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Electric Bikes Try to Get Rolling

August 02, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1898, John Schnepf of New York City took out a patent on an invention: a bicycle rigged with an electric motor to assist tired pedalers on hills and long rides.

Schnepf referred to his device as an "Automobile."

Nice try.

Although there have been several other electric bikes produced over the decades, the concept has never caught on. But two companies headquartered in the San Fernando Valley are convinced that Schnepf was simply ahead of his time.

"We have the best of both worlds here," said Malcolm Bricklin, co-founder of the Electric Lite Bicycle Co., as he pedaled and motored one of his company's EV Warriors up a quiet Malibu roadway.

"You get exercise, and even if you are not in the best shape, you can get somewhere," he said, pointing out that users can pedal the bike (which at its 80-pound weight is not easy) or cruise on the electric motor.

Bricklin, 57, said the bike has gotten him into exercise.

"All my wives bought me bicycles," said the thrice-married entrepreneur. "They all ended up in the garage.'

Heralded by a full-blast advertising campaign, thousands of the company's electric bikes went on sale at local car dealerships this week.

The bikes probably attracted more investors--including novelist Sidney Sheldon--than other products in Bricklin's track record. He is the man who imported the much-mocked Yugo automobile to this country, and in the 1970s, he produced in Canada a gull-winged car known as the Bricklin. Both ventures ended in bankruptcy.

"He lost all that money, but people still give it to him," said Joseph LaStella, president of a competitor, Battery Automated Transportation, which has produced a limited number of electric bikes and plans to put its most consumer-friendly model on sale in the fall.

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LaStella's main business is electric cars. In a vast, former Lockheed plant in Burbank--where Electric Lite Bicycle also has office space--his crew is converting postal vehicles to electric power for an upcoming road test in Atlanta.

But the soft-spoken LaStella, 57, a structural engineer who never lost his native New York accent, also believes that electric bikes will one day be a common sight on Los Angeles streets.

"It's clean, not like a motorcycle," he said.

The EV Warrior and BAT bikes have similarities--both resemble mountain bikes, with fat tires and handlebar gear shifters.

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Both companies hope that environmental concerns will fuel development of the whisper-quiet bikes that produce no exhaust gases--although the electricity to charge the batteries must be generated by power plants somewhere.

Both have a top speed, using motor only, of about 20 mph. A state law allows both to be used on city streets without licensing or helmets, although riders must be at least 16. The bikes can go about 15 miles on a charge and can be recharged on a home outlet with the use of a charging unit.

But the look and ride of the two vehicles are as different as the demeanors of the company founders.

The EV Warrior--which comes in two models, for $1,400 or $1,900--is a slick, custom-designed vehicle that resembles the BMX bikes favored by the extreme sport set. It is produced by Giant, a major bicycle company, and its electrical components are produced by Sanyo.

The 25-pound battery rests in a color-coordinated plastic case over the rear tire, making the EV Warrior somewhat back-heavy and unwieldy when at a standstill or at slow speeds.

By contrast, the most recent BAT bike model looks jury-rigged, which it is. The company took an existing mountain bike and adapted it for a motor and battery. But the battery was placed in the center of the bike and fairly low, making the bike easier to handle.

The BAT bike is also lighter, weighing in at about 60 pounds, 20 of which are battery. The projected retail price is $1,950.

The BAT bike is missing some of the EV Warrior's standard bells and whistles, such as a high-intensity headlight.

And it's not yet available. Although BAT produced several hundred of an earlier model, the company does not have any in production. The president of the bike division, Chris P. Martin, said if all goes well, its new model will be available for general sale by Christmas.

Almost a century after Schnepf's patent, the true development of the electric bicycle might finally be ready to begin.

"This," said Bricklin, pointing at one of his bikes, "is the Model T."

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