Although there were many early false starts and a complete disappearance of the e-bike concept for a long period as you can read below, e-bikes didn’t truly become a known consumer product until the 1990s, 1999 in the UK.
The major events in that year were the Powabyke company starting up with their design made in China and Giant Bicycle introducing their early mark 1 Lafree, both heavy SLA batteried machines, and Yamaha’s superior much lighter pedelec, all finding their way into some bicycle shops. Within two years Giant replaced that early model with a new much lighter Lafree to match the Yamaha and e-biking had at last really arrived.
E-biking had its origin in the 19th century with various prototypes using lead-acid batteries, one such in the 1890s being a Humber tandem which must have weighed near to 100 kilos with its long row of batteries and massive steel frame! None made it into production, something that had to wait until 1922 when Heinzmann in Germany introduced their first hub motor. Dutch electrical giant Philips matched it with a design but never launched it and the e-bike concept didn’t take off then with the public.
Then just before WW2 two-stroke car and motorbike company DKW of Germany introduced a neat bicycle 25cc engine in a large wheel hub with integral tiny petrol tank built into a 26″ wheel. But of course the war interrupted and powered cycling disappeared.
With the war over the DKW bicycle engine was one of the advanced German vehicle designs confiscated and awarded to the allies, the Dutch receiving it and selling it as the Cyclemaster motor. Many other bicycle add-on two stroke engines followed and became very popular in the early 1950s, reaching over one million on UK roads, several times what e-bikes have ever reached here.
That meant the concept of bicycle electric motors had disappeared for some three decades, but the petrol engine market was short lived, almost all disappearing by 1960. They had been replaced in public desire by scooters from Vespa and later Lambretta, a change made easy by the petrol engined bicycles having to registered as motor vehicles and needing a full motorcycle driving licence.
It was in the 1980s that e-bikes reappeared with two English designs using rather crude crank motors. They were at last able to be used as bicycles without registration, subject to them being limited to 200 watts and 12 mph assist speed maximum, but they still didn’t catch on, probably mainly due to lack of publicity by two tiny companies. So it was 1999 with the three e-bikes mentioned above and advertising by Powabyke that finally kicked life into the market.
Of course the thing that had impeded e-bikes for a century, as with all electric vehicles, was battery technology, the crippling weight of lead-acid batteries and the Peukert effect that limited now much could be drawn from them placing severe limitations on usefulness. So the success of today’s e-bikes has been driven by battery advances.
The 1999 Yamaha mentioned above used a NiCad battery, making it a full 10 kilos lighter than its two rivals and just two years later NiMh batteries were introduced which had double the NiCad capacity for a given volume. Just one year later in 2002 Panasonic introduced a folding e-bike with a lithium ion battery, but it was another four years before Li-ion batteries were developed enough to come into widespread e-bike use. Now of course, chiefly in polymer construction form with compound cathodes, they have become the norm, but there have been diversions.
The first of those was only in full working prototype form from Aprilia, a very stylish hydrogen fuel-cell powered e-bike in 2002, but they soon converted it into a normal battery machine for the market.
The second introduction was the Lithium iron-phosphate LiFePO4 battery which promised to at least double the 500 charge life of the early Li-ion batteries, but they were heavier, so as Li-ion batteries advanced to match the number of charges and also become much lighter, the iron-phosphate batteries soon disappeared.
Another introduction was the SCiB lithium titanate oxide cathode battery from Toshiba. That had the doubtful advantage of a rapid half hour full charge but for a given volume only had half the capacity. That only ever appeared in one e-bike, the American Schwinn Tailwind model of 2008 which only had a short life in the market, but they have been used successfully in other e-vehicles.
It’s been part of an interesting life for me as I’ve followed the progress of powered cycling since being in the trade from 1950.