Fifteen minutes out of Ōhope, heading east, you turn off onto a gravel road, pass some run down stockyards and ramshackle sheds, and there you are – the home of the future of two-wheeled transport. The not so secret location belongs to Anthony Clyde and family, and it is from here that the multi-talented Mr Clyde is changing the way people get from A to B and helping put New Zealand on the map for alternative transport.
Together with partner Darryl Neal he is instrumental in several companies that are bringing electric bikes to a much wider audience, whether as commuter transport – under the brand Smartmotion – or farm work horses carrying the UBCO name.
If the suitably Thunderbirds location seems an unlikely spot for such an undertaking, then Anthony seems an unlikely figure to be leading it. Striding across the grass in jandals and shades, with an outstretched hand and welcoming grin, he looks more like an off-duty musician or reclusive writer than an engineering boffin. But that may be because he was – and still is – a musician and writer, as well as an artist and film maker, and the revolution springing out from this little piece of the Bay of Plenty is not about hi-tech research labs and computer modelling, its about creativity scribbled on scraps of paper and hewn by hand in the shed. And even a cursory wander around the grounds will show that this is a very creative environment. An outbuilding houses a homemade studio and performance space, while a container converted into an office is also home to product sketches, equipment and partner Tamzin’s artwork. Currently represented by three galleries in Ōhope and Auckland, she is rightly undaunted by Anthony’s numerous skills, as in addition to her success as an artist she is – as she points out – a much better swimmer than him. So there.
Anthony started off studying product development technology at University, but the real world beckoned and he dropped out after a year and a half and did the Kiwi OE thing to India where he started a jewellery company that kept him occupied for nearly a decade. Living back in New Zealand in an eco-village in Kaiwaka he took up art, wrote a novel and created the award-winning short film Water that went all the way to the Sundance Film Festival.
And then, in 2006 he had a dream. Literally. “Yeah, I had this dream about building an ‘ebike’ and when I woke up I thought this was such a cool idea, and of course immediately went online and searched it and saw there were millions of hits and realized that it had been done! But I kept looking through and saw that it hadn’t been done in New Zealand.” Having a bit of a domain name purchasing addiction – a relatively harmless addiction as addictions go – he scooped up www.electricbikes.co.nz and suddenly things started evolving pretty quickly. “I started out importing bikes and then got involved in helping to improve those bikes, and that is how I made a lot of connections that have developed into long term friendships.”
“I’d designed a conversion kit that allowed you to convert a normal bike into an electric one with a dock and battery pack. I shaped it up out of a couple of bits of 4×4 on a bench saw – which looking back was really dangerous! That was my first presentation to those suppliers and how I got involved in the development side, and though that never really went anywhere it made me realise I wanted to do my own brand. A good friend over in China who’d worked in the industry got together with me and we started out using generic components and adding a drive system. And that was how Smartmotion was born in 2012.”
Since then Anthony has steadily stepped back from the importing side of the business and together with business partner Neal has been focusing on what they thought was most needed, an electric semi-cargo utility bike. “We had all the ideas scribbled on bits of paper and we wanted to get it to Mystery Creek, but I thought Mystery Creek was in October when it is in July – so we had six weeks to build this thing! It was like some bizarre reality show, racing to get it built and heat tempered in a giant oven, but we did it and ended up winning two of the three main awards.”
Though still in startup phase, the company has attracted immense attention and this has given them the resources to develop new markets – as well as create new ones. “Smartmotion is all about the bicycle as transport, as opposed to the bicycle as sport,” Anthony says. “Places like Europe and Japan embrace the bicycle as transport, and we used to here in New Zealand but we lost that about 30-40 years ago. In places like Auckland where traffic is going to be diabolical for 20 years, electric bikes can be a real solution.”
The UBCO 2X2 electric motorbike is a little different. “We could see that electric motors have high torque and solid acceleration and that made them ideal for dairy farmers and agricultural and horticultural applications. We’ll also be producing a road legal version, and we think that will be the one that really takes off.”
Like electric cars, electrically powered bikes seem to be finally finding traction as their technology finally finds favour with consumers. Sales have leapt in New Zealand in the last 12 months, and it seems only a matter of time before they find they have shifted from a niche market to mainstream acceptance.
On a sunny day in the outskirts of Ōhope watching Anthony Clyde zip silently around his backyard on an electric bike, one can only wonder why it took us so long.
Words and images by Andy Taylor – Plenty Magazine