My wife Ellen and I embarked on our journey toward Twike ownership four years ago; when our son left for college, we sold our second car and I began commuting year round on a bicycle. Lake Champlain moderates Burlington Vermont weather but the mercury can still dip to 20 F before winter's end. My two-mile commute and trips to customer sites seemed rather long on slushy, frigid days. So fantasies of enclosed pedal-powered vehicles grew stronger each year that my birthdays drew closer to 50.
Fortunately, the Internet opened up a new world of information for me concerning the Human-Powered Vehicle movement. One day while searching for details on enclosed recumbent bicycles, I discovered the Twike. The name made me chuckle, "dat cwazy wabbit widing a Twike." Apparently, there are no such silly connotations in Europe, where most of the 400 Twikes sold to date are in use. The name Twike came from the words "twin bike" and that's exactly what appeared, looking like a rolling airplane cockpit, at the 1986 Vancouver Worlds Fair.
Twenty-year-old Ralph Schnyder and a team of engineering and architectural students from the University of Zurich created the first Twike. This elegant, enclosed recumbent bicycle for two has gone through several transformations over the last 14 years. In 1996 Twike III appeared, the first version offered for sale to the public. This feat was accomplished with no government subsidies, just a lot of hard work, a clear vision and a lot of faith on the part of investor/buyers. Zurich is now the Twike capitol of the world, with 100 Twikes on its roads.
The original Twike was 100% human powered. Twike III and its refined progeny "Twike 99" are pedal, assisted ultralight electric vehicles. At 520-600 lbs., the Twike requires a non-human primary drive system. Seated side-by-side, either or both of the passengers can opt to pedal, getting as much or as little exercise as they choose and potentially extending the range between charges up to 20%. Pedaling energy goes directly into the drive train, providing a uniquely satisfying experience of human and machine synergy.
While there are defrosters and windshield wipers to improve visibility, human legs are the only heating system. My experience of bicycle riding in Vermont winters taught me that even at 0 F, only my exposed skin and extremities get really cold from wind chill - the rest of me warmed up quickly from vigorous pedaling. I'm expecting a reasonably comfortable ride in the Twike this coming winter with the convertible top snapped down.
The Twike is about 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long, with three wheels - two drive wheels in the rear and one front wheel. Its aluminum space frame is covered with a tough, lightweight plastic shell, and the windshield is made of Plexiglas (or safety glass with heating wires). The motor, transmission and batteries are all in the rear, creating excellent traction similar to the old Volkswagon bug.
The Twike's battery system was quite unique until Toyota borrowed the basic design for its hybrid electric Prius sedan, which has a single pack with 240 nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries. The Twike has either two or three battery packs, each with 280 C-cell nickel cadmium (NiCad) batteries run in series. Each battery pack is controlled by a computer board that carefully monitors the charge level and temperature of each cell. Fully charged, each battery is about 405 volts (V). The D/C-to-A/C inverter powers a 5 Kilowatt (KW), 330V AC electric motor.
The Twike's motor bike tires are mounted on alloy rims. The rear brakes are hydraulic and the front brake is a cable brake. The emergency/parking brake is cabled to the rear wheels. The regenerative braking system is controlled with a button on the beechwood handle of the steering joystick. One unique Twike feature is that both the acceleration and the regenerative braking have cruise control, very handy when riding up and down the Swiss Alps! The acceleration cruise control allows the Twike to maintain a steady speed regardless of the pedaling status of the driver and passenger.
Tease of a Test Drive
Our second step toward Twike ownership was in the spring of 1998 when we traveled 400 miles to kick the tires of the nearest one. TB Woods, manufacturer of the DC-to-AC inverter, purchased Twike # 049 after it completed the 1996 Tour du Sol, where it won the most efficient vehicle award. Driving toward Chambersburg over the beautiful rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, we fantasized about the great test drive we were about to take.
As it turned out, the reasonably cautious engineers at TB Woods suggested we confine our drive to their parking lot. This tease ride at less than 10 mph left us pretty excited but far from ready to shell out $17,000-$20,000 for a Twike of our own. The most we'd ever spent for a vehicle in our combined 100+ years on earth was $4,800 for our 1984 Volvo wagon.
We took step three last December when we visited our son and the folks at Electric Vehicles Northwest in Seattle. We were greeted generously by Olof Sundin (Twike doesn't sound funny to Olof's Swedish ears), Victor Munoz and Ray Couture. EVsNW got rolling as an internal combustion engine (ICE)-to-electric vehicle conversion shop. Over the years, they've added electric bikes and the Twike to their transportation solutions. Having struggled with the complexities of building electric vehicles, the EVsNW staff is extremely impressed with the elegance and intelligence of the Twike design.
Ellen and I took several serious test rides all over Seattle, through downtown and the University district, up and down the windy hills of Greenlake, and in the rain (of course!). After pedaling 10 miles in rainy, windy 40 F weather, I was warm enough to strip down to a T-shirt. That experience completely sold me on the Twike.
Off to Switzerland
Step four literally included a major turn around. Instead of heading 3,000 west again to Seattle to participate in assembling our Twike, we headed 3,700 miles east to Switzerland. Ralph and Jane Schnyder were originally planning to ship a couple of Twike "kits" to Seattle. They would then fly there themselves, assist with the assembly and enjoy a vacation with their 4-year-old son Adrian. Several weeks before the proposed journey, they reconsidered and wisely decided it would be better to assemble the Twikes in Switzerland where there were stocks of spare parts in case any components proved defective.
So Ellen and I embarked our first journey to Europe together on April 30, 1999. What a wonderful trip it proved to be! The Schnyder's warmly welcomed us into their extended family in Gelterkinden. In 1976, Ralph's architect parents bought a huge 500+-year-old farmhouse/barn and beautifully renovated it into apartments for family members, an architect office, Twike offices and a Twike shop. We stayed in the apartment that their daughter Maya had lived in before she moved to Bern to open a Twike shop there. The fourth and fifth levels of the barn contain artifacts discovered during the renovation, and a museum of masks created by Ralph's father over 50 years as well as ancient African masks traded years ago for architectural plans. Wow!
While in Switzerland, we spent time in the Twike shop in Sissach (which recently replaced the original shop in Gelterkinden) and in Maya's shop in Bern. Maya and her assistant Roland assembled our Twike while we watched and lent a hand when appropriate. While Twike parts are machine made, every one of them is carefully assembled by hand. This was a great experience considering the fact that our closest Twike dealer is 3,000 miles away.
Fortunately, Ellen and I will not be without skilled local assistance. Vermont has several electric vehicle mechanics, including Steve Miracle who maintains the 20+ vehicles in the EVermont fleet. In addition, I work for a municipal electric utility, Burlington Electric Department, and will benefit from our in-house electrical systems and electronics expertise. Burlington Electric has been very supportive of EVs. We have leased two Solectrias from EVermont that we use daily and make available to our customers for test rides. We also have an Elebike that is used by staff and is always a big hit at Burlington school events.
The common EV The Swiss chocolate icing on the cake was our trip to Mendrisio for the LEVcon1 conference. About 150 people from 15 countries participated in this Light Electric Vehicle conference. A town of about 6,500 residents, Mendrisio is the site of the Swiss government-supported LEV pilot project The goal is to have 8% electric vehicles by the end of the project in 2001.
To date, there are about 100 electric cars and 100 electric bikes and scooters in Mendrisio. A very robust EV infrastructure, including charging stations, has been built in and around town, and subsidies are provided that bring the EVs down to the price range of ICE vehicles. The extensive list of available vehicles was a real eye opener, none of these vehicles are sold in the U.S. The conference display tent was across the border in Como, Italy, and included a large selection of two-, three- and four-wheel LEVs, trucks and a small bus. I left Europe with a greatly expanded sense of the EV world.
One pleasure of the Mendrisio trip was meeting some of the Twike component designers and some fellow Twike owners. The representative for Brusa informed me that they make the DC/DC converters for both the Twike and Solectria. He suggested that Twike might expand into the U.S. market by partnering with Solectria. We had dinner with Rolf Schmidhauser, who designed the inverter that TB Woods produces and most of the other Twike electronics. And I met one Twike owner who commuted every day over a steep mountain, in all weather, with summer tires!
In Bern I met Martin Bolliger, a Twike marketing specialist. Last summer, Martin was responsible for planning the Twike Challenge, a record-setting 6,800 mile trip where six Twikes made a loop starting in Bern, heading north to the northernmost tip of Scandinavia, through the former Soviet Union and back to Bern. The only support vehicle was another Twike with spare parts. How can an electric vehicle travel 6,800 miles? The Twike's NiCad system can propel it about 45 miles between charges and the fully discharged batteries can be recharged with 220 V at 16 amps in about an hour. Michael Patterson from Colorado traveled on the first 1,000 miles of the Twike Challenge and produced an interesting hour-long video of his journey.
On its way home Our Twike (the fifth in the U.S.) is now on its way to Rotterdam, where it will sit until June 1 when it will be loaded onto a ship heading to Montreal. After arriving there on June 10 and clearing customs, it will travel 90 miles south to our little shed that we've converted into a Twike garage. Twike 507 will be registered under a brand new Vermont law that covers electrically powered enclosed motorcycles under 1,500 lbs.; no helmet or motorcycle license will be required.
This has been a remarkable journey so far, filled with generous people and amazing machines. The next chapter will be written on the blacktop and dirt roads of Vermont, Quebec and upstate New York. I look forward to living and sharing that story as it unfolds.
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