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Pioneer: the story of the world’s first electric motorcycle

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With electric cars now in the mainstream, many feel that electric motorcycles can also make a breakthrough in the 2020s. Major brands like Kawasaki and Harley-Davidson are joining start-up electric companies like Energica and Zero in offering battery powered motorbikes, but the concept is not new. Almost 50 years ago, American engineer Mike Corbin developed his own production electric motorcycle. This is its story…

These days, Mike Corbin’s company is better known as one of America’s biggest maker of custom motorcycle seats, but in the early 1970s he was one of the pioneers of production electric motorcycles.

“There was a terrible gasoline shortage in the early 1970s,” he said. “My company, Corbin-Gentry, was making motorcycle seats and frames. I had previously been a navy electrician, so I thought that it would make a nice offering from our company.”

Corbin’s first bike was an electric commuter bike. Called the XLP-1 ‘City Bike’, the company made and sold around 100 units between 1972 and 1974.

The fixed gear model cost $1395 (around $8000 in today’s money) with a two speed version costing an additional $1000. The three lead acid batteries held 4.7kWh of energy (less than half that of most modern electric bikes) and the machine weighed around 145kg. The bikes claimed a range of around 30-40 miles at speeds of around 30mph, with a battery life of around 6000 miles.

Corbin would also ride an electric-powered streamliner to a world record average of 165.367mph at the 1974 Bonneville Nationals. In 1973 he had become the first electric powered rider to go over 100mph on the famous salt, riding his home built ‘Magnificent Electrical Machine’ but the following year he went back with a proper streamliner built in association with battery supplier Yardney Electric, to showcase their cutting edge ‘Silvercel’ battery technology, which were more commonly found in nuclear powered submarines.

Quick Silver, as it was known, was the first electric motorcycle with the expensive high tech silver zinc batteries. It went through the speed trap at a staggering 171mph, recording a 165.387mph average for a record which stood until 2012, when new electric motorcycle manufacturer Lightning topped 218mph.

Meanwhile the XLP-1 became the first electric motorcycle to be registered on American roads, with another publicity stunt taking place in 1975 when an updated machine rode up Mount Washington twice on a single charge, as part of an ‘alternative transportation’ regatta. Charged up by a windmill and ridden by environmentalist Charles MacArthur, the Corbin-Gentry machine took 26 minutes to tackle the eight mile course, which consisted of 99 hairpin turns and an average gradient of 12%. This updated bike had a 55mph top speed and a 40 mile range, using a nickel zinc battery.

Despite the improvements, the Corbin-Gentry bikes never made it into the mainstream – largely due to the end of the oil crisis. Mike would continue to contribute to the evolution of electric vehicles. The three wheeled Corbin Sparrow bubble car appeared in the 1990s and his patented swing drive system, which places the electric motor as a structural part of the swingarm, remains in use on various electric motorcycles today.

Mike remains a fan of electric motorcycles to this day. Having owned a Zero in the past, he recently purchased an Italian Energica. “Lithium Ion batteries make electric vehicles the future,” he concludes. “Modern day electric motorcycles are wonderful. Now developing the economies of scale, and competition (from different manufacturers) will drastically improve them.”

Whether Mike’s vision turns out to be true or not, there’s no doubt that his pioneering work in the 1970s has contributed to the electric motorcycles emerging some five decades later.

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