HOLLISTER, California — Mike Corbin fiddles with his coffee cup as he sits in his ’50s-style diner, a bit of kitsch he added to his warehouse on the outskirts of town. This is not the Hollister you see advertised on the shirts and sweatpants worn by teenagers. It’s industrial, gritty, a little run down. But for Corbin it is heaven, a place where his dreams once came true.
And might yet again.
Corbin built this diner so customers could grab a bite after wheeling their motorcycles into his garage for a new saddle. This is what he’s famous for, what got him inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame more than a decade ago. Corbin, 68, made his name stitching custom motorcycle saddles and selling custom motorcycle parts.
But for about 10 minutes a long time ago, Corbin was famous for something else: The Sparrow, a funky, futuristic electric car that he hopes to see fly once again.
Photo: Courtesy Corbin Motors
Corbin was in the right place at the right time with the Sparrow. The place was the San Francisco Auto Show. The time was 1996. Corbin, who by this time had amassed a fortune selling motorcycle seats, showed up with the Sparrow. It was an odd little car, not unlike an Ugg on wheels. Three wheels, to be exact. It looked like something you might see in The Smurfs. Corbin was pretty sure he would be laughed out of the show. The exact opposite happened.
“We took a million dollars worth of orders,” Corbin says, smiling. The years melt from his face as he tells the story for what must be the 10,000th time. You get the impression he never grows tired of this tale.
It was the car enviros had been dreaming of. Small. Electric. Relatively affordable. So what if it could seat just one person and was ugly as hell? Those who loved it saw only the beauty of a car that didn’t burn gasoline. General Motors had just introduced the EV1, whetting greenies’ appetites for an electric car.
“It looked like the world was going to change,” well-known EV advocate Chelsea Sexton said of the mood at the time. And here was Corbin, one of the first entrepreneurs with a plan to feed them.
Corbin had done what his father had told him he should never do. He had built a car, a dream he’d chased since he was a teenager. Here was his golden opportunity. Battery electric vehicles were in their infancy. Bay Area “treehuggers” (Corbin’s word) were ready, willing and able to plunk down almost 14 grand to drive an electric bean. It was emissions-free, after all.
The window was wide open. All Corbin Motors had to do was shove some electric cars through it.
There was just one problem.
“We had no possibility of delivering a second car,” says Corbin. “We had no employees.”
Corbin Motors had no factory, no parts, no assembly line and no idea how to mass-produce cars.
Standing in his warehouse now, his voice trailing off, Corbin is obliged to continue his rags-to-riches-to-rags tale. It’s the only way to get to the latest chapter, about the rebirth, or re-hatching, if you will, of the Sparrow. He lovingly, if not ironically, calls it Sparrow 2. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
After the unexpected and overwhelming response to the Sparrow, it took Corbin another year to deliver four more cars. “We painted them all a different color to make it seem like we were a big deal,” he says.
Meanwhile, the phone was ringing. And ringing. And ringing. At one point Corbin Motors had $40 millions in orders. People were rabid to get their piece of the green dream. But Corbin couldn’t deliver.
“We bit off more apple than we could chew,” said Corbin. “We were under-capitalized from day one. Our single biggest problem was everybody loved the car, but then we didn’t give to them.”
Production slowly ramped up, and Corbin started delivering cars in 1998. They cost $13,999. Chad Wells fell in love.
“I first saw them for sale on the cover of the Gadget Universe catalog that came to my house in 1999,” said Wells, who now owns not one but two Sparrows. “I wanted to buy one.”
Buyers loved them. But problems at the factory piled up almost immediately. First and foremost was the battery technology. In a word, it sucked. A lot of people found themselves stranded on the side of the road.
Remember, this was long before lithium-ion batteries, smartphone-enabled battery management systems and public charging stations. The EV1 and Toyota RAV4 EV had only recently hit the road. Corbin was using lead-acid batteries, the same kind under the hood of your hoopty right now. They’re heavy, they don’t offer much range and they aren’t very durable in an EV application. When one battery in the pack goes down, the whole system goes haywire and you’re left with a zero-emissions paperweight.
Photo: Courtesy Corbin Motors
Mechanical issues, particularly with the motor controllers, didn’t help things any. And then there were management issues, complicated by the fact Mike Corbin wasn’t actually an officer in Corbin Motors. The way Corbin tells it, Corbin Motors was a separate entity from the motorcycle accessories company, and it licensed the Sparrow from Mike Corbin. It’s all very confusing, but suffice to say it wasn’t a good way to run a business.
“I think the fairest thing to say is they weren’t able to figure out how to take a good idea to market and make it profitable,” Corbin said. “They were in over their heads.”
Throw in an economic downturn and you can see where the story leads even before Corbin mentions the 2003 bankruptcy that finally killed Corbin Motors.
“We lost our personal wealth” said Corbin, pointing to his longtime business partner and current CEO of Corbin Motors Anthony Luzi. “We lost everything.”
All told, Corbin Motors delivered 289 cars before it all went bad. Another 75 were in various stages of completion. But even as the company was crashing and burning, people were lining up for cars. Wells finally got his first Sparrow in 2004.
“The attention was ridiculous,” he said of the reaction he got to the car. “It was almost dangerous. Then, and still now, people would do anything to get a picture of it. That includes anything from being cut off and forced to stop to having other drivers taking photos while they drive next to you, while not paying attention to the road and almost killing both of us.”
It is interesting to note the company with which ended up with the remnants of the Sparrow, Myers Motors, claims it will have a an electric three-wheeler ready for delivery this year.
Fast forward to the modern day. Selling motorcycle seats made Corbin a very wealthy man, but he remains equally proud of the Sparrow. He thinks its time has come. Again.
He isn’t entirely wrong. Electric vehicles, once on the fringe, are now, well, at least approaching mainstream with cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Tesla Motors has proven that commodity lithium-ion cells can make a damn fine battery pack. Hell — even Aptera Motors almost made a run at it with a teardrop-shaped electric three-wheeler that looked more like a Cessna than a Civic.
If they can do it, Corbin reasons, so can he.
“The Sparrow was my best idea,” he said. “And all of sudden the world is ready. What are we gonna do, let it pass us by? We have proven we can sell a three-wheel electric car, and now the technology is there.”
Corbin is serious. But not everyone sees the Sparrow flying again. And it’s hard to see who’d buy one when you can get an electric car with four doors, five seats and a warranty backed by a company that actually knows how to build cars.
“It remains to be seen whether the public is ready for a three-wheeled vehicle, let alone a one-seater,” Sexton said. “I can go get a new Mitsubishi iMiev that seats five for $19,000 after incentives. I want to root for them all, but there is a bit of a reality check involved.”
Corbin is not deterred. He hopes to have the Sparrow ready to roll by the end of the year. Never mind that he doesn’t have the final specs or even a drawing to show us, let alone a running prototype. But no matter — he’s got a website!
We’ve seen this before, of course. History is littered with the shattered dreams of automotive entrepreneurs who thought they had A Great Idea. More than a few of those entrepreneurs thought they could sell electric vehicles. Corbin knows this. Yet he insists he will succeed.
The way he sees it, he doesn’t have to start over. He just has to pick up where he left off.