Joseph Saroléa established his arms factory in Liège in 1850, and like many manufacturers of the era evolved his company into a bicycle maker in the early 1890s. His sons bolted a 1.5-hp 247cc engine to a Royale Saroléa bicycle, and were soon exporting their race-winning motorcycles to Italy. By 1910 they sold 10,000 bikes, mainly V-twins. Times were good for the Belgian maker throughout the early part of the 20th century, but like many of its European contemporaries, the `60s proved difficult, and by 1973 it ceased to exist.
Twin brothers Torsten and Bjorn Robbens bought the brand and established a manufacturing facility in their hometown of Ghent. To tighten the historical corporate thread, their great uncle was a successful Saroléa motocross racer named André Van Heuverzwijn. I spoke with Torsten recently, just as he was preparing to have MotoGP’s safety advisor and former 250cc world champion Loris Capirossi test his SP7 for potential inclusion in the new electric class being introduced to the MotoGP series in 2019.
Q: Torsten, tell me about your work background prior to acquiring Saroléa.
I’ve been riding bikes with my twin brother since we were four years old. Spent 10 years working in F1 and Le Mans endurance racing. Still the youngest team manager to win Le Mans with Audi Japan Team Goh. Have worked on several space projects providing lightweight carbon fiber optical parts
Q: I first learned about Saroléa when I watched a video highlighting the MANX7. Not only was the scenery luscious, the bike was heavenly, unlike any modern bike I’ve seen before. Tell me about the decision you and Bjorn made to relaunch the Saroléa brand.
Following the first electric motorcycle race at the Isle of Man TT, we saw a unique opportunity to combine our skills, to design and build our own electric motorcycle. We have a long motorcycle history in the family, and a very special relation with the Saroléa brand. Our grand uncle was a factory rider for Saroléa in the 1950s, so it seemed logical to acquire the brand rights to the one of the oldest motorcycle brands in the world, and give it a new boost.
Q: What prompted you to enter the electric motorcycle space after acquiring the Saroléa brand in 2008?
It was rather early days for non ICE bikes even then… Our goal has always been to make sure the Saroléa brand is still around in 50 years’ time. It was still early days, but the potential of an electric drivetrain is so huge that it can compete with the best combustion engines. It is far more reliable and less complex, meaning you can enjoy riding the bikes more because maintenance is almost nonexistent.
Q: Participating in the Isle of Man TT cannot be inexpensive. Do you believe strongly in the old adage “win on Sunday, sell on Monday?” In other words, are you hoping that the experience and publicity associated with racing will bolster sales of the MANX7?
This is exactly the case. The major part of our sales comes directly from the fact that we are racing the Isle of Man TT. It gives us a global coverage, and sets us in direct completion with some of the biggest brands out there. The Isle of Man TT is probably the hardest proving ground on the planet. It makes us push our technology and our bikes to the limit, resulting in road bikes for our consumers that are at the forefront of EV technology.
Q: Speaking of the MANX7; how many have you sold, and what is the retail price range? What target demographic are you pursuing?
The 2018 MANX7 will get its world premiere later this year but we have already sold the first 10 bikes. Prices start at €50,000. Our customers are people who enjoy handcrafted, high-performance vehicles.
Q: How did you manage to get a 90 percent charge time of just 25 minutes? That’s more than impressive, especially with a 300km combined range.
The range is a direct effect from our TT bikes performance where extremely high speeds over a long distance mean for road use the bikes can travel more than 300 km. We have always focused on fast DC charging, because no customer wants to wait 8 hours to charge up a bike. Our partnership with ABB (No.1 in the world for fast DC charging) has led to technological results that allow extremely fast charging with minimal impact on the battery life.
Q: Getting back to the Isle of Man TT effort, you have some impressive technical partners, namely Bridgestone, Cap It and Beringer. Where does your financial backing come from?
Biggest part of our racing program is self-funded. Bridgestone and DQ Advocates are our main financial partners. Of course, to make successful racing bikes, the technical input and support of all our suppliers is crucial. We co-develop technology with them, which we implement in the road going bikes we sell.
Q: Two fourths and a fifth on the Isle is rather impressive, especially reaching 108.064 mph. How does a small manufacturer like Saroléa find the extra oomph to improve for next time?
Performance at the TT is driven by handling, weight, aero and of course battery technology. Our electric drive train is so powerful that it is capable of remaining the same even when batteries become better in the years to come. Our biggest advantage is our agility to implement new technology very quickly. Being a relatively small company is certainly an advantage compared to our bigger competitors.
Q: Norton’s Stuart Garner is also keen to do well on the Isle. Have you chatted with him and shared hopes and dreams?
We have a good relationship. There are of course many similarities between both companies. For both companies racing at the TT is important.
Q: Dorna recently announced plans for an all-electric MotoGP support class to begin racing as early as 2019. Is it feasible for Saroléa to be a part of that someday?
Dorna is testing our bikes in the next couple of weeks, and of course we are looking forward to having an electric class in the MotoGP.
Q: With your engineering background, how did you first conceptualize the Saroléa you wanted to offer to the world?
The starting point was from what I have learnt in F1 and Le Mans prototype racing, a carbon monocoque chassis with front suspension bolted directly to the monocoque. The motor is fully stressed and the rear swing arm pivots around the motor axle. Fewer components, each having multiple functions, limits the weight and complexity of the bikes. From a design point of view it is a mix of bikes and cars that have inspired during my childhood. Of course our teams of engineers have taken the bike to a higher level in the past years since I started. Their software development has made the bikes more intelligent and user friendly. We are building high-performance machines for the track, which any rider can use on a daily basis.
Q: What are the long-range goals of Saroléa?
We want to continue developing our technology in racing. This is, and has always been a crucial part in the DNA of Saroléa. The goal is to have more people enjoying the excitement of riding our bikes.
Q: What are your plans—if any—for North American distribution?
The US is part of the plan. We are working hard to make it happen as soon as possible. We will start with Europe and then move on to the rest of the world. Even from the US, you can pre-order your Saroléa today.
Q: Tell me a bit more, if you can, about the bike you provided to Dorna for testing.
It was one of the bikes that has raced at the TT and is also road-registered for the public roads. We removed the number plate for the MotoGP test! In case we would be the selected constructor for the 2019 series, the machines will be very close to the road bikes. Again this is within the Saroléa spirit to develop on the track and integrate the know how in the street bikes. The suspension and geometry will be modified for the GP rider and track conditions.
Q: Will Saroléa always be electric?
We want to build exciting motorcycles. The world is evolving rapidly and we keep an open mind towards any kind of clean propulsion that the future may bring.
Q: The worldwide stable of electric bike manufacturers is small compared to ICE, just like the automotive industry. Do you think your efforts with Saroléa will put Belgium on the map? Any possibility of working with an American partner?
Although our team is international, it would make us all very proud to put Belgium back on the map. We get great reactions from fans and manufacturers from all over the world. I believe we are making a positive impact. We have very good relations with several American manufacturers, so it is not unlikely that we will work together at some point.