Corbin Sparrow electric three-wheeler, now with dimpled backside
Ahead of its time when first conceived in the 90s, the Corbin Sparrow is back. The fully enclosed, electric, single-seat, three-wheel city commuter out of Hollister, California features bizarre golf ball dimpling all over the rear surfaces for superior aerodynamics. We spoke to Mike Corbin about his modest ambitions for this remarkable little car.
The Corbin factory in Hollister, California should by all rights be a small, humble operation – after all, it's a custom aftermarket parts supplier that sits off to the side of the fairly small motorcycle market, selling hand-made comfort seats and panniers.
But it's neither small nor humble, with Mike Corbin managing to make a massive success out of his seat business. This baron of bespoke biker buttock buttresses now oversees a buzzing hive of activity with dozens of employees, and the Corbin factory itself has become a bit of a destination for the local motorcycle scene.
It's easy to look at the seat business and forget that Corbin was once an electric vehicle pioneer in the truest sense of the word, building some extraordinary EVs back in the 1970s and setting a wild electric motorcycle land speed record that lasted a ridiculous 38 years from 1974 until 2012.
And as a businessman, Corbin's always looking for the next "big idea" to push the game forward. In the 1990s, he built a lead-acid electric three-wheel enclosed commuter called the Sparrow, that looked like a clog on wheels and offered a very early zero local-emissions transport option.
There's still a couple of hundred out there; I had a very quick and hair-raising drive of one last year at wild-man battery guru Luke Workman's place. But trying to get into the car business nearly sent Corbin under.
"When the dot-bomb hit in 2000, that took all of our financial underpinnings out from under us," Corbin tells me as we sit down for burgers in the Wizard Cafe built into his Hollister factory. "I lost a fortune in 03, almost killed the whole company – the car company and the seat company. We had so much debt. We had a great idea and a great product – what they call a big hairy-ass idea, but we had a lousy business plan.
"I wasn't acting as CEO of the car company, it was kinda run on wishful thinking, that some investors were gonna come down the street and buy us out."
Corbin has learned his lesson from his first Sparrow production run, and with a flood of new electric vehicle technology becoming available, he's ready to take a second crack at making a zero-emissions, one-seat, three-wheel commuter.
"With the age of the lithium battery and AC motors, all of a sudden the Sparrow is a great idea again," he says. "The batteries give it so much capacity. So I started again, five years ago in 2011, to design a new car. I wanted all the best technology and the best car design, but I also wanted a non-leveraged business plan. This is free and clear. I have no partners, no loans, no deposits, no investors, no bankers or investment capitalists, no partners in this company at all.
"So I can make all my moves exactly how I want to stay above water. I'm gonna start making cars in 2017, and the first car I sell, some of it will go in a savings account. You can get so excited about your idea that you can let the business plan bury you."
The Sparrow 2 is a significant upgrade on the old model. For starters, it's built on a far superior lithium electric powertrain that's being supplied by Richard Hatfield, creator of the wild Lightning LS128 electric superbike (don't miss our road test of this awesome machine). But it won't be a 200-hp widowmaker like the LS218.
"We can use about 400 amps at 144 volts – about 80 horsepower," says Corbin as we head across to the Sparrow production area at the far end of the factory compound. "I'm not after what Richard's doing. What I'm trying to do is make a car that's agile and quick in traffic, and that's good enough."
Power won't be Corbin's killer feature on the Sparrow 2, but efficiency just might, thanks to a bizarre and unique approach to aerodynamics. The front of the Sparrow 2 looks a bit like a narrower, sporty Porsche, but towards the rear of the vehicle, it gets a series of wacky-looking dimple dots like a golf ball.
"In Scotland in the 14th century, when they invented golf, golf balls were made out of wood, with a leather cover on 'em," Corbin explains. "Guys would go out and practice all week, and they'd be slicing up their golf balls, put nicks and cuts all over them. And they'd go to the tournament on Sunday and start out with a new ball that'd be totally smooth, and they'd whack it and it'd only go half as far. It was that turbulence that let the air contour around the back of the ball and reduce the suction, or the eddy currents on the back of the ball.
"Scientists for years have tried to work out what's the ideal configuration. What does it look like? They still haven't made a golf ball any better. So we were the first ones to say 'you golf ball the back of the car, then you leave the front smooth, and you can take advantage of the two kinds of air."
Corbin's golf ball dimples, called "turbulators," combine with a tapered rear section to give the Sparrow some very slippery aerodynamics. It uses only slightly more power at 60 mph (96.5 km/h) than Corbin's Zero S electric motorcycle, despite having an extra wheel, full cabin and a lot more weight. Corbin later shows me some fairings for a land-speed bike that he's hoping will prove the value of these turbulators on the salt flats.
Corbin explains that he wants to be very careful about any range figures he quotes.
"About 80 miles (129 km) is the best we can do, but we're gonna advertise 65. When you start saying 100, you're not really getting 100. Richard's working on an improved battery that'll get it up to 20 kWh, and we'll get to 100 (161 km). We're not there yet, but I'd rather sell you on the idea of an extremely reliable 60 or 70, and you don't have to worry too much about the gas pedal or a few hills here and there – 78 percent of America only goes 18 miles (29 km) a day.
"The worst thing you can do is go and make one pass at 100 miles, then go and print it'll do 100. Then everybody's disappointed. I don't know if you followed the Nissan Leaf or not, but when they came out, they were saying 65 to 80 mile range. I don't think any of 'em ever did 50. That's what I mean, and it hurt them. Now the Volt is outselling them 10 to one."
Elsewhere, the Sparrow is laid out for practicality. There's a decent sized trunk with room for four or five shopping bags. The single-seat cabin is very roomy, and will feel familiar to any car driver with its air-con, heating, windscreen wipers, steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals and simple dash. There's an Android Auto screen for navigation and entertainment, and, of course, a very comfy Corbin seat.
The door is a scissor style affair that lifts upwards like a McLaren sports car's, a detail Corbin insisted on as he wants the Sparrow to be able to take advantage of motorcycle parking spots as well as cheaper registration and diamond lane access.
"It was almost as much work to do the doors as the whole rest of the body," says Corbin, "but they work great. And when you get into motorcycle parking, boy you're gonna be glad those doors open upwards. There's not a lot of room in motorcycle parking, some guy's gonna put his Harley 10 inches from your door."
The Sparrow's not a tilting vehicle, so it sits flat as it turns. But Corbin doesn't see tilters as a winning idea.
"The tilt thing has been tried a whole bunch of times. There's no real good solution to a tilt-driver. It's all electronics and hydraulics. BMW's failed, there's been some motorcycles on the market, Piaggio had one. The problem with a tilting car is that a motorcycle person would like it, but that narrows the market down to 10 percent of the buyers. My idea of the original Sparrow was, you take a gal, she's a lawyer, she's got a nice suit on, she gets in and it works like a car. There's nothing to learn. There's the horn, there's the gas pedal."
At around US$33,000, (prices haven't yet been finalized), the Sparrow 2 isn't going to be a large volume seller. And that's just fine with Corbin, who's very keen to build this second car business organically.
"Hopefully, I wanna sell the first hundred cars in Northern California," he says, "so this will be the dealership right here. If we have technical problems, we can pick 'em up easy. Of course, electric cars, they're pretty predictable, you don't have a lot of trouble with 'em.
"We don't have big ambitions, because if we have big ambitions to grow fast, we'll go broke again. If I start off making one car a week, I'm happy. Then I'll get to five cars a week. I don't think we'll ever catch up with the demand just in Northern California. I think California will keep us busy for years."
It's taken Corbin about half a million dollars to get this prototype Sparrow to the point it's at now, but this process has allowed the team to get ready for production at the same time. Meanwhile, Mike Corbin's testing and refining this prototype as a daily driver.
As with everything that comes out of the Corbin factory, the Sparrow 2 will be hand-made. If it lives up to the quality of the seat and luggage business, it'll be beautifully put together. And while the prototype Sparrow was up on blocks when we visited, we're looking forward to a test drive next time we're in the neighborhood.
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