Once-Extinct Corbin Sparrow Tries to Take Flight Again Thanks to New Name, New Owner

Back in 1999, just as General Motors was upgrading its famous EV1 electric coupe with nickel-metal hydride battery packs for improved range and performance, a company called Corbin — better known for its motorcycle seats — launched a new type of electric vehicle in North America: the Corbin Sparrow.

Two of the earliest Corbin Sparrows (Photo: Corbin Motors)

Two of the earliest Corbin Sparrows (Photo: Corbin Motors)

Designed to combine the convenience and small size of a motorcycle with the comfort and safety of a car, the Corbin Sparrow featured a single seat, accessed via a single door located on the curb side of the vehicle. Just 48 inches wide, 57 inches high and 96 inches long, the tiny microcar was like nothing the U.S. had seen before. Packing a 20 kilowatt motor driving the rear wheel, early Corbin Sparrows, nicknamed “Jelly Beans” because of their short, squat shape, had a range of around 40 miles per charge, but could happily reach a freeway-safe 70 mph.

But as with many electric vehicles of its time, the Corbin Sparrow struggled to reach mass-production, ultimately causing Corbin Motors to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on March 31, 2003. With the assets passed from Corbin Motors by a bankruptcy court to Phoenix Environmental Motors — who tried and failed to revive the Sparrow name — the Sparrow and its associated IP was eventually purchased by Myers Motors of Ohio, who upgraded the Sparrow’s internal components and renamed it the NmG (No more Gas). While the NmG made it to market in April 2006, the vehicle made little impact to the electric vehicle world. Indeed, by 2009, Myers Motors was promoting a new vehicle — the NMG2 — a two-seat version of the NMG2 which it staid would hit the market for just $30,000.  Sufficed to say, six years later, that car has yet to reach mass-production.

Yet the original Corbin Sparrow — or rather its great great grandchild — could be about to hit the market again thanks to a pair of Canadian entrepreneurs. And this time, the single-seat urban runabout could go on sale for as little as $19,888 CDN ($15,000 U.S.). Factor in a Canadian Clean Energy Vehicle grant for residents of B.C., and that price could drop to $14,888 CDN.

That’s according to Canadian Newspaper The Vancouver Sun, which says local B.C. firm ElectraMeccanica Vehicles Corp. is about to resurrect a new, improved Sparrow for environmentally-conscious commuters.

While there’s only one prototype built so far, ElectraMeccanica founder Jerry Kroll says that he plans on building fourteen more this year, ramping up to 120 vehicles next year and 1,200 by 2017.  That’s hardly mass-production, but like the versions of the Sparrow which went before, the all-new mildly-refreshed Sparrow isn’t exactly a car to cross shop against the highly-popular Nissan LEAF, high-performance Tesla Model S or even range-extended Chevrolet Volt.

Instead, it’s a second — or third car: a vehicle designed to replace a commuter motorcycle rather than the family SUV.

“Eighty-three per cent of people drive by themselves in a four-person car, which is ridiculous,” Kroll told The Vancouver Sun in an interview last week. “Why do you think traffic and parking sucks? This will be perfect for the mission of commuting back and forth to work.”

The Canadian firm only has one Sparrow right now -- but aims to build many many more, just as Corbin Motors did.

The Canadian firm only has one Sparrow right now — but aims to build many many more, just as Corbin Motors did.

Talking of the niche that he expects the vehicle to fill — just one-tenth of one percent of his Canadian target market — the firm would sell 14,000 Sparrows per year.

“That leaves 99.9 per cent of the market for anybody else,” he said.

Despite its unique design, and appearance in not one but two films, the tiny Sparrow struggled to capture the imagination of the general car buying public back at the turn of the century. Fifteen years on, and attitudes towards electric vehicles have changed in many markets for the better. Thanks to cars like the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model S, electric cars are no-longer seen as strange, unusual vehicles owned by just environmentalist and celebrities.

While we’ve yet to confirm full specifications with anyone associated with the company, we’ve heard that the tiny single-seat freeway-capable car will ship with a 130 kph top speed (80mph) and an improved range of 130 kilometres per charge (80 miles), thanks to an improved motor and all-new, modern lithium-ion battery pack. Combined with the lower price point, that could be enough to persuade the more adventurous commuters to opt for the warm, dry Sparrow over a conventional motorcycle.

But while this author is a huge fan of the Sparrow — and wouldn’t mind owning one after owning both the City El microcar and Renault Twizy urban runabout — convincing mainstream buyers that the Sparrow is a good buy is still going to be an uphill struggle.

And that’s nothing to do with the fact it’s electric and everything to do with the fact that it’s eight feet long, four feet wide, and four and three-quarters feet high. As Daimler’s Smart ForTwo and Renault’s Twizy has proven time and time again, while small vehicles are unbelievably fun to drive, many drivers are put off by super-compact vehicles, no matter how safe they may really be.


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