A legal loophole has opened Canadian doors to a flood of DIY machinery already prowling the Brave New Boulevards of Europe.
It’s a simple idea. You take a bicycle—preferably a sturdy one—and clip an engine onto the frame. In fact, that’s pretty much what the earliest motorcycles were: bicycles with engines. And while motorcycles evolved into the panoply of complex and sophisticated machines we’re familiar with today, the idea of a simple powered velocipede as basic transportation has never gone away.
Over the course of a century, there were replacement rear wheels with built-in engines (BSA’s Winged Wheel, Honda’s first Cub); motors that clipped to the handlebars with a friction drive to the front wheel (VeloSolex); ready assembled autocycles and mopeds (Ducati’s Cucciolo, NSU’s Quickly and BSA’s New Hudson)). And in backyards across North America, legions of enterprising teens lashed asthmatic Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engines to their Schwinns with not much more than duct tape and baling wire.
Seeing that here might be an opportunity to make some money, a Los Angeles-based company called Breene-Taylor Engineering announced an engine kit in 1939 that could be fitted easily (and more permanently) to a bike frame. The Whizzer was born. Produced in volume mostly between 1939 and 1955 and usually mated to a Schwinn bicycle, the 138cc flat head four-stroke Whizzer engine was continuously developed for more power and reliability, making all of three horsepower in its final version.
Resurrected in 1999, the Whizzer company still provides new engines and complete powered cycles.
But can you ride one on the street in Canada? Gas-engine powered bicycles fall into a category known to Transport Canada and most provincial licencing authorities as “limited speed motorcycles,” which covers mopeds and motorcycles up to 50cc (or 1.5kw if electric) with automatic transmissions. To ride one, you need a regular (car or motorcycle) drivers’ licence, and the bike has to be licenced and insured. This separates LSMs from the “un-motorcycle” e-bikes (officially “motor assisted bicycles”), which don’t need to be licenced. (Electric motors only are allowed, and with 500 watt maximum power.)
But any powered two-wheeler sold for the street has to be type approved by Transport Canada. Not likely Joe Shadetree’s lash-up would pass their tests. Nor would JS want to pony up the cost. The short answer, then, is, no. Not legally, anyway. And if you tried to bring a complete powered bicycle across the border from the US with the intention of using it on the street, the Customs & Border Agency would be within their rights to confiscate and crush it.
So why is it that, in the last two days, I’ve seen four unlicenced gas-powered bicycles on the street (in my local village of Ladner, BC and on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive), all being ridden at well over the 32 kmh governed speed that applies to e-bikes? Because it’s not illegal to import or manufacture engines intended for this purpose. It’s just when they’re delivered bolted to a bike …
Safely ensconced south of the US border are a number of companies that will sell you a Chinese-made, clip-on two-stroke motor of up to 80cc, which at least one company claims will power a mountain bike to 70 kmh. All the backyard bodger has to do is screw the motor to his or her pedal bike, and Robert is your father’s brother.
Why is any of this a problem. After all, aren’t powered bicycles in the spirit of reducing pollution and CO2 emissions? Why shouldn’t enterprising bike mechanics bolt on a bit of gas power to supplement their muscles?
I spent a few days in Amsterdam recently, and the street scene there offers a glimpse into what could become the Brave New Boulevards of our cities if urban planners opened their eyes. Every city street consists of the roadway, a cycle lane (often two-way) and the sidewalk. But in the Netherlands, mopeds and small scooters are also allowed to use the bike lanes. So if an unsuspecting tourist wanders into the bike lane (as happens all the time), they may well get clobbered by a Vespa going 70 kmh as a push-bike being pedaled at twenty. The locals, of course, take this in their stride (or ride), as most Amsterdammers get around on bikes anyway.
Self-powered E-bikes are already allowed to use bike lanes in most of our provinces. So why not “limited speed motorcycles”—mopeds, 50cc street bikes and scooters—as well? If city planners are really serious about getting people out of their cars, this has to be worth a try. Mopeds and 50cc scooters don’t belong on the street anyway: their inability to keep up with traffic simply makes them a moving hazard.
So is the time also right for a reincarnation of a Whizzer-style gas powered bike? Or will Transport Canada dig in its heels and keep them illegal? And if so, why aren’t city cops clamping down on them? What if I import a vintage VeloSolex from France: can I ride that on the street? And did I mention that bike lane users in Amsterdam—including scooter riders—aren’t required to wear helmets?