In 1967, Union Carbide employee Karl Kordesch made a fuel cell using nickel–cadmium —later replaced with a hydrazine fuel cell— and created a hybrid electric motorcycle with a range of 200 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. Serial innovator Floyd Clymer built the Papoose prototype electric Indian bike the same year. Six years later Mike Corbin took it one step further.

Popular motorcycle custom seat maker Corbin is based in Hollister, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary recently, and few newer riders are likely to know about company founder Mike Corbin’s significant role in electric motorcycle development in the 1970s.  His experiments with electric motorcycles range from an electric minibike, to an electric street bike with production intentions, to an electric land speed bike, which set a record of 161.387 mph round trip, with trap speeds over 201 mph at the Bonneville Speedway in Wendover, Utah in 1974. The record stood for 38 years until the Lightning LS-218 surpassed it in 2012.  Later, he attempted to mass-produce an electric personal mobility vehicle, the Sparrow, and received $40Million in orders! 

The minibike made an entry into motorcycles after WW2, and tens of thousands of kids learned the joy of 2 wheels on one. Corbin brought a battery-powered minibike to the game at the height of the craze. [Mike Corbin]
Corbin started by electrifying a popular minibike, then quickly jumped to building bigger machines.  His first two attempts at land speed racing with his Quicksilver semi-streamliner were hugely successful, making Corbin the first to exceed 100mph on an e-Moto at Bonneville, and later, with the same machine but batteries supplied by Yardney, he sped into legend.

“Yeah, well, we started in the early `70s with the idea that we wanted to make electric powered motorcycles. So we made a street bike, called City Bike, and it had three lead acid cell batteries, and it was 36 volts. It’d go 30/40: 30 mph for 40 miles. But people said “electric vehicles are too slow” so we thought, why don’t we go to Bonneville, and build an electric bike for that, and show people that electric vehicles can go fast.” [Mike Corbin]
“So we built the bike, and it ran on lead acid cell batteries, and we went to Bonneville in 1973,” he explained. “We were the first electric motorcycle ever to run at Bonneville. We went 101 mph  round trip average, that made us the fastest guys in the world on electricity.

Mike Corbin’s XLP-1 City Bike was his first road-legal motorcycle. It was, as he admitted, rather slow, but it proved a point: electric motorcycles work.  This was especially important to Corbin after the Oil Crisis of 1974, when it became clear that options to gas-powered vehicles were needed, and were a way out of oil dependence.  [Mike Corbin]
The following year, we got sponsored by Yardney Electric out in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. They made batteries for nuclear powered submarines and their chemistry was silver/zinc, and that was the highest energy battery you could get in those days, about five times better than the lead acid ones.”

“So we made a new bike called Quicksilver and used starter motors from [1950s Douglas Skyhawk] A4B fighter planes, because they had lightweight cases—120 volts DC. We went to Bonneville and we got a land speed record of 165.387 mph round trip average. We had a trap speed one day of 191 mph, and we had another trap speed of 201 mph, but the wire was broken that day. In those days, the timing lights had a wire between them.” [Mike Corbin]
“They call ours a robust record,” Corbin added. “It was one of the longest standing records ever. And a lot of attempts were made on that record, there must have been 15 motorcycles over the years that would come out and try to take our record. I came out to watch two or three of them. I can look at a bike and tell you how fast it’ll go, and they all did everything wrong.

“When Lightning came along, they had the battery chemistry down. Plus, what you have now are the AC controllers, those and the AC motors are just unbelievable. You have such amazing equipment now that it’s almost unlimited what we’re going to be able to do with electric vehicles.

“But in those days, it had to be DC if it wasn’t gonna have a wire on it. DC electricity itself limits you a great deal. Everything’s heavier and high amperage. So the A4B DC starter motors; we bought a full pallet of them from the Navy surplus, because they used to burn up. You’d get going like hell, and they’d overheat and solder would come out of the commutators. And these copper bars would fly out into the motor, and you’d have to throw the whole thing away. So I had a bunch of those, I think I’ve still got some out in my warehouse.

Volt power! Two starter motor from Korean War era Douglas Skyhawk fighters, with lightweight cases, and enough torque to run at 200mph, with the right batteries. [Mike Corbin]
“And I had the battery, the battery was good, the only problem was we had to find a way to charge it. The controller was the hard part. We didn’t have any way to rheostat that much amperage. So what we did was make a stepped voltage controller with magnetic contactors.

“So it’d start at 12 volts, then you’d switch to 24 volts, then you’d go to 120. If you put the 120 volts on immediately, the wheel would just spin and dig a hole right in the salt. So we had a flying start, we’d tow the bike up to anywhere between 40 and 60 mph with a car, then I had an ejection rope, you’d spring load this thing and it’d fall in the salt, and I’d go around the car and start accelerating.”

“The hard part was, with these magnetic contactors, they’d go in pretty quick, but they open slowly, they open on springs. The problem with the bike was that at 120 volts and 1,200 amps DC, there’s no way you can open the contactors. They’d just flash, and you’d have continuity, there’d be plasma, the thing would weld itself together and there’d be no way to shut the bike off. You’d be going to Taiwan. You’re going right over the freeway, you’re going to hell in a handbasket, that’s where you’re going.” [Mike Corbin]
“So I invented this kill switch, which was a big copper knife bar, 2.5 inches wide, 5/16ths of an inch thick, it was just like a knife switch. I had a spring on it and a bungee cord, and a little compression release lever on my right finger that’d open it. Then I put a big fuse in parallel with it so as soon as it broke contact, the fuse blew. It couldn’t arc, the current went through the fuse first. And by the time the fuse heated up and blew, it’d be too far away to arc flash. That was my big invention.” 

“There was this guy, his name was Dr. Petrocelli, he was a naval engineer. He’d been a big shot in the Navy and he was the CEO out at Yardney Electric, who made those batteries for the nuclear subs. I got along great with him, because I’d been an electrician in the Navy. So he says “well, it’s $100,000 for the battery.” And I said “well I don’t have no hundred thousand dollars for a battery.” He says “well, it’s really worth it, because there’s a hundred thousand dollars worth of silver in it.” And I go “well yeah, I understand that, but I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars for a battery. You’re the sponsor, that’s your problem.”

“So the Navy had a big vault in their building that was full of silver. The silver actually belonged to the US Navy. We took the silver out of the vault, and built the batteries for Quicksilver. We took it to Bonneville, Yardney sent an engineer and a marketing guy with me. We got the land speed record, we came home, we recycled the batteries, we put about 99 percent of the silver right back in the vault, and the Navy never knew it! Hopefully enough time has gone by that they probably won’t prosecute me and send me to Leavenworth! That’s where all the military criminals go, you know…” [Mike Corbin]
“But that’s how it was in the `70s, that’s what electric vehicles were all about. I was the first guy ever to ride a motorcycle with a battery other than a lead acid cell. I was the first guy ever to have an electric motorcycle that was registered with a license plate on it, that was in ’72.” [Actually there had been many road-legal electric motorcycles since the early 1900s, but Mike still gets huge kudos for his pioneering speed work – ed]

“We didn’t have the technology that you have today, but I used to be a flat tracker and a Jack Pine Rider, so I did a lot of riding. [Mike Corbin]

So we need 220 volts AC for the battery charger. I get my wife on the phone with this little hotel in Wendover, Utah—that’s near where Bonneville is. I says “Okay, Jane, don’t let the cat out of the bag. Call them up, make sure they have a washer and a dryer.” And I’m visualizing that I’m gonna have 220 with 30 amps, at least.”“She calls them up and they say ‘don’t worry, we’ve got a full laundry.’ So I’m telling the Yardney guys “yeah, we’re gonna charge the battery off their 220 volt dryer socket.” But we get there and what have they got? A 110 volt dryer. Seriously, you couldn’t dry two handkerchiefs in that thing. So now we’ve got no 220 plug.

“Well, we needed 220 volts, and there’s only one place we could get it! I’m looking up at the power pole… I used to work as an electrician, wiring houses out in Connecticut. So I knew exactly what I was looking at. But we didn’t have any wire! I mean you can’t go up there with a lamp wire, it’s not big enough. But jumper cables…

“So my mechanic has to drive to Salt Lake City, 100 miles, to buy five or six pairs of jumper cables. We link ’em all together. And the hotel had this little funky office, with a little old lady in there, and the telephone pole was right in front of her office. So I told my guys—they had this little crummy fiberglass pool—I told my guys to go out there and start splashing around and throwing beer cans around and stuff so she’s watching you while I’m climbing the pole.”[Mike Corbin]
“So they do, and she’s running out there, hands on hips, saying ‘we have other guests, you know!’ And I climb the telephone pole, and I clamp the battery cables onto the 220 cable. And they’re all laid all over the ground and we put ’em on the battery charger. I think it might only have been 205 volts, because the charger was groaning away…

But it did the job!

“Yeah, we had a lot of fun,” Corbin said. “And that’s how we did the first motorcycle land speed record!”

A very forward looking rear view of the Corbin Quicksilver from 1974. [Mike Corbin]