Cruising 'Eco' Missile

The Eco, a Kevlar-encased motorcycle, may just be the next transportation wave -- unless the $80,000 price tag stops you cold.

Published: 19-Jan-2005

class=text>YORK, Pa. - Dan Whitfield has seen the future of personal transportation, and it looks like a stubby missile on two wheels and goes like one, too, depending on your tolerance for drawing attention from police cruisers.

It's called an Ecomobile, or Eco, and it's basically a motorcycle enclosed in a hard shell that makes it suitable for riding all year around, in any kind of weather short of Buffalo in January.

And since the shell is made of Kevlar carbon fiber - yes, Kevlar's the stuff bullet-proof vests are made of - and is three times stronger than a car's, it may appeal to those who see a motorcycle as nothing more than a rolling coffin with tailpipes.

"I see it as a much more humane motorcycle," says Whitfield, 59, an instructor at York Technical Institute who is also the sole U.S. service agent for Eco.

"If you're driving a normal motorcycle and you strike a deer at night, you're in trouble. [With] this vehicle, if you strike another vehicle, your survivability chances are 200 percent better than on a motorcycle."

As we know, though, history is replete with all sorts of gizmos heralded as the future of personal transportation that never caught on.

Just a few years ago, the Segway, a self-balancing, electric-powered device that looked sort of like a scooter, was considered the can't-miss way to get around in the new millennium.

But well-publicized braking and steering problems, coupled with public indifference, have kept sales below expectations.

Soon, in fact, you might be able to pick up a Segway at your neighborhood yard sale, next to the Elvis-on-velvet paintings.

Besides, weren't we all supposed to be zipping around in those little flying saucers like the Jetsons used by now?

Still, the Eco appears to be user-friendly enough for the finicky American driving public.

It has motorcycle-type handlebars and can be operated by anyone with a motorcycle license. Since it has seat belts, the driver isn't required to wear a helmet.

The driver can't stick his feet out for balance, so the Eco has retractable wheels that can be operated manually when slowing and stopping. (The wheels also act as safety bars to prevent damage in the event of a fall.)

It comes with heat, air-conditioning and a radio, stereo, GPS system. And its 1200-cc BMW motorcycle engine gets 50 miles per gallon of gasoline.

However, with a price tag of nearly $80,000 - which will induce not just sticker shock but sticker seizures in most people - the Eco would appear to be a tough sell as a mass-market vehicle.

Hefty price tag or no, Whitfield, a genial man who test-drove and worked on Harley-Davidson motorcycles for years, is a true believer.

"The fact they can build this for $80,000 - that is one bargain-basement price," he says. "Every single component is made by hand." Plus, the Eco is designed to the personal specifications of each buyer.

Even though enclosed motorcycles have been around, in some form, since the 1920s, Whitfield feels the Eco, developed by a former Swiss airline pilot and aircraft manufacturing entrepreneur named Arnold Wagner, is the one that combines the best elements of a true car-motorcycle hybrid.

"I'm a passionate motorcyclist and this is like skipping into space," he says. "It's like taking 1936 technology and jumping into the future."

Whitfield's eyes light up when he tells you about the time Wagner discovered - the hard way - just how safe and durable the Eco was.

At a big German motorcycle show last year, Wagner was driving the Eco for a piece being filmed by the Speed Channel.

Attempting a U-turn on the rain-slicked Autobahn, the notorious expressway where cars routinely travel at the speed of sound, Wagner's Eco was creamed by a car.

"Knocked [the Eco] skyward and down-range," says Whitfield. "He was hurt, got a few cuts and bruises. But he made a meeting an hour after the accident."

If the car had hit a regular motorcycle, adds Whitfield, "you'd be on resuscitation, that's for sure."

Whitfield first heard about the Eco a few years ago and looked it up on the Internet. He started a correspondence with Wagner that led to an invitation to drive the Eco at a Formula One race car course in the Czech Republic.

"I was in love with it from 'hello,'" he says. " ... It's far superior to any vehicle I've ever driven. It turns and accelerates with elan. It's a very agile machine - more agile than a Porsche."

In October 2002, a Philadelphia-area dentist named Tom Mohn was the first American to buy an Eco and legally bring it to the United States (Whitfield says another Eco was smuggled in earlier, but no one knows where it is.)

Whitfield helped Mohn negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make sure the Eco conformed to federal emissions standards and regulations for making it street-legal.

By March 2003, Whitfield had raised enough money to buy his own Eco, and he became the first - and so far the only - Eco sales agent in this country.

Wagner's company, Swiss-based Peraves A.G., has sold nearly 100 Ecos worldwide. But right now, Mohn's and Whitfield's are the only two in the United States.

A third Eco is scheduled to be delivered within weeks to a Denver businessman whose wife, so the story goes, was so incensed with her husband spending so much on the new contraption that she left him.

Test drive

It's a little before 3 on a cold, rainy afternoon and Whitfield's Eco is cruising through the wet outskirts of York, drawing its usual assortment of double-takes and jaw-dropping stares.

Randy Kemp, the public relations guy for York Technical Institute, who has ridden in the Eco, says passing motorists gawk at it as if thinking: "Is this Mars? Is this thing going to fly?"

A reporter is in the back seat. The ride is incredibly smooth. Outside, the temperature is in the low-40s. But inside the clear-plastic cockpit, it's toasty. Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years" is playing over the sound system.

Close your eyes, the reporter thinks, and the total effect is that of sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner that's gliding down the highway.

On eastbound Route 30, Whitfield decides to open her up. He hits the twist-grip throttle and the Eco surges quietly into the fast lane.

"We're doing 80 now," Whitfield says seconds later. "Doesn't feel like it, does it?"

No, it doesn't. It feels as if we're doing 55, tops.

With a top speed of 165 mph, the Eco, Whitfield had said earlier, "doesn't like to go less than 85 mph."

Neither, it seems, does Whitfield.

Little wonder, then, that he reports having collected "lots" of speeding tickets with this baby.

His most memorable run-in with the police occurred soon after he got the Eco.

Driving a tad on the fast side on a highway outside Philadelphia, he attracted the attention of a police aircraft overhead.

The police plane, he would find out later, radioed this message about the Eco to a nearby barracks: "It doesn't look like a car. It doesn't look like a motorcycle. It does look like a missile."

As you might imagine, the missile reference, in this age of heightened security concerns, made a few people at the barracks nervous.

Soon three state police cruisers appeared behind Whitfield and forced the Eco to the shoulder of the road.

The police jumped out of their cars with their guns drawn, he says. It took quite a bit of explaining for Whitfield to get away with just a ticket for doing 83 in a 65-mph zone.

Then there was the time he was returning to York from Daytona Beach, Fla., after showing off the Eco during Bike Week.

"I decided to crank it to 120-125 all the way from Daytona to Richmond to see what it would do," he says. " ... If I got a ticket, I got a ticket."

Well, they tried to give him a ticket.

At one point, a police cruiser attempted to pull him over on I-95, Whitfield says, but he took the first exit and lost it.

He also had the Eco up to 150 in Georgia when a guy on a Honda Valkyrie - with saddlebags that proclaimed him "The New Legend" - tried to race him.

The New Legend was left in the dust, and luckily for Whitfield, the cops weren't around to see the whole thing.

At some point, he says the Eco might try to break the coast-to-coast motorcycle speed record.

"I'm trying to figure out how to do it without the cops going crazy," he chuckles.

But for now, Whitfield seems content proselytizing the virtues of the Eco - especially that it's a fun, safe, all-weather, environmentally friendly ride - to all who will listen.

He hopes to attract Eco enthusiasts in different parts of the country, who will become hooked on the product and sign up to be Eco service agents themselves, thereby building the brand in the national consciousness.

"You could say I'm looking at this the way a president does when he gets to the end of his term and ... starts thinking about his legacy," Whitfield says softly. "I guess what attracts me to this is it's something that will be here after I'm gone. And it'll make people's lives better."