I come to understand the machine, but I like to think of this as a mutual relationship. I usually have these moments on most of the test bikes we get. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, there is a moment where I stop thinking, start riding, and generally start having fun.
Because we are in the enviable position of riding so many different bikes, when Abhi asks me to try something a little different, I don’t usually hesitate. However, this one involves three wheels, front wheel drive and a steering wheel.
Curiosity won out, and I jump on our long term test V-Strom 1000, charge up the PCH, and find myself in Malibu on a sunny Wednesday morning. My mission? Test drive the Venice, the latest offering from Vanderhall Motor Works, a boutique motoring shop out of Provo, Utah.
Malibu Country Mart was an easy choice of rendezvous. Quick access to some legendary curves, perfect weather and plenty of snacks to keep me occupied as I wait for Tom Morr of IBP Media and Dan Boyer of Vanderhall to return with their first victim of the day.
So who is Vanderhall and what the hell is an Auto-Cycle?
The son of an inventor, Steve Hall started Vanderhall out of a passion for automobiles, an independent spirit, and desire to create something unique. Their first offering, the decidedly upmarket carbon fiber Laguna certainly made a statement. However, at $50K, the Laguna was never destined for mass market appeal. Vanderhall took many of the premium attributes of that first vehicle and created the much more accessible Venice, which starts at $29,950.
Two wheels up front, one in the rear.
One of my biggest complaints about the Can-Am Spyder is that it combines the worst elements of a car with the worst elements of a motorcycle. The “autocycle,” which really got its start back in 1908 with the Morgan Runabout, falls more squarely in the car realm. As such, it feels like a more coherent offering. It’s registered as a motorcycle but you do not need an endorsement to drive it (this varies by state). Helmet requirements are undefined and I opted to leave mine in the support truck. It has big Shelby Cobra-inspired roll bars, so I felt reasonably comfortable with that decision.
Unlike its main competitors, the Polaris Slingshot and the Morgan 3 Wheeler, the Venice opts for a front wheel drive system. I freely admit my personal bias against front wheel drive. However, team Vanderhall quickly assuage my fears. They apparently experimented with basically every configuration you can imagine. Dan summed it up by saying rear wheel drive is fun if you want to do burnouts or slide the back around, but this is the optimal set up for driving. Driving indeed, as claims of a 4.5 second 0-to-60 time and 0.95g of lateral acceleration puts the Venice in rarified, near-supercar territory.
Enter the Venice
I am finishing the last bites of a cinnamon roll when I first hear, and then spy, Tom and Dan pulling in. All eyes, including mine, follow this vehicular anomaly as it pulls up in front. It is my first proper look at the Venice and it does not disappoint.
Design is certainly subjective, but I love how this thing looks. Once parked, a small crowd instantly gathers. The look is more refined and perhaps more accessible than the transformer-inspired Slingshot. There is a nod to old school roadsters, yet the Venice still retains a modern sensibility. It gets an absolute ton of eyeballs on the road. Expect lots of thumbs-ups and double-takes as you drive through town.
To describe the Venice’s spartan cockpit as cozy might be an understatement. There are no doors, so it takes a short demonstration and a little gymnastics to wedge myself behind the wheel. The interior has enough modern polish that it does not feel lacking and the adjustable wooden steering wheel is a classy touch. My favorite design element is a bank of mechanical switches that serve no functional purpose, but do harken back to my James Bond fueled childhood fantasies.
Another nice touch is the single side swing arm. In this press vehicle, it was mated to a massive (like 21” massive) rear wheel. When weighed down with two full size men, hitting bumps resulted in some rather hard hits as we ran out of suspension travel. Apparently, the standard 18” rear eliminates this and also handles better.
Leaving Malibu County Market, Dan “jumped” in to ride shotgun and provide a little backstory. In automatic mode, the transmission is unremarkable. It seems to work well, and you basically just forget about it. We tooled up Malibu Canyon at a stately pace, stuck behind the usual commuter traffic. As we approached the Mulholland intersection, my heart fluttered as I anticipated the twisties ahead. Leaving the traffic behind, I moved the gear selector into the upgraded sequential automatic mode and things started to get interesting.
The ability to control shift points almost instantly transforms the driving experience. What was at first a slightly passive experience, becomes so much more fun. We rip up Mulholland towards a planned stop at the Rock Store. After a short stop for the obligatory photo and the inevitable discussion with a curious Canadian motorcycle tour, Dan jumps in the support truck, and I take off to see what this thing can really do.
I usually avoid the Snake on weekends. A quick Google or YouTube search will show you why. However, mid-week is a perfect time to hit up the infamous curves. With the load lightened and an empty road, the Venice does not disappoint. Handling is light, balanced, and predictable. The 70/30 weight distribution keeps the front wheels firmly planted and pulling traction. It comes equipped with switchable traction control, but it lacks stability control. So some driver discretion is required least one’s exuberance gets out of hand. In short, this thing rockets out of corners.
The motor is sourced from GM. It’s a turbocharged inline four with variable valve timing and the acceleration it provides is never lacking. They claim 180 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, and based on the way it motivates the 1,375 pound (dry weight) Venice, I find no reason to doubt it. The 6-speed transmission is good for 140 mph, and the standard ABS brings things to a halt without drama.
Leaving the Snake, I headed toward my real goal: the epic curves (and views) of Latigo Canyon. On these well-balanced curves, I had my “moment.” From the acceleration to the cornering, to the wind in my hair (figuratively speaking), I never found myself wanting. It is hard to articulate what makes the Venice so much fun to drive, but I found myself giggling and looking forward to the next corner, the next straight, the next opportunity to make that engine sing.
Speaking of singing, did I mention the noise? The exhaust note itself is unremarkable. However, the hiss of the blow off valve and flutter of the waste gates makes for an intoxicating serenade as you work your way through the corners. Hell, it even makes sitting in stop-and-go traffic fun.
The Venice comes with a few technical doo-dads: traction control, ABS, and in my case an upgraded sequential manual transmission (this is an essential upgrade). Beyond those features, the driving experience feels analog and direct. The FOX coil-over shocks keep things sorted but still provide abundant road feel. In total, this is a distinctly driver-oriented experience. In a time of dizzying technical complexity, the Venice stands as a welcome outlier.
Reaching the bottom of Latigo, I seriously considered turning around and taking the long way back to Malibu. Sadly, an afternoon photoshoot dictated my schedule. As I turned down PCH, the smile returned and once again, I was only thinking about driving.
We are entering a new heyday in personal transport. The same technology that has transformed so much of our society has also enabled small boutique manufacturers like Vanderhall to produce truly unique, albeit niche, motoring experiences.