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The Five Best Cars With Three Seats

Conventional wisdom has it that two is company, but three is a crowd.

Alternative wisdom - and, for the purposes of this article, we'll call that Better Wisdom - says that three is 50% more than two. Ergo it's by definition - and by fact - Better.

Think The Three Amigos. The Three Musketeers. The Three Stooges. All triple acts that, I argue, might possibly be better than Ant & Dec. Or Hale & Pace. Even, while we're in the mood to crush sacred cows, the Chuckle Brothers.

This kind of Plus One bonus person thinking has occasionally invaded the otherwise duo-focussed minds of car makers and their engineers. Throwing convention to the wind they argue that not all families have an even number, not all work colleagues travel in multiples of two and not all loving relationships require just two seats. Cold, hard logic that is, of course, quite hard to argue with.

If the fuddy duddy bean counters - who as we all know, love an even number - don't intervene then these Plus One ideas get built. As cars. Not very often, but it has happened.

Our criteria for a 'Plus One' three seater car is that it must have three seats in, broadly, a row. Not two separate rows. Here are our five favourite three-seater classic cars.

1. Fiat Multipla

Not content with designing a car only its mother could love, Fiat decreed that three people needed to be clearly seen whenever this four wheeled ugly duckling approached.

The Multipla's innovative six-seat, wide body design is now rightly seen as a design classic, but at launch it provoked a lot of head scratching. Who, the assembled journalists asked, was this extra seat actually for? As you can clearly see in this press photo, Fiat had the answer: for a man, his wife and his mistress. And - not pictured - his children and his children with his mistress.

Really the Multipla was the first non-judgemental car, a car designed for the way we - well, some Italians perhaps - live their lives. Or perhaps how Fiat's designers live their lives: certainly it would've been great to be at the brain storming meeting.

In reality, of course, not many Multipla owners actually ever used the third front seat, mainly because most people tend to be happily monogamous and it tended to make children sick. Not many people bought the Multipla either, mainly because its looming bug-eyed arrival at the school gates also made small children sick.

2. Matra-Simca Bagheera

In 1973 the Matra-Simca joint venture launched a diminutive, stylish, tiny-engined sports car that lacked the performance, engine capacity and top speed to succeed at Top Trumps. Except in one vital respect: the number of seats. Find the oddly named Bagheera in your hand and you knew you had an instant winner, whatever its other manifold statistical failings.

The Bagheera's three-abreast seating arrangement was the firm's novel solution to the perennial 2+2 sports car dilemma. As anyone who's travelled in a 2+2 will attest, it's more two than plus two. Arranging the seats side by side solved the problem, even if it also raised a few questions. Mainly how could the driver change gear without risking a passenger's modesty? But the car was designed and built in France, so perhaps we're being too prissy.

The other problem was that the three abreast arrangement didn't really work any better than the 2+2 layout. To avoid making the car too wide the three seats required compromises. The driver was pushed over closer to the door - requiring him to drive at an angle to the pedals - and the two passenger seats were slim and not really suited to well-lunched occupants.

The Bagheera was also underpowered, with just 1.3 or 1.4 engines pumping out less than 100 bhp. 30% more occupants - plus the extra weight of the extra seat - didn't help cement the car's sporting credentials. Despite that the car survived for 7 years and nearly 50,000 were built.

3. McLaren F1

The Multipla and the Bagheera's seating might raise a few questions but there is no disputing the logic that lies behind the McLaren F1's famous trio of seats.

Unlike the Fiat and the Matra, the McLaren's designer, Gordon Murray, put the driver firmly centre stage. The reason? Well, the clue's in the car's name. Murray wanted the driver to feel like a F1 driver. And he wanted to avoid what he felt were the compromises imposed by offsetting the pedals to the left or right.

The result is probably the most famous - and most successfully resolved - three seat car of all time. The clever layout established a winning formula that McLaren has repeated with successive models. In the F1 the driver is clearly centre stage, as they should be in a car of this type. Locating the seat slightly forward means there are no compromises between the other seats and the gear lever and switchgear.

The F1 proves that sometimes breaking the rules really does deliver something much, much better.

4. Talbot-Matra Murena

You could be forgiven for thinking we've been here before. And, in a way we have because the Murena was the successor to the Bagheera. But it was an entirely new car, even if the idea perhaps wasn't.

The Murena was technically similar to the Bagheera and carried over the same approach to seating. The crucial difference was that it gained more power, delivered by 1.6 and 2.2 litre engines that finally enabled the car to crack the 10 second dash to 60.

The Murena's development was perhaps pushed along by relatively buoyant sales for the Bagheera. But by the time it arrived at the turn of a new decade in 1980, it seems Europe was no longer thinking in threes. Just 10,000 Murenas left the factory. Production was halted in 1983 to make way for another cutting-edge multi-seater, The Renault Espace.

5. Ferrari 365P Berlinetta Special

Gordon Murray may have road tested plenty of supercars before realising his three-seat design, but unfortunately it wasn't a new idea. In 1966 Sergio Pininfarina designed this, the elegantly named Berlinetta Special - or 'Tre-Posti' if you prefer.

The Tre-Posti was the first purpose-built, road going, mid-engined Ferrari. It used a pioneering central steering wheel because the car was designed around a mid-engined donor race car chassis with V12 power. Although it was influenced by the Ferrari 206 Dino's styling, that car was only at prototype stage when the 365 was created.

Pininfarina created the car to encourage Enzo Ferrari to consider developing a mid-engined V12 car, something that the firm's US importer and Fiat were pushing for. Although it took some time to persuade the famously mercurial boss, the Tre-Posti eventually resulted in the 365 GT/4 Berlinetta Boxer of 1971.

Only two Tre-Posti were ever built but it is certainly one of Ferrari's most influential cars. It demonstrated the argument for a new line of mid-engined sports cars that arrived a few years later with the 365 GT/4. There is a clear DNA timeline from the mid-engined 365 BB to today's mid-engined hyper-performance Ferraris. And it all started with this slightly odd looking car.

A shame they didn't stick with the race car seating though isn't it?


Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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