To Czecho by Eco

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(Paul Blezard Re-acquaints himself with the joys of driving the fully enclosed Ecomobile ‘kabinenmotorrad’).

I thought I should write something about my first Eco drive for eleven years, so here goes. It was actually quite a long drive, since I clocked up a couple of thousand miles or so driving Eco No.4 all the way from the Peraves HQ in Winterthur (near Zurich) to and from South East Czechia for the Ecomobile World Cup at the Brno Grand Prix circuit.

Eco Number 4 is the oldest surviving machine in the fleet, and dates back to early 1988 – it was one of the four machines featured in the BBC Top Gear story that I filmed in Winterthur in March of that year. After having a quick half hour’s ‘refresher course’ with Eco founder Arnold Wagner’s eldest son Felix, I set off in an Eco convoy for Czecho with Franziska Wagner leading in her own Eco and Tom Mohn, one of only two American Eco-owners, driving Eco No.86. Arnold Wagner himself took over from his wife Franziska at lunchtime, but we lost him on the Autobahn when Tom had to make an urgent stop for a call of nature! We then met up with Arnold’s youngest son Urs Wagner who was driving his sleek turbo Mono Eco in convoy with his girlfriend in their car, complete with their new infant, and had stopped at an autobahn rest area. Like Arnold Wagner himself, and many of the early Eco owners, Urs and his brother Felix are both airline pilots. (Their ‘day job’ is piloting Airbuses with the re-born Swiss Airlines).

One Eco owner and former airline pilot, Charly Sagne, is now on his third Ecomobile after 15 years of ownership. We stopped for the night near Landshut, about an hour east of Munich, and continued on to Brno the next day, driving mostly on country roads and arrived at the Brno Holiday Inn on Sunday evening. It peed with rain for the first day and a half at the GP track, which concentrated the mind very well indeed….It is amazing how far over you can lean an Eco in the wet on their Metzeler tyres; you can also drift them with a confidence that I would not have had on a conventional machine. The green and white No.4 machine has now done about 250,000kms (It’s on its second engine) and it felt just like the old blue-and-white No.2 in which I learnt to drive was back in ‘88. However it has had some modern up-grades; the gearchange is now push-button, (as with all Ecos nowadays) and the braking system has been changed to be all integral, with the foot pedal operating all three discs instead of just one of the two front discs and the rear as it used to be. (There’s still a right hand brake operating both front discs separately). It has also had the ‘soft mode’ option added for the outrigger wheels, although I never actually tried it. For me, the brakes were the least satisfactory part of the machine; they actually worked OK once the rear pads had been changed, but lacked feel. I gave myself the biggest fright of the week on Monday afternoon when I locked the back wheel in the wet at the end of the second straight, and had the whole machine sideways for a second or two. Took me a while to get my confidence back after that….Keen to err on the side of caution I was never quite as ‘gung ho’ as I was at Brno back in ’94 on the black monogabel (single sided front fork) machine, or at Most in ’91 on the old blue machine, when I was grounding the outriggers in every corner.

Fortunately the rain stopped on Tuesday afternoon and the track was nearly dry by the end of the day. It returned briefly on Wednesday lunchtime just long enough to make the track really wet again and provide some buttock-clenching moments. Fortunately the circuit was never wet again. I had some laps in the No.86 machine, an immaculate K1200-powered Eco with all the latest bells and whistles. It felt much more stable and powerful than No.4 (130bhp instead of 90bhp makes a difference, especially on the uphill climb) and also had more reassuring brakes. It did feel slightly heavier though when flicking left and right, possibly due to the extra weight of the air-con mechanism in the back. (Interesting how you can feel the difference, even when a lightweight Eco weighs over 400kgs dry, and fully fuelled they weigh nearly half a tonne – and that’s before you add either driver or passenger)!

I also did some laps in No.86 with Tom Mohn as passenger shooting his own video – I think Tom spent at least as much time videoing as he did driving. Tom is extremely unusual in that he had never ridden a motorcycle before he learnt to ride an Ecomobile – he only took his test afterwards in order to get his Philadelphia motorcycle licence so that he could legally drive the Eco he’d already bought! He’s now done about 40,000 miles in his Eco in three years, and uses it several times a week, particularly for golf outings. He’s not afraid to ride it fast in a straight-ish line, but his lack of bike experience did show on country roads and in the wet. (Dentistry is his main job, but he only works three days a week. Tom gets his Eco serviced by fellow Eco owner Dan Whitfield, in York, Pa. and together they are the official US Eco importers). Amazingly, a second non-motorcyclist made her debut in an Eco during the course of the week. Twenty three year old Els van Hove is the girlfriend of the Belgian Eco importer, Steve van den Berghe, and her only prior experience on two wheels was with pushbikes, but this did include a lot of time with recumbents. Her Eco driving improved visibly, practically hour by hour, and she successfully took part in the World Cup.

On Wednesday afternoon I did a couple of 3’10” laps in the old No.4 machine with a Slovakian chap sitting in the back videoing the action, and the footage came out surprisingly well. You can clearly hear the ‘clunk’ as the front right side of the nose scrapes the ground in the uphill right-hander! That was a surprise, since it was actually on our slowing down lap! The ground clearance has actually been improved since I last drove Ecos in ‘94, by the adoption of slightly smaller tyres on the outrigger wheels and a couple of other tweaks, including the option of adding some air in the front forks. This was done when we returned to the pits.

On Wednesday evening I did a 450km round trip to Prague airport and back in the Eco, to pick up my girlfriend, Elspeth. When I hit a huge traffic jam, several miles long on the way there, I did some cheeky sneaking up the hard shoulder at about 15-20mph, but the return journey was much less congested. We did the final 200kms (125miles) non-stop in about an hour and a half!

Thursday, World Cup day, dawned dry, thank goodness and stayed that way, although the format has changed since I last took part in 1994. Back then, we all did a timed ‘dress rehearsal’ in the morning, before repeating the exercise for the ‘final’ in the afternoon. Nowadays there’s no ‘dress rehearsal’ – just the final, which consists of one warm up ‘out’ lap, two timed, flying laps and a cool-down ‘in’ lap. The cool-down lap is actually quite important since it’s possible to ‘cook’ the brake seals on the Ecos if you pull straight into the pits at the end of a fast lap.

I did my fastest laps of the week in the World Cup, which I guess is how it should be, although a conservative approach to braking, leaving plenty of safety margin, meant I was about 12 seconds a lap slower than my best in ’94, although ironically the machine I used then was actually a later model than the No.4 machine I used this year. 6’04” for the two laps is a respectable time in a 17 year old machine, although it would have been nice to squeeze under the 3 minute mark for a lap. Franziska Wagner did just that, with a best of 3’58 in the 1200 Eco, before slowing slightly with overheating problems, although she still beat me and most of the rest of the men overall. Until I see the full results I’m not sure what the best time was for a two seater, but Urs Wagner was fastest overall, as usual, in the supersleek turbo mono, lapping at bang on 5’00 for the two laps, according to my stopwatch. I asked Urs what his slimmer, lower, shorter and much lighter machine was like compared to a standard Eco. He said, ‘It’s like an R1 compared to a Harley!’. And he should know, since he set the second fastest time of the whole week on his own R1! (As usual there were several conventional bikes and cars present, which always makes for some interesting comparisons. I did a few laps on one of the new Yamaha XT660 trail bikes which actually had very similar track performance to the old Eco, although I didn’t time myself on it).

Arnold Wagner, now a sprightly 64, was only a few seconds behind his youngest son in his own, more egg-shaped Turbo Mono Eco, with a rip-snorting 210 horsepower and ceramic brakes which he has been developing himself for quite a while. He pronounced himself very happy with his drive.

In the afternoon I did a 3’08 in the 1200 machine which Elspeth filmed from the back seat. She also shot some footage on the autobahn on the way back from Prague which came out quite well. (I guess I should have a go at doing some editing since it’s all digital. I took hundreds of digital stills too). I also got to drive three other Ecos, all of which are for sale; an old but fully refurbished German-registered machine and both Czech-registered Ecos. Even old 1,000cc Ecos make Quasars look cheap – both to buy and to run. I rather like the idea of sharing one, in the same way that people share the cost of buying and running small aircraft. The costs are comparable! The cheapest I heard of was going for €24K (£17K; $27K). But the German bloke showed me the €15K bill he paid for having his machine refurbished last year – gulp! Bearing that in mind, the €40K he’s asking for it seems quite cheap. He’s planning to upgrade to a 1200….

On the Friday Elspeth and I made our way cross-country back to Prague, where we stayed in a lovely old hotel near the famous Charles Bridge. Driving an Eco in the cobbled and tram-filled streets of central Prague was a whole new experience! It’s also amazing what you can pack inside one of the things. We had my long, wheeled, holdall and Elspeth’s carry-on suitcase in the luggage compartment, (amongst many other things, including the video); my shoulder bag fitted under her right leg, my large camera went under my seat and my lap top and jacket fitted between my knees!

After taking Elspeth back to Prague Airport on Saturday afternoon I drove on to see some old friends near Munich, on a nice mixture of country roads and autobahn, during which I hit a GPS-checked 135mph, the fastest I’ve ever been in an Eco, and it was all entirely legal, which made a nice change to our 70mph limit in the UK. It’s extraordinary how even an old Eco like No.4 gets more stable the faster you go; at 90-100mph it can move about quite a bit in the turbulence from certain vehicles; above 120mph it seems to be rock-steady. (Car transporters seem to be the worst for creating turbulence, I noticed).

I was glad I was in an Eco and not on a conventional bike for Sunday’s ride back to Zurich airport from Munich. It poured with rain most of the way, and continued right until the moment we took off. The contrast landing in London could not have been greater – a beautiful summer evening. My trusty Burger King 650 was waiting for me at Heathrow and whisked me the 30 miles down to Elspeth’s place in Godalming in no time. The automatic superscooter was certainly a lot easier to drive than an Eco, but it wouldn’t have been quite so pleasant if it had been raining the way it was in Germany and Switzerland. All in all, it was a wonderful week, and I’m really glad I made the effort. Huge thanks to Arnold Wagner, and the whole Wagner family and Ecomobile team and other Eco drivers, for their help and hospitality. We really should try to get a few more Brits to take part next year, assuming that the event takes place. Start saving now!

PS I had lots of discussions with Arnold Wagner about a whole variety of things, from alternative front ends to high sides and car seats, and will pass on some of his pearls of wisdom in due course.
PPS I shall be watching this weekend’s MotoGP race at Brno with extra interest! I’m particularly keen to watch Signor Rossi’s lines around the downhill multi-apex series of corners known as the ‘Omega’.
© Paul Blezard 2005