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Unique Bike Treks Up East Coast, Powered By Solar And Pedals

In a photo taken on July 24, ELF bike owner Mark Stewart discusses the unusual vehicle during his trip from North Carolina to Massachusetts.
Valerie Bonk
In a photo taken on July 24, ELF bike owner Mark Stewart discusses the unusual vehicle during his trip from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

It's not rare for new vehicle owners to be proud of their purchase. And some even travel to the factory to pick up their new ride and drive it home. That's what Mark Stewart did — but his new vehicle is an ELF hybrid bike, and his ride home will take hundreds of miles to complete.

"What he's driving looks like a cross between a bicycle and a car, the closest thing yet to Fred Flintstone's footmobile, only with solar panels and a futuristic shape," the AP reports.

Stewart, 65, is riding his new bike, a three-wheeler from ELF maker Organic Transit, from the company's shop in Durham, N.C., to Cambridge, Mass., using a 1,200-mile route of roads and trails, the AP says. Stewart is a longtime fan of the East Coast Greenway, he says on his blog, where he's detailing his trip.

As it happens, Stewart lives mere blocks away from the Good News Garage in Cambridge, which NPR listeners may recognize as the home of Car Talk's Magliozzi brothers.

"I listen to Tom and Ray all the time," Stewart tells the show's blogger, Jim Motavilli. "We're neighbors in what is, more or less, our fair city."

Stewart called Motavilli from Manhattan, where he arrived Wednesday on his northward journey. Stewart reports covering about 60-80 miles each day, with a maximum of 90 miles. And while he says his trip has been free of any major hassles, he says the unique vehicle takes some getting used to.

"The ELF takes a bit of effort to learn, just as riding a bicycle does," he tells Motavilli. "You can't be an idiot, and you have to think about what you're doing."

The ELF bike started out as a Kickstarter campaign last year, when former automobile engineer Rob Cotter asked for $100,000 to help him build a pedal-driven, solar electric-assisted bicycle that offers its riders some protection from the elements. He more than doubled his goal.

On his blog, Stewart writes that he "heard about the ELF's Kickstarter on the NPR," and paid $4,000 to support Organic Transit and purchase one of its unique vehicles. Part of the reason he wanted to ride it home, he says, is to avoid paying more to ship it.

We should pause here to note that while we are aware that the ELF's three wheels qualify it as a "tricycle," the company refers to it simply as a bike, in part because the name reflects its legal standing on the roads. The vehicles cost around $5,000, before delivery charges.

According to Organic Transit, the ELF is capable of carrying a cargo load of up to 350 pounds; it can reach a top speed of 20 mph on electric power alone. With a 750-watt motor, the bike can be charged by an electrical outlet in one hour, or in around seven hours by the solar panels built into its roof.

Organic Transit says the ELF is ideal for commuters, allowing them to use the bike's electric power to get to work without getting sweaty, and then pedal their way home, to get some exercise. It's unclear whether they had Stewart's trek in mind.

Another Massachussets ELF owner, Northfield engineer Peter Talmage, tells local newspaper The Recorder that he's happy with his ELF, which he says has advantages over a standard electric bicycle.

"The ELF has much more presence on the road and something that people will not miss," he says. "It's got blinkers, stoplights and all that built right into it."

More than 200 ELF bikes have been sold, the AP reports.

"Right now we make them at a rate of one per day hand built in the U.S. but we're about to open up another facility on the West Coast to increase our efficiency sometime this year to get up to four per day," Cotter, whose previous experience includes stints with BMW and Porsche, tells the news agency.

Earlier this year, Cotter delivered a TEDx Talk about his project. Video of that presentation is on YouTube.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.