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Electric bicycles wobble into bankruptcy

The electric bicycle, touted two years ago as a commuting vehicle of the future, has gone the way of the Edsel, leaving Portland auto dealer Ron Tonkin with about $100,000 in worthless stock.

Other, much larger, investors say they have lost millions. The Electric Bicycle Co., which introduced the EV Warrior with great fanfare in 1995, went bankrupt in mid-September.The company was founded by Malcolm Bricklin, the ill-fated entrepreneur who also brought America the Yugo. He also imported Fiats long after the Italian company had pulled out of the U.S. market and built a futuristic, gull-winged car that bore his name but sold poorly.

"I guess I thought he finally had come around and had something solid," Tonkin said. "The guy's got nine lives, but I think this one was No. 9."

The bikes originally were priced between $800 and $1,000.

"But when they began selling, Bricklin upped the price to $2,000," Tonkin said. "There's just not that big a market for a $2,000 bicycle."

Tonkin accused Bricklin of using his investments to finance a lavish lifestyle, leaving major backers with huge losses.

Sanyo North America said it had $5.45 million invested in the company. Another loser is Malcolm Currie, undersecretary of defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations and one-time head of Hughes Aircraft and Delco Electronics. Currie listed $1.5 million in EV Warrior Debt.

Currie's involvement was one of the reasons Tonkin decided to invest in the bicycle.

"But he was getting his information from Bricklin," Tonkin said. "He went along just like the rest of us."

Bricklin couldn't be reached for comment. No listing exists for his company, and the phone listing for his Malibu, Calif., is no longer in service.

Tonkin said he's less concerned about the financial loss than for the damage done to the reputation of electronic vehicles. He said he remains a firm believer in alternative sources of fuel and carries a variety of vehicles in stores throughout Portland.

Business for the EV Warrior initially was brisk.

"We had deposits for 70 or 80 based on delivery by Christmas" of last year, Tonkins said. "We lost almost all of them. In February we still didn't have bikes, and you can't blame people for wanting their money back."