Hobbit-sized, 3-wheeled Elf cycle ready to hit the road

jmurawski@newsobserver.comDecember 16, 2012 

— Day after day, the forest-green buggy sits in public view on a downtown Durham sidewalk, its rooftop solar panel exposed to the winter sky.

With two LED headlamps peering out of an aerodynamic shell, the vehicle resembles one of those ultra-sleek streetcars that ply the streets of modern European capitals. The two bike wheels in the front tilt inward at insanely aggressive angles, like an athlete’s wheelchair engineered for speed and agility.

The Elf is total urban-hipster magnet: a prototype hybrid vehicle, years in the making, and now about to be road-tested by early adopters in the Triangle. Organic Transit, a 4-year-old Durham start-up, is planning for commercial production next year out of a former downtown furniture store that has been converted into a design lab, workshop, assembly floor and product showroom.

Technically, the Elf is classified as a velomobile – a recumbent three-wheeled cycle powered by a combination of human muscle, sunbeams and an electric motor with a range of about 30 miles. It can cruise on pedal power alone, or on 100 percent electricity, but the optimum method is to use a combination of the two, which does take some getting used to.

“This is one of the cooler startups I’ve seen in Durham – they’re right on the verge,” said Bob Clemen, a retired Duke University business professor who test-rode an Elf last week. “I definitely think there’s one in my future.”

The Elf has plenty of eco-friendly curb appeal but remains a niche product. Get inside one of these rickshaws and it can feel bulky rolling down a narrow sidewalk, and vulnerable out on the street.

The electric motor at first pulls like an excitable beagle tugging on a leash – until the driver develops the supple wrist necessary to control the throttle. When pedaling and motoring at full tilt, the Elf can top out at 30 miles per hour.

“It’s more like a sports car from the 1950s,” said company co-founder Rob Cotter, 56. “A British sports car.”

The numbers on the Elf look like this: About 400 people have signed up online for pre-orders – including multiple reservations by a university, resort and a delivery service. About 35 have made down payments toward buying the velomobiles, a dozen of them Triangle residents. Organic Transit has enough materials to build 50 Elf models, and plans start rolling them off the assembly line in about three months.

The enthusiasm is based on visuals. Only a few dozen people have tried riding one.

Durham potter Sarah Howe became one of the first customers last week, buying her Elf after a test ride. She plans to use hers to deliver pottery and other merchandise from home to the Durham farmer’s market, about 6 miles one way.

“I’m gonna have fun,” Howe said. “It will be a month of riding this thing every day – for practice and for adventure. And showing off.”

The pygmy-sized buggies sell for $4,000 – future editions are expected to feature a range of options, such as anti-theft locks, tracking chips, internal heaters and deluxe seat styles, as well as several sizes of batteries and solar panels.

Cardboard mockups

A year ago, Organic Transit was still a business in the theoretical stage with no products, only outsize ideas. The first Elf mockup was rigged out of corrugated cardboard. Subsequent iterations came and went: carbon fiber, Kevlar, translucent plastic panels reinforced with bamboo.

The Elf’s body was ultimately made from a Trylon lightweight composite. Other features include: a lithium plug-in battery, a tadpole configuration frame, and a continuous variable transmission system that’s roughly equivalent to having 40 gear combinations. Components such as disc brakes, mountain bike wheels, pedals and chains are standard off-the-shelf bike parts.

Today Organic Transit is working with a supplier, Accu-Form Polymers in Warsaw, to produce the Elf’s colorful shells, and the company is narrowing down its choices for standard Elf components.

Organic Transit’s founders are already talking about the next peril on their start-up obstacle course: copycats. They figure once the Elf catches on, which they are sure will happen, Organic Transit has about 18 months of lead time to create a brand identity and line up distributors before competitors horn in and try to replicate the concept.

“The sooner we get out with it, the better we are,” said Pete Warasila, an angel investor in Organic Transit who lives in Annandale, Va.

A new product category

The company is already talking about the most efficient ways of distributing the Elf to potential customers in bike-friendly cities like Asheville, Portland, Ore., and Amsterdam. Organic Transit is also planning a utility model called TruckIt that can carry a payload of 350 pounds.

Cotter envisions establishing local showrooms around the country, or contracting with vendors trained in Elf assembly and maintenance, and producing 1,000 units a month.

“Here’s the deal: 300 units sold and we’re in the black – self-sustaining,” Cotter predicted.

Cotter, who said he has invested about $200,000 in the venture and owns roughly 85 percent of Organic Transit, has several decades of experience in the auto industry, marketing and experimental bicycle design. He runs the company with partners in Maine and Washington who are experienced in custom bicycles, electric vehicles and architectural design.

“Some people say, ‘It’s like a VW Beetle that you pedal,’ ” Cotter said. “This is a whole new product category.”

Murasaki: 919-829-8932

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