Mike Corbin



Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
1972 Bonneville Mike Corbin USA Quicksilver E   101mph  
1974 Bonneville Mike Corbin USA Quicksilver E   161.387mph  


Mike Corbin on Quicksilver, the motorcycle that held the electric land speed title for 38 years

Climbing a power pole with five sets of jumper leads, a young Mike Corbin tapped into mains power to charge up his electric bike for a Bonneville run. Powered by silver "borrowed" from a US Navy vault, Quicksilver went on to set a land speed record that stood for an amazing 38 years. Here's his story.

Mike Corbin is best known for looking after the fundament of long-range bikers. Corbin seats are the Rolls-Royce of aftermarket motorcycle saddles, and his constantly humming factory in Hollister, California, is a genuinely impressive spectacle producing parts of rare quality. But back in the 70s, Corbin was pioneering electric motorcycling in the United States.

An ex-electrician in the Navy, Corbin rigged himself up a battery powered minibike in the early 70s, and then went on to build an electric streetbike before stamping his name in the pages of history with an electric land speed record that would go on to stand for an astonishing 38 years, even as technology evolved around him. As you might imagine, it was pretty hairy business trying to work with fledgeling electric drive technology back in the 70s – so Mike has a heck of a tale to tell.

"Electric" Terry Hirshner and I caught up with Mike at the Corbin factory, where he told us some hair-raising tales about the wild early days of electric motorcycling. We'll let Mike take it from here in his own words.

An electric vehicle pioneer

Yeah, well, we started in the early 70s with the idea that we wanted to make electric powered motorcycles. So we made a street bike, called City Bike, and it had three lead acid cell batteries, and it was 36 volts. It'd go 30/40 – 30 mph (48 km/h) for 40 miles (64 km).

But people said "electric vehicles are too slow" - so we thought, why don't we go to Bonneville, and build an electric bike for that, and show people that electric vehicles can go fast.

So we built the bike, and it ran on lead acid cell batteries, and we went to Bonneville in 1973. We were the first electric motorcycle ever to run at Bonneville. We went 101 mph (163 km/h) round trip average, that made us the fastest guys in the world on electricity.

The following year, we got sponsored by Yardney Electric out in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. They made batteries for nuclear powered submarines and their chemistry was silver/zinc, and that was the highest energy battery you could get in those days, about five times better than the lead acid ones.

So we made a new bike called Quicksilver and used starter motors from A4B fighter planes, because they had lightweight cases – 120 volts DC. We went to Bonneville and we got a land speed record of 165.387 mph (266.164 km/h) round trip average. We had a trap speed one day of 191 mph (307 km/h), and we had another trap speed of 201 mph (323 km/h), but the wire was broken that day. In those days, the timing lights had a wire between them.

We had that land speed record for a lot of years… 38 years. And then Lightning took a new record in 2012. They call ours a robust record. It was one of the longest standing records ever. And a lot of attempts were made on that record, there must have been 15 motorcycles over the years that would come out and try to take our record. I came out to watch two or three of them. I can look at a bike and tell you how fast it'll go – and they all did everything wrong.

When Lightning came along, they had the battery chemistry down. Plus, what you have now is the AC controllers, those and the AC motors are just unbelievable. You have such amazing equipment now that it's almost unlimited what we're going to be able to do with electric vehicles.

But in those days, it had to be DC if it wasn't gonna have a wire on it. DC electricity itself limits you a great deal. Everything's heavier and high amperage.

Quicksilver's crazy stepped voltage controller: a throttle that couldn't be shut off

So the A4B DC starter motors… We bought a full pallet of them from the Navy surplus, because they used to burn up. You'd get going like hell, and they'd overheat and solder would come out of the commutators. And these copper bars would fly out into the motor, and you'd have to throw the whole thing away. So I had a bunch of those, I think I've still got some out in my warehouse.

And I had the battery, the battery was good, the only problem was we had to find a way to charge it. The controller was the hard part. We didn't have any way to rheostat that much amperage. So what we did was make a stepped voltage controller with magnetic contactors.

So it'd start at 12 volts, then you'd switch to 24 volts, then you'd go to 120. If you put the 120 volts on immediately, the wheel would just spin and dig a hole right in the salt.

So we had a flying start, we'd tow the bike up to anywhere between 40 and 60 mph (64 and 97 km/h) with a car, then I had an ejection rope, you'd spring load this thing and it'd fall in the salt, and I'd go around the car and start accelerating.

The hard part was, with these magnetic contactors, they'd go in pretty quick, but they open slowly, they open on springs. The problem with the bike was that at 120 volts and 1,200 amps DC, there's no way you can open the contactors. They'd just flash, and you'd have continuity, there'd be plasma, the thing would weld itself together and there'd be no way to shut the bike off. You'd be going to Taiwan. You're going right over the freeway, you're going to hell in a handbasket, that's where you're going.

So I invented this kill switch, which was a big copper knife bar, 2.5 inches wide, 5/16ths of an inch thick, it was just like a knife switch. I had a spring on it and a bungee cord, and a little compression release lever on my right finger that'd open it. Then I put a big fuse in parallel with it so as soon as it broke contact, the fuse blew. It couldn't arc, the current went through the fuse first. And by the time the fuse heated up and blew, it'd be too far away to arc flash. That was my big invention.

The funny thing about it is, they took the bike to the Indian museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. They said "we wanna recover some Corbin stuff and have it in the museum, because you're kinda local in motorcycling." So we had one of our streetbikes in there, and they had Quicksilver in there.

Some guys that worked at the museum there went and stole that knife switch, because it had so much copper in it. It's gone, it's been gone since the 70s. I don't even have any good pictures of it. I remember it was a 300 volt fuse, 450 amps AC.

So some guys would go to the Springfield museum and try to look at the bike to figure out how the heck we did this. They'd go there and the knife switch wasn't there. Neither was the controller, those guys stole the whole controller too. Nobody could ever figure out how the whole system worked.

"Borrowing" battery silver from the US Navy

There was a great story about the batteries too. There was this guy, his name was Dr. Petrocelli, he was a naval engineer. He'd been a big shot in the Navy and he was the CEO out at Yardney Electric, who made those batteries for the nuclear subs.

I got along great with him, because I'd been an electrician in the Navy. So he says "well, it's $100,000 for the battery." And I said "well I don't have no hundred thousand dollars for a battery." He says "well, it's really worth it, because there's a hundred thousand dollars worth of silver in it." And I go "well yeah, I understand that, but I don't have a hundred thousand dollars for a battery. You're the sponsor, that's your problem."

So the Navy had a big vault in their building that was full of silver. The silver actually belonged to the US Navy. We took the silver out of the vault, and built the batteries for Quicksilver. We took it to Bonneville, Yardney sent an engineer and a marketing guy with me. We got the land speed record, we came home, we recycled the batteries, we put about 99 percent of the silver right back in the vault, and the Navy never knew it!

Hopefully enough time has gone by that they probably won't prosecute me and send me to Leavenworth! That's where all the military criminals go, you know…

But that's how it was in the 70s, that's what electric vehicles were all about. I was the first guy ever to ride a motorcycle with a battery other than a lead acid cell. I was the first guy ever to have an electric motorcycle that was registered with a license plate on it, that was in '72.

We didn't have the technology that you have today, but I used to be a flat tracker and a Jack Pine Rider, so I did a lot of riding.

Charging Quicksilver: six jumper cables, a power pole and a pool full of idiots

So we need 220 volts AC for the battery charger. I get my wife on the phone with this little hotel in Wendover, Utah – that's near where Bonneville is. I says "OK, Jane, don't let the cat out of the bag. Call them up, make sure they have a washer and a dryer." And I'm visualizing that I'm gonna have 220 with 30 amps, at least.

She calls them up and they say "don't worry, we've got a full laundry." So I'm telling the Yardney guys "yeah, we're gonna charge the battery off their 220 volt dryer socket." But we get there and what have they got? A 110 volt dryer. Seriously, you couldn't dry two handkerchiefs in that thing. So now we've got no 220 plug.

Well, we needed 220 volts, and there's only one place we could get it! I'm looking up at the power pole… I used to work as an electrician, wiring houses out in Connecticut. So I knew exactly what I was looking at. But we didn't have any wire! I mean you can't go up there with a lamp wire, it's not big enough. But jumper cables…

So my mechanic has to drive to Salt Lake City, 100 miles, to buy five or six pairs of jumper cables. We link 'em all together.

And the hotel had this little funky office, with a little old lady in there, and the telephone pole was right in front of her office. So I told my guys – they had this little crummy fiberglass pool – I told my guys to go out there and start splashing around and throwing beer cans around and stuff so she's watching you while I'm climbing the pole.

So they do, and she's running out there, hands on hips, saying "we have other guests, you know!" And I climb the telephone pole, and I clamp the battery cables onto the 220 cable. And they're all laid all over the ground and we put 'em on the battery charger. I think it might only have been 205 volts, because the charger was groaning away…

But it did the job! Yeah, we had a lot of fun. And that's how we did the first motorcycle land speed record!

See Mike's work at Corbin Saddles. Thanks to "Electric" Terry Hirshner and Dezso Molnar.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, where Mike shows us his next great gamble in the electric vehicle business.

Source: Quicksilver at the Corbin Factory(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats), New Atlas 01/12/2016


Mike Corbin sets the electric land speed record of 161.387 mph round trip, with trap speeds over 201 mph, in 1974 – that record lasted until Richard Hatfield's Lightning LS218 finally beat it in 2012.(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin shows off his timing slip, 1974(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin's official land speed record - one of an extremely small number to stand the test of time, lasting 38 years(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Quicksilver at the Small Wonders microcar museum, 2009(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Working on Quicksilver at the salt flats, 1974(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin and Quicksilver leave the Bonneville starting line, 1974(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
The team prepares to launch Quicksilver, 1974(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
1975 Corbin catalogue featured Quicksilver on the cover(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike's very first electric bike(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin and his electric street bike, 1975(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Corbin's electric street bike at the summit of Mt. Washington(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Corbin's electric street bike outside the Corbin factory in Connecticut, 1975(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Corbin's electric conversion kit for VW beetles, back in 1975(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin's electric street bike in 1976(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Recharging using wind power at Mt. Washington(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Charging an early eBike from the motorhome generator(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Quicksilver at the Corbin Factory(Credit: Corbin Motorcycle Seats)
Mike Corbin is an inventor and the founder of Corbin Pacific, one of the world’s largest motorcycle seat and accessory manufacturers. Corbin’s companies have also developed other product lines, including fitness equipment, furniture, electric-powered vehicles and the “Corbin’s Ride On” television show, which debuted in 2001. 

Corbin was born in 1943 in Gardner, Mass. As a young man, he was interested in all things mechanical. He worked with his uncle repairing bowling alley pinsetters and pinball machines, and won first-place in his high school science fair with a servo-motor and memory circuit–driven robot. His first motorcycle was a broken Lambretta scooter that he bought for $25 and repaired. 

After high school, Corbin joined the Navy and worked diligently while training as a ship’s electrician. During his training he arranged to buy a 1959 Triumph Bonneville, which was waiting for him when he returned home on leave. Upon completing electrician school, he was assigned to the San Francisco-based aircraft carrier USS Ranger. He rode the Triumph across the country and reported for duty.  

Corbin’s knowledge of electricity grew as he worked aboard the Ranger, which traveled throughout the Pacific. After completing his Navy tour in 1964, he returned home to Gardner and found electrical work in a nearby paper mill, and then at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.  

Pratt & Whitney built jet engines for the Vietnam War effort, and the demand for good electricians to service the factory allowed Corbin to start his own electrical subcontracting company, Camtron, Ltd. The company serviced heavy equipment for a variety of New England defense contractors. But as public opinion started to turn against the war in the late 1960s, Corbin realized that his electrical business would dry up when the war ended.  

About this time, Corbin began customizing a 1964 Norton Atlas. He had seen custom choppers in California during his tour with the Navy and wanted one of his own. He removed and remade various parts of the bike. Unhappy with the comfort and look of the seat, he reshaped and recovered it with the help of a neighbor who had an industrial sewing machine. While attending a rally, another Norton rider offered Corbin $40 for his custom seat. He sold it, then went home and began work on another. 

Soon friends were asking Corbin to build seats for them. A Harley-Davidson dealer in nearby Hartford, Conn., saw one of the seats and contacted Corbin. The dealer ordered five at $25 each and sold them all in one weekend. He then ordered 10 more.  

At that time, Corbin was trying to balance his electrical service business with making seats as a sideline hobby. In 1968, he decided to focus solely on making seats. He rented a small shop in East Hartford, Conn., and asked some of his electrical subcontracting employees to join him in the new business, which he named Corbin Manufacturing. 

"Corbin [Manufacturing] turned into a full time business in 1968, the year of the Honda 750 K bike and the year before the Easy Rider movie came out," Corbin said. "Probably the best possible time ever to enter our beloved motorcycle industry. I wasn`t market-smart enough to have planned this timely entry, but I worked hard to hold on to the tiger`s tail." 

In 1970, Corbin learned that branding was an important part of his new business. He renamed the company Corbin Gentry, after Southern singer Bobbie Gentry, to give the company name a more rebellious ring and national appeal. By 1971 the company was selling a large line of seats and accessories, including handlebars and frames for virtually every American, Japanese, and British motorcycle. 

The company continued to grow and moved into a 1,200-square-foot building in Ellington, Conn. By 1974 the company had outgrown that facility and moved into a 225,000-square-foot former woolen mill in Somersville, Conn. It was now selling a wide range of parts, including fuel tanks and fiberglass fender kits. Corbin sold directly to dealers and consumers through catalogs and warehouse locations in Dallas and San Francisco.  

The energy crisis of 1974 led Corbin to return to his electrician roots. He began to experiment with electric motorcycles, and built a bike that set a land speed record of 165.387 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1975, he built a Yardney battery-powered street prototype that climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, and then developed the "City Bike," an electric bike available to consumers. He also developed electric conversion kits for the VW Beetle. 

In the late 1970s, Corbin Gentry was split into East and West Coast divisions, and the eastern operations were sold. Mike retained ownership of the West Coast operations, which were renamed Corbin Pacific. He turned his attention to the physical fitness market and began working with Don Schoeck to design bodybuilding machines. Soon after, they patented and produced several lifting and rowing machines.  

The early 1980s saw Corbin continue to develop quality bodybuilding equipment, endorsed by professionals such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the same time, motorcycle seat sales soared with the creation of the "Gunfighter" model, an innovative rumble seat. The company expanded again in 1989, setting up a new factory in Castroville, Calif.  

During the 1990s, Corbin Pacific experienced even more growth. Distribution expanded to Europe, and a showroom was opened in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saddlebags and boots were added to the product lineup. The company moved into an 80,000-plus-square-foot facility in Hollister, Calif., and Corbin Pacific became a major sponsor and organizer of the 50th Anniversary Hollister Motorcycle Rally.  

In 1996, Mike and his son, Tom, began to develop the Sparrow—a single-seat, enclosed electric vehicle that would be registered as a motorcycle. The new company, Corbin Motors, also developed a V-Twin powered three-wheel vehicle named the Merlin. Unfortunately, due to large development costs and the downturn of the U.S. economy, Corbin Motors was forced to file bankruptcy in 2003. 

"Electric vehicles have always been central in my career," Corbin said. “Sparrow was my best product ever, but with the poorest business plan.”  

Corbin then enrolled in the Owners and Managers course at Harvard. 

"Business is a word using many esses, because business keeps twisting and turning. I had a very difficult time becoming a 'business' guy, which I needed to do in order to be sustainable," he said.  

Corbin and his companies have been awarded over 70 mechanical patents, trademarks and copyrights. 

"I guess the focus has been the sheer joy of serving motorcycle riders through product invention and development," he said. 

Corbin was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000