Under new ownership and reeling from a decline in the snowmobile market, Rupp Manufacturing needed a home-run product to reverse its fortunes in 1974. Its roll-of-the-dice gamble was the Centaur, a trike designed to deliver the fun of a motorcycle with the practicality of an economy car. The Centaur failed in its mission, lasting just two years and roughly 1,200 copies before production ended, and, by the end of 1978, Rupp itself would be out of business. On January 7, 2016, a 1975 Rupp Centaur with less than 2,700 miles will be offered by its original owner as part of Bonhams Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction.
On paper, the Centaur sounded like a great idea. Still reeling from the effects of the 1973 oil crisis, American consumers were shopping for economy cars in record numbers, assuming that the next gasoline shortage was just around the corner. Though fuel economy numbers weren’t published, the Centaur’s 339-cc two-stroke Kohler twin was certainly a gas-sipper, and at a time when a two-door Toyota Corolla sold for $2,711 and a Volkswagen Beetle stickered at $3,295, a Rupp Centaur priced at $1,700. Lack of roof aside, the Centaur promised more fun than anything with four wheels, and for 1975 stepped up its game with the addition of two-up seating, making it ideal (or at least usable) for carpooling.
As David Traver Adolphus wrote in the October 2012 issue of Hemmings Motor News, the Rupp was originally designed to use a Volkswagen Beetle engine and transmission, but the two companies could not come to terms on pricing and delivery of powertrains. With the Centaur’s chassis already designed, a last-minute switch was made to the Kohler engine, originally intended for use in snowmobiles. On the plus side, this change left ample room to add a trunk box behind the rider, but on the down side, fan-cooled two-stroke motorcycle engines, especially those under 350 cc, make suboptimal road-going engines.
The Centaur had a claimed top-speed of 55 MPH, but achieving this required running the engine all but flat out. Reliability of the Kohler engine, used in an application it was never designed for, was a problem from the outset, and the Centaur’s automatic transmission, equipped with a centrifugal clutch, also suffered from reliability issues. Even the fiberglass body, molded in the buyer’s choice of red, yellow, white or blue, had a tendency to crack around the rear fenders, compounding owner dissatisfaction.
In addition to the front drum brake, the Centaur included used a rear transmission brake that also served as a parking brake. Front suspension came courtesy of fork-mounted shock absorbers with coil springs (adjustable for preload), while the rear suspension also relied upon coilover shocks. Though the Centaur’s light weight clearly aided handling, it wasn’t designed to excel in autocross competition.
Limitations and flaws aside, the Centaur still found owners, most famously Elvis Presley, who purchased a Rupp Centaur in the summer of 1975. The trike is still on display at Graceland, but the King wanted more performance than a 339-cc two-stroke could offer, and, soon after, purchased a Super Cycle Stallion VW-powered trike to roam the streets of Memphis.
The Centaur to be offered up by its original owner in Las Vegas was purchased as part of Rupp’s 1977 bankruptcy auction, delivered to the consignor in its original shipping crate. Said to be used carefully, for special events only, the trike is described as in original condition, and in the words of the catalog listing, “may be the finest extant outside Graceland.”
Bonhams predicts a selling price between $5,000 and $10,000 when the Rupp crosses the stage in Nevada. For more information on the Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction, visit Bonhams.com.