Imagine you were going to build an electric motorcycle. Why not? Many have tried and some have even worked OK, for a short distance of course. Bit tricky crossing Arizona on a battery powered bike, but fine around town.
Then again, would you choose a ZZR1100 Kawasaki – one of the longest, heaviest sports tourers of the 1990s – to be the donor machine in your electrical experiment, plus saddle it with the name Jamais Contente 2?
As you might have already guessed, it´s another crazy French project – but bon chance to the lot of `em.
A French designed electric bike? Surely it’s no more than a milk float on two wheels. Not quite so, reported Roland Brown after the decidedly spooky experience of taking the Jamais Contente 2 on a very quiet drag run in 1997.
The man in the ear-defenders and white overalls beckons: time to go. I turn the ignition key, pull up the big red button in front of me, flick the switch in the dashboard, and edge the blue bike slowly and silently forward until a line of white lights comes up on the Christmas tree of this drag-strip near Metz in north-eastern France.
As I watch the lights I’m briefly aware of the crowd, the tarmac stretching out ahead, the commentator’s rapid-fire French. Then suddenly green, and I wind the throttle fully open, the bike rocketing forward with all the force of a fully-laden milk-float until I quickly stamp my left foot down on the boost pedal, and Jamais Contente 2 kicks me in the back as the world’s fastest electric bike gets into its stride.
With my head behind the screen it’s a totally crazy sensation. The bike picks up speed but the only sounds are the wind and a high-pitched transmission whine. I glance down to see the speedometer needle sweeping through 130, 140km/h, the dial alongside it indicating a steady 820 amps then suddenly I’m through the timing lights, sitting up, shutting off, hooking the boost lever up again and hitting the anchors.
The time for this, my second standing quarter of the day is 17.12 seconds at 88.44mph. Hopeless by superbike standards, of course, and slow even for a middleweight commuter bike. But my time is less than half a second down on the electric-bike world record that this bike set last year and it’s well inside the previous best, set in Italy by a bike called Violent Violet and its rider, one Max Biaggi.
This bike might be a whole lot slower and heavier than the bike that Max rides most weekends, but Jamais Contente 2 is the Honda NSR of the electric bike world. Given enough room it has a top whack of 135mph. Last September, French endurance racer Bruno Bonhuil rode it to four FIM-approved world records, beating the speeds set by Violent Violet in 1994 in the standing quarter and flying mile, and over a kilometre from both a flying and standing start.
Jamais Contente 2 (the name means Never Satisfied) is the creation of Jean-Francois Monteil, an electronics engineer and former lecturer at the Institute of Technology in Reims in central France, and a team of his former students headed by Micha’l Cassez. It is named after Jamais Contente, a car which, designed by a French engineer named Camille Jenatzy and powered by separate electric motors driving each of its four wheels, was timed at over 60mph in 1899.
A ghostly image of Jamais Contente can be seen in the paintwork of JC2’s enormous and streamlined fairing, which also acknowledges the project’s many sponsors. But you’ve got to get the bodywork off to see what’s going on. The chassis is recognisably from Kawasaki’s ZZ-R1100, but the normal four-pot engine is gone. Instead, a steel subframe supports a cylindrical electric motor and three containers holding a total of 126 nickel-cadmium battery cells.
The motor is made by French firm Leroy-Somer, and is the type used in the electric version of Peugeot’s 106 car. It spins at up to 3000rpm and in standard form produces 35kW, about 47bhp, driven by 96V of battery force. JC2’s batch of 1.2V NiCad batteries, on the other hand they’re normally used to start the jet engines of Boeing aircraft produces a total over 150V. Designed for short bursts of power rather than endurance, they’re good for only about ten miles at full speed.
The batteries weigh 90kg and would normally cost over £20,000, but luckily Saft, the firm that makes them, is one of the project’s sponsors. Another is Curtis, the American firm that makes the regulator. This device sits below the steering head, is connected to the throttle and acts as the carburettor. But despite being the same type used by the Apollo 11 spacecraft’s lunar jeep, the regulator can pass only 500A of current not enough for the power required.
Hence Jamais Contente 2’s booster system which, when the left-foot pedal is pressed down, bypasses the regulator to send the maximum 800A of current straight to the motor, increasing its output to between 55 and 60kW (75-80bhp). This in turn heats the motor more than is normal, necessitating the small back-up motor, bolted to the rear subframe, which sends cooling air down a plastic tube.
Compared to the powerplant, JC2’s chassis is relatively normal, apart from the large front subframe that also supports the all-enveloping fairing. Suspension and swing-arm are standard, only one of the Kawasaki’s front discs is retained, and its 17-inch wheels wear Michelin racing slicks that are inflated to 65psi to reduce rolling resistance. The whole bike weighs 264kg, roughly 20kg more than a fuelled-up ZZ-R11.
It certainly doesn’t feel remotely normal to ride, though, from the moment you sit on it to be confronted by an aircraft-style array of dials in a carbon-fibre dashboard, and a large red button with the words EMERGENCY STOP written alongside. Pressing this button when you’re moving breaks the main circuit and kills all power in an emergency. But when you’re running full boost with 800A going through the system, Monteil says, this results in lots of sparks and is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
Alongside the standard speedo in the dashboard are a big white-faced ammeter and four smaller dials. Above, three digital gauges show the temperature of the motor and other parts. On the left, below the strangely clutch-lever-free left handlebar, is a device for recording the bike’s performance during a run. The throttle feels normal but is used only to get under way, after which the pilot has to hit full boost with the left foot remembering to hook a boot under the lever in readiness for shutting-off. While the boost pedal remains down, I’m warned, the only way of stopping is the panic-button…
Everything from Top Fuel Harleys to rocket cars have been roaring down the strip at this big annual Drag Power Show at Chambley, and eventually it’s my turn to go. Before each run the serious drag-bikes have been warming-up their engines then, before moving to the line, doing burn-outs in a pool of special gunge to increase tyre traction. Instead we leave the motor switched off to conserve power, and pick our way carefully round the sticky liquid.
I’ve never done a proper Christmas-tree drag-start before, let alone ridden a bike remotely like this, but the first run goes off without too much incident. At least it does until I trip the lights and try to shut off the long-travel and rather awkwardly positioned boost pedal. Instead, my left foot kicks thin air and for a couple of seconds I’m through the lights and still accelerating at over the ton, thinking of that panic button until I finally get my foot round the lever, the power dies away and I can hit the brakes.
That first run was timed at just over 18 seconds, but I took too long to operate the boost lever after leaving the line, and knew I can go faster next time. Only slight trouble was that my second run was late in the day, so we had to run the motor beforehand to take some action photos. Although we had a charger (ironically the lack of mains electricity means it has to be run off a petrol-driven generator very fuel-efficient at constant low revs though!), we lost a little power because the batteries weren’t fully topped-up in time.
That’s maybe partly why I didn’t quite beat Bruno Bonhuil’s record-breaking two-way average time, let alone the best one-way effort of 15.893 seconds that he recorded when setting the world record. For a battery-powered bike that’s a brilliant achievement, but don’t expect to repeat it on the road just yet. Given JC2’s limitations in cost, weight and range, a roadgoing electric bike with true superbike performance is obviously still a long way away.
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Engine Leroy-Somer electric, 126 x 1.2V batteries
Claimed power (bhp) 70-80 bhp
Compression ratio –
Front tyre 120/60 x 17 Michelin radial slick
Rear tyre 180/67 x 17 Michelin radial slick
Front suspension 43mm fork, adjustable for preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension Uni-Trak monoshock, adjustable for preload and rebound damping
Front brake Single 320mm disc, four-piston caliper
Rear brake Single 250mm disc, twin-piston caliper
Top speed 135 mph
Fuel capacity –
Current price £-