Electric motorcycles aren’t exactly new. In 1936, the Limelette brothers founded Socovel, an electric motorcycle company in Brussels. Although there were some attempts before them dating back to the late 1800’s, they were the first ones to successfully put a bike into production.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, various people continued to tinker around with the idea of an electric motorcycle, but it remained an area for enthusiasts. The gas motorcycle was the star of the show: sleek, sexy and with a seductive growl. Most important, refueling was as easy as pulling into a gas station. Battery technology lagged behind, proving a huge obstacle for the e-bike. And, with the seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels and general laissez faire attitude about the environment, the general public showed little interest.
Time To Shine
Now we’ve reached a watershed moment. We’re on the verge of environmental collapse and battery technology has advanced to a level of practicality. The e-bike is finally ready for its closeup and the Petersen Automotive Museum is shining the spotlight.
On April 6, the Petersen draws back the curtain on “Electric Revolution,” an exhibit of 21 innovative electric motorcycles from around the world. Guest curated by co-founder of the Motorcycle Arts Foundation, Paul d’Orleans, and supported by Harley-Davidson, it provides a fascinating window into the evolution of the electric motorcycle, from the pioneers in the industry to the cutting-edge visionaries.
A motorcycle historian and connoisseur, d’Orleans has put together a rock star lineup of e-bikes that include custom, racing, production and prototype models from manufacturers such as CAKE, Specialized Bicycle Components, Roland Sands Design, Curtiss Motorcycles, Alta Motors, Joey Ruiter, and Noel Connolly.
All the motorcycles captivate for their stories and place in history, but a few stand out for deserving special attention. The 1974 Quicksilver was the first electric motorcycle to break the 100mph barrier and set a speed record of a little over 161 mph at Bonneville. “It was the first bike to really wake people up to the power and potential of electric motorcycles,” d’Orleans says. “That really shook people up.”
Art And Science Meet
Built by ex-Navy electrician Mike Corbin, the Quicksilver held the record for an astonishing 35 years. Corbin used Yardney Electric battery casings made for nuclear submarines and the space program, and “borrowed” $100,000 worth of pure silver necessary to juice up the batteries. After the statute of limitations passed, Corbin said he returned “most” of the silver, 99%, to the Navy.
The WSM Pact is a collaboration between two superstar custom motorcycle builders, Walt Siegl and Mike Mayberry. Neither had built and electric bike before. Both design masters, Siegl and Atkinson created a street track, high performance and functional motorcycle that’s a real looker.
Designed by creative director Robert Eggers of Specialized Bicycles, the fUCI is an electric assist racing bicycle. With his creation, Eggers gives the finger to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which regulates the cycling sport. The fUCI breaks all the rules with its electric boost, different diameter wheels and a frame that cheats the wind. This bold insolence has greater significance given the fact that Eggers builds racing bicycles for competitors.
The Mission 1 motorcycle highlights the work of famed Swiss designer Yves Béhar. Listed as one of Time magazine’s top designers, he boasts many awards and even had a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The zippy Mission1 boasts a top speed of 150 mph and the tantalizing design characteristic of Behar’s work.
As Harley-Davidson underwrote the exhibition, you’d expect they’d showcase some of its electric goodies. Harley brought out three prototypes that demonstrate its commitment to electric-powered motorcycles. Of course, the highly anticipated LiveWire will be on display. One of things that makes a Harley a Harley is the “potato, potato” thump of the motor. The LiveWire continues the legacy of noise with a jet-engine whine when you twist the throttle. Unfortunately, you can’t rev one up to hear this new trademark sound at the Petersen. You’ll have to visit your local dealer for that come next year.
No Noise All The Attitude
If the electric motorcycle has been around so long, how come the Petersen decided to put together the exhibit at this point in time? The truth is, gas-powered motorcycle sales are flagging. There just isn’t the interest there once was with the general public. “All the things that led people to motorcycles in the past: independence rebellion, cultural things, they’ve all fallen by the wayside in our contemporary, screen-based (smart devices) culture,” d’Orleans explains.
Electric motorcycles have the possibility of resuscitating a dying industry. It’s a renaissance for them, as it were. In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, hundreds of manufacturers made their own motorcycles and put on their own label. It was an explosion of creativity and experimentation. No one knew which designs would succeed or fail. By 1930, there were only two manufacturers left in the United States: Harley-Davidson and Indian.
Since the founding of the EPA in 1970, traditional motorcycles have had to pass stringent environmental requirements that cost millions and dictate the design. Electric motorcycles open up whole new possibilities. Build one today, license it tomorrow. “There’s no barrier to manufacturing an electric bike because there’s not EPA stuff required, which is the biggest, most expensive process you can’t even imagine,” d’Orleans points out. And, no matter how wild the designs or extravagant the top speeds, they can be perfectly legal production motorcycles.
Another advantage of the e-motorcycle is its lighting quick acceleration. One hundred percent of the torque is available at zero RPM, as opposed to the traditional motorcycle, which takes time reaching peak speeds. A trait that will surely appeal to speed demons and drivers impatient to get where they’re going.
The electric motorcycle has finally come into its own. For the first time ever, you can see all the exciting innovations on display within a historical context. It’s a must-see for enthusiasts and the future generations of riders alike.
“Electric Revolution” will be on display until November 2019. For more information about the exhibit and the Petersen Automotive Museum, please visit www.Petersen.org.