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Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Mike Corbin and his "corbin electric" in 1975

Source : New Atlas

We might think that the history of the electric two-wheelers goes back just over a decade, but in reality, it is much less recent than that. It begins, as for thermal two-wheelers, in the 19ᵉ century.

This article tries to describe the fascinating history of electric two-wheelers between the 19ᵉ and 20ᵉ centuries.

The first motor two-wheeler : the PERREAUX steam velocipede

To approach the history of the electric two-wheeler, it is appropriate to mention the origin of the motorized two-wheeler with the steam velocipede of Perreaux. It was designed, manufactured and patented between 1868 and 1871, by Louis-Guillaume Perreaux, a French inventor. It was at that time a two-wheeled vehicle powered by a single-cylinder steam engine.

At the beginning, in 1868, he had simply imagined optimizing the performance of a bicycle by recovering energy, via a flywheel system, to restore it during phases requiring more effort. This operation is just the origin of the electrically assisted bicycle that we know today.

He even thought of an electric motor (patented in 1870) but finally abandoned in favor of the steam engine.

This vehicle, considered today as the first motorcycle because bringing together all the patented evidence, weighed only 61 kg and could reach 35 km/h.

Première moto au monde
The "high speed" vélocipède of Perreaux

Source : Guy Rolland from a personal work (2015)

The first electric two-wheelers in the 19ᵉ century.

The electric motorcycle of Johann Kravolg an Austrian (current Italian Tyrol) engineer, gunsmith, and mechanic is not strictly a motorcycle, but an electric motor which laid the foundations of this type of permanent rotation mechanics. He presented his invention at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867.

The electric "motorcycle" of Johann Kravolg

Source : collection of technical museum – Vienna

A few years later, in 1881, Gustave Trouvé, nicknamed the “French Thomas Edison”, rode a tricycle powered by an electric motor which surprised a lot at that time.

To do this, he motorized an asymmetrical English Coventry tricycle. The tests were rather conclusive and were also reported in the Universal Journal of Electricity published the same year: " A 5 kg motor powered by 6 secondary batteries from Planté, placed on April 8 on a tricycle whose weight, including the rider and “ the batteries ” was 160 kg, dragged it at a speed of 12 km/h”.

Tricycle by Gustave Trouvé, the first electric vehicle presented to the public in 1881

Source : Jacques CATTELIN - Gustave Trouvé, The french Edison

The first electric motor to propel a two-wheeler dates back to 1897. The Clerc and Pingault electric tandem was timed at the Seine velodrome in Paris at 57s over the kilometer, or 63.2 km/h.

The Clerc and Pingault Electric Tandem, May 22, 1897

Source : Original BERTRAND J-P - conservator - EthnoDoc

At the same time, across the Atlantic, in 1895, the inventor Odgen Bolton Jr. proposed a balance bike whose rear wheel contained a DC motor powered by a 10V battery.

Patent filed by Odgen Bolten Jr. for his “Electrical Bicycle”

Also in the United States, Hosea W. Libbey, a few years later, in 1897 exactly, built a prototype electric bicycle, The Lampociclo, a bicycle whose motor is placed at the level of the pedals. This operating principle is still used today by some manufacturers.

Patent filed by Hosea W. Libbey for his “Electrical Bicycle”

It was in these same years that electric power even broke records. Thereby, in 1899, the Belgian Camille Jenatzy saw his electric quadricycle, baptized “the never happy”, reach for the first time in history, the 100 km/h even placing the land speed record at 105 km/h.

The "Jamais-Contente" of Jenatzy, at Achères, in 1899

Source : Max de Nansouty Chemins de fer automobiles, Max de Nansouty (engineer of Arts and Manufactures, éd. Boivin & Cie, 1911, p.49

Electric two-wheelers in the first half of the 20th century

Between two centuries, 19ᵉ/20ᵉ, the electric motor was therefore popular and delivered to vehicles of the time, more power than thermal vehicles. At the same time, electric cabs imposed themselves in Paris as the pinnacle of urban luxury vehicles with a bright future promised…

Unfortunately, the advent of the combustion engine, through the mass production of motor vehicles for individual and family use, eclipsed electric motor vehicles, leaving only a few inventions to emerge during the 20th century. .

One of them arrived in the 1920s with L’Électrocyclette. This real electric motorcycle for the time, was invented in 1928 by a Lyon workshop, but its autonomy did not exceed 30 km and its speed 25 km/h for a significant weight of 75 kg.

Advertisement for L’Électrocyclette, the work of a Lyon company in the late 1920s

Source : unknown

Some electric two-wheelers today use this design with the batteries located in the frame at foot level (Example here with the cake, makka range) considerably lowering the center of gravity.

Later, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Socovel was created in Belgium. It was the rationing of gasoline under the German occupation that saw the idea of ​​an electric vehicle germinate. We owe this two-wheeler to the Limelette brothers. It had a range of 50 km at 25-30 km/hour. This vehicle would enjoy some success before hopes of more mass production were definitively extinguished by the return of over-the-counter gasoline after the war.

The 1942 Socovel: a very successful electric vehicle

Source : Socovel Bruxels - François-Marie Dumas

Also noteworthy, in 1946, Bowden Spacelander's "electric" bicycle which he presented at the "Britain can make it" exhibition under the name "The classic".

This bike, in addition to its futuristic design for the time, had the particularity of having a cardan transmission with a dynamo/motor hub system. It charged on the descents and returned energy on the climbs. Unfortunately, its success was very limited due to its overly technical design.

“the classic” Bike from Bowden Spacelander

Source : Brooklyn Museum

Electric two-wheelers in the second half of the 20th century

Let's look back a few decades later to dwell a little on the case of Mike Corbin who, in the 1970s, was one of the great actors in the evolution of the electric two-wheeler, and this, at more than one title.

In 1973, on the Bonneville salt lake in Utah, he was the first to break the 100 mph (160 km/h) mark with an electric motorcycle, the Lightning.

Only a year later, he broke the 165 mph (265 km/h) barrier with the Quicksilver, a record he kept for almost 38 years.

Do not hesitate to consult this photo gallery, which captures the atmosphere of the time.

We also see a certain Charles Mac Arthur riding a Corbin Electric (cover photo). He reached the summit of Mount Washington in a single charge and was able to return thanks to a recharge made at the top thanks to a wind turbine installed for the occasion.

Mike Corbin was also at the origin of an electric conversion system for the Volkswagen Beetle, which he marketed in the same years.

The Quicksilver breaking the speed record for an electric motorcycle in 1974 on the salt lake of Bonneville (Utah)

Source : New Atlas

Note, at the same time, the Motobécane project which was on the verge of seeing the light of day following the first oil shock. Produce an electric moped! This idea is to the credit of Éric JAULMES (inventor of the moped) and then technical director of the brand. Unfortunately, this project was abandoned by the company's management board for several reasons such as the lack of power, the low autonomy, but also the fear of seeing this machine compete, internally, with the two-stroke model.

Electric moped prototype in 1972

Source : Motobécane Factory

To close this article and the releases of electric two-wheelers in the 20th century, let's mention the release in 1996 of the scoot'elec, Peugeot's electric scooter. With a weight of 115 kg, a range of 45 to 50 km at 45 km/h, this vehicle had a very low center of gravity, which made it very easy to handle. In 2006, it was abandoned, Peugeot judging that the electric scooter did not have a bright future. At the same time, Zero Motorcyles was born under the name of Electricross in California…

The Peugeot scoot’elec in 1996

The positioning of the scooter's batteries

Source :

The environmental and ecological challenges of the 21st century and the arrival on the market of lithium batteries, which are lighter and have greater autonomy, relaunched the history of electric two-wheelers in the 2000s.

This revival will be the subject of a future Bike Out blog post.

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