My name is Zach.
I've been obsessed with anything with wheels and a motor since I was a little boy.
If it had tires, I've wanted to ride, drive it, take it apart, understand it, and put it back together and see it work again.
My parents were anthropologists, so growing up, I lived all over the world and saw just about every way that people have figured out to get around.
I had the good fortune to attend both liberal arts college and automotive tech school, worked as a vintage car mechanic for a time, and then went to business school.
Working as a mechanic, I was constantly shocked at all the toxic and harmful chemicals involved in internal combustion engines. Combined with a growing awareness of the climate crisis, it became clear that the time of oil and gas had to end, even if it was the lifeblood for all the wheels I knew and loved.
After 9/11, my dotcom job vanished and my passion for wheels led me to found Vespa Soho, New York's first 'boutique' Vespa dealership, with my wife Wen. At the time, there wasn’t anything electric on the market, and Vespas seemed like a great way to get people out of cars and, at least, use less gas. It was a fun and sexy business and soon we grew into the biggest volume Vespa dealer in the country.
In 2008, we hit serious headwinds. Not only was there a financial crisis, but Vespa was clearly stuck in the past. The gas motor scooter format just didn't work for an increasing number of buyers. Looking for the future, we pivoted and added the best available electric bikes, cargo bikes, Dutch-style cruisers and even electric motorcycles to our showroom in our effort to satisfy our customers' mobility needs.
Again and again we watched and listened to our customers play 'Goldilocks', asking for a few features from the ebike, a few from the scooter, a few more from the cargo bikes, the ergonomics of the Dutch cruiser... 'do you have something like that?'
I understood completely. I rode all of these different machines myself, and saw all the pieces of the puzzle:
What everyone wanted was...
- An effortless, quick, comfortable, machine that carried people + stuff
- No trip to the DMV required
- Looking good never hurt either
I got to work figuring out how to combine all the features everyone wanted into one machine. My hope was if I created an ebike that was a legitimate 'upgrade' - super easy, useful, fun and safe - people might routinely choose it over a car or SUV.
I knew this bike had to broadly express 4 key values in its design.
- It had to be social, because we don't live and travel alone.
- It had to be versatile because I wanted it to be useful everywhere
- It had to be enduring since a product you use forever is the most sustainable and
- It had to be connected - in a smartphone world, the opportunities to add value through apps would only grow.
I started with a scooter-like step through frame that lets you plant your feet and hold steady when passengers are climbing on back. The step through also makes it easy for people of every age and flexibility to enter and exit, regardless of what they are wearing.
I made sure we had a comfortable and upright seating position, space for an ADULT passenger, and just enough room for stuff. I sketched suspension front and back, and proper footrests to keep that passenger comfortable, happy, and safe even over potholes. A rack to mount kids' seats would allow families to travel together, and a frame mounted front rack would add capacity without ruining the handling like a handlebar basket.
We worked out a unique powertrain design that has high torque to safely and quickly join traffic, haul passengers up hills, and get moving from a stop with a light touch on the pedal. At the same time, our design has enough speed to really cover ground and take full advantage of generous US ebike laws. (where permitted)
I started working on the integrated pannier concept, where the bags are no longer an 'add on', but rather fully integrated into the frame, so you can lock stuff in the bike - like the trunk on a car. My vision was clear, but my styling, drawing and rendering skills were (clearly) lacking, so I hired a young industrial designer fresh out of RISD to help me make it pretty and figure out the scale and ergonomics.
This is harder than it sounds - it had to be big enough to carry a two adults, but not so big that it couldn't fit in an elevator or standard bike rack. It had to fit a wide range of rider sizes, and it had to be visually balanced, appealing, and distinctive.
I knew the integrated panniers would be key to the success of the bike, since we all have stuff. No one had ever built anything like what I wanted, but I was sure it could be done.
We built foam and plywood mockups to check fit and proportions, talked to more of our customers, and after a few iterations, settled on the foundational frame shape.
We tested the idea in our retail store, and folks loved the concept, so we decided to build one. We knew our dream frame design would require special aluminum hydroforming techniques and expensive tooling to produce, so we built a prototype with construction techniques that could be built largely by hand - a hybrid steel and aluminum frame forms the 'backbone' and is then covered in fiberglass skin to simulate our final frame shape.
We choose some of the strongest bike parts available in the industry - wheels, brakes, and front fork are all specced from downhill racing and dirt jumping bikes, the rear suspension from cross country racing, combined with a driveline with heavy 1/8" BMX style chain to maximize durability under heavy loads. We knew if the bike was great, people would put a lot of miles on it.
A local fashionista helped us make basic saddle and we were ready to ride!
The 1st prototype was pretty rough around the edges, but oh boy was it fun, and just about the fastest way around NYC, one of the toughest places to travel in the world. Everywhere I went, people got excited, asked questions, and encouraged me to keep going with the idea.
Then I got lucky - I met a terrific design partner online, and we formed a wonderful working relationship, even though he is based in Europe. We did another redesign based on the lessons learned with the prototype, refined the styling, and mocked up a prospective product brochure.
Generation 2 - Engineered Prototype
We had some big challenges ahead - our design pushed the limits of what the bicycle industry knew how to build, and our customers would have very high expectations for quality. We had plans for technology integrations that no bike company had ever done, and didn't have supply chains for. Not only that, we were an unknown startup with little money and no industry reputation, and most ebike factories were plenty busy serving a globally growing industry.
I started talking to the smartest people I could find in our former network of ebike vendors and eventually was introduced to Mike Fritz, one of the most experienced ebike production engineers in the US. Fortunately Mike 'got it' instantly, and was willing to join the company as an advisor. This a was pivotal moment for us - Mike was able to identify a manufacturing partner with the sophistication, technical skills and quality control that we needed. Together we convinced them to take a chance and work with our tiny startup on a very ambitious project. Into the deep end!
Of course, once we started looking at production, we had to adjust our design to match the capabilities of the factory and supply chain. We started by building a mechanical test 'mule' that allowed us to simulate the frame so we could check our ergonomics and develop the drive system.
We took everything we learned from the mule, and used it to refine the critical platform that holds everything together - our 100% proprietary frame. We knew it had to be strong enough for two, so we used custom forgings and hydroformed aluminum, with plenty of stiffness to support a generous step through.
Then we started to build and test, revise, adjust the frame features and details, making sure everything worked harmoniously. Some things that looked great in a drawing were not so great in real life - like the cool but very uncomfortable front and rear seats pictured below.
We mocked up the frame with a prototype pannier on one side, and the other 'pannier' was still a fake - actually just a box full electronics, a temporary battery, and the automatic suspension tech. It looked great, but revealed a couple of areas that still needed work.
Our power control and pedal sensing assist wasn't doing what we wanted, suppliers kept making small wiring mistakes that fried components, while we had our suspension tech working, getting it to be reliable and stable was no easy task. Sometimes it really felt like this:
But we kept at it, and finally found the right combination of suppliers, components, and programming to achieve both high power and smooth, effortless control.
For the panniers, we found a design team that normally does work for NASA and Nike, and worked with them to refine our concept and build prototypes. The panniers were one of our biggest efforts and investments, but proper engineering of the unique mechanical/textile hybrid structure was key to the Civ being deeply useful, every day. No one else can build integrated hard shell panniers like ours - they are patented.
We built prototype after prototype, fitting, adjusting, and adjusting the construction and components until we got it right.
We tried 5 different finishes before finding this awesome carbon look panel the final bikes will have.
Generation 3 - Pre Production
The gen 2 prototype continued to validate the concept, we raised a little more money and I was able to persuade Mike to join the company full time. Everything we learned from this prototype went into the next one - our first real pre-production samples - some additional frame geometry tweaks, a stiffer rear swing arm, and better mounts for the panniers. We redesigned the saddles for comfort, the seatpost for extra range adjustment and a lower seat height, and many other small refinements from fasteners to bearing specs. About 80% of these 3 bikes are built with production tooling and parts.
We got all the electronics and battery packaged properly, creating fully functional panniers on both sides integrated with our electronics package. We custom designed our own passenger saddle for comfort, matched in style to the rider's saddle. We are really proud of how this one looks:
It had to be super comfortable. Because bicycles don't weigh very much compared to the people they carry, it's impossible to make the same suspension work for both a 110lb rider and the combined weight of a couple together @ 350lbs. Mountain bikers have had suspensions for years, but need 'set-up' that matches the the suspension to the weight of the rider. It's a huge pain - repeatedly measuring the the shock and adjusting the air pressure until you get a specified amount of suspension compression while sitting on the bike.
Our big question was: If we have on board power, why isn't this automatic?
Regular people need the safety and comfort of a 'car-like' suspension more than strong cyclists do anyway! So, we designed and built our own sensor and control system, and now, at the touch of a button, the suspension automatically adjusts to whoever and whatever is on the bike.
Safety is a huge priority for Civilized. Most bikes have add-on, battery charged lights. This means they are often forgotten at home, out of charge, or vulnerable to theft and damage. We had decided to integrate our tail light into the frame more like a car or motorcycle to keep it safe and slick looking. While we were at it, we added a brake light to alert others to changes in speed, and conducted optical testing to meet the strictest EU safety specifications.
Our headlamp is not only powerful, but courteous to other riders and cars - the high beam dips automatically when it detects an oncoming headlight.
Then, testing. Lots of real world testing. We made sure that normal stuff fit in the panniers:
Then, more testing. Lots more:
We climbed crazy SF hills:
We did kid testing:
We did grownup testing:
Generation 4 - Founder's Edition
Those of you who been following us for a while know that we offered a small run of 'Founders Edition' bikes to early customers willing to give us feedback and testing. We sold out quickly but the pandemic really crushed our timing, as we were due to begin production in Feb of 2020. That was the month that all of asia locked down to fight Covid 19, and didn't start opening again until end of summer. As the pandemic drove a massive ebike boom and factories were buried in orders, production was still deeply disrupted and we did not get delivery until December. However, they were well worth the wait.
The Founders Edition bikes were built with 100% production tooling and parts, and they are beautiful....
It wasn't easy with travel restrictions and a distributed team, but we delivered our founders edition bikes this spring. Actual customer quotes.
"The Civ literally functioned as a second car with weekend kid activities" - Trent G.
"One day in and I'm in love. The ride is out of this world." - Gene M.
"It's already 10x the next best thing'
'What potholes? Smooth as a baby's bottom!'
'I love taking my wife to play tennis, everything fits perfectly.'