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Automakers Test Waters in E-Bike Category

Published September 1, 2011

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany (BRAIN)—Smart, a rectangular booth tucked away amid much more elaborate setups in one of Eurobike’s large trade halls, was a hive of activity Thursday morning as photographers jockeyed for optimal shooting position and a television crew conducted interviews. (Click on title and then link for PDF NEWSLETTER DAY 3).

The buzz was over the debut of the auto brand’s much anticipated electric bicycle, a sleek white frame accented with green accessories and clearly spec’d with quality in mind. A Gates carbon belt drive replaces a traditional chain and the bike is outfitted with Ergon pedals and grips, Magura MT4 brakes, Continental city tires and a Truvativ Stylo seatpost.

The rear-hub 250-watt motor and frame integrated battery is a proprietary design developed by Bionix for Smart. The bike culminates about two years’ work by Karl Nicolai, of Berlin’s Grace ebikes, who was hired by Smart to develop its first electric bicycle. The brand, synonymous with the zippy two-door city car owned by Daimler, will sell the bikes at about 600 of its automotive dealers in Europe and North America for around 2,900 euros starting next year. With its following of environmentally conscious urban dwellers, Smart’s entry into the e-bike market could be exactly the kick the category needs to gain traction in
lagging markets like the U.S., Nicolai said.

“Somebody needs to kick off the ball. If it’s not one of the major automotive brands, then who can do it?” he said. “If there’s going to be a breakthrough it needs a big company that kicks.”

Sales of pedal-assist bicycles in Europe have been robust, more than tripling from 200,000 units in 2007 to 700,000 last year. But markets like the U.S. and Canada have been slower to catch on as many bikes shops resist stocking and servicing the bikes and consumers cling to cars for their daily commutes.

Another auto company looking to break that mold is Belgium’s D’leteren Sport, the 7 billion euro distributor of Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Seat, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Yamaha across Belgium and majority owner of Avis Europe and Belron, the world’s leader in vehicle glass repair and replacement.

Under a new spinoff called Power To Wheels, the company is releasing the Solexity, a 25 kph pedelec playing off the classic design of the Solex, an icon of postwar France dubbed “the bicycle that runs itself.” Solex sold more than 8 million units during its 40-plus-year life between 1946 and 1988. D’leteren Sports revived the brand with its e.solex electric scooter. The Velosolex foldable bike followed, and now comes the Solexity. The bikes debuted at
Eurobike this week and will be sold in IBDs and emobility shops globally for 1,995 euros.

“We started with Solex four years ago,” said Bernard De Longueville, general manager of D’leteren Sports. “We found it a necessity. A 200-years-old company realizes the car industry is not necessarily forever.”

Automotive companies dabbling in the bike industry is nothing new, Longueville said, with such brands as Cooper, Peugeot and Porsche branding bikes as a marketing strategy. Certainly during the mountain bike boom of the 1990s, license deals put bikes on the market that shared names with popular car companies.

“It’s a little bit of greenwashing,” Longueville admitted. But he added, “if it can help get product accepted by a bigger number of people, why not?”

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