GILLETTE, Wyo. — When Gary Clemons pulled into the parking lot of the Little Store in Gillette on one afternoon in his black pickup, he saw something that made him stop. He asked Tyler Sikkenga, 15, for a picture.
Tyler isn’t a celebrity, a star athlete or a millionaire. He’s just a Gillette teen who enjoys BMX and motocross. But it’s not uncommon for people to ask the Gillette teen if they can get a picture of him.
It has everything to do with his vehicle. It’s not expensive — the price tag is in the three-digit range — and it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world either, with rust creeping up the hood and duct tape holding the convertible top together.
Its “junker” appearance makes it a really approachable vehicle, said Tyler’s dad, Nate Sikkenga.
“Nobody’s ashamed to roll by videoing this thing,” he said.
It isn’t particularly fast. Tyler’s been able to get it to reach 50 mph, while Nate has gotten close to 80 mph, but “it takes a good downhill to get there.”
“It’s loud enough that everybody wants to race it,” Nate said. “But the only way you ever win is when they want to get behind it to video you.”
As Tyler drove on a recent afternoon, people stared. It didn’t matter if they were kids riding bikes or men driving trucks or families out for a walk.
Their gaze followed it as Tyler drove by, and their stares all said, “There’s something you don’t see every day.”
So what is it, exactly? It’s a three-wheeled car, and she goes by the name of Roadkill.
Specifically, it’s a 1987 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Cabriolet with two wheels in the front and one wheel mounted to the back of it. Nate calls it a marvel of “German-redneck engineering.”
It’s a hybrid that everyone can get behind, one that a dad built to protect his son.
The whole project began about a year ago. Wyoming residents can get a motorcycle license at age 15 and a driver’s license at 16. It was for that reason that Nate wanted to make a motorcycle for Tyler for his 15th birthday.
But why didn’t Nate just buy a used motorcycle? He had two reasons. The first one was safety. He’s not worried about Tyler’s skills and judgment.
“He’s not as wild and crazy. He’s a lot more responsible than I was,” Nate said. “He’s pretty good at riding a motorcycle, but it’s other people you’ve got to watch for. There’s a risk of somebody running him over.”
Second, it’s difficult to ride a two-wheeled motorcycle in the winter, especially in Wyoming, Nate said. And even many three-wheeled vehicles, such as the Polaris Slingshot, which has two wheels in the front and one in the back, have rear-wheel drive, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to travel up a snow-covered street.
Nate looked for a cheap car to work on, and he came across the Volkswagen, which was sitting in somebody’s field north of Gillette. He bought it for $500. After that, he began to gather parts.
A 22-inch wheel from a scrap yard. A trunk lid from eBay. A piece of metal from a 1954 Ford pickup was turned into the rear fender.
“A lot of it’s just trial and error, a bit of Google in the mix,” said Nate, who estimated that he’s put about $3,000 into the car since he bought it.
TRUST THE PROCESS
He wasn’t alone in creating the contraption.
Tyler, who wants to be a mechanical engineer when he grows up, helped a bit on it. Nate’s father, John Sikkenga, did a lot of the engine work. And C&F Repair and Cowboy Up Auto did a lot of the brake work and external changes.
Ken Ford, owner of C&F Repair, said he’s worked on some “pretty crazy projects over the years, but (the three-wheeled car) was one of the more different ones.”
Ford mounted the third wheel and put a brake on it, which he said took some trial and error, research and ingenuity.
“It was a challenge, but it was fun,” Ford said. “I enjoy those kinds of crazy things. They’re a little hard to make money at, but they keep things interesting.”
Ford was the first person to drive the vehicle in its three-wheeled form. He said he was a bit worried in the beginning, but as he got everything set up, those worries disappeared.
“I initially worried that it wouldn’t be stable enough, but it actually is stable. It handles pretty good,” he said.
Cowboy Up Auto filled in the rear fender — covering up where the back tires used to be — and built the new fender. Shop manager Joe Terry said he’s done work on a lot of custom vehicles, so this project wasn’t too outrageous.
But, “It was the first custom three-wheeler I’ve ever worked on,” he said.
If anyone wants to undertake a unique project of their own, all they need is a plan, Ford said.
“I guess your only limitation is your imagination,” he said.
The vehicle handles more like a regular car than a motorcycle. The ride might be a bit bumpy, but one must remember that the car was originally built in the 1980s, and it still has its stock suspension.
“You’d think it’s a little tippy, it’ll lean a little bit for a corner,” Nate said. “But it handles good.”
Sometimes, it sounds like the back is going to fall off, Tyler said as he drove it in June. And even if it had four wheels, it would still turn heads just from it doing its best motorcycle impression.
Because the rear wheel extends from the back of the vehicle, the wheelbase is lengthened significantly, meaning that the driver has to be careful when making turns.
“It has the same turn radius as a truck, but you don’t think it because it’s so small,” Tyler said.
DEALING WITH THE GOVERNMENT
The hardest part of the project hasn’t been anything mechanical. Rather, it’s working with the state Department of Transportation.
The vehicle is street legal, but as a passenger car. When Nate first started the project, he wasn’t sure what kind of vehicle classification he was going for.
WYDOT told him it would be a homemade motorcycle. In its current form, Nate believes he’s created a motorcycle, but WYDOT isn’t convinced.
The state defines a motorcycle as “every motor vehicle having a seat or saddled and designed to travel on not more than 3 wheels in contact with the ground.”
“I keep counting the wheels on it, and every time I count them I come up with three of them touching the ground,” Nate said.
He hopes that once he gets that cleared up, WYDOT will give him the vehicle identification number he’s looking for. Easier said than done.
“They keep telling me, ‘if you modify it a little more, we’ll give you the VIN for it.’ I keep doing more to it, they keep saying it’s not quite enough,” he said. “I cut the axles off because they were worried a guy could just bolt the tires back on and have a car.”
Nate hasn’t checked with the state in a while. He’d planned to get the VIN by Tyler’s 15th birthday, but his son got a hardship permit last fall, which allows him to drive the vehicle all day as long as he’s off the streets by 8 p.m.
“I think if I could talk to the right person, we could probably just get the VIN we need for it,” he said.
So what’s next for this vehicle, a motorcycle in spirit that handles like a hatchback and a pickup at the same time?
Nate said that once he gets the VIN, he’ll make some more changes to the car. The next version of this vehicle could look completely different. It might be doorless, the roof and the back seats might be removed. It could have handlebars, an actual saddle and racing stripes.
The next Sikkenga kid, Aspen, is 13, so her dad has a couple of years to get it ready for her 15th birthday. As of right now, she’s not too thrilled about the prospect of driving it.
“She thinks it’s pretty noisy. But I can do some different exhaust work on it, quiet it up if that’s what she needs,” Nate said. “It’d be a great learner’s vehicle for her, where somebody smashes into it, we’re not out a whole lot, it’s a lot safer than putting her out there on a regular motorcycle.”
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com