An old buggy chassis factory in Kalamazoo's Edison neighborhood is the new home for a practical means of gas-free transportation: an electric scooter.
Electric scooters should be zipping out of the Edison neighborhood's old factories this spring.
Fulford Street was thick with unplowed snow when we met him, so Jeb Gast had to stay inside to show off his Fido scooter, and show off Fido Motors' 35,000 square feet of rustbelt factory space (1415 Fulford St.
Some of the space will be for maker events (gatherings of local tinkerers, inventors, crafters) that started in the fall. A cafe and showroom is in the works, incubator space and offices are planned, but now Gast's focus is starting an initially-modest production line producing surprisingly fast bikes.
The industrial area on the eastern edge of the east-Kalamazoo underserved neighborhood used to be dominated by the Michigan Buggy Company, which evolved from horse-drawn to horseless carriages at the start of last century.
Fido Motor's main building supplied chassis for the Buggy Company in the 1890s-1900s, Gast learned.
The other building was the Star Brass Works foundry, making brass parts for trolley machinery and tone rings for pre-'40s Gibson Mastertone banjos. A third was part of a 1941 expansion, when the foundry began making munitions for the war effort.
A global market
Gast is looking at Europe as the main market for his scooter. Bike ownership there is "staggering, 20 to one" compared with here, he says.
Especially in Italy, scooter culture bloomed after World War II. They were affordable transportation after the war. "When there's bomb craters in the road, you can drive a scooter around them," Gast says.
Maybe there's a direct connection to the munitions the foundry used to make, and scooter culture? "Maybe," Gast says with a laugh.
The Fido -- meaning "faithful" in Latin, pronounced like the dog's name, but Italians have been calling it the "FEE-do" -- is the result of Gast's work going back to 2011, when he built the first in his Seattle, Wa., scooter shop.
He built and sold modified electric Vespas in Seattle. Customizing scooters made him realize that they -- electric or gas-powered -- had major flaws.
A sexy new scooter is "fun to buy, fun to ride, but it's really not fun to own. It could be a big money pit," Gast says.
With basic white paint and utilitarian design, the Fido is not sexy on the surface. Gast wanted function, no style gewgaws. "There's no fluff," he says. "Everything has at least one purpose."
For example, the floorboard is the battery. Where most electric bikes better have an outside outlet, the Fido battery can be taken off with ease, and brought inside to charge.
Gast has dealt with "every little thing that's always irked me -- like, there isn't a scooter on earth with an adjustable seat." Large or small riders would have to get their Vespa customized, but the Fido's seat can be adjusted.
Most importantly for Gast, owners needed to be able to work on the bike themselves. With single-sided forks and tires of the same standard size, it should be easy and inexpensive to fix a flat, he says.
One can ride 40 miles on a charge, as long as one isn't riding "aggressively," he says. As far as performance goes, the Fido is no dog, and might be a little too sexy. The top speed is 45 mph, with six-and-a-half horsepower from the rear hub motor. "Doesn't sound like much, but we're at 84 foot-pounds of torque at the wheel -- it'll beat your Subaru at zero-to-thirty."
This can be a problem. "Technically, it's a motorcycle." But classification depends on the state. In Michigan, it's a moped; in other states, it's a motorcycle. Arizona, where Gast grew up learning to love scooters, requires it to be under two horsepower with a top speed of 30 mph to be considered a scooter or moped. If classified a motorcycle, the owner would need a license and helmet.
In November Gast took the Fido to the largest two-wheel vehicle trade show in the world, the EICMA in Milan, Italy
. Fido got a lot of favorable attention, with, to Gast's surprise, many companies looking to rent scooters to tourists. "We had people ready to order 30 at a time for these rental companies," Gast says.
With spare batteries, a business could keep scooters constantly rented with no charging downtime. But there are different laws all over, and companies probably don't want to put a 6.5 hp. 45 mph machine under an unlicensed and inexperienced tourist. So Gast is planning a 30 mph version, "the same bike, just tuned-down."
However it's classified, Gast wants his main Fido "fast, fun and useful. To me, driving around town at two hp., at 30 mph isn't useful."
Gast's target retail price for the bike is $5,500. "The bike's done, I've got it the way I wanted." Now to finish paperwork, finalize funding, and start the production line. "We ordered a bunch of parts, so we'll start making bikes here next month," he says. "We want to have a few bikes ready for spring."
Gast left Seattle in 2012. He and his wife Krystal Gast (Fido business manager) wanted to live in a smaller town. Due to having a kindergarten-aged child, they chose Kalamazoo thanks to the Promise. Friends who came out of Kalamazoo's moped culture (Gast first took Fido to The Reality Factory, a Northside business incubator run by 1977 Moped's Daniel Kastner), and the town's large amount of cheap industrial space also attracted them.
His company is "pretty lean" at the moment, with a staff of two part-time employees. Once they finalize more funding, they'll hire more people to assemble Fidos, reaching an initial rate of 10 bikes a month by the end of the year. Fido will "grow from there," he says. "I want to be sustainable, but keep a momentum going."
At the moment, Fido Motors is a cavernous unheated space, mostly empty except for the air of anticipation, and one room with the final Fido model on a stand, and a couple test models that Gast has put over a thousand miles on.
He inherited a lot of odd artifacts with the old buildings: An abandoned show-quality 1964 Buick Le Sabre with purple paint and crushed velvet purple interior. A huge insulated cooler that was used to store raisins while they rested between train delivery and the trucks that took them to Battle Creek cereal boxes. A locker room and showers for foundry workers.
An electric bike that could be a practical means of gas-free transportation would be a step into a new century for the old buggy chassis factory. But Gast doesn't display any attitude of futurism or planet-saving.
"I think the bike will be fun enough, and awesome enough, that we won't be selling an electric scooter -- we'll be selling a scooter," he says. There are some electric bike companies who're "selling the electric idea, saving the planet and all that stuff. We're just trying to sell people a fun bike."
His dream is "really, to build this bike that I want. Also, to build this company that I want."
"I see a lot of these larger companies taking advantage of the average guy. I want to bring back the idea that the average guy can work on his own bike, understand his own bike. If he runs over a nail, he can patch it for free, or buy a $7 inner-tube. Where he doesn't have to go to his scooter boutique, have his scooter towed there -- I just want to make it fun in every aspect of owning a bike. So it's fun to ride, it's fun to own, it's fun to just have."
Mark Wedel has been a freelance writer in Kalamazoo since 1992.