Onyx is making mopeds cool again

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

US brand Onyx is making mopeds cool again with its 96km/h RCR e-bike. MotoFomo caught up with Onyx co-founder James Khatiblou.

UPDATE: Since we published this article earlier in the week, we’ve been contacted by Tim Seward who was the founder and original designer at Onyx before passing over the reigns to James, who we spoke with. Not wanting to write Tim’s immense contribution out of the history books we felt it only right and proper to mention his role. We’ve sprinkled bits and pieces of info he’s shared with us.

“We are moped folks,” says James Khatiblou co-founder at Onyx. And it’s that simple description, he says, that defines the brand. To the point where James reckons Onyx can’t be compared with other e-bike makers.

“We don’t compare the two vehicle categorisations. They are different beasts with different uses, different riding styles and thus different components, geometry, etc. And most importantly: different riders. We are moped folks,” James tells MotoFomo.

But what is a moped? It goes back to the 1880s when the world realised penny-farthings were the least practical bicycle on earth. The safety bicycle was born, boasting wheels that were the same size, but not always, and the ability for the rider to reach the ground.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

Fast forward to the 1950s and with Europe getting back on its feet after the Second World War, people wanted a cheap and easy way of getting about the place. Motorbikes became hugely popular but nothing could beat the cost and fuel efficiency of a bicycle with a small motor attached to the wheel hub. Brands like Mosquito in Italy, Hilfsmotor in Germany and Cyclemaster in the UK began producing motor-assisted bicycles in their thousands. Indeed, Cyclemaster sold more than 50,000 of the things between 1950 and 1952.

Popular through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, mopeds (a compound of motorbike and pedal) fell into decline in the 1980s as laws restricted their appeal and other forms of transport became cheaper.

Inspiration for Onyx and its RCR e-bike/moped came in the form of sports mopeds from the 1970s. These things mobilised an entire generation and makers pushed the envelope, with sports mopeds becoming ever faster. Indeed, by 1977 they were simply too fast for their own good. Speed restrictions were imposed and both the appeal and sales of sports mopeds fell off a cliff. Until now.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

But it was those boundary-pushing sports mopeds and his love of riding them and working on them that gave Tim who had owned several old mopeds, “mainly Puch and Derbi” and his friends half an idea for a new kind of moped. The other half of their madcap idea of launching an electric moped brand came from their time working in Silicon Valley and seeing how the “rapid prototyping of hardware and devices” could prove a concept quickly, says James.

“ONYX is the fusion of those two worlds [1970s and now],” James says. “And with those two fields merged, the performance and aesthetic was way more fun than anything that had yet existed. Mopeds were popular back in the 1970s for their efficiency, size and fun. And we bring that practicality to ONYX while adding more performance.

Like a lot of start-ups, Tim Seward did all of the initial design and grafting himself with James helping out on the original prototype. “I wanted others to feel the fun and excitement that mopeds give but without the hassle of gas [petrol],” Tim says. Tim showed MotoFomo the original Onyx prototype saying he drew inspiration from brands like Puch which used a single frame to develop multiple variants, much like the RCR and CTY. To finance the project he turned to the Internet and launched an IndieGogo campaign. The campaign raised USD$1 million but it wasn’t just cash that kept the team awake.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

“There were many risks and challenges. Early on, we faced the challenge of delivering the technical feasibility of the bike. But also there was the risk of failure of the IndieGogo campaign and more importantly the risk that people wouldn’t understand the significance of the bike as a renewed sense of adventure nostalgia with all the practicality plus performance one could want,” says James.

Looking at Tim’s original concept things changed a lot. Where the original bike looked more like a step-through moped from the 1907s, the bike that eventually made it to production looks more like a 1970s sports moped with overtones of 1950s scrambler motorbike. This was a deliberate result of feedback during testing and from potential customers who saw the thing, James told us.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

“As the design matured from a concept, it changed a lot based on feedback we got from testing, riding and manufacturing, and customers,” he says. 

“The scrambler feel is deliberate. We were determined to make the most fun ride on two wheels. And that includes being able to take the bike off-road in the dirt,” James says.

More than just feedback, though, James tells us the decision to settle on the look and feel of the RCR e-bike was because the Onyx wanted to stick with the traditional moped size and feel, but also satisfy the modern riders’ love of customisation and performance.

“Technology and components were selected to satisfy performance, moped-size, and nostalgia. For example, our bikes are designed with easily interchangeable moped parts, giving people the option to modify their bike their own rad way.” This is a nod to those motorbike riders who stripped their bikes to create off-road racing bikes in the 1950s and also to the sports moped makers in the 1970s.

And the RCR packs a hell of a punch. It’s rear hub mounted 5.4kWh electric motor means it can hit a top speed of 96km/h and accelerate from 0 to 48km/h in just four seconds, with a range of around 120km at an average speed of 32km/h, grippy all-terrain tyres and heavy-duty suspension, this thing is becoming popular with overlanders in the US and hipsters alike.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

“Because the bikes are only 145lbs (65kg), they can easily be packed into your truck, SUV, or RV and hooked up to your solar charging system. They are incredibly nimble and make getting into town or the trails from camp a breeze”.

Range anxiety is always the first thing someone mentions when you start discussing electric vehicles, and while the Onyx RCR’s specs are impressive, James says it’s almost possible to double the range today thanks to rapid changes in battery technology.

“With our battery technology that range is almost feasible today,” James says when asked about a potential 300km range off a single charge. “A 10 minute charge time is a little ways out, however. If we changed batteries to super capacitors, maybe that could be possible.”

With plans to expand into other markets beyond the US and Australia, Onyx currently works out of two workshops in the US with a lead time for new builds of 90 days. The company employs 10 full-time bike builders.

Onyx is making mopeds cool again

 “Our bikes are coveted by overlanders and adventure seekers as well as collectors, commuters and hipsters. The bottom line is that the bike’s size and uses span a wide range of riders with different interests and points of entry,” says James.

This has led to a desire to sell into more markets around the world and while the brand shows two e-bike types on its website, the RCR and the CTY, only the RCR is in production. Why no CTY model? Simple, the market showed their was huge interest in the RCR and very little in the CTY, Tim told MotoFomo. So, they focussed their attention on the model they knew the market wanted. But Onyx isn’t resting on its laurels, according to James, it’s looking at further developing the RCR.

“We’ve been in the process of updating the RCR and attempting to modify the design. But we’re having a hard time because the first concept was so well executed. We dare anyone to try.”

Question: Would you consider an e-bike like the RCR for off-road adventures instead of a dirt bike?

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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.