Bill Irvine's bikes

Bill Irvine Builds Bikes

By MICHAEL ELIASOHN, St. Joseph, Mich.

When it comes to building human powered vehicles, Bill "Yoda" Irvine likes to keep them simple. They also are unique, and although a home-builder, he's probably built more than some supposed manufacturers. The Phoenix, Ariz. resident, during this writer's visit in early October 2009, guessed he had built at least 75 HPVs, and more since, and that he had built his first one about four years earlier. What he builds, he sells. And despite the number, he said, "It is a hobby." Most of the bikes he has built were recumbents.
Irvine, retired from AmeriPride uniform rental company, said he rode a road bike for years, then mountain bikes, but after years of weight lifting, he started having trouble holding his upper body upright. So he started riding recumbents, first a BikeE FX and a series of manufactured recumbents since. His current ride is a TerraTrike Cruiser. What got him started building bikes was a comment by one of his cycling companions about all the old bikes that get dumped in the trash. "I thought I could fix up a couple and get more people riding." But instead of making trashed bikes rideable, he ended up building new ones from scratch, using some parts and pieces from trashed bikes. "I really enjoy using my hands and building stuff."

A typical Bill Irvine trike in layout, but the frame is wood.

His bike building didn't start well. "The first bike I built on my own, I took a single speed and was going to convert it into a chopper." But when he took it for a ride, the too-long cranks hit the ground and he got dumped. Since then, his skills have improved. "I learned how to weld when I was in the (military) service. It took a little bit of playing around to get my touch back." He prefers brazing over welding, so if he makes a mistake, it's easier to un-do.

Irvine built this trike for a mother who wanted to take her 5-year-old daughter along, hence the rear fenders and foot plate.

Irvine has built mostly three-wheelers, using his own unique design, with the single front wheel drive doing the driving and steering. The bottom bracket is behind the front wheel and the head tube angle is very shallow. He said he prefers that layout because it's lighter and simpler to build than a tricycle with an axle and the two wheels in the rear and driving one or both wheels. Plus it uses three standard bicycle wheels (two front, which go in the rear, and one rear, which goes in the front), unlike most trikes which require building at least two wheels using special hubs.
It was only after 1-1/2 to two years, he said, that someone pointed out his design was similar to the F'lowroller of Robert Horn of Englewood, Colo. "It's just something that evolved," Irvine said of his design. Horn's F'lowrollers have been two wheelers, but so far, all of Irvine's similar concept have been tricycles. Typically, his machines are built from a combination of mild steel square tubing - from 1-1/4 to 2-inch, .065 wall - combined with a bottom bracket, head tube and fork steerer tube cut from an old frame. Sometimes he uses the entire rear triangle turned around. He uses 1/8th-by 2-inch steel bars to form the two loops that hold the rear wheels.
Another trike built for a mother who wanted to transport her child, but alongside, rather than behind her.

Front wheel drive and three speeds, but with the rear wheels doing the steering. The owner uses it to commute 5-6 miles to work daily.

Irvine has friends in the lawn care/landscaping business, who start their day before trash trucks start their rounds, so when they see bikes set out with the trash, they grab them and leave them at his house. And he has a friend who is bicycle parts distributor, so he's able to buy wheels, tires, handlebar stems and handlebars at wholesale prices. He buys foam and vinyl for the seats from Jo-Ann Fabrics and plywood for the seats at Lowe's.
Irvine, whose workshop is in his garage, said he quickly learned if he wants to sell what he makes he needs to keep them cheap. "We got a lot of people who will spend $200 to $300 if it's something they like." But those people won't spend, say, $600 to $700. So until he built in late 2009 a tricycle with six speeds, using an upside down rear deraileur, everything he built used a single speed coaster brake hub or a three-speed hub. Add a frame made of mild steel tubing and cut-up old frames, steel cranks and wheels and that keeps the cost down.

A typical Bill Irvine trike, except with six speeds, using an upside down rear deraileur, and dual front brakes. Completed in December 2009.

A Bone Crusher with frame made of Baltic birch. 26-inch front wheel, 16-inch single-speed drive wheel with coaster brake.

Although most of Irvine's creations are variations of his front-wheel-drive front-steering tricycles, "I have built some goofy ones." There was the FWD trike with the two rear wheels doing the steering, whose owner rides it 5-6 miles to work daily. He's built some two- and three-wheelers with wood frames. And then there was the Bone Crushers. "I wanted to build my own boneshaker," that is, an 1800s high wheeler. But when he called the three manufacturers of such things to buy wheels, "They wouldn't even sell me a spoke." So he designed and built the Bone Crushers, with a 26-inch front wheel and 16-inch rear drive wheel. Two of them had wood frames; the others have been steel. "I must have built 15 to 20 of those. I couldn't keep them here."
Irvine finds special satisfaction in building machines for people with special needs, be it a 300-pounder who needs to lose weight or a "young fellow" with multiple sclerosis, whose doctor advised him to ride a bicycle. And there was the 14-year-old girl, who is autistic. When she started riding the tricycle built for her, she had such a smile "I was almost in tears. That little girl was so happy." "I build these mainly for handicapped, young folks, and the older generation that wants to get out and just ride around the block," he wrote. "... People that want these trikes are folks that either can't afford the more expensive trikes or just want to ride with the grandkids. "There is nothing more satisfying than watching a 12 year old with Downs Syndrome, that has never been able to ride a bike get on one of these and just take off. Watching the smile come up on their faces will bring tears to your eyes."
Irvine finished this hand trike in March 2010 for a man who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 375 pounds. It has six speeds and 20-inch wheels.

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