The red and white painted kerbing strobes past my right ear and I am acutely aware of the size of the contact patches holding us at this bizarre angle. I’ve never seen Bedford’s West Circuit like this; it looks familiar on the straights but utterly alien in the corners. I am sitting in a car-like seat, my hands resting ‘casually’ on my knees, directly behind the driver (rider?) of this strange two-wheeler as it drops into the turns and takes up an angle of lean that instinct tells me is beyond 45 degrees. And because we are on two wheels and the cornering load is acting directly through the vertical axis, there is no lateral G.
This is the Peraves MonoTracer and I feel poorly prepared for it. When they cut to on-bike shots with Rossi in the MotoGP, I find myself on one elbow on my sofa, trying to see the track beyond the top corner of the TV screen, and it’s like that here from the tandem passenger seat. Cranked over in the MonoTracer, my pilot has a great view but I’m ducking to see past the roof at where we’re heading as the ground skims by the side window. There’s a magical feeling of being in tune with physics, of having gravity working with you rather than against you, as it does in a car, but what won’t go away is the thought of suddenly finding the grip diminish, through damp or oil. And not long from now, it will.
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I had arranged for someone else to sit here rather than me, not through any wimpishness but because I felt someone with current bike experience would give a more valid opinion of what the MonoTracer is and where it sits in the vehicular family tree. Technically speaking, it’s a cabin motorcycle. To me, it’s an automotive platypus; a long-wheelbase bike with car-like features, including recumbent seats, a radio and a sunroof.
We’ve had some strange vehicles arrive at Evo Towers, but the MonoTracer doesn’t just take the biscuit, it takes the barrel and the larder too. Watching it waddle into the car park, stabilisers down, then park up and flip open its side-hinged canopy was jaw dropping. In under a minute the office was like the Marie Celeste.
Its owner of two months is Ivan Diamond, 37, an evo reader. Amazingly, the MonoTracer is his company vehicle. ‘I was fed up with commuting,’ he says. ‘I was doing about 35,000 miles a year in a Volvo V70 and mentioned to my wife that I was thinking about getting a motorbike. She was dead against it. I looked at Isettas, Messerschmitts and the like but they weren’t viable, then I vaguely remembered seeing an enclosed bike on Top Gear. I found the Ecomobile website and there was a picture of the MonoTracer. I thought, “Wow…”’
The Ecomobile was the first cabin bike from Swiss company Peraves and it looks like a light aircraft that’s flown through a barn and emerged sans wings. The MonoTracer, launched three years ago, is the concept brought bang up to date. In plan view it looks slippery and sleek like a fish, and it flows through the air beautifully; the prototype tested in Volkswagen’s wind tunnel gave an astonishingly low drag coefficient of CdA 0.18, the lowest of any vehicle on sale. A Honda Insight comes in at CdA 5.1.
The most difficult part of driving a MonoTracer or Ecomobile, and the reason it takes a week or more to properly learn how to drive it, is retracting and deploying the stabilisers – you can’t put your foot down at the lights, of course. There’s a huge amount to think about, says Ivan, especially getting your head around the fact that the moment the stabilisers lift, countersteering is required to initiate each turn, just like on a motorbike.
I’m a little apprehensive climbing aboard but happier to be getting in the back than the front with its strange combination of controls. There are motorcycle handlebars and a pedal either side of the fat centre console, the left operating the clutch, the right the brakes. Gearshifting is by a switch on the left handlebar. The in-line four from the BMW K1200 motorbike is smooth and discreet and set on its side for a low centre of gravity, helping the MonoTracer achieve its extraordinary lean angles.
We trundle out of the car park, stabilisers rocking us laterally, penguin-like, and join the main road. Then a moment or two after the stabilisers have retracted with a whirr-clunk and we’ve gained some speed, there’s a moment of pure joy. Ivan jinks the MonoTracer left-right-left-right and the sensation is exquisite; it’s as if we’re slalom skiing or racing down through the curves of a water slide. Amazing.
It’s very comfortable and refined and as Ivan works at keeping rolling at junctions to avoid putting down the stabilisers, I notice we are drawing a lot of attention. On a dual carriageway, a hairy biker rolls by and I can see he’s trying hard not to look. We go different ways at a roundabout but a minute later he’s alongside again, grinning now.
I love the cornering but at the same time find it slightly disconcerting. Ivan is driving with panache now and at one big roundabout flops the MonoTracer in dramatically. It falls and falls to the chosen apex and then, just as gravity starts to tug heavily, he picks up the throttle and the MonoTracer stands itself up smoothly and heads for the exit. It’s hard to believe that Ivan’s total experience on a motorbike is just ten hours two years ago when he did an intensive four-day course to get his licence so he could get the MonoTracer.
Smaller roundabouts punctuating the road to the Bedford Autodrome are more dramatic still. At one we fall in so deeply and lean so far that I expect the half-protruding stabiliser wheel to kiss the kerb of the roundabout passing beneath my elbow. I mention this and Ivan says that if you go beyond 52 degrees the wheel will act like a bike rider’s knee…
At the Autodrome, Ivan knows we’re not after a lap time but it still feels like a pretty keen first lap. The MonoTracer has around 130bhp and feels brisk rather than quick, but the commitment in corners sinks me into my seat cushion and makes me think about those two contact patches. Around the long, slow Bank turn we’re cranked right over and I’m looking at grass close enough to run my ringers through when there’s a light scuffing sound. ‘Was that the stabiliser wheel?’ I ask. ‘No,’ says Ivan, ‘I think it was bodywork.’ Ah.
Next time we arrive at Bank we go into the right-hander particularly deep and at the apex the rear sits heavily. There’s a scraping noise and the rear tyre lets go. We’re sliding, then suddenly we have grip again and the MonoTracer stands up. We’re high-siding. We fall the other way, the MonoTracer hits the deck and we’re scraping along the track on the nearside flank, the sound like a needle being drawn slowly, painfully across a slowing record. And then we stop.
Ivan opens the canopy and we clamber out without a graze or a bruise. With help we pick up the MonoTracer and, once he’s gathered himself, Ivan climbs aboard again. Despite a mashed-up stabiliser wheel, he gets it going and drives it back to the pits where, calmly, he asks if we’d like to get more action photos. ‘I’d like to see what it looks like from the outside. You should have a ride, Rog,’ I deadpan to track test ed Green. ‘Yeah, all right then,’ he says and hops in clutching a video camera.
A few weeks later I catch up with Ivan and he’s chipper. ‘It’s all pristine again now. I’m using it for some long journeys and really enjoying it. It’s very relaxing. And it turns out there is a set-up for track work,’ he says, matter of factly.
It’s an intriguing and very unusual bit of kit, the MonoTracer, and in one respect in particular a very evo type of vehicle, in that the magic and joy is mostly in the corners. I reckon I’ll stick with four wheels, though.
How to drive a MonoTracer (see cockpit image in right-hand column)To drive the MonoTracer you have to cope with a strange mixture of car and bike controls. You have bike handlebars with a conventional throttle (1) and brake lever on the right, but the clutch (2) is operated by your left foot and you change gear with your left forefinger on a rocker switch (3): forward for up, back for down.
The most important control is the thumbswitch on the left handlebar, which operates the outriggers (4). Before you can even think about flicking this switch you have to get used to driving around with the outriggers down. In this mode the MonoTracer is fine if you’re just trickling along in a straight line, but as soon as you want to turn you discover that it requires a fair old wrench on the bars, and then the machine is forced to lean the ‘wrong way’ as the centrifugal force pushes it against the outside outrigger, which is a very uncomfortable feeling, especially for a biker.
Switching to riding with the outriggers up looks easy, and once you’ve got the hang of it, it is – mostly. But there’s a real knack to it, and it’s not something you can learn in five minutes. Even experienced motorcyclists require several hours of practice before they are confident raising and lowering the outriggers and turning tight figures-of-eight ‘wheels up’ in a big empty car park, and at least a further day or two before they’ll be safe out on the public highway. To help with training there’s an intermediate ‘soft mode’ for the outriggers, which allows beginners to keep the sidewheels on the ground but permits the machine to lean like a bike while the driver gets the essential feel for countersteering.
You can tell how experienced a MonoTracer driver is by how long he or she spends with the outriggers down when they move off. The real test is pulling out at T-junctions. Newbies and scaredy-cats waddle out into the main road and finally put the wheels up when they’re back in a straight line. The confident MonoTracer driver puts his outriggers up before he makes the turn. Paul Blezard
A brief history of Peraves
The Peraves Ecomobile was the brainchild of Swissair Jumbo pilot and stunt aircraft designer Arnold Wagner. His first prototype was built in 1982, and after overcoming all kinds of technical problems and several heroic battles with Swiss bureaucracy, Wagner got the first ‘Oekomobil’ street legal by 1985, complete with official exemption from wearing a crash helmet.
In May 1991 the Ecomobile – its name now anglicised for greater worldwide acceptance – achieved TUV approval in Germany, enabling it to be sold in the EU for the first time. During the ’90s production was transferred from Winterthur (near Zurich) to Brno in the Czech Republic. Air-con, CD players and hands-free mobile phone fittings became available as options, along with radios and heating as standard. By the time the last Ecomobile was built in 2005, 90 machines had been produced in all.
In early 2005 the Czech factory was very badly damaged by fire. Coincidentally, a young Swiss design student, Tobi Wuelser, had already linked up with Peraves to redesign the Ecomobile, whose shape had remained unchanged for 20 years. The restyled machine was christened MonoTracer, and the more modern looks, combined with a surprising drop in price – to 50,000 euros (pre-tax) from the 75,000 euros of the last Ecomobiles – attracted a lot of new interest. Fourteen MonoTracers have been built so far, three of which are in the UK, and there are currently orders for 14 more.