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SPECIAL REPORT: DREAM MACHINES

Reinventing the Wheel

Mike Corbin: Three-Wheel Drive

October 29, 1998|JOHN O'DELL

Motorcycle racer and parts maker Mike Corbin's dream is electric, and it went into production this month. It's the Corbin Sparrow, a "personal transit module" with three wheels, one seat, an electric motor and an eye-poppingly curvaceous fiberglass body.

Corbin, whose Corbin-Pacific Inc. in Hollister, about 90 miles southeast of San Francisco, is best known for its motorcycle seats, describes himself as a "niche hunter" pursuing a childhood dream of one day building a car.

His background as an electrical engineer and motorcycle enthusiast made a small electric car that uses a motorcycle-type drive train the logical choice, he says. A stroll on a pedestrian bridge crossing a bumper-to-bumper Santa Ana Freeway in downtown Los Angeles five years ago gave him the inspiration.

"I'd been thinking about an electric car for years, and I was at the point in life where I was either going to retire or go out and chase my dream of being someone who designed a new car," says Corbin, 54. "So there I was, walking across the bridge, looking down at the traffic. It was all stopped, and all I saw was a sea of big cars, sitting there making lots of smoke. Then a guy on a BMW motorcycle came weaving through it all, and right then I knew I had to make a single-seater, a three-wheel car small enough so that it didn't take up much more room than a motorcycle."

The Sparrow is that. It occupies a 4-by-8-foot space on the road, about the same as a fully loaded Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, but provides the occupant a fully sealed cabin, a CD player and on-board charging for the batteries so that it can be plugged into any 110-volt electrical outlet.

Range on a single charge, says Tom Corbin, 32, Mike's son and the company's vice president and marketing guru, varies from 40 to 70 miles, depending on how and where it is driven--hill climbing sucking up more juice than driving on the flats. Top speed: 60 mph.

A dealership network is just being set up. So far there are only two in Southern California, in La Jolla and Newport Beach. The Sparrow, which is street legal and is registered as a motorcycle, retails for $12,900 with a single option: For $650 you can get chrome wheels.

Next up--a single seat, three-wheel Corbin roadster with a low-emission, high-power, gasoline-fed motorcycle engine that will give it a top end of 100 mph and a range of several hundred miles.

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