Mike Corbin races his electric motorcycle into history.
Words Michael Hilton Images Courtesy Mike Corbin
On August 19, 1974, Mike Corbin threw a leg over his all-electric land speed bike, Quicksilver, and set off across the Bonneville Salt Flats, chasing a new world record. A rented Nash with a rope hanging off its back towed bike and rider for a flying start; if Corbin attempted a traditional start, the massive torque produced by Quicksilver would instantaneously spin the rear wheel down through the salt like a saw. When he reached 60 mph, Corbin dropped the rope, steered around the car, twisted Quicksilver’s delicate throttle, and accelerated ahead.
Corbin is, and always has been, a talented creator and a fearless innovator. Born in 1943 in Gardiner, Massachusetts, Corbin grew up repairing pinball machines and building servo-motor robots, and after high school, he joined the Navy and trained to become an on-board electrician for the naval fleet. Corbin’s first bike was a broken-down Lambretta scooter he bought for $25 and repaired himself, and upon graduating from electrician school he rode a ’59 Triumph Bonneville across the country to San Francisco, where he would be stationed on the USS Ranger aircraft carrier.
In 1973 he traveled to Bonneville and became the first person to ride an all-electric motorcycle on the salt.
After Corbin left the Navy in 1964, he started customizing a Norton Atlas. He didn’t like the shape and comfort of the stock seat, so he built a custom seat for himself. Another rider saw the seat, offered him $40 for it, and soon Corbin was building custom seats for his friends. In 1968, after a Harley-Davidson dealership sold a half-dozen of the homemade seats in one weekend, Corbin founded what is now one of the world’s most respected aftermarket motorcycle seat companies: Corbin Manufacturing.
During the gas shortage crisis of the early ‘70s, Corbin decided to leverage his electrical savvy to build plug-in motorcycles. In 1973, he traveled to Bonneville with Lightning, a tube-frame streamliner powered by lead-acid DieHard batteries, and became the first person to ride an all-electric motorcycle on the salt. He was the first person to break the 100-mph barrier on an EV bike, touching 101 mph. The next year, Corbin debuted his “city bike,” the XLP-1, which was one of the first street-legal, road-registered electric motorcycles in existence. It had three lead-acid batteries, achieved a top speed of 30 mph, and could travel 40 miles on a single charge; Corbin manufactured 100 city bikes between 1972 and 1973. In 1975, environmentalist Charles McArthur rode the XLP-1 up New Hampshire’s eight-mile, 12-percent-grade, 99-turn Mt. Washington Auto Road — twice, actually — proving electric motorcycles could be built powerful enough to climb hills.
Corbin wanted to push electric technology further still and felt compelled to debunk the collective belief that electric bikes would never be fast. He went back to work on his land speed bike, sourcing a front end from a Honda CB750 and electric motors from Douglas A-4B fighter jets. For Quicksilver, Corbin needed new, more energy-dense battery chemistry, so he started looking for a sponsor producing silver-zinc cells, five times as potent as lead-acid batteries. Corbin partnered with Yardney Electric, a local company building silver-zinc batteries for nuclear-powered submarines, but since Corbin couldn’t afford the $100,000 worth of silver needed to build the batteries, he had to “borrow” the silver from a vault at the Navy shipyard. (Corbin says, “After we came home from Bonneville, we recycled the batteries and put 99 percent of the silver back into the vault without anyone knowing.”)
When Corbin arrived in Bonneville with Quicksilver, he had to find a way to charge its batteries. Corbin says, “I had my wife ask the motel we were staying at if they had a clothes dryer. They said ‘yes,’ which meant that they should have a 220-volt outlet necessary for charging Quicksilver, but when we arrived it turned out that the dryer was on a 110-volt outlet.” Corbin was stuck until he noticed the telephone pole outside the motel. He sent his mechanic to Salt Lake City to buy a half-dozen sets of jumper cables, which they then clamped together in a series. Corbin told his kids to go out to the pool, splash around, and make some noise to distract the motel attendant so he could climb the telephone pole and clamp the battery cables to the 220-volt source. “I think it may have been only 205 volts, because of how the charger was groaning, but it did the job.”
On the salt, Corbin performed what he calls a “strategic ballet” of maneuvers to safely start Quicksilver. As the bike’s speed increased, Corbin had to carefully flip a series of switches in precise order to ramp up the voltage, all while tending the throttle. Corbin designed a kill switch from a bar of copper that he could trigger if there was an issue with the bike’s magnetic contactors, which ran 120 volts and 1,200 amps of direct current and could flash and weld together, meaning there would be no way to shut the bike off. (Corbin says, “I’d have been on my way to Taiwan ... right over the freeway and off to Hell in a handbasket!”) Corbin diligently followed his intricate start-up procedure, piloted Quicksilver across the densely packed, sodium-chloride pan, and reached a record-setting 165.397 mph; it would be 38 years before another all-electric motorcycle bested that trap speed. The perception that electric motorcycles couldn’t be fast had been shattered, and Mike Corbin — a man ahead of his time — had given the world a glimpse of its future.