Breakfast with CGR - 2003
Posted by Bruemmer on 2010.11.24 21:21
Breakfast with Carl Georg Rasmussen
During a business trip to Europe, Bruce Bruemmer took a side trip to Copenhagen to visit Carl George Rasmussen, designer and producer of the Leitra, and to test ride this classic velomobile. During a tasty Danish breakfast in the Leitra factory, Bruce interviewed Carl Georg for RCN.
BB: Tell me what you were doing before you started making tricycles.
CGR: Of course, Iíve had a bicycle since I was three years old. As all young people I had been using a racing bike for many years, but I had problems with neck and wrists. When I was on tours, the vibration from the road was not good for me so I had to look for another solution. So I made a recumbent.
BB: That was when?
CGR: It was a Swedish design right after the second World War. I used it for a couple of years, but then I got involved in other things. I bought a Volvo and I was working with industry and had no time to go biking anymore. I was also interested in flying, and it took more and more of my time between the fifties and sixties. I had been building aircraft, mainly gliders, for some years and when the 1973 oil crises hit, I thought it would be possible to build a bike where you had the same comfort and protection as in a car and better aerodynamics. When you can send a man to the moon, why canít you make this vehicle? I knew about materials for aircraft construction in order to achieve low weight and strength necessary in a bike.
BB: What design principles led you to the Leitra?
CJR: Well, it was really the same basic structure as the one I built as a teenager. The first one was wood throughout, but it was too heavy. There were new materials, now: epoxy, glass fibre, and carbon fibre was just coming up. Instead of using the Swedish design, I made it so you could take the fairing off. You could ride it as an open, three wheeler, but then you could also put on fairings for different purposes. I started to build the prototype in 1979 after the second oil crises.
BB: Was it your intent to sell bikes, or did you just build it for personal use?
CJR: It was for my personal use. First you have to gain some experience, and the best way to do that is to participate in a rallies and competitions so you can compare directly with racer bikes. The experience with the first tours was positive, so why shouldnít I continue the development? So, I started in 1983 with the first series of twelve Leitras.
BB: You have to tell me how people reacted to Leitra number one?
CJR: They found it a little peculiar. My first experience with the police was in Copenhagen in the winter time. I was riding along the lakes Ė I had no coat because you donít need a coat when you ride a Leitra Ė and I noticed in my back mirror that a police car was following me for a while. I thought to myself, ďWell, okay, they are just a little curious.Ē But then they stopped me and asked me, ďWhat is this?Ē I explained that it was a bicycle, but they looked disturbed and didnít believe that it was just a bicycle. When they reported back about something that looked like a U.F.O., they confiscated it. I had to take the train home without a coat in February! I complained to the Ministry of Transport and told them that while the Leitra was unusual, it was not illegal. After three days, two policemen came to return my small Leitra on big truck with a crane; I mean one man could have lifted it!
After a week I found an inspector who would try out the bicycle. Itís the first bicycle in Denmark to be tested by the authorities. They made a report, and I got approval in 1982 from the ministry that it was okay to use the Leitra in normal traffic.
BB: Is that when they insisted on the soft sides to permit hand signaling?
CJR: Yes, and a back mirror. I already had a back mirror, but I suggested that we put the back mirror on top of the bike because then you could have a wider view (it was closer to your eyes). Since then I have not been stopped by the police.
BB: Did you initially call it a Leitra?
CJR: When I started the company I gave it that name, which was short for ďlight individual transporation.Ē
BB: And the logo came from?
CJR: Thatís my daughterís design.
BB: So, itís 1983. You are gearing up for production. Did you have orders in hand?
CJR: When I formed the company, I needed some money. First, I formed a limited partnership with ten investors, mostly friends and early customers. Second, I got some advance money from early customers who didnít want to risk their money investing in the company. So, I started with an initial run of twelve bikes
BB: Tell me about your initial problems with that first production.
CJR: There are many details in manufacturing before you learn to do it right. I wanted the best materials. The lacquer for the fairing is polyurethane, used in the most severe conditions. It is very flexible, and can resist almost any chemical. It was not easy to integrate these materials. For instance, if you use gel coat to finish the fairing, it is not flexible. You cannot apply a thin layer, and the fairing would have small cracks and would be too heavy. Also, I had to develop a special technique to obtain sufficient bond between the glass fibre laminate and the lacquer (so the fairing would not stay in the mold).
BB: And your first mold stuck?
CJR: Yes, on my first fairing.
BB: And for the record, I saw you remove a fairing from its mold, and it looked almost easy. The seat presently is carbon fibre, but you werenít making these in 1983.
CGR: No, and the very first one had no suspension at all. I tested that one in Norway from Trondheim to Oslo (560 km), and the fairing is still in use today.
BB: When did you start to consider the carbon fibre for the suspension?
CGR: The combination of a trike and a fairing that you could remove can be noisy. So I found it necessary to put some suspension on the trike to avoid noise. I had experience from building aircraft for towing gliders, and with such aircraft you have to make many landings and take offs in one day. I made the landing gear of glass fibre and epoxy, and it worked so well that I copied it for the Leitra.
BB: And the seat was developed at the same time?
CGR: Yes. Before that I used glass fibre, but it was heavier. Today the seat weighs 650 grams.
BB: And the initial component for gearing?
CGR: Just common gears for a racer; a 5-speed Shimano cassette. The real problem was the brakes. I couldnít get hubs with front brakes for the front wheels. I did many of my first rallies without front brakes Ė even in hilly Norway I only had one rim brake on the rear wheel. I could smell it when I went down the long hills.
BB: When did you start using the hub brakes?
CGR: I came across a Japanese producer of hubs with drum brakes, the ďPrimus,Ē and I still have these on my own Leitra, but they are not as strong as the brakes that you can get nowadays. Today Iím using the Sturmey Archer drum brakes Ė they have 50% wider pads Ė or I use disk brakes like the Hope hydraulics, but they are very expensive. So Iím looking for something less expensive.
BB: And the availability of internal gearing has given more options for the gearing.
CGR: Yes, but these were really not my own idea because it was the customers who knew about these hubs when they came on the market. They wanted those hubs, so I had to respond and build them in. They seem to work very fine. Iíve had few problems with the Rohloff.
BB: You also use the Sachs (now SRAM).
CGR: The first one (which is still in my Leitra today) was a 2x7. It has lasted a long time. I feel sad about throwing good components away just because you can get something new. So on my own bike, I am still using the original parts, but customers want the newest and best parts every time. Sometimes you have to modify the frame or something to adapt it to the new components. For example, I had to make new frame fixtures to use the Hope brakes. And you end up with a large stock of used components that are absolutely okay.
BB: How did you come up with the idea of the ventilation in the Leitra?
CGR: The ventilation was in the design from the beginning simply because when you make such an enclosure, you must cool the rider. The air inlets on the two sides and the air duct in the fairing were there from the beginning. It seems to function well. The only recent addition that Iím working on is a small electric fan in the air duct so you can force ventilation. It is powered by a solar cell.
BB: Although I didnít get to test it in the rain and snow, the Leitra works well in these conditions?
CGR: The rolling resistance is naturally higher in snow with three wheels than with two. But you can ride on ice without falling, and Iíve only been prevented from riding in winter one or two times when the snow was too deep. I have experienced cases when the street is like a mirror from freezing rain, and the cars couldnít get uphill because of the lack of traction. But I could climb the hills with a Leitra! I found that a trailer was useful going downhill in such conditions because it acted like a steering stabilizer.
BB: Iíve seen a Leitra with a luggage compartment, another with holes drilled out so it could hold a child, and another with a special compartment for a dog. Are their any more variations?
CGR: You can remove the rear fairing. I have a picture of my wife after she bought a big potted plant, and she carried the plant on the Leitra with the rear fairing off.
BB: The Leitra has an enviable safety record.
CGR: I have never heard of a case where a Leitra owner has been hurt to an extent that they had to be treated by medical professionals. Maybe small injuries, but thatís all. I know of several German customers who have been riding more than 70,000 km. I have ridden more than 250,000 km, so if you count all of the approximately 260 Leitras together, we have been riding more than 5 million kilometers without a major accident.
There have been several cases where cars have collided with Leitras, but in all of them that I am aware of, the repairs have been paid by the car insurer. An owner in Iowa was riding quietly along a street when a lady came and hit him from behind. She didnít look in the direction she was riding (the children distracted her), and when she hit the bike her tire was punctured by the Leitra!
BB: So the Leitra gave as good as it got!
BB: As you see other velomobiles being constructed, what advice would you give to designers?
CGR: I can talk forever on this subject. I have seen fairings made of carbon fibre. I would never make a carbon fibre fairing because it is dangerous. If you make it with Kevlar, it might be safe enough, but pure carbon fibre is like a knife edge if it cracks. It would cut right though you in an accident. When glass fibre breaks, it usually doesnít break completely, so it is safe. Even aircraft designs have failed because of a reliance on carbon fibre, largely because there is no noise dampening with carbon fibre.
BB: And you were telling me about the advantage of being able to easily get in and out of a faired bike.
CGR: Yes, I have seen so many faired recumbents build for competition where you need helpers to get in and out of the bike. Those are simply not practical if you want to use a bike for a daily means of transport. Thatís why I made the Leitra with a snap-off front fairing that you can remove very quickly. For instance, did you notice this morning that the Leitras outside were covered with frost? I just snapped off the fairing, put it inside for two minutes, and let the frost melt. So you do not see me like the car owners, standing there scrapping the ice off.
BB: And then the height seems optimal. When I rode, I was comfortable about the cars being able to see me.
CGR: Of course, you are more visible when you are sitting in a fairing. Usually I recommend two colors for the fairing, a light color (white or yellow) for most of the fairing, and then a darker color for the sides (red, blue, green). That way you get good contrast.
BB: Do you have hopes for increasing production f the Leitra in the future?
CGR: Itís up to people. If there is a need and an interest, Iím ready to help and ready to organize production. But as it is now, it is difficult to mass produce like a car. You do not fit each car to a person, but a bike fairing needs to fit exactly, and that is difficult. It doesnít matter if a car weighs 100 kilos more or less. But a 100 kilos is the weight of maybe three Leitras! And I count every gram.
BB: What was the last automobile that you owned?
CGR: A Volvo. But I gave it up; I donít need it. Sometimes I have luggage that I canít carry in the fairing, so I have a trailer.
BB: Whatís the oldest person riding a Leitra today?
CGR: Heís more than eighty. He bought it when he was 76 as a birthday gift to himself.
BB: So thereís hope for the rest of us?
CGR: Oh, yes! The Leitra is a good way to keep fit, instead of sitting in a chair, drinking beer, and watching TV.
BB: But itís okay if you are sitting in the Leitraís seat!