It’s a bike, with a big electric motor: Auteur ‘Vibe Boosters’ are taking Europe by storm


The notion that a combination of car and bicycle is seen as cool in Europe was upended when a group of bicycle enthusiasts recruited by the French electric motorcycle company Thatcham debuted a “V-bike” at Paris’s Coppa Festa Pelate in April.

They dubbed it the Vibe Booster, modeled after a hybrid that the French sport utility vehicle brand Renault showed off several years ago. It ran on a little engine that powered the front wheels, but two battery packs rotated around the back, so the two seats could pivot away from the driver.

At the launch of the French bike, the team leader, Jean-Marie Calzat, recalled a rumor that had circulated around France about the Renault battery concept. “Many people questioned it; but as soon as I came out here, it made me laugh,” he said. “It’s the simplest car of the 21st century.”

The CEO of Thatcham, Denis Fochet, a Frenchman who moved to the company after a stint at Volvo, agreed. “In the past the most popular things at Coppa Festa were cars,” he said. “But now for a couple of years, our interests have been so strongly aligned with electric vehicles.”

On the streets of Paris, where the bike was demonstrating in April, owners were making other types of investments in electric power, he said. Most of the city’s public busses are all-electric, and people are riding bikes to work in greater numbers. They’re also buying used EVs — many originally made in Europe — which is driving up demand for parts.

Thatcham is the first to admit that the French bike may have trouble breaking through, both in France and in Europe, where pickup trucks and jeeps are typically far more popular. Not all its customers were open to the concept, Mr. Fochet said, pointing to a motorcycle magazine interview with a man who, once he was able to drive the concept vehicle, changed his mind.

“He went to the salesman,” he said, “and said, ‘Of course I bought it. But now I’m told I should buy an electric car.’”

Still, Mr. Fochet said, Thatcham’s sales in Europe are increasing steadily — even as the company’s sales in North America, and especially China, flatten.

So far, the company’s 10,000-person workforce has not been greatly affected by the switch, in part because most of its motorcycles are relatively small, with just two seats, rather than having two, three and four.

For Thatcham, too, Europe offers potentially more opportunities than obstacles, as the company is starting to expand in emerging markets, such as Turkey and the Middle East. China is by far the largest consumer of Thatcham’s motorcycles and scooters in the world. Its sales there are on the upswing, the company said, and the number of bikes it sold there in the first quarter of this year was double those in the same period last year.

Of course, Thatcham isn’t the only company on a roll in Europe. French automaker Renault recently released its NIO E2OO, a two-seater electric vehicle that is set to be the world’s cheapest Model 3, and sales of its electric sports cars — the Kogan V2 and the Mahindra Virar — are up more than fivefold.

Most European brands, too, are gearing up to bring their own electric cars to the market. In the past, Europeans’ love affair with high performance has encouraged them to stick with gas-powered cars. But, if history is any guide, that trend could be quickly reversed, as customers become increasingly open to paying a premium for vehicle offerings that offer a faster speed and a higher level of sophistication.

“We’re going to be the forerunner in terms of electric vehicles,” said Mr. Fochet. “So the Europeans have a bit of understanding as to how to set themselves up.”

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