L.A. Designer: David Twomey of Juicer

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Can electric transportation be badass?

36 volt Citizen Juicer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Last week Harley-Davidson unveiled its first all-electric motorcycle, hoping to rev up the market for electric power with a sleek, black bike that “can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds.” 

They are not the first to bring this quiet technology to riders who typically like engines with muscle and the sound of power.  California-made ZERO electric motor bicycles are even being used by some police departments. And here in downtown LA, David Twomey, founder of Juicer, is making custom-designed e-motorcycles with a distinctive steampunk look.

Twomey started Juicer after abandoning plans to build an electric hot rod in his garage; he found it was much easier to design an e-motorcycle with an aesthetic that plays off of the hot rod style of exposing the functional components. His design, in contrast to other e-motorcycle designs, places the motor in the center, and does not attempt to mimic the look of a standard bicycle.

He told DnA about creating a “badass” bike that would appeal to the gut rather than the conscience that draws its inspiration from 100 years ago. 

David Twomey (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Is this a motorcycle akin to a Harley? Or is it an e-bike?

David Twomey: I have two models. One is the DT: I have two models. One is The Citizen and it is street-legal, which makes it an e-bike, and it goes 20 miles without pedaling and it takes about 90 minutes to charge and goes 30 miles per hour tops. My top-of-the-line model The Ranger has a range of 30 miles without pedaling and it takes about 2 hours to charge, and it goes almost 50 miles per hour; that is legally speaking a motorcycle but I say it’s for off-road and track; you couldn’t use it on the freeway. But I refer to them as e-motor bicycles, not e-bikes, because my bikes are made using the supply chain of motor bicycles. These are motor-driven cycles akin to the Whizzer of the 1950s.

How did you get into the business of designing electric bikes?

DT: I originally wanted to design electric hot-rod cars, with the philosophy that hot-rods show the functional components of a car.

Consider a 1950’s hot-rod that’s based off of a 1920’s Model T.  They typically throw away the hood in order to show-off their souped-up engine. Fast-forward to the muscle car era, the motor bursts out of the hood. What was missing from the electric vehicle market was a truly muscular product, something that was badass rather than just smart or the right thing to do. Electric vehicles have been appealing to people’s consciences and their wisdom, but I think many Americans, when they make decisions about the cars they drive, they do it at a gut level. They make an emotional decision. So when I realized that my garage was too small to make the electric hot-rod I wanted, I decided to do a retro-style cruiser electric motor bike.

I decided to make it based off of my favorite era of motorcycles, which was from around 100 years ago. Around 1910 began the era of board track racing, which actually started here in L.A. In that era, they were still making that transition from motorized bicycles to full-on motorcycles so they still had functioning pedals. That early form of motorcycle was one of the original hybrid forms, because it could be human powered as well as motor-driven. In my opinion, these bikes are among the most beautiful ever-made. The classic motorcycle market agrees with me as the the most-ever spent on a motorcycle was a 1915 Cyclone board-track racer which sold for over half a million dollars.

So fast forward 100 years to the present, e-bikes are becoming very popular, but their design largely ignores the history of motor-driven-cycles. Typically they’ve styled e-bikes to look like fully human powered bicycles. The motor is typically hidden in the hub, the batteries are hidden in the frame or on a rack. So what I’m trying to do is to reconnect the dots of history; if we are doing motorized bikes again, let’s learn from the great bikes of a century ago. Let’s flaunt the very components that give them their power.  That’s part of the danger and the sexiness of a motorcycle. So we’ve put the motor in the middle, which is the right thing for both form and function. All good designers should find the beauty in their components and reveal it.

48 volt Ranger Juicer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What’s your design background?

DT: I have a bachelors in design from UCLA, but before founding Juicer I spent my career doing graphic design and storyboard art. I wished that I had more industrial design training at school, but having built my own custom BMW motorcycle in my garage, I found that experience is the best teacher. On small projects you can just do it. I took a welding class at a community college, and once I had power over metal I felt I could do anything.

Also the mechanics and the science and the engineering of an electric vehicle is much, much simpler than for an internal combustion engine. If history was reversed, I think it would just be just too complicated for regular people to convert an electric car to gas.

DnA: Why did you decide to highlight the motor in the design?

DT: For two reasons. One is function, and the other is form. Functionally, the motor is typically the heaviest part of an e-bike. So it makes sense for handling to have it low and in the middle. Some people will say the Juicer is just copying older bikes simply for form’s sake. But you have to ask yourself why our predecessors did it that way in the first place. The triangle of a bicycle frame is the natural space to put your largest components. I arrange my components from heaviest to lightest going from the ground up. So that means motor at the bottom, batteries next, then in the ‘tank’ are the electronic components (which is more functional for handling than a jug of flammable liquid). As for form, I find these motors to be beautiful. The Briggs and Stratton ETEK motor (no longer manufactured but similar models are made by other companies) is a beautiful piece of machinery, comparable to the beauty of any crank case in an antique motorcycle.  Also the large cylindrical batteries that make up the cylinders have their own beauty as well.

DnA: Why did you decide to name your company Juicer?

DT: Juicer means different things to different people. To some people it means someone who uses performance enhancing drugs. You get on an e-bike and everyone is Lance Armstrong. But that’s not the reason. Juice is slang for electricity. I felt that the name had a very concise and old-timey appeal. It’s easy for me to picture the name emblazoned on  a tank in fancy script, like you might see Merkel or Cyclone, which are some of the brands from 100 years ago.

DnA: What is the key demographic that rides Juicer bikes?

DT: California has a huge hot-rod culture, and it also has a big beach culture. The beach people love to cruise a Juicer up and down the bike-pathways and boardwalks. The hot-rodders finally have an e-motorcycle that they can disassemble, customize, and repair themselves. I also hope to court older motorcyclists, people who used to ride big, fat, stinking cruisers, but feel that the weight of them is making them unwieldy. They don’t have to sacrifice their lifestyle when they give up their gas bike.  These folks have seen my bikes at motorcycle shows, swap meets and I’ve had the bikes for sale at Route 66 Modern Classics, which is owned by Bartell’s, the Harley dealership on Lincoln. But even though my brand is aimed at emotional buyers, I also want the smart lefties who might find a Juicer at Hollywood Electrics on Fairfax.

DnA: Are these intended to be commute vehicles, for recreation, or both? 

DT: They are robust enough to be a commute vehicle, but most people use them as a recreational weekend ride. The reason for this is it’s a lifestyle brand. You can get a cheaper e-bike if function is your only consideration. I’m trying to carve a niche as a classic cruiser e-motor bicycle brand.

DnA: What are the challenges of using an electric battery?

DT: The challenge of the electric batteries are twofold. One is chemistry and the other is balance. Lithium batteries have the potential to burst into flames. So I use a lithium iron battery. While these are less energy-dense than the regular lithium, they tend not to catch fire when they fail.

The other challenge is balance. Battery packs are made of many cells. What is crucial to the longevity of the cells is that they remain at an equal charge, an equal voltage and in their safe range; they can’t be over depleted or over charged.  For this you need some circuitry called a Battery Management System (BMS).

DnA: Have you seen an increase in interest for e-bikes recently?

DT: Absolutely. E-bikes are on the rise worldwide. America is behind the curve, but we are definitely gaining steam.

I have international clients. The French and the Australians are interested as well as the Dutch. but the European market is not friendly to Juicer because they require that all e-bikes be low power and pedal assist only, meaning you can’t have a twist throttle like a Juicer has. So they aren’t street-legal over there, but people have interest in them.

What’s great about California is we have a 1000 watt limit and the rest of the country is 750. So you can get a faster, more powerful California street legal bike here.

DnA: Harley-Davidson just debuted it’s electric motorcycle, the LiveWire.  Do you think this will open up an new market for electric cycles?

DT: Absolutely. I don’t know what the motivation of Harley was, my guess was to connect to a younger market. But any way you slice it, it’s great for Harley, great for American manufacturing and great for planet earth that they have joined ZERO Motorcycles and Brammo, our leading electric motorcycle companies. The reason I say that they are probably courting the younger audience, even though Harley is known for their cruisers, they styled their electric model like a sport bike in line with what the other electric motorcycles companies are doing.

DnA: Do you have any theories as to why they would do that?

DT: I have two guesses. They think that that’s what a younger audience would expect. Many characterize the Harley audience as being fat, old and white.

My other guess is nobody knows what to do with the battery pack, so consequently the engineers give them a big rectangular shaped battery and the easiest way to conceal this ugly component is to cover it with a faring, and a faring is the streamlined plastic shell that surrounds a sport bike. So even though it is better for your e-bike range to ride it like a cruiser, slowly, they feel compelled to style it like a race bike.

All images courtesy of David Twomey.