The introduction of today’s battery-powered engines has changed the fundamentals of motorcycle design. Although internal combustion engines have driven most motorcycles since the first commercially produced models entered the market in 1894, even then visionary inventors recognised the benefits of electricity over gasoline. In subsequent years, however, electric motorcycles were only considered at moments when gasoline became scarce — as exemplified by the 1942 Socovel Electric.
Throughout the twentieth century, such innovative designs could not complete against the internal combustion engine. Fifteen litres of fuel in an average-sized tank always offered more stored energy, lower cost and greater range than any battery of the day.
In the twenty-first century, barriers to an electrically powered future are disappearing rapidly. Viable electric powerplants now present new design opportunities. Many conventional components of the traditional motorcycle — fuel tank, radiator and exhaust pipes — are suddenly redundant.
View the locally produced Savic C-Series 2020, and new forms of personal electric transport as well as Australian-made motorcycles — 1906 Spencer, 1914 Whiting, 1956 Tilbrook prototype, and the 2009 Deus Ex Machina ‘The Drover’s Dog’, and experience a new view of the motorcycle at ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ showcasing 100 designs from 1871 until 2020 — only in Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 26 April 2021.
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Socovel Electric c.1942
The Socovel Electric was the world’s first mass-produced electric motorcycle. The company was founded in Brussels in the 1930s by brothers Maurice and Albert de Limelette. With more than 1000 units produced, these electric motorcycles were successful, but on a small scale. Three crossways-mounted, 12-volt batteries powered a 48-volt motor that was bolted on behind.
Socovel Electric Specifications
Power: 0.9 kW (1 hp)
Engine: Electric motor with 1.6 kWh battery
Designer: Maurice de Limelette
- The Socovel Electric gained prominence during the German occupation of Belgium in World War Two, when rationing saw petrol in limited supply. After the war, restrictions were lifted and Socovel continued to produce electric motorcycles, but they shifted their focus to more conventional two-stroke petrol engines. With a recent shift towards the production of electric motorcycles, the Socovel is retrospectively considered ahead of its time.
- The Socovel recorded a range of around 40 km and a top speed of 32 km/h. Its batteries weighed 90kg, resulting in an overall weight of 200 kg.
Savic C-Series 2020
The motorcycle industry is embracing electric technology, with electric vehicles entering the market at an increasing rate. Savic Motorcycles founder Dennis Savic describes the Savic C-Series – Australia’s first full-size electric motorcycle – as ‘a unique offering with the most advanced features and functionality that the materials, engineering, electronic controls, electrical technology and 3D printing can offer today’.
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Savic C-Series Specifications
Power: 60 kW (80 hp)
Engine: Electric motor with 11 kWh battery
Designer: Dennis Savic
- Savic Motorcycles is one of many emerging Australian electric motorcycle companies.
- Dennis Savic spent more than 650 hours designing and building the prototyle for the Savic C-Series.
- The Savic C-Series combines advanced technology with the classic styling of a café racer – a type of custom motorcycle that first appeared in 1950s and 1960s Britain. These motorcycles were prominent in the Rocker or ‘Ton-Up Boy’ youth subculture of the time, and were used mainly for short trips between popular cafés. In postwar Britain, many people were unable to afford a car, and motorcycles offered an alternative means of urban transportation. As the country became more prosperous in the late 1950s, the café racer became more symbolic of speed, status and rebellion. Today, the café racer is known for its stripped-down style, which makes it a lightweight, powerful motorcycle optimised for speed and handling.
Watch: Motorcycles on Screen
In association with ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’, the Australian Cinémathèque at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) presents the free program ‘Motorcycles on Screen’, which explores the rich history of the vehicle in cinema, from the silent era to today. ‘Motorcycles on Screen’ runs until 25 April 2021.
Buy: ‘The Motorcycle’ publication
With over 320 pages and 400 colour illustrations, The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire showcases 100 superb examples of motorcycle design from the late 19th century to the present day and beyond to the technological innovations of the future. Beautifully illustrated with newly commissioned photography and archival ephemera, this visually arresting survey of the motorcycle’s influence in realms as diverse as film, fashion, sport, advertising, and technology will prove compulsive reading to design lovers and motorcycle fans alike. Available at the QAGOMA Store and online
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