An electric dream: The story of an impossible e-bike conversion

In this special feature, Matthew Margetts walks us through his journey of converting and assembling his very own e-bike.

I want to go electric, that was the overriding thought that started my project. I have been fascinated by electric cars before such thinking became mainstream but my desire to buy one was blunted by their design which I appreciate is changing but I believe still has further to go. They still lack soul.

So, I had started looking at taking a classic car or a car design I liked and converting it in the style of Vintage Voltage. The challenge here being that I am not an engineer so would need more than an extra pair of hands to help with the conversion. Somewhere in my musing I started looking at bikes, again I had seen electric bikes and was aware that there were conversion kits but a basic bike in my opinion lacks the structural soundness needed to withstand the impact an electric engine could deliver.

So where to start. Back in the recesses of my mind I could remember seeing motorized bikes odd, moped things in France in the early 70s. They were bikes built to carry an engine and were built to take a hit. The downside was that they were ugly, crude plastic things, but it got me thinking. As I started to trawl the internet searching for velo moteur or bike with engine I found images of what I was looking for. Bikes from the 50’s with an aesthetic form that is matched by an evident engineering skill. They were Italian and just about affordable for a project that could go horribly wrong and be a total write off.

Bonhams were holding a sale and I managed to pick up for twice the auction estimate (budget partially blown already) a 1950, Mosquito/Bertocchi 38cc cycle motor, a thing of absolute beauty; bringing her into the house from the car attracted many a glance and even a thumbs up from some nearby builders. Clearly, I had the right machine but what to do next?

An inspection from a mechanically minded friend of mine confirmed that the engine, that powered the solenoid which turned the back wheel, was seized. It had to come off (gently) to be repaired. That went off to a small workshop to be patiently brought back to life, leaving me with a bike albeit it with a fuel tank, fuel lines, clutch and power cabling. The bike side of things needed to be properly explored as even with my limited knowledge I recognised the 1950s tyres needed work. At a basic level they were not road worthy and the rims, if they ever had them, had gone. And my bike, whilst it had been sat in a museum for past 30 years, needed to be ridden.

So, I took it off to the people at The London Cycle Workshop in Sheen. I had previously worked with the team here as they had looked after a couple of road bikes of mine and they impressed, not just by being great bike mechanics but being cool with it. Hell, they have a Canadian canoe in their office. If anyone could help me get to the next level it was these guys. I was not disappointed. The team embraced the concept of what I was trying to do, looked at every part of it, fettled it and made the necessary changes. And in a moment that was almost a parody of Elwood Blues, “it’s got a cop motor..it’s got cop tyres” speech from The Blues Brothers they stated: “it’s got bike brakes, bike tyres, bike handling, it is a bike but more.” Great start. Then I stalled.

Fear of really mucking up took over. I had an object that everyone saw the potential of, loved the look of but how to successfully electrify her (always a she) without compromising the essence of the mechanical functionality. Various ideas such as drilling the fuel tank to hide the battery were considered but I did not want to lose the original working capability as I may need to switch back to two stroke at some time particularly if I needed to sell her. I was in a hole of ambition over talent until an encounter at an unusual garden party got me back on the road of belief that my vision could be achieved without compromise.

In August I was at G in the Dark, a mini private festival organized by the Williams Gray Foundation in support of local health charities in the Chilterns, following an invite from a friend and former work colleague, Tim Brassey. I have always known Tim as a technician – the guy who made it work. Shit got done on his watch. I also knew he was a capable, even inspired creator of concept campers that were organic, more huts on wheels than caravans, of American school buses converted into luxury mobile homes and numerous, clever, delightful automated sculptures. What I did not know was that Tim was also converting pedal bikes to electric. Tim’s HenleyeBikes has been soundly getting on with taking the pedestrian bike world electric but it was his work with mountain bikes – big chunky machines transformed with the necessary heft to go off, off road – that really stood out. My bella is a beauty but she is heavy and needs power to make her graceful. I knew Tim could make it work. But Tim did not want the project. The reticence was due in part to her age, her museum pedigree and the fact she was very different to the norm; her perfectly chromed brakes are welded to the frame, her cherry red paintwork, custom.

Yet, somehow, I managed to persuade Tim to take the project and well that is when I again got more than lucky. Tim has an eye for detail and a brain wired to consider all options. Yes, it was a non -standard job but that was the challenge. And he rose to it.

The maestro, Tim Brassey, takes a spin.

The start point was the power controls, various units were considered, rejected. Ideas such as using the existing rev unit looked at to a point where we simplified the controls. The result a small thumb accelerator on the handlebars, a minor tilt to modernity easily missed. The wiring flowed through hidden recesses, behind the tank and where it popped up simple discreet cable ties hold it in. The piece de resistance was that Tim was able to fabricate a unit for the power and battery controls that is hidden in the saddle. The guts of the workings again that you would be hard pressed to spot when parked. Tim had thought of everything, got the parts and made them work into the machine, the look is not compromised, it is still discernible as an object of the 50’s, even the battery is hidden in plain sight in a purpose-built box on the luggage rack that perfectly blends in. Tim considered a shaft-driven power drive in the pedal unit but this was rejected over the installation of a wheel drive – we found the front wheel could be replaced with a near copy of the original.

What Tim created more than matched my vision. But whilst looks are everything so is power and again Tim had not disappointed. Hidden power became visible when started. The Chiltern Hills posed no problem.

Now, I have more than a museum piece, I have a bike back on the road and turning heads. While I might look like Mr.Toad silently putt-putting across the countryside in the Autumn sunshine, every journey, every park up ends up in a conversation about the bike, its history, how it functions, who made it. I have been lucky; the bike came to me as a museum quality piece and the hands that have worked on it have understood this yet managed to add to it. The modernity balanced with the original design brilliance of Bertocchi and Gemili, and whether it ultimately stays a barely legal ebike or returns to a museum, it will always be a piece of industrial art.

And my next project a Citroen DS, if only I can find the talent to convert it?

About the Project

Bike Cost incl. auction fees: £1380

Overhaul of bike components: £120

eBike conversation: £613

Additional costs: £140