My First Electric Bike


This is the sobering true story about my first electric bike.

In 1985 I moved out on to my own – that is to say I no longer had roommates. I denied myself ownership of TV so that I could focus on Work and School with the desire to finish my BSME degree. I had already been in the engineering field as a Design Engineer for two years; however to complete the transfer program to University required 2 years of Drafting. Well – I already had a certificate from a drafting school and felt strongly the requirement had been filled. I went to the local JC to contest the issue. The program director (professor) felt differently and refused to waive the courses and that distressed me much. I took the list of classes for Drafting and challenged every aspect showing examples of past and present work and letters of reference to each instructor, chipping away at the so-called requirement until there were just two classes left – both taught by the same professor I had met at the beginning. He proposed a deal: If I took a year out and sought an AA in Drafting Technology he'd waive the rest of the material. Absolutely flummoxed, that's what I did, knowing that a couple of the 2-year courses would have to be repeated in the 4-year program (gnashing and spitting teeth the whole way).

Needless to say I was never sufficiently challenged by his drafting classes; he'd throw an assignment out and I'd whip out the completed work that same evening, even going so far as updating his outmoded notes. I mean – come on, this is what I do for a living! The two classes were Advanced Mechanical Drafting and Electromechanical Design Drafting. On the first spring day of the last class he sets the agenda:

"In this class we will design a product. Last year we designed a coffee grinder, and the year before that – a pencil sharpener. This year we will design…" and then he looks right at me and says "…a self-propelled three-wheeled handicap vehicle".

Great, let's just make the challenge like 10X more difficult than ever before. The Professor continues: "If you build a scale model - I will raise your letter grade by one. If you design it on CAD - I will raise your letter grade by one." (CAD was a brand new training program at the college – maybe one year old; they taught CATIA and Apple-CAD, and I think CADAM, or was it ComputerVision?). Lastly he adds, "Your proposals are due in one week, and you have the rest of the Quarter to complete the project."

The next day I'm at my day job discussing the challenge with my pals. Let me tell you what I was doing in 1985: I was designing the Lower Vacuum Conveyor System for the Plutonium Production Facility, with the labor of the design effort conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, California. It's a square-mile campus, and to get around we have these heavy "bee-bikes"; newspaper boy style, big, and heavy. If you get a flat, just flip it upside-down and grab another off the rack. No one wants to steal these things. And yet – they are the fastest and more enjoyable way to travel around the sandlot of scientists.

In discussing the audacity of the challenge with my pal, we joke "Wouldn't it be great to build one of those and drive it around the Lab? Yeah, that would be a lot of fun." Then my pal offers up "Hey, you know I found an old Schwinn 3-wheel bike frame behind my house…"

And it hits us at the same time: A gleam, the spark, and then the dull glow of a 45 watt bulb above our heads… What is it that we do for a living? We create product! I'm in an apartment but my pal says he'd let me use his garage for construction; now I have to see it the "professor" will let me build it. The Plan is in my head.

Next night I'm in class, and I says to the Prof "You said if I build a scale model you'd raise my letter grade by one, yes?" Yes. "OK, so what if I build a full-scale working model and drive it into class within nine weeks?" He said that would be great! I said fine, and I added it would be designed with CATIA. I go back to my desk and immediately start drawing up the proposal, listing the details, and organizing the deliverables. The Prof comes over and says to me "You're serious aren't you?" I give it to him the way it is straight-up: "Damn right I'm serious. I'm over-qualified for your course, it's ruinous to the bell curve, I don't deserve to be here, and I'm going to prove it." A few minutes later I turn in my one-page proposal (belatedly I wished I had made a copy). At the end of the evening the Prof gets up and says to the class "Don't forget to complete your proposals; they are due next Monday. Let me read you an example of what it should be like…" and then he reads mine to the class. Bugger me! All eyes turn my way cuz they know it's my work: In unison "FIIIIISH! What are you trying to do to us?" Yeah, great… like I really wanted to be here too.

Next day I launched the project full-steam ahead: Took the bike frame, ripped it apart, and stripped the paint off, designed a structure to support the foot landing, and replaced the bike seat with a fishing chair that I found on sale at a K-Mart blue-light special. I called around looking for a controller, explaining my student project, and got lucky with a repair shop in Oakland. The guy on the horn in a whiskey voice says "We ain't got nuttin' cheap - but I've got a box of leftover parts that you can have for free." Next I enlisted two bike shops in Livermore that either donated or provided at cost the parts to complete the assembly – so long as I put their logo on the bike. With the modified frame, I painted it the Handicap Powder-Blue color, found some 16" black rims, and white tires. Also fabricated plywood floorboards, painted them black, and covered them with rubber sheeting. For batteries I used two 12-Volt Deep Cycle connected in series.

Found in field dead: Not too shabby
for being a throw-away.

Surprisingly in good condition
for laying in dirt.

Added the folding fishing seat.

Custom welding to support the floorboards.

Score! Found in the box of parts a controller that came from one of the big three makers of handicap vehicles, possibly Electric Mobility; it was el-broko, but the key-switch, directional controls, harness, and motors were intact. I called up the controller company and explained that I'm a student and could I get a unit donated. Eventually I was put through to the President (it must have been a small company), and though he was a snake I had to play charmer: He says he couldn't donate a controller or sell one to me at wholesale, however he will repair my unit for cost if I promise to give him the designs of my electric vehicle. Sure, no problem, the arraignment it made and I sends the unit off for repair. It costs me like $150; a complete rip-off, but still cheaper than buying a new one for $400. I never sent the guy jack-diddily.

Days, weeks fly by; the whole assembly is coming together in the garage. The Due Date arrives. I didn't own a truck at that time so I borrowed my pal's. That afternoon I'm working on it in the back of the truck still putting things together, making sure the chain is the correct length, tension and all. Lift the wheel, give it a throttle test: Passes. Let's go! Race off to school, I park in the back-40 lot. Run to class. A handful of my fellow students are there studying before the start. I ask for two volunteers to help me unload my electric vehicle and two rise up to help; a guy and a gal. On the way out to the parking lot the guy begins to carp about how far away it is, and as we unload the bike from the truck a small but curious crowd gathers. We set it on the ground; the whiner says "Great, now we have to push it!" I says to him as I take as seat, put the key in and give it a twist "Push it?!? Hell man, I'm going to DRIVE IT!" And I took off WOT and started doing two-wheel brodies right there round and round – it was quite a thrill; the gal that helped was impressed – too bad she had a boyfriend… (sigh).

The seat and handlebars easily fold down.

Easy access from either side.

Slightly wobbly: Something to fix.

Eye-Catching: Nothing like it before.

The Campus Cop shows up at the commotion and instantly is all interested, so I ask him to race me to see what the top speed it and he agrees: 11 mph - fast enough for a handicap vehicle. I steer the unit towards class and honk the horn to let folks know I'm coming through. As I reach the door to the classroom I ask a fellow student to hold the door open; he does and I drive through with about two inches to spare, honking my horn. Everybody is surprised and I enjoy for the briefest of moments a standing ovation :o)

Later that month we take the bike to the Santa Clara County Fair and put it on display at the Chabot/Las Positias Community College exposition. That same week I received a letter from the Veteran's Administration: In their glacial pace of reviewing my submissions for credit and compensation – imagine this is 9 months after I submitted the request – the letter refuses to compensate me "for training that I had already received now three years hence", meaning I didn't have to take the drafting program. Furthermore it directs the college to award me 33 units of A (4.0) towards my GPA as credit from the previous Technical curriculum (I aced that course and they used 1/3 of my drawings as masters). Bittersweet is the victory. Having made the Dean's List, a few weeks later I graduate with Honors. It is the only college degree that I have.

I just noticed how many plants I had back then.

Later I moved to a rain forest;
no plants in my apartment now.

Chain reduction from the axle to the single drive wheel.

Motor had a reduction gearing as well.

The contract at LLNL ends and I'm on the hunt for a new gig. A head-hunter sees my CV and we meet; I show him my drawings and pictures of the Handicap Vehicle. His eyes grow large, says to me there's only one place I should apply, and directs me to go straight home and wait for his call. That afternoon I get the instructions: Go to Fremont at xyz address, and the man you're to meet is the Drafting Manager. The name of the company is Worlds Of Wonder.

I do as I'm told: I show up, and we head off into an open area partitioned by cubicles. The manager is an older gent salted by gray; he puffs away a cigarette as I break out my portfolio. As soon as I show him the CAD drawings of the handicap vehicle and the accompanying pictures of the transformation the fag nearly falls out of his mouth. He's says "Wait right here!" then walks around the corner and returns with the industrial design layout of the Starlyte Lazer-Tag Rifle. "Think you can design this?" I says yep, and he says "Job's yours." It was the second shortest interview of my professional career – lasting maybe 5 minutes.

Battery Meter, High-Low Torque, Forward-Reverse,
Key-Lock. Throttle was crappy.

Rain-Proof more or less.

Really dead simple: Plug it in when you want to charge.

The shortest interview I ever had was the job after that: I had just finished parking and stepped out of the car to go to the interview. Two guys were heading out the door as I was going in. One of them says "You Kingfish?" I says "Yeah, just on my way to the interview." He says "No, we checked your resume and your references. You're hired. Start on Monday, see you at Eight." So I closed the door and came back on Monday. On that job I designed electronic safe-and-arm devices for tandem-warhead wire-guided anti-tank missiles: Toys for other boyz.

I held on to the Handicap Vehicle for quite some time. That summer after the invention my nephew came to visit for week. I asked him to go break my toy: Discover the limits. He did; there were two failures actually: First was that the motor became hot and the magnets had cracked and delaminated from the outer casing. I had a spare from the donated box of parts and so we mounted it. Then there was the second where the weld that held the seat post to the frame had cracked then cleaved. The pictures show a rope holding it together. It collected dust after that. I took it with me from move to move thinking I'd fix it one day. It was abandoned at my farm amongst other precious memories in my last Divorce.

Kinda looks like a Patent drawing.

My second electric bike is the one I ride today; a modified 19-year old mountain bike from a kit I bought last winter. I am in the midst of designing my third from scratch: It will go Faster, Farther, Better.

Enjoy, KF

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