The long and the short of family transport

An expanding family needs a reliable form of transport, and a 'green' family needs an environmentally friendly craft. Cyclorama Editor JIM McGURN tells the story of the vehicle he designed to meet both briefs

I got my idea for a bike that could carry an entire familywhile researching the social history of cycling. The discovery of pictures of multicycles from the late 19th century coincided with two additions to our family. We already owned two tandems but it was unusual for both parents to be available at one time. We now began to experiment with getting everyone on board one machine, but a machine which could be controlled by just one adult if necessary.

Inspired by multicycles of the past, my wife and I tried fixing a simple, single-wheeled trailer bike to the rear of a tandem trike. This experiment worked, but we were worried about the effects of forces applied to the joint when cornering. So we converted the trailer to a tricycle trailer, making the joint a universal one. Then we added a luggage trailer, which also served as a seat for a small child for short, safe rides off road.

This was all good fun, and wonderful for taking children to school, the shops or for going on leisure trips. In fact, our children have a potent memory of one adventurous family outing when we towed the trailer, laden with gear, to Wooler Youth Hostel. It will also be one of my more pleasant memories of parenthood when I finally sink into the armchair of old age.

Fun though it was to use, however, our extended tandem trike was a heavy brute with quite a few technical defects. We decided to replace it by designing and building something new. This was to consist of a lead tricycle and a number of trailer units. To make things easy for ourselves we used a commercially available tricycle for the leading unit.

We called our new craft the Bike Train. The initial design was by Geoff Apps and myself, but most of the design work and assembly was by frame builder Simon Davey. Some of our early design sketches are shown below.

Each unit is detachable in seconds. You fix on the units that you need for the journey in question. You can have as many units as you wish, or you can use the lead tricycle on its own. Each unit has its own gearing and braking system. This is important. The lead tricycle isn't a towing device; it doesn't drag the rest of the train around at a pedestrian pace. With three fit adults on board, the Bike Train can hit some impressive speeds - the power to weight ratio is not at all bad. With children pedalling the speed is rarely spectacular, but who cares?

The luggage areas to the rear of each unit are ideal for carrying touring gear or the shopping, but constitute a fair bit of extra weight if all you are doing is taking the children to school. Each luggage area is designed to take a plat­form carrying two Winther childseats. It takes only a minute or so to transfer the seats on the lead tricycle to one of the units.

Units are linked by means of a universal joint, giving both horizontal flexibility (for turning) and vertical flexibility (for bumps, dips and humpback bridges). Given that it had to spend a lot of its life outdoors, the Bike Train used non-rusting materials. BMX wheels give strength and a low centre of gravity, while for lightness and strength we used 531 tubing.

The Bike Train is legally allowed on the roads and motorists treat it with respect, which is good for any cyclist, but particularly for the less confident or less able. Anyone can ride it, but be warned, you'll find yourself the centre of attention.

The old, disabled or less fit can ride effortlessly with others. Equality in motion! And you don't fall off. There's no wobbling, no weaving, and road positioning is easy and positive.

Another advantage of the Bike Train is that the children on board no longer need to make their own decisions in traffic. Yet they have their own independent gears, so they can choose how much leg power they will contribute, and when. We're pleased we made the Bike Train, but does it have a commercial future?

We had plans to develop the Bike Train idea, and take it through to manufacture. We envisaged a modular system, where each unit has a specific carrying function: adult plus luggage, two adults in tandem, a child, two children, luggage only etc.

The Bike Train idea may find a niche with theme parks, holiday camps and adventure centres, but if it is to become a realistic alternative to the family car it will need a fair bit of development yet. We could add an optional trailer-mounted electric motor unit giving auxiliary power for longer journeys or hilly terrain. Other ideas involve higher levels of technology. Could we use radio control for the leading rider to apply the brakes on all the units at once? Is there a way the driver can steer the front wheels from the back? This would allow him/her to oversee all the passengers.

Read More:

The Pedouins

Family Cycles on Cyclorama