Electric Bicycles: Their Time Never Came

Some of my friends know that, hidden in my dim, dark past, I used to do something involving electric bicycles. I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s true and it was a colorful period of my life.

While I was working for then-California Controller Gray Davis, I met up with a charismatic man who had the vision thing in spades. His name was Malcolm Bricklin.

Malcolm was an automotive entrepreneur. He was the first American to get a perpetual license to import a Japanese vehicle — the Subaru. He parlayed that as a young man into quite an empire, and then sold out. His later efforts were not as successful, though they all had their silver linings and interesting moments. When Fiat quit importing the Spider, Malcolm stepped in and imported it with the “Bertone” badge. He created the Bricklin gull-wing door car (which enthusiasts still swear by and, I am given to understand, on which the DeLorean is based). He had an idea for cheap cars for the masses and created the Yugo — which, say what you want about it, but it was cheap.

In fact, that was Malcolm’s main vision: inexpensive cars, accessible for everyone.

He also had another vision. He thought electric vehicles were the wave of the future. Of course, he was right — just about fifteen years ahead of his time.

When I met Malcolm, he was trying to get an appointment with my boss, Gray, to talk about a new idea he had that would need some political support. There was a giant, shuttered General Motors factory in Van Nuys (the Valley area of Los Angeles). Malcolm wanted to use that as a factory to convert gasoline-powered cars into electric. The idea was this: You give Malcolm’s company your car and, say, $10,000 — and they give you back your same car but electric-powered.

While I think that is a cool idea, it never took off. But I was mesmerized, and so I left politics and went to work for Malcolm.

After trying to get electric cars off the ground for a time, Malcolm (and his business partner, a former GM Delco chairman and Hughes executive, coincidentally named Malcolm Currie) determined that the choke point in the whole enterprise was the battery industry. This fact is still being rediscovered today. There just is not enough capacity worldwide to make the number of high-tech batteries that would be needed for electric vehicles to be mass-manufacturable. Part if the reason that there was (and is) not enough capacity is that the battery companies did not see enough of a market. What if they built the factories and no one bought the batteries?

So Malcolm shifted gears. He needed to show the battery companies that if they built them, people would buy. 

Thus was born the EV Warrior electric bicycle. Malcolm created the Electric Bicycle Company and developed an infrastructure through car dealers to sell the bikes.

The EV-1 modelThe bikes had a casing on the back where a rack would be, that contained a motor and a battery. Press a lever on the handlebar, and the motor would kick in, propelling the bike up to about 15 miles per hour. (The image is from our promotional materials.)

It was an idea that had a great deal of merit, but the product was not up to the task and probably did not have a market. The bikes were very top heavy, the drive mechanism was finicky, and we never got quality control quite right.

We were also saddled with a bunch of weird regulations. Turns out if you slap even a low-powered motor on a bike it becomes a “vehicle.” That brings with it a host of issues. We had to create VIN numbers, meet Department of Transportation regulations, which included having headlights that were as powerful as car headlights, and riders had to wear motorcycle helmets and typically get special motorcycle licenses in order to ride the things. We’re talking bikes with little motors, here, and all this rigmarole just about killed the idea before it started.

But that was my job. The helmet and license thing. Me and a colleague, transportation consultant Ryan Snyder, went around to state capitals trying to get the laws changed in order to allow people to actually ride these things. Ryan had more success than I did with his states, but together we were able to get the law changed in California and I went on to get the law changed in Oregon and Washington states. W00t! The basic idea was simple: we created a new “class” of vehicle called the “electric assisted bicycle.” This new class of vehicle could be ridden without a special license, only on streets (not sidewalks), and anyone under 16 had to wear a helmet — but a bike helmet, not a motorcycle helmet. 

The company eventually folded before we really got going, but this was an exciting, if brief, period in my life. The characters I met were fascinating. Malcolm himself was a walking, charismatic bolt of lightning. But there were others: an erotic sculptor who designed the motor casing; the inventor of the “extended warranty” who did — well, I am not sure what, but car dealers thought he was a magician for inventing that thing; a former ad man and Bible scholar who was Malcolm’s right hand.

Once EBC closed I continued to do the same state capital work for some other electric bicycle firms (yes, there were others, making the Charger and the Zap) but that was not successful. The heyday had come and gone.

I am sure some of my readers are wondering: Did he register as a lobbyist in these states? To be honest, I cannot remember the details. I believe I did. Or at least I tried. But at some point, I also recall we got an opinion that, since I was working  only on one issue, I did not have to.

Here and there, though, you can see police forces using electric bicycles — mostly the Charger and Zap. The EV Warrior? Not so much — too heavy. More often, they are a curiosity hidden in various people’s garages. Will they ever emerge?

We’ll have to wait and see.

P.S. What happened to the Electric Bicycle Company? It was eventually purchased by Lee Iacocca. He renamed the company EV Global. That company no longer exists either.

(Image of Bricklin SV-1 from Motorbase.)

3 thoughts on “Electric Bicycles: Their Time Never Came”

  1. The time for electric bicycles is still coming…

    Electric bicycles are the most efficient automated transportation ever conceived, capable of over 1000 MPGe. With the economic downturn and the cost of owning automobiles, many are turning these days to electric bicycles. They have also been a phenomenon in places like China where reports have said there are 25 million units on the road.

    You were ahead of your time. Keep pursuing electric bicycles as they are the best solution for today’s transportation.

  2. I agree with Alex Campbell and will take it one step further- the time for electric bicycles is here. The industry itself has formed a solid base to promote electric bikes’ manufactured components, use, sale and service. Individuals and companies are banding together through a newly created global Light Electric Vehicle Association. Visit us at http://www.levassociation.com.

  3. 2014 March: A yellow model (yikes) is $350 on CL. Seller claims it has new batteries and original tires have whiskers, but the turn signal on one side doesn’t work and neither does the speedo. How could 20 year old tires not have
    fatal dry rot.

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