BY KELVIN CLARK
(AS PUBLISHED IN RECUMBENT CYCLIST NEWS)
INTERVIEW WITH GARDNER MARTIN, FOUNDER AND DESIGNER OF EASY RACER RECUMBENTS
This interview takes place late evening, poolside, at the Flamingo Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada in September 1999. Bob Bryant & Ron Schmid are lurking in the shadows and I’m visiting with Gardner Martin. — Kelvin
Kelvin: Gardner, tells us about the bike that have here.
GARDNER: Well, I needed a run around bike when I got to Las Vegas. I looked at what was available and said, “Hell, I’ll take the old Dead Mans bike.” Dead Man’s bike was the first Gold Rush. I’ll tell you the story about Dead Man’s bike. In about 1983, a dentist in Ohio called me up and wanted to buy a Tour Easy like he’d seen on TV. So I sold him the Tour Easy and probably three years later he called up. At that time I had very close contact with most of my customers because I wasn’t making a lot of bikes per year. He said, “Gardner, my wife just died and I am just really distraught and I don’t know what to do with myself.” He had been a lifelong bicyclist, belonged to one of the biggest clubs in Ohio and bicycling was the only thing he had left. “Gardner, is there something special you could do for me, you know, a really special recumbent? “Well, Doc, you know we built this here aluminum bike to race with the Streamline bodywork and I could probably make you one like it – but it’s going to cost you! “Well, I don’t care what it cost.” So I built him the first “for sale” aluminum bike, which at that time we didn’t even call the Gold Rush because we hadn’t named our speed bike the Gold Rush yet. The actual speed bike that won the Dupont prize had an identical chassis to this bike. Maybe three years later I got a call, hadn’t heard from him in a good while, except that he one time called me and told me he was going to some big bike races, but boy, things weren’t going well for him. He’d wrecked his truck – fallen asleep once and I think he just couldn’t get his head back together after his wife died. He still had the club, so one day he was out riding with the club members, and they were probably twenty, thirty miles into the ride and he had a minor heart attack. They called 911 and got an ambulance out there and took him back. Two weeks later he went out by himself and they found him dead along the side of the road with his feet still in the toe clips. What I think happened was that he just decided he wanted to go join his wife and he went out and pedaled hard ’til his old heart blew up. It’s happened in lots of cases where the one mate dies and the other one is just, you know, it just kills their spirit, they just don’t want to live anymore. So that’s why we called it the Dead Man’s bike. So I bought it back and I offered it to my wife. Said, “This’ll be your bike.” She said, “Yeah, yeah I can kind of dig that.” But there was something kind of hesitant about it, you know, later on she just told me that she didn’t want to ride a dead man’s bike. It was her bike for quite a few years but she never rode it. I tried to use it around the shop but it wasn’t quite late model enough to use as a demonstrator. All of the equipment is fairly “old tack.”
Kelvin: Gardner then phases into a BioPace moment……..
It’s got Frank Burto’s half step plus granny gearing and BioPace chainrings on it. Some people think the BioPace doesn’t work. I think the BioPace can be a help on hills on recumbents. Maybe it doesn’t work so well on an upright bike, it will induce a pogo effect because you are pedaling in the same plane as the up and down suspension of the bike whether it’s natural suspension or fully articulated. On a recumbent bike, you’re pedaling horizontally and you’re opposed to any up and down motion, you don’t get what’s been termed “biopacing.” Our office manager actually still has one old Tour Easy that he rides regularly that has the BioPace. We gave him a brand new Tour Easy a couple of years ago and he rides them both probably almost equally. He thinks the BioPace is a little easier to climb the steep hills when he is down in the extreme chain rings, so it just goes to show that sometimes a fad can be successful and it can also be killed by opinion that may or may not be right for everything.
Kelvin: The Gold Rush went into production then in ’86 then?
GARDNER: We won the Dupont prize in ’86 and we decided in ’87 to make it a real production item although we had built a few for customers that wanted something lighter than the Tour Easy or our original Easy Racer. We incorporated in 1979 to build recumbent bicycles. The original Easy Racer was all hand brazed and hand mitered. It looks like a Tour Easy but more complicated joints. We had nicely tapered chain stays, used Campagnolo drop outs, silver soldering and hand brazing. We built somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 120 of the original hand built Easy Racer models before we brought out the Tour Easy. The Tour Easy was launched in 1982. We had been racing for four years at the International Human Powered Vehicle Championships.
I’m kind of taking you back further and further with what I would call the modern revolution in recumbentcy. It really all started in 1974 when I walked into a liquor store looking for my favorite copy of Big Bike Motorcycle Magazine. At that time I was building custom parts for motorcycles, making gas tanks and fairings. I was interested in both the chopper scene and the road racing scene. I probably owned what were absolutely the best and fastest motorcycles that were ever built up through the early 70’s. I owned a Harley Davidson and a super custom, super fast Norton at that time. I previously owned several brand new racing Triumphs and I owned the absolute ultimate motorcycle of all time – the Vincent Black Shadow. I was really into the motorcycles, but there in the liquor store magazine rack beside my favorite copy of Big Bike was a bicycling magazine with a streamline bicycle on the cover and the title of the article was, Are Streamline Bicycles in Your Future? , by Dr. Chester Kyle. I never bought a bicycling magazine before, I was into hot rods, dragsters and fast “motorcicles”. So I picked it up. The gist of the article was, Chester Kyle, a professor at Long Beach State, with the help of his students in an engineering class, built a streamline fairing for a conventional upright racing bicycle. It was a Teledyne type titanium bicycle and he got a current Olympic champion, Ron Scarren, to ride this thing. They went out and broke a bunch of speed records. Broke all the 200 meter, 500 meter, 1000 meter, 1 mile speed records that had been set on conventional bikes, which by this time had surpassed the earlier recumbent streamliner records. So they went 44 mph, which was maybe two to three miles and hour faster than the current sprint record at the time. It sounded exciting. He proposed the idea, “Let’s have anything goes speed contest race in the spring of 1975.” I thought, “Wow, man – this sounds neat.” I started drawing some pictures. I took some pictures of a regular road racing bicycle in the magazine and rotated it 90 degrees until I had him lying on his belly and I said, ” you know, I can get him about half as tall or half the frontal area if I put him flat on his belly. I knew what streamlining did at high speeds. The air resistance is 95 percent of your energy to overcome it – its speed, or more. So I said, “If I can build something half as high with half the frontal area, I ought to be able to go twice as fast.” Okay, maybe not twice as fast, but certainly exceed the speed record. So in the spring of ’75 thirteen crazy guys in their thirteen weird machines showed up at a drag strip down in Irwindale, California – Irwindale Raceway. The old professor won because nobody else quite had their vehicles working right, so Ron Scarren upped his record to maybe 45 mph and one other prone machine, Dr. Alan Abbott, got second place. He was really fast. And he just had partial streamlining but flat on his belly.
My bike had the distinction of having the first high speed crash. We had three different riders, one of them a real bicyclist but not a racer, and the other two just buddies of mine. They all wanted to ride it and we only got to make three runs. Each guy was trying to give it his all. This one guy who was a bicycle rider got it up to 34 mph and crashed in the speed traps. Although he was so low to the ground he didn’t come close to breaking anything or even straining anything. Man, it took more skin off of him skidding down the road in his scanty shorts and T-shirt, I mean he looked like hamburger. We took him to the airport and flew him out of there, never heard from him again. We call that original belly bike “Jaws” because it ate a lot of riders including me before we found Fast Freddie. The thing was evil handling. You get it up to about 30 mph and you’re really pushing hard to get more speed and it would start shaking in the front end so I started talking to the people that should maybe know. Dr. Alan Abbott, at that time held the speed record behind the car at like around 150 mph, it could have been 142 or 152, I can’t even remember exactly, but really fast and Dr. Abbott had a pretty good grasp on steering geometry. I met a man Glen Brown, an Aerodynamicist and also into motorcycles, he gave me some real good pointers. He’d been doing some experiments in steering geometry with way laid back head tubes and laying flat on your back. Talk about low rider, this thing was as low as any of the low riders you’ve seen. His streamlining was kind of hacked together and it ended up he didn’t even race it. But he went pretty fast very stably. My belly bike had the rear wheel between your legs and the pedals behind the rear wheel, so when you pedaled hard it caused an oscillation of pivoting the bike on the rear wheel so that you get a shake in the front wheel – left or right, with every pedal stroke when you’re pushing really hard, and you couldn’t keep it straight. It took me nearly three years before we figured out what was wrong and we had to move the wheel an additional thirty inches rear. We got it behind the bottom bracket to get the rider totally between the wheels.
Kelvin: The leverage behind the back axle was causing the …..
GARDNER: Yeah, you don’t want that. Same thing happens a little bit with recumbents that have the pedaling in front of the front wheel. Early on, I was getting into stability and finding out by trial and error and talking to other guys who were really on the way to finding out what made a good stable vehicle. The next year I still wanted to race it, but I was trying to say – it wasn’t comfortable. I made a couple of quick rough attempts at building laid back recumbent bicycles that weren’t very good. One day my buddy and I were riding down the street on a tandem bicycle, a cheap ladies model frame in the rear with the sloping top tube from front to rear. We’re going down the street and all of a sudden it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I said, “Rick, pick your feet up.” He was captaining up front. He picked his feet up and I slid down on the lower angle top tube just right at the rear seat tube, sat on the top tube and put my feet on his pedals and we never stopped rolling. It didn’t take but three seconds to do this, I started pedaling and he was steering. I said, “Wow man, we got an instant recumbent here.” I says, “Rick turn this thing back around and get back to the house. We’re going to build ourselves a neat recumbent.” So we took it back to the house, sawed off the front seat tube, so now we had a straight line from the head tube aiming low down angling back to the rear drop outs. I took some rubber inner tubes and wrapped them around the rear of the frame, the top tube, and the rear seat tube for a quicky seat back. I put a set of Stingray high rise handle bars on it and we had us an instant supine recumbent bicycle that just naturally handled good. It was easy to ride. Wow! Then we started modifying over the next few months, cutting up old bicycle frames and stuff like that until we improved it to the point where, “Boy, it’s really handling good, is very comfortable and pretty fast too.” Although we didn’t think it would have the speed potential of the belly bike, she still sat up fairly high.
The next year, probably the third year of the speed racing, we started streamlining that bike also. The fourth year of the speed bike races, 1978, I decided I should have won it already. I needed to get a powerful rider because all the other guys were powerful riders. The next year I met a guy named Paul VanValkenburg, a famous auto journalist and race car builder/ designer – has written books on race car engineering and many other auto subjects – airplanes too. He built a four wheeled flat on your belly hand and foot crank streamliner, maybe you don’t even call it a bicycle, but it knocked the record up some more. Abbott had gone 47 mph and this guy goes 48.9 mph. So he sets a new record. That year, we got Fast Freddie and another really strong sprinter to ride our two bikes, the belly bike and the basic Easy Racer that we now produce. We put a streamline body on it. Fast Freddie only wanted to ride the belly bike because he wanted to go for the pure speed. Fast Freddie got second place that year behind the four wheel vehicle. He had a really bad cold that day. The guy on our street type bike, the Easy Racer, won the first ever road race, so it showed some real practicality, got second place in the hour behind the way laid back recumbent and Fast Freddie got second place. Now we’re really cookin’. The next year Fast Freddie won the top speed. He was the first to crack 50 mph for a single bicycle rider unaided. That made us feel really good, but that same year a two person tricycle went 55 mph and won the avid prize, which was $2500, a fair amount of money back then. That would have been 1979, I guess. Tim Brummer came out of the same mold as I did, from the speed championships, although he didn’t start quite as early. He started his first races in ’78. It was college outfit and Tim was one of the main engineers on it. The next year we went back and we were still looking to go pretty good, thought maybe we’d win again and the Vector Tricycles came along. Aerospace Engineering team built these awesome tricycles that are the absolute forerunner of all the modern tadpole tricycles. They had extremely well engineered body work, nobody’s done any better since on a tricycle. Nobody’s gone any faster. They pulled a couple of these things out of their trailer and they’re black and bad looking, their just mean – space agey looking, and they put the word out, even told us, “Fred Markham – we’re out here to kick your butt, you don’t stand a chance.” We didn’t. They had the six fastest guys on the national sprint team and a couple of national pursuit riders. Not only did they win the single rider competition, they had a back to back double tricycle that was just awesomely fast. The single vehicle went 56 mph, the two man tandem went 62 mph. They were just screaming. Lightning just barely cracked 60 mph. They just dominated with the tricycle. So now everyone wants to go to tricycles, here’s the new wave. Everyone can see it, if I build a tricycle, I’ll make it faster. There have been a lot of copies done, lots and lots. None of them has ever done what the original Vector team did. That was a combination of superb engineering and catching the right racing riders, three wheels, anyone could ride them, and the right race track. It was the Ontario Motor Speedway, a perfect speedway for us to race on. You could get up on the banking coming out of the last turn, a two and a half mile long track and get a little down hill run up at the traps by coming off the bank. They tore that track down the next year and put up a housing development, that was the end of Ontario.
Kelvin: For a time you sold Easy Racer bicycles and you sold plans simultaneously. What was the inspiration for that?
GARDNER: The inspiration for selling the plans was two-fold; 1) Simply a way of generating a little bit of revenue, we had gotten a lot of attention of two or three different T.V. shows, several magazine articles, and a recumbent being so high priced took us 80 hours to make one Easy Racer by hand. We didn’t really have enough orders to continually finance the company on just the bicycles. So we said, “Hey, we designed this thing by cutting up old bicycles in the first place. They look almost like production models.” We found a simple way that if you cut up a bicycle and put some of the parts together backwards, get some extension tubes – Voila! You got a really nice recumbent. The plans ended up being tremendously successful and we sold thousands of sets of plans. The first five years we would sell ten to fifty sets of plans a week. Initially at $20, eventually we took the price up to $40 and we sold parts, you know, bottom extension tubes. We got hundreds and hundreds of photographs back from all over the country and all over the world of people who had built their own version of our bike that looked just like our bike, sometimes not exactly like our bike. A few people would even modify it to the extent of putting, God forbid, underseat handlebars on an Easy Racer. But it was fun for them and they were so proud of it. We had the pictures up on what we called our Wall of Fame. All these people – Australia, Batswana, a picture of a black guy in the middle of Africa riding a one speed Easy Racer – you know, that’s a turn on to me. It’s like being able to give something to the world and give people pleasure doing it, pleasure riding it, and pleasure in transportation. If I couldn’t make the bigger dollars selling the bike at least I could make a few dollars off of each person to help me finance the company, and they were glad to pay me. Everyone that finished the bike thought the plans were a bargain. We finally decided that the hours spent in the selling of the plans and servicing of the plans builder with parts and advice was less profitable than making bikes. So we decided for the good of the company, we had to quit selling the plans. There is a time for everything. The time for the plans went far enough, we helped a lot of people out.
Kelvin: You’re a one design recumbent company. What is your thinking about that, a strong opinion? Tell us a little bit about it.
GARDNER: There is room in this world for many, many, many different kinds of bicycles. At this time, I’m not big enough to build all the different kinds. It’s not necessarily that I don’t like other designs. I’ve got a whole lot of designs in my head, even a few that I think could be some competition for our current line of bikes, but at this time I don’t need competition for our current line of bikes. Our line of bikes are a classic. It’s like a Shelby Cobra – an eternal car. There’s at least a dozen active manufacturers of Shelby Cobras now. It’s the most sought after car in the world. It’s a great design. The Tour Easy / Gold Rush design is just a great recumbent design. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of other great designs. Not to say that some day I won’t build a short wheelbase bike.
Kelvin: Well, it’s stood the test of time well. The titanium version of the design – how did that come forth?
GARDNER: Like so many people deep into the bicycle mystique, just the sound of titanium rolls off the tongue so nice. The mystique of the magic material, I wanted to use it. I knew it had a lot of good qualities, so I asked our custom frame builder, Steve Delaire. He’s tried a lot of different things. Up to that time he had built all our aluminum Gold Rush replicas. I hired Steve on all of the early production aluminum bikes, well most of them. The very early production ones we did in-house and then we hired him to wrap it up into a real production thing. So Steve, being an ace builder, I said, “Steve, let’s do some titanium bikes. It will be good for both of us. Steve liked the idea so he spent a tremendous amount of time. It took a whole lot longer to get into the project just for the learning process of how to safely work titanium. It’s a tricky material to work right. The welding has to be done extremely carefully. It takes three times as long to properly weld a titanium frame. He built us the first run of the titanium bikes. Word got out, we had brief mention in the RCN that Easy Racer is doing a titanium bike and people wanted them. They wanted that “ti” bike. The titanium bike is truly faster than an aluminum or steel bike. We did some very closely controlled tests with a guy that rides 12,000 miles a year, does lots of double centuries, has a very steady heart beat, runs with a heart rate monitor. On a typical country loop where the road is a little rough and a little hilly, every single time with an exact same bike, same wheels, same tires, same seat he would be five percent faster average on the titanium bike. Both bikes weighed exactly the same within a few ounces. It proved in my mind that the titanium is definitely faster. We think titanium, especially when you’re working it, bumps and turns, going hard up hill, it gives you back more energy. It’s one of the best springs in the world. So you’re saving energy and using energy more efficiently with the titanium. Is it worth it? Well, it’s worth it to those who want just that little extra. It’s not worth it to the average cruiser rider, a Tour Easy is just fine. An extra two and a half or three pounds doesn’t matter, that’s a big difference for a performance cyclist. It’s way more than just a few pounds. The aluminum is a big step up and it’s more of a step up than it should be if you just looked at the numbers, and the titanium is a big step up than it should be if you just looked at the numbers. You know, why does the aluminum Gold Rush perform a lot better than a steel Tour Easy? To some people its not much difference but to others …
Kelvin: What’s the ratio between the steel and the aluminum one? Do you have that too?
GARDNER: Yeah, yeah, that’s about a five percent difference too.
Kelvin: Talk about Freedom California. What’s the significance of Freedom California and Freedom Blvd. and all that kind of stuff.
GARDNER: Well, serendipity, maybe. Sometimes people get set into situations not by their choice but by chance or luck or maybe “The Force!” My wife and I left Florida in late 1969. She just graduated from college in Florida and I had been going to school there studying art and decided we needed to get away from Florida for a lot of reasons. We wanted to move to California for the innovative climate. We ran out of money when we got to the Santa Cruz area. I had to sell my Vincent Black Shadow to buy something to eat – it broke my heart. But we settled in. I got another motorcycle and some things and we started making something of ourselves. We moved to the little town of Watsonville, put an ad in the paper, “wanted – an old barn to rent for a workshop.” An old gentleman rancher had some apple ranches there. On his ranch he had these long chicken coops made out of old barn wood. He put them up in the 1920’s and he rented us a pretty big old barn with low ceiling chicken coop for $50 a month I believe it was for half of the building. That was probably in ’77 or ’78. It had no electricity, no toilet, half the floors had turned back into dirt. My wife and I hauled out probably forty wheel barrel loads of manure, but the rent was cheap. We got electricity put in a little bit at a time and kept the initial working area, probably four to five hundred square feet and we kept expanding pouring new concrete floors, rebuilding the building. Making it nicer, put sheet rock on all of the inside, totally wired the building, everything at our own expense. The old farmer said, “I’ll give you good rent, but you have to pay for any improvements you want.” So, it was good for us, and good for him, too, I suppose. Eventually we rented the whole of the building and then more chicken coop out buildings for storage. We had a fair amount of room but a lot of different little buildings. It was very inconvenient. After nineteen years in the chicken coop, business starting getting good. We started having to hire quite a few people. With up to about a dozen or more people in the chicken coop and it was just too many people bumping elbows. Last year we rented a nice 10,000 square foot building in the little town of Freedom. The chicken coop was on Freedom Blvd. The new place is actually in the town of Freedom on Airport Blvd. If you wanted to manufacture a motorcycle or maybe a bicycle, there could not be a better name for the town than Freedom, California, USA. Handbuilt in America. So we like the place. Our new plant is right on the airport and I’m an aviation enthusiast. I am a pilot and I build experimental type aircraft designs. Hope to some day get into building some home built kit airplanes in Freedom, California.
Kelvin: Tell us about the off time Gardner stuff. What do you do to rejuvinate yourself?
GARDNER: Other than the day to day grind I probably test ride a bicycle every single day. I don’t do many long rides anymore. The longest ride I’ve done lately is here in Las Vegas running all over this town. To get away from my regular business I’ve been interested in aviation ever since Burt Rutan designed that first wild airplane with the wing on the rear and the tail on the front. Looks kind of like a starship. First saw a magazine, a Popular Mechanics type magazine in Spanish in the local library. Showed pictures of it, and that was twenty-five years ago. I said, “That’s the coolest looking airplane I ever saw – I want to build airplane, too.” So I started tinkering with very small models just to see how the concept would look and glide. I had to put it off for many years doing any further development, but probably six or eight years ago I got serious about doing some of these designs and although they are not totally radical from anything that has ever been built before, there’s no airplanes currently flying that are quite like what I’m trying to do. Some of the parts look like they’re backwards on my airplanes. They’re quarter scale prototypes, and I don’t even like to call them models because they are actually prototype flying machines. The next one I’m going to build is going to be probably the final prototype before we build a full scale airplane. The airplane will be the size of a small aerobatic bi-plane. It’ll be pretty fast for a sport airplane, but nothing in speed like a jet airplane. Cruising speed could be 175 mph which is plenty fast if you want to go somewhere. It’ll be designed to be a fun airplane that you could do full aerobatics in if you wanted or if you wanted to fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than two hours you could do that too. There are quite a few airplanes on the market that are capable of doing that kind of thing, but none of them would quite combine all the different things I have in mind in the same package. My seating is going to be different. I’m going to have a staggered side by side with one guy sitting about eighteen inches behind the other guy so one guys legs would be up beside the chest of the other guy. They can both have elbowroom, but we can keep a relatively narrow profile for better aerodynamics. That’s just a dream in my life. Somebody asked me the other day, “Gardner, what’s your dream?” I said, “Man, I’m living it.” But I do have more dreams to go. I’ve got one of my machines in the Smithsonian in a very prominent display in the Museum of American History in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I have had literally hundreds of people tell me proudly they’ve seen that Gold Rush in the Smithsonian museum. A man who I admire as much as any man living in this world is Dr. Paul MacCreedy, he’s got about four different machines in the Smithsonian. The engineer of the century to me. If I could just get one of my machines in the Air and Space Museum I would really die happy! So that’s almost my final goal.
Kelvin: Tell us about the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk.
GARDNER: Well, I’ve got kind of a rare old classic muscle car. A really jazzed up version of what was considered back in the mid 50’s a very sexy designed car. The mid 50’s car started getting tailfins, so they took this really sleek car and put some gawdy tailfins on it, lots of chrome, kind of made it look like the Batmobile. I’d always admired this particular type of Studebaker. It had a really hot supercharged V-8 motor in it, a 160 mph speedometer, and that was fast back in the 50’s. I found one in the neighboring town that had been sitting in an old guys backyard for twenty-five years. Just kind of rusting away and sinking down in the dirt. The old guy bought it brand new, drove it only 58,000 miles, had a little problem with the supercharger and took it apart. The mechanic skipped town with the supercharger and the car sat. So I picked the car up for $2500. A lot for a junkie old rusty car with everything needing to be fixed on it. The motor was frozen up, the transmission was frozen, the windows were all frozen, the radiator was rotted out, I had to go through the whole car. It ate up a lot of time and sometimes I kick myself for all the time I put into it. When I was a kid, I wanted that model year. It was painted white, people saw it and said, “Gee, man, that thing looks like the Batmobile. That’s a wild looking car.” So I said, “I’m going to paint it black and really do it up Batmobile style.” Extra chrome, extra trim. I even put the Batman logo on the hubcaps. My wife got me a Batman outfit for our thirtieth anniversary and we go out to dinner. You couldn’t drive a new Ferrari or a Viper and get as much attention as that Batmobile gets.
I love the old car and the history of old cars. Some cars are a very important piece of Americana. The year 1957 (“the year the stars came from heaven” is what my mom said to me) is my favorite year. I just got the 50th anniversary issue of Motor Trend magazine. They did a study on what are the most favorite cars of the readers and what are the most favorite years. 1957 is the number one year. Someday, I’d like to open up a car museum called ’57 Heaven. Most of the cars I’ve ever owned in my life were never newer than twenty years old. I got a brand new Ford van for the company. So ’57 is my favorite year. As a kid growing up, all the cars I ever had were all ’57 for some strange reason.
When I was 17 years old I had the world’s fastest Jeep. It had a big block Corvette motor with racing Hilveron fuel injection, a very light weight two wheel drive Jeep. It looked like an army jeep but no front wheel drive. It did 0 – 130 mph in ten seconds. When I would take off the left front wheel would never touch the ground till I was over 100 mph. I was running on three wheels. I was actually doing what they call appearance drag racing. Not making a lot of money but back east, getting match races against other neat looking cars. I’d get matched up against a little Volkswagen bug that had a hot V-8 Corvette in the back seat. We had our Jeep painted up and had a machine gun on the roll bar, we called it the Rat Patrol. So cars have been a big part of my life.
Kelvin: Let’s go back to bikes for just a second. Tell us about seat design. You’ve had one corporate design for many, many years and then you’ve moved into the Kool Back choice.
GARDNER: Well the Kool Back seat kind of goes to the American’s desire for luxury and even ultimate luxury. You would think that in a bicycle, ultimate luxury and performance would be contradictory, but they’re not, really. We are sitting in a chaise lounge right now by a beautiful pool and the seat in this chaise lounge ain’t as good as most recumbent mesh sling type seats. I don’t like the looks of a lawn chair on a bicycle, I couldn’t imagine that any Harley Davidson in this whole country would put a lawn chair on his Harley. He’d be laughed out of the club. But, the people that are buying recumbents are buying them for comfort. Even though my aesthetic eye said, “That thing be big time ugly.” I had to accept the fact that for ultimate comfort I had to put a mesh back seat after many years of making a padded hard back seat onto the bike, as an option. And it’s quite popular. The mesh back seat is desired three to one over the padded seat. But performance type riders, an awful lot of them, still prefer the rigid padded back. They feel they can really push into it harder and can get more aggressive on the bike. So, I’ll get one guy that comes into the shop, “Well, I really like the way this cool mesh seat really surrounds my back and holds me in place.” And you get a racy kind of guy, “Man, I like this Cobra seat, I can move around on it.” Different strokes for different folks.
Kelvin: Any comments about the posture on your bikes and “recumbent butt”?
GARDNER: The most important thing in recumbent acceptance is going to be user friendliness. The sit in the automobile position, how people drive cars. They’ve been doing it for 100 years now and all cars have seats that sit in a very similar position. You fly an airplane and you sit in that very same position. You ride a Harley Davidson cruiser, you sit in that same position. That is the most natural sitting position for control, visibility and also makes it very easy to pedal. For user friendliness and ease of mechanical integration through the pedaling system, higher pedaling is just not as easy to get used to and is harder on the anatomy. It’s harder on the feet, on the ankles, and harder on the thighs. The only disadvantage of the what we might call the sit up bicycle, rather than way laid back or lay down type is that it does put a lot of weight right on the butt muscles. So the disadvantage of the car type seating position is it hurts some peoples butts a whole lot more than others. I’ve found that a lot of people need some individual help with the shape of the butt. There is room in this world for bikes that lean back and get weight off your butt. Also, most Americans are a little overweight. The more belly you’ve got and the higher you’ve got to lift your legs, the harder it is to pedal. A circus clown can ride a bicycle standing on his head pedaling with his hands, but if you want to sell recumbent bicycles and make them very accessible and natural feeling, the style of the Bike E, the Easy Racer, the RANS Stratus, for a lot of reasons just make a lot of people feel more at home.
Now you can learn to ride a more radical bicycle. I’ve got one that you crank with your hands and your feet and I can go like hell on it. And it’s definitely a superior bicycle than just pedaling with your feet. How many people want to learn how to pedal with all four? Not many, but it’s a better bicycle. We’ve got one old man, I use old man of someone that is sixty-three years old. But a sixty-three year old man that’s got an Easy Racer with hand and foot cranks, you may have seen it at some of the HPV things out here. Well he got into this thing so big, two years ago when I saw him he told me had put 22,000 miles in one year on that bike. Toured all over Europe pulling a trailer. Most twenty year old guys can’t keep up with him when he’s pulling a trailer on his hand and foot crank Easy Racer. You develop your upper body to the point where you’re just adding more and more. It’s like cross- country skiers are the most aerobically fit of all athletes because they use their whole body. On hills you can generate thirty percent more power. You don’t even have to shift down to a granny gear. The world is not ready for a hand cranked bike yet. There are a lot of recumbents yet to come.
Kelvin: Wrapping up……..
GARDNER: You know, it may be that a designs time just hasn’t come sometimes. The Velocar from France, their timing was bad, not their fault necessarily. World War II, things like that, and the International Cyclist Union banning their vehicle for speed. Who knows for sure, but the modern impetus was when Chester Kyle started the first speed races, that’s where all of the modern recumbents came from. The tadpole tricycle, the short wheel base recumbent with the pedals in front of the front wheel. Tim Brummer was one of the first to do that, not the absolute first. Nobody was willing to buy them until the speed race thing happened. So it’s kind of a funny thing. It all came out of the original speed championships which have been largely forgotten by a lot of the people that are now into the recumbent thing. To me racing is also very historical. I watch all forms of automobile racing, Grand Prix racing, Indy car racing, NASCAR racing. I love the Tour de France, I love racing on bicycles. I’ve sat at the velodrome maybe one hundred or more times watching Fast Freddie race on his bicycle. In a bicycle, you’ve got to be damn practical, too. There is not a bicycle in the world more practical than a Tour Easy or a Gold Rush.