Derringer Do

Bicycle? Motorbike? Whatever it is, this eco-friendly customised hybrid is exciting the two-wheel cognoscenti, says Simon de Burton

October 07 2012
Simon de Burton

It’s a measure of how recent years have seen motorcycling travel from the tradesman’s entrance right around to the front door that, lately, a long-defunct style of bike called a board‑track racer has become the must-have two-wheeled accessory in Los Angeles.

Board-track racing sprang up in America in 1910. Inspired by the banked velodromes designed for cycle racing, board tracks were oval circuits of between half a mile and two miles in length, which, as the name implies, were constructed from wooden planks. The fact that the tracks could be built quickly enabled them to satisfy America’s fast-growing enthusiasm for motorsport, and thousands of people flocked to watch daredevil riders race powerful, stripped-down machines around the giant wooden bowls where they frequently climbed to the very lip of the banked curves at speeds of up to 100mph.

Although crashes were common, riding gear usually consisted of nothing more sophisticated than goggles, flat caps, leather gloves and woollen sweaters, which did little to save the skin of the competitors when they lost control of machines that boasted names such as Pope, Indian and the Flying Merkel.

Indeed, such was the number of casualties that critics of board track referred to the circuits as “murderdromes” – especially after a legendary racer called Eddie Hasha (aka the Texas Cyclone) went over the top of the banking during a race in Newark, New Jersey, back in 1912. He died outright and his four-valve Indian went spiralling into the crowd, killing three young boys and a man and injuring 10 other spectators.

A century later, however, the bloodier side of board track is more or less forgotten and there’s a growing nostalgia for the stripped-back, pared-down machines that emerged from it – as well as for the riding kit that is now considered to be the essence of vintage chic.

Industrial designer Adrian van Anz certainly liked the “look”. He was a young and successful creator of bespoke electronic equipment for a high-profile clientele and, in 2007, he decided to build himself a nippy and unique two-wheeler on which to get around Los Angeles. He wanted it to fall somewhere between a bicycle and a motorcycle and based the design on the board-track racers that first competed at the LA Motordrome in Playa del Rey in 1910.

He bought a small-capacity petrol engine, fitted it to a heavy-duty bicycle frame (with fully operational pedals), added a fuel tank and started riding. Almost instantly, people who saw it began making offers to buy it.

Such was the interest that van Anz decided to start making the bikes commercially. He called the brand Derringer (after the 19th-century, pocket-sized pistol famously used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln during a theatre performance in April 1865), and soon the orders were flooding in, notably from bike-loving celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie and Robin Williams.

Indeed, the business appears to have such potential that van Anz has now stepped back from the daily running of it and handed the reins to Ian Sephton, a serial entrepreneur and the managing director of the LA-based Branstetter Group, which specialises in providing a boost to early-stage companies.

“The initial response to Derringer has been remarkable,” says Sephton. “People are looking for new, environmentally friendly ways of getting around town, and the fact that these machines combine the performance and ease of a lightweight, entry-level motorcycle with the familiarity of a bicycle seems to have struck a chord. Buyers love the retro look of the bikes and the fact that each one is essentially unique, because we build them to order with colour schemes and details specified by the buyer.”

Anything can be incorporated into a Derringer design, from special paint schemes and handmade leather saddles to details such as coloured wheel spokes and hammered copper rivets – and the “bespoke service” has attracted commissions from customers who want bikes that match their boat, helicopter or supercar.

“Most customers ride them day to day,  but we do have a few who own them simply as display pieces to put on show, either in their motor houses or homes,” says Sephton.

“But as well as looking good, the bikes are truly practical – they are genuine hybrid vehicles in that they can be pedalled like a bicycle or driven by the gas (petrol) engine, which gives a top speed of around 35mph and fuel consumption of up to 180mpg.”

During the giant Las Vegas Interbike trade show three weeks ago, Sephton announced some interesting additions to the range, including a $2,000 fixed-gear bicycle with the Derringer board-track look but without the internal-combustion engine.

More compelling, however, is the fact that the brand is in the final stages of developing an electrically powered machine, which is set to launch next year. “Our main focus at the moment is to upgrade and improve the design of the Derringer gas-powered model,” says Sephton. “We are still very small and currently employ a total of six people, who build up to 12 machines per week at our Moorpark assembly facility in the LA suburbs. But the aim is to make as many of the components as possible ourselves to ensure the Derringer isn’t too easy to copy and to give us greater control of quality – something that is very important because we are now taking orders from as far afield as Australia, France, Japan and the UK.”

And it goes without saying that there’s a whole range of Derringer merchandising to go with your retro-cool, environmentally friendly wheels. But just be careful not to take the board-track theme too far – you know what happened to the Texas Cyclone.