The Corbin Sparrow
The Corbin Sparrow was an electric urban commuter car that, for a brief moment at the turn of the century, threatened to transform the way America took to the road.
The driving force behind the Sparrow was Mike Corbin, a man who took a circuitous path to building automobiles. From an early aptitude in electrical engineering (winning his Gardner, Mass high school science fair with a robot that was powered by a memory board and servo-motor) to the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger out of San Francisco as an electrician. After his tour ended, it was back to New England where he worked as an electrical subcontractor on Pratt & Whitney’s military jet engine business. It was the height of the Vietnam War and business was good. Corbin’s career seemed set. But as the 60s progressed and the war lost support, the writing on the wall regarding the defense business grew clear. He was prepared.
Corbin had a passion for customizing motorcycles. In his spare time, he began making custom seats and selling them at local meets. Word spread of his excellent work. By 1968, Corbin had abandoned electrical contracting altogether, and was crafting custom motorcycle parts full time. By 1971 his company, Corbin Gentry, was producing seats, frames, fuel tanks and handlebars for most every American, British and Japanese bike on the market.
It was the 1974 oil crisis that recharged the juice to Corbin’s circuit boards. At a time when electric vehicles were still the crazy dream of wild haired scientists at obscure environmental conferences, Mike Corbin was at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Nevada, setting the land speed record for an electric powered vehicle. He topped 171 MPH in the Quicksilver, a motorcycle of his own design. The record stood for 38 years.
Corbin’s motorcycle accessory business kept growing though the Seventies and Eighties. Operations expanded to California. It was here that he would soon be swept up in the tech craze of the 1990s. In late 1996, Mike Corbin showed his concept electric commuter car, the Sparrow PTM (Personal Transit Module), at the San Francisco auto show. The one passenger, one door Sparrow featured a 20Kw motor. It could be fully charged in 6hrs from a standard 110-outlet (2.5hrs on a 220) Range was 25-50 miles with a top speed of 75-80 MPH. Operating costs were as low as 1 cent/mile, according to marketing materials. Sparrows required only a motorcycle license to operate, and could be insured at lower motorcycle rates. But because of the fully enclosed body, divers were not required to wear a helmet.
Even though the car itself looked a lot like a helmet, during the week long San Francisco show Corbin took in over $1 million in deposits on the Sparrow. Interest was far greater than he had expected, seeing as at the time he had one car, no factory and no employees. But those were minor details, and a fresh $1 million of capital could solve quite a few of them.
But not all of them. Although production at Corbin’s Hollister, California plant started in 1998, it wasn’t until late 1999 before it was producing cars deemed fit for customers. Even then it was looking like Corbin had bitten off more than he could chew.
Problem number one was period technology. There were no lithium batteries in late 90s. The Sparrow used a rack of thirteen 12-volt lead acid batteries wired together and weighing in at nearly 600lbs (out of total vehicle weight of 1350lbs) This system was proving unreliable in EV use. When just one of the 13 batteries failed the whole system shut down - sort of like the old fashioned Christmas lights we remember our dads cursing at in frustration. Even when the batteries worked the motor controllers often did not. It was not an uncommon experience for Sparrow owners to find themselves standing by the side of the road next to an immobile car.
They sure were cute, though. The Sparrow’s body was made of layered composite plastic - which gave it a strong resemblance to one of the rubber rain boots my daughter got for Christmas when she was 3. The Sparrow came in a choice of 12 vibrant colors. Parking a bunch of them together made you think someone spilled a jar of giant jellybeans. Maybe not all that giant – each Sparrow was just 4 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 8 feet long.
The Sparrows did make a migration to Hollywood. In 2002’s Goldmember, the second of the Austin Powers comedy spy movie satires starring Mike Myers (or was it the third, one loses count) A futuristic villain of the same name dives a customized Sparrow with large golden member grafted onto its rear end. The Sparrow was well cast. It already looked a bit like a technocolor nut sack.
Fame can be fleeting. Like so many other startups in the heat of the dot.com era, Corbin proved to be much better at conceptualizing and promoting, than actually building something that could be sold at a profit. When the tech bubble burst, investment dried up. Corbin Motors soldiered on for a short time, managing to build 289 Sparrows before filing for bankruptcy in early 2003.
But like the Austin Powers movie, the Sparrow would have a sequel or two in it. The first aired after the Ohio-based Myers Motors (no relation to Mike) bought the rights to the car. With modifications to fix the original’s many glitches, the Sparrow was back in 2006 and renamed the Myers NMG-1 (No More Gas) Thirty NMG-1s were built before Myers went belly up. Then in 2015, ElectraMaccanica of Vancouver, BC built a new and improved Sparrow, but the plan was scuttled after producing just one prototype. Few folks - other than futuristic villains - seem to be interested in taking to the road all by themselves in a 1-seat personal transit module.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson