Corbin Sparrow

story by D.C. Wilson, Contributing Writer, Created Apr. 23, 2001
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"I mean if you build a personal transportation module, they will come."

Imagine Mike Corbin and his son Tom walking out into a 40-acre field of garlic late one night and hearing a voice that says, "If you build it, they will come." So the Corbins build an 83,000 square-foot concrete tilt-up building in the middle of this garlic field. But the voice whispers, "That's not it, you dummies. I mean if you build a personal transportation module, they will come."

So, inside this building the two begin constructing a three-wheeled electric vehicle that is lovable, but rather odd looking -- like something Roger Rabbit might drive in Toon Town. When the first prototype is finished, they step back and Tom says, "Mike, we have just done something totally irrational and it feels great." To which Mike replies, while squeezing his lightened wallet and looking out at the still dark, empty parking lot, "Yeah, Tom, but I'll feel a lot better when they come."

If you can imagine this scene, then you are a long way to understanding the Corbin's 1997 Sparrow personal transportation module (PMT). The 900-pound Sparrow (large for a bird, small for a vehicle) sports two wheels in front, one wheel in back, and is about the length of a Honda Valkyrie. Its monocoque construction encloses four batteries up front, where an engine might otherwise be, a solo cockpit with four more batteries under the seat, and a windowless, trunkless, skirted rear end.  

Lighting includes small diameter headlights and flush blinkers mounted under the lip of the windshield at about the height of a motorcycle headlight. A tail light/blinker light cluster at the rear is vaguely reminiscent of motorcycle tail lights and blinkers.

Step in and out of the Sparrow through the only door -- you'll find it on the driver's right side. Once inside, steer with a steering wheel. Accelerate and brake with pedals. Shift into forward or reverse with your hand. Hear no exhaust. Hear instead the wind rush over the slick skin, the clicking of electrical components engaging and disengaging, and the whir of tires on pavement.

...rather odd looking -- like something Roger Rabbit might drive in Toon Town.

Drive 60 mph for 60 minutes, then re-charge (wait 6 hours at 110 volt sockets, wait 2 hours at 220 volt sockets) and do it again. Buy no gasoline. Have no tune-ups. Check no oil. Sit in no traffic jams on freeways (because the Sparrow qualifies for the diamond lanes). What could be better? "You have built it, boys," the voice whispers, "they will come."

Though the Sparrow looks pretty hi-tech, it sports no new technology per se. BMWs Isettas, Trihawks, and T-Rexes have long proven the soundness of three-wheeled vehicles. The battery technology is not revolutionary. And GM already markets an electric that is bigger and faster than the Sparrow. Even monocoque construction has been used before, but the Sparrow blazes important trails, nonetheless. First, to my knowledge, only the Sparrow brings all this technology together in one vehicle. Second, the Sparrow is the only single seat vehicle being offered primarily as supplemental transportation for a car or a motorcycle (GM's electric seats two).

Third, the Sparrow is the first electric to be offered at a price ($12,900), that individuals on modest incomes might afford. So, the Sparrow is a nifty synergy of existing technologies bundled into a fun little commuting vehicle suitable for one individual on a tight budget and it is available now. Darned fine work, Corbins, but why call it a personal transportation module? What does that mean?

I infer the Corbins mean to say that transportation is going modular is a serious way and the Sparrow is intended as a modular component of transportation. By modular component, I mean the function of vehicles is going to become more specialized than at present; that two or more vehicles will begin to do the job for an individual that one presently does.

Step in and out of the Sparrow through the only door -- you'll find it on the driver's right side. Vehicles today tend to be designed to allow it to meet most of an individual's needs. An SUV, for example, adds four-wheel drive to the equation and, so, becomes even more of a multi-purpose vehicle. A problem with multi-purpose cars is that they may offer you more utility than you need. As a result, you get stuck paying for utility you do not consume. The problem is akin to being forced to buy a sound system with a turntable when you only plan to play CDs. Sound systems today are made modular to allow buyers to pick only the components they want. The Sparrow allows you to buy a component of transportation utility available in an SUV for less money. In this sense, then, it is a modular approach to transportation.

A professor once told me products are best understood as answers to questions. To understand whether the answer is any good, he liked to say, you have to understand if the question is any good. So what question does the Sparrow answer? I think it answers this one: "Wouldn't it be great if you could buy a really cheap, efficient, non-polluting car to commute alone in that would allow you to scoot home in the diamond lanes and get home to ride the CBR900RR you really love?

So, the Sparrow is a nifty synergy of existing technologies bundled into a fun little commuting vehicle suitable for one individual on a tight budget and it is available now.

The Corbins appear to be betting that the high and rising cost ($15,000 to $30,000 these days), high insurance, and expensive maintenance of multi-purpose vehicles may make inexpensive and cheap-to-operate PTMs quite attractive, especially when used in combination with a fun vehicle kept for non-commuting purposes. In addition to the guy or gal with a CBR900RR ill-suited to commuting, the Sparrow PTM could also be a rational choice for couples who need to buy vehicles for their high school or college-aged children to drive (the Sparrow may even reduce unwanted pregnancies among teenagers by having no place for a rumpus, but don't bet on it).

No doubt, Tom and Mike call the Sparrow a PTM to communicate some or all of the above potential to prospective buyers. But there is another more practical reason they do it. Calling the Sparrow a PTM avoids calling it a car or a motorcycle. Both monicker need to be avoided at all costs for the Sparrow to be a successful product. Calling the Sparrow a car implies it is a competitor of car company products. The Corbins could not likely survive any head to head competition with car companies.

And calling the Sparrow a motorcycle would imply it is a competitor of motorcycle manufacturers; this is bad, too. Motorcycle manufacturers could flood the market with three-wheelers in a hurry.  The primary market, at least in the beginning, must be the Corbin faithful, the tens of thousands of satisfied customers that buy Mike's seats.  What Mike and Tom probably hope to do is slip a product in between cars and motorcycles that is viewed as a transportation accessory, something you buy to go with your car or motorcycle; something that frees you up to have a more exciting car or motorcycle than would otherwise be possible.

Conventional wisdom would be that environmentally aware Boomers and GenXers would be the primary market. This conventional wisdom would be conventionally wrong. The primary market, at least in the beginning, must be the Corbin faithful, the tens of thousands of satisfied customers that buy Mike's seats. This customer base divides into at least two broadly distinguishable segments: 1.) young, single males (and some females) who own a motorcycle as primary transportation and know they need something for foul weather; and 2.) parents who ride Harleys, Goldwings, and BMWs for recreation and know they have to get wheels for their teenagers soon.

In market research jargon, both groups are brand loyal to Corbin and both lack a product like the Sparrow presently. If Tom and Mike can successfully market the Sparrow to their own customer base in the beginning, they can survive long enough to ramp up production and develop sales and maintenance systems that win and hold customers.

If they cannot, then the Sparrow may wind up as a footnote in an encyclopedia of motorcycles. The problem with motorcycles has always been the lack of an affordable vehicle to complement a motorcycle's shortcomings for commuting, particularly in foul weather. What riders need is an affordable, reliable vehicle to drive on rainy days, or on days when they have to stay clean, or on days when they just do not want to go through the rigmarole of donning helmet and leathers. Variety, even for die hard bikers, is a spice of life.  

I would much rather ride a used 900 Ninja on sunny days and a funky little Sparrow on inclement days, than a stripped Escort everyday.

Significantly, the Sparrow's price fits perfectly with a $10,000 new motorcycle. For a total of $22,900 -- not far from the average new car price today -- you can ride a new CBR900RR when it is sunny and drive a Sparrow when it is inclement. And if you are partial to used bikes, why not add $2,000 for a used 900 Ninja to the Sparrow's price and come in at only $14,900? Only a stripped Escort is cheaper in the new car market than this. And I would much rather ride a used 900 Ninja on sunny days and a funky little Sparrow on inclement days, than a stripped Escort everyday. Regardless of its Toon Town esthetics, it is fair to say the Sparrow is a serious product with profound implications for how individuals may move about in coming years.

But, in order for it to succeed one hell of a lot of things will have to go right for Tom and Mike, if the Sparrow is to fly. First, the Sparrow will have to be as fully satisfying a product as, say, Corbin's seats are. With all due respect, this is a long shot, simply because a vehicle is a lot more complicated to build and market effectively than a replacement seat. Second, the regulatory environment has to stay favorable to the Sparrow. Three-wheelers must continue to be considered as motorcycles. The cost of making the Sparrow meet impact standards of cars would probably be prohibitive.

Third, electrics made by the auto industry have to stay larger and more expensive than the Sparrow. This will probably be the case unless the car companies decide that electrics are the new world cars. If they decide to sell primarily electrics, large production volumes could drastically reduce the price of GM's electric. Also, motorcycle manufacturers cannot get into the PTM business too soon. If they do, their marketing and technological capabilities would so far exceed the Corbins that the race would be over before it started. Likely they will get in it only after the Sparrow has proven the market viable. By then, the Corbins may have established the Sparrow sufficiently to compete.

Regardless of its Toon Town esthetics, it is fair to say the Sparrow is a serious product with profound implications for how individuals may move about in coming years. The Sparrow is definitely more than Tom and Mike's middle-aged attempt to relive their youth (they experimented with electrics when they were young and set a land speed record no less).

They have built the Sparrow from some sublime inspiration.

They have tempered its execution with the experience of two men who know the harsh realities of business. They seem to understand the unusual market position of their vehicle and its unusual potential.

They have built it. Now, will we come?

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