If you’ve been paying attention to my posts over the last decade or so, you’ve probably noticed a fair bit of cynicism. As such, it should come as no surprise that I headed into Radio Flyer’s Chicago headquarters fully expecting its upcoming Flyer-brand e-bikes to be little more than bicycle-shaped, Wish-grade Chinese pot metal with Radio Flyer decals slapped on the down tubes. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found a pair of beautifully executed, thoroughly conceived, and brilliantly clever e-bikes instead.
Take note, kids. These Radio Flyer e-bikes are serious contenders — and we’ll get to them soon enough. Right now, I want to talk to you about Radio Flyer HQ itself, the company’s CWO, Robert Pasin, and why I left that place grinning like the
giant large 5-year-old I am.
A Bit About Radio Flyer
Driving into Radio Flyer’s HQ on the west side of Chicago, you can’t help but notice the giant red wagon. It’s a silly enough thing, but it is a faithful reproduction of the little red wagons (and one yellow one) I hauled behind myself as a kid. It’s also a serious piece of engineering, made from stamped steel, just like the iconic originals. That stamped steel construction was the real innovation that drove Radio Flyer’s success at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, a fact that I learned upon entering the building and being faced with… well, I’ll just show you.
That dapper, art deco-inspired kiddo up there was one of the stars of the 1933 World’s Fair, and the shop built under the giant wagon sold thousands of tiny, Christmas-ornament sized Radio Flyer wagons to fairgoers for 25 cents. And a few regular sized Radio Flyer wagons, too — which brings us to the name. Why are they called “Radio Flyer”?
“A lot of people think it has some sort of meaning,” explains Robert Pasin. “Really it was the two most high tech things around back then. If he was starting the company today he might call it ‘Quantum AI Dronester’.”
In addition to being the CWO — Chief Wagon Officer, natch — of Radio Flyer, Pasin is the grandson of the company’s founder, Antonio Pasin, who immigrated to the US from Italy in the early 1900s. Pasin explained that his grandfather started out as a woodworker, making everything from wooden wagons to intricately designed cabinets for Edison photographs. One of those product lines was, obviously, a little more successful than the others, and launched a whole fleet of variations on the theme. Nearly all of those variations, it turns out, are on display in Radio Flyer HQ’s foyer.
Pasin very patiently walked me through Radio Flyer’s history, a number of displays and playgrounds and test grounds that their ergonomics groups and designers work (?) in, and — my favorite! — a vast storehouse of scooters, bikes, wagons, and assorted playthings. “Competitor’s products,” he explains. “We see what works and how we can make improvements. Like on the Tesla car. The number one complaint from parents was that their kids’ battery-powered cars was that the batteries were always dead and took forever to charge. So when we decided to get into that space, who better to collaborate with on an electric car than Tesla?”
Who, indeed? We’ve covered the Radio Flyer-built Tesla before, of course, but I got to see the original mockup used at the pitch, then the pre-production prototype, and the final product. Very neat.
The Radio Flyer people couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming. Robert even tried to win me over with a bag of Radio Flyer swag, which would have worked on its own — but the best bribe I got that day was time on the new Flyer e-bikes.
Riding The New FLYER
“The thing I’m most proud of is the integration,” explained Matt Young, Radio Flyer’s Advanced Concepts Director (great title) and one of the designers of the new Flyer e-bikes. “The way the baskets mount and look like they’re a part of the bike was something we really worked on. It should all look of a piece, nothing should look like an afterthought or an add-on.”
Mission accomplished, I say. I was genuinely surprised when Matt removed the rear basket on the seventy-two pound (!) cargo Flyer (more on that in a bit). That rear basket had some novel tricks up its sleeve, too. The sides unzip and fold down, clipping neatly to the footboards and creating a number of seating configurations for little ones. For the really little ones, a Thule child seat will bolt in. It sounds like a good idea, and it’s remarkably clever in practice.
The rear basket — all of the metalwork, in fact — feels beefy, too. It delivers a reassuring sort of “your kid will not fall out of this” message that some other cargo bikes simply don’t. All that beef adds mass, though, and it takes a good yank to lift the bike onto its center stand.
Once underway, however, the bike’s substantial weight disappears. “We used a smaller rear wheel on the cargo bike,” explains Matt. “That moves the roll center compared to the standard length bike and makes it a bit easier to manage.” He’s selling it short — the bike feels light and nimble even on the lightest pedal-assist mode, which is where I felt most comfortable while pedaling.
Don’t get me wrong, here. You can definitely feel the length of the bike, but it doesn’t feel significantly heavier than my wife’s Electra Townie Go — and that bike weighs, on paper, about 20 pounds less than the Flyer.
My main criticism of the Mercedes e-bikes and the Townie are that the pedal assist is too strong, and kicks in too late to feel natural. The Flyer feels fine in its most conservative assist mode, so you feel really strong, rather than really assisted. It’s a great ego-stroke, and the twist-grip throttle on the Flyer too, applies power smoothly. “It’s designed so that guys our age can enjoy it,” Matt offers. “It’s not just for beach town retirees.” Though, I suspect, the retirees would enjoy it, too.
All in all, I have to say I left Radio Flyer HQ with a whole new appreciation for the brand. I was also happy to discover that Robert Pasin was a genuinely good dude, despite being “a North Sider.” As he told me about his first job, spray-painting wagons on his grandfather’s assembly line (now a coffee “shop” in their LEED Platinum certified HQ) I couldn’t help but imagine how much fun this guy had at his job. I was also happy to discover that I didn’t hallucinate the yellow Radio Flyer I had as a kid (OMG it was real! I KNEW IT!!). Still, I’m supposed to be some kind of closed-minded cynic, right? So, here goes: not that anyone asked me, but if I was designing the cargo bike I’d put an obvious grab bar at the front of the basket to make hoisting the bike up onto the center stand easier. Heck, I’d probably put a knob or something on the stand itself, so smaller riders could use their body weight to help lift up a bike that’s potentially loaded down with kids and/or produce, you know?
Other than that, I think the bikes are pretty good. Especially at their asking price, which was lower than expected after riding them. Click here to read the original post with all the specs, and expect both of these bikes to retail at or under $2000 when they launch officially in October. Let us know what you think of the Radio Flyer brand — and its new, adult-focused Flyer line — in the comments section, too. And, if you get the chance, definitely visit Radio Flyer HQ the next time you’re in Chicago.
Childhood you will thank you for it.
Original content from CleanTechnica.
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