Margaret James unplugged her Twike from an outlet in her garage, lifted the roof–the “canopy,” she called it–and told me to climb in. We were about to embark on the inaugural ride of the first Twike in Illinois.

The Twike, which stands for twin bike, is composed of a pair of recumbent bicycles inside a sleek aerodynamic pod. It’s an odd little three-wheeled hybrid of a vehicle that runs on both electric and human power. An electric motor allows the driver to keep up with traffic. Pedaling while the motor is running–optional for both driver and passenger–conserves the batteries. James climbed in beside me, pulled down the canopy, and strapped herself in. There was no steering wheel, just a tiller. “You’re very brave,” she said, inspiring immediate fear.

James had test-driven a Twike several months earlier, under the guidance of Walt Breitinger, one of about 15 Twike owners–or Twike pilots, as they call themselves–in the U.S. But that was in a parking lot and on small residential roads in Valparaiso, and James hadn’t driven one since.

“I don’t remember how to operate this thing,” she said, appearing more amused than concerned. She pulled out a checklist and warned me never to press the red button between the seats. Then she pressed it. The Twike kicked on.

James gave up biking as a regular mode of transportation a few years ago, after an encounter with an aggressive motorist. She’d been weaving through idle traffic on her way home from teaching piano lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music when a car rammed her from behind. “I was able to catch myself and not fall over,” she says, but the incident startled her enough that she began looking for safer ways to get around the city.

James owns a car, but it’s 13 years old, and she uses it primarily to get to her job in Oakbrook, where she’s the musical director for Drury Lane theater. She doesn’t plan to replace the car when it dies because she considers driving a “total waste” of both time and fossil fuel. Unless you have passengers, she says, “it just feels like such an incredibly selfish thing to do.”

So after the run-in with the motorist, James became smitten with the Twike, which she discovered on the Web. “It’s just a brilliant vehicle,” she says. “Charging up the battery fully costs less than 20 cents.” Batteries, however, cost around $5,000 and need to be replaced every five years or so. They can be fully charged in about two hours, according to James, and a computer console notifies drivers when it’s time to do so. The distance you can travel between charges depends on the type of battery, how much you pedal to maintain momentum, and whether you use the regenerative braking system. With nickel-cadmium batteries, James says, most people can expect to go about 20 miles. The newer nickel-metal hydride batteries can take drivers about 50 miles, and she’s heard rumors of a 90-mile battery in development. She thinks that, battery aside, her Twike will pay for itself in what she’ll save in gas in five years. She plans to use it for her commute to Oakbrook, and has mapped out back roads and gotten permission to recharge it at the theater.

Designed by Swiss architectural and engineering students, the Twike debuted at the World’s Fair in Vancouver in 1986. The vehicles weren’t sold for commercial use until ten years later, when a Swiss company called S-LEM began manufacturing them. The company went bankrupt a few years ago, and Twikes are now made in Germany.

James couldn’t find anyone in the States who imported them, so she decided to go to Europe to buy one. While saving her money, she read up on the Twike at, started last March by a Cincinnati Twike pilot as a way to exchange information about importing, operating, and maintaining the vehicles. Last fall James saw a post from Kent Hermsmeyer, an electric-car dealer in Portland, Oregon, who had a couple of Twikes for sale. His dealership, ZEEmobile, had joined forces with S-LEM before it went bust in an attempt to bring the vehicle up to U.S. Department of Transportation standards. The companies modified a handful of vehicles, adding seat belts, mile-per-hour readings, and hydraulic brakes in addition to the electric brake, just a button on the tiller. They also made the headlights bigger and the vehicle compatible with U.S. electrical outlets.

Hermsmeyer had an unused 1998 Twike that he was willing to let go for $12,500–about $6,000 less than James had been prepared to spend. A flurry of e-mails followed, James sent him a cashier’s check, and on December 28 a shipping company arrived at her north-side home wanting to know where to put her 520-pound package.

It stayed in the garage for more than a month, because getting the Twike licensed was a chore. It didn’t come with a title, and the bill of sale was missing the purchase price. James was able to produce a certificate of origin in lieu of the title, and Hermsmeyer faxed her a new bill of sale. One day in mid-January, on her third trip to the DMV on Elston, James finally made it through the bureaucracy. “This is so delightful,” she exclaimed on her way from the revenue desk to the audit desk. “I could just pop!” She showed pictures of the Twike to the people behind the counter at every stop. “Isn’t it cute?” she’d ask.

James dropped more than $1,000 on her Twike that day–the bulk of the expense was the tax on buying an out-of-state vehicle, which added up to $875–but she walked out of the building with a wide grin, clutching front and back plates, registration documents, and a city sticker. “I feel like I got away with something,” she said.

Trying to get the Twike insured proved more difficult. After a disheartening week of rejections from agents–nobody wanted to insure a vehicle they’d never heard of–James gave up altogether on the idea of trying to insure it. At the suggestion of her father, a retired underwriter, she took out a million-dollar personal-liability loan. It met the spirit of the law, James figured, if not the letter. If she caused any accidents with her little Twike, she’d be able to pay for the damage.

“Oh, crap,” James said, moments after pulling out of the garage. “There’s somebody coming down the alley. What am I supposed to do now?” She pressed the acceleration button on the tiller while maneuvering it like a joystick. We skirted the car and the driver, who’d stepped out and was looking at us with a flabbergasted expression.

The Twike’s turn signals, which are audible, sound like intermittent horn blasts. We turned west onto Granville and pedaled hard. But like cartoon characters who run themselves off cliffs, we realized our legs were spinning wildly to no effect–the electric motor alone was what propelled us forward. James was disappointed, but we continued pedaling anyway, hoping the problem would magically self-correct.

We circled the block a couple of times, and then James pulled over to assess the situation. “It’s not good if you can’t pedal,” she said. “It’s about the pedaling.”

She suspected the Twike had been damaged in shipping. It also had a broken headlight switch, and a side mirror had come off. She wanted to take it to a bike shop, but the voltage had dipped below 320 and she didn’t think we had enough power to make it there. We decided to return to her apartment.

Back in the alley James declared the trip a success. I must’ve looked puzzled, because she quickly added, “A, we didn’t get arrested. B, we didn’t crash into anything. And C, we actually went around a little bit.” She promised to give it a full charge and invited me back another day to accompany her to the bike shop.

On that trip I got a better feel for what it would actually be like to get around the city by Twike. Before we left, the computer registered what James deemed a healthy charge–366 volts–and after a few minutes on the road she seemed more confident and relaxed than she’d been a few days earlier. Though the pedals were still useless, we reached 20 miles per hour right out of the alley, and for the first time I could imagine the Twike reaching its purported top speed of 52 mph. “We’re feeling really zippy,” James said.

We took Granville east and then turned south on Ridge, crossing Peterson, our first major street. At Ravenswood we turned south, and James put the vehicle on cruise control. We were no faster or slower than the cars around us.

“I am so excited,” she said. “I was anticipating more people honking at me and driving around me angrily. But this isn’t bad at all.”

At stop signs we always got to go first–other drivers eagerly waved us on, wanting to watch us pass. A cabdriver gave us the thumbs-up, then opened his hand and lifted it gradually at a 45-degree angle to resemble a plane taking off. Pedestrians and other motorists pointed and smiled, and James always returned their grins.

“My butt’s kind of cold,” she remarked when we were about halfway to the bike shop. “My toes are cold too.” The Twike doesn’t have a heater–pedaling vigorously makes one unnecessary, according to James. Nor, for environmental reasons, does it have an air conditioner, but in warm weather you can snap off part of the canopy like an old convertible top. The Twike, however, does have a defrosting system: two miniature hair dryers mounted beneath the windshield.

A short while later we arrived at Kozy’s Cyclery in Boys Town. An employee named George wrote up a ticket and said the mechanics would be happy to try to help. But the Twike was too wide to fit through the front door, so George called other Kozy’s locations to see who could accommodate it. James made an appointment to bring it to the shop on Erie a couple days later.

“Every step is a saga,” she said.

We headed back to James’s place, but the Twike lost its zip a few blocks later. James said she thought her six-year-old nickel-cadmium battery packs were unbalanced because they hadn’t gotten much use, and that the more she used them the better they’d be able to retain their charge. We stopped at the Ace Hardware on Lincoln near Irving Park, where a joke-cracking manager named Bob let us use an outlet in a storage area off the alley. About 12 blocks later we lost power again and puttered up to a 7-11, where an employee hooked us up to an outdoor outlet above the ice machine.

We were zippy again after 15 minutes, but it was short-lived. Several blocks from James’s apartment she warned that we might have to get out and push. She began pedaling harder, as if it mattered, blowing off stop signs, and talking to the vehicle between labored breaths. “Come on, little Twike,” she said, shepherding it into the alley, where it finally gave up the ghost. We got out and pushed it the last few steps, then backed it into her garage.

What she didn’t know then was that it had simply been in the wrong gear–it should have been in E, for exercise. But for James, even a broken Twike beat driving a car. “Oh, that was invigorating,” she said. “That was close. Oh, that was the best ride yet! I’m so thrilled.” Then she turned to the Twike. “Poor little guy. He needs some electricity.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.