BikeThing

Josh Thomas, a 2009 graduate in mechanical engineering designed and built a Trike, a motorized tricycle. The vehicle, based off Organic Transit's "Naked ELF" vehicle is capable of going up to 40 miles per hour. Photo by Chris Rupert.

Instead of driving his car, Josh Thomas uses a three-wheeled bike he built to get around town. And no, it’s not a tricycle. 

It’s called a Naked ELF, and it’s a spinoff of another product developed by members from the company Thomas works for. At 35 miles per hour, Thomas said it rides like a motorcycle. He enjoys riding it along Hillsborough Street and around Raleigh.

Thomas, an NC State alumnus who graduated in 2009 with a degree in mechanical engineering, now works as a systems engineer for a startup company in Durham called Organic Transit. When one of his former coworkers built another version of the Naked ELF, it sparked his interest. 

However, he said the earlier models could have used some improvement. 

“When I built it last summer, I tried to implement as many new designs as possible,” Thomas said. 

Working on his own time, he was able to acquire the frame for a previous model as a freebie because it was a defect, then use it to construct his own version. He then purchased the battery, motor and wheels from the company. Unlike Organic Transit’s standard ELF model, Thomas’ version is without a body shell, which reduces the weight and makes it faster and more agile. 

“So it’s technically a bike, but you’ve got all the amenities of a car, and a lot of the systems are electrical,” Thomas said. 

Davis Carver, Thomas’ former coworker, built several Naked ELF models and gave Thomas the idea for his version. The main differences between Carver’s version and the one Thomas built have to do with its speed and motor position. 

“The regular ELF is cool, but there’s a lot of people who really don’t care about protection from the elements and want something a little lighter and more rugged,” Carver said. “It’s kind of more of a workhorse and that’s kind of what I wanted to do.” 

Thomas said the frame, seat and front steering assembly on his bike can already be seen on the vehicles at Organic Transit. He did, however, add his own spin on it to create a unique customization.

“On a regular bike you have the gears inside the wheel, and here I put them outside,” Thomas said. 

By placing the gearbox in the middle of the frame instead of inside the wheel like a traditional bike, it allows him to use a hub motor in the rear and still maintain a wide selection of gears.

While U.S. law states that electric bikes are allowed to reach a maximum speed of 20 mph, Thomas said he can go any speed he wants as long as he’s riding along side streets and on bike paths. He said that since it’s technically a bike, he can take it almost anywhere except on a highway. 

During and after the building process, Thomas said several engineering problems have come up. Although he finished building it last summer, he said he continually adds on new designs. 

“Originally I had the gearbox mounted above the frame, causing the chain tension to bend the frame,” Thomas said. “Placing the gearbox below the frame canceled out most of the frame bending and gave better pedal performance.”

And while he said the vehicle has definite market potential, he’s not ready to make his version accessible to the public. 

“It would probably be an easy sell, considering how fast it goes, what it looks like and what it can do,” Thomas said. “But I don’t think I would want to sell it right now. It’s too much fun and I can get around without using my car.” 

Carver said the Naked ELFs he helped build prior to leaving Organic Transit was a side project he did with one of the company’s other co-founders, Rob Cotter. Carver now runs several businesses up north in Maine, including a bike shop. 

“To do the Naked ELF I think it just makes sense,” Carver said. “Josh’s is really cool too. His is a little bit different than mine, but it really makes sense. His is a little quicker and it’s got a little bit of a different drive train.” 

Thomas said he has always loved building things and one of his other projects is a 1974 Volkswagen, which he has been restoring since he was in college. 

“Ever since I was little I’ve been into something, some sort of project,” Thomas said. “I recommend for anyone who’s like that to have a project portfolio. Until I did that, I couldn’t get a job.” 

And while he loves riding his bike around Raleigh, there is one more place he would like to take it to eventually. 

“I’d love to take it down to the beach, if I could transport it somehow,” Thomas said.