E-bikes: Magna's new folly?

Why Canada's auto-parts king is sinking millions of dollars into bionic bikes.

Magna International is best known as a car-parts maker, but it’s quietly helping Canada become a major player in a new and unexpected global market: e-bikes – computerized bicycles that provide motorized assistance to cyclists.

It may turn out to be another Magna folly, like Magna Entertainment Corp., a horse-racing venture that lost millions. But if so, it’s one firmly grounded in passion. Not the passion of CEO Frank Stronach, but that of Manfred Gingl, Stronach’s right-hand man. When Gingl left his position as vice-chair and director of the company to start up the Magna Marque e-bike division in 2007, even Stronach questioned the move – until he saw that Gingl was willing to spend $2 million of his own money on prototypes.

Gingl says his mission is to “take human power and enhance it with the highest technology.” Key to achieving that goal is a drive system he discovered at Quebec tech firm Energy Propulsion Systems (EPS), which Magna later acquired. The computerized system synchronizes the motor and battery so they work smoothly with the power provided by the cyclist, and the entire system is detachable.

In 2008, Magna Marque launched the BionX system, a battery pack, motor and computerized handlebar console that can turn almost any bike into an e-bike. The lithium-ion battery can be recharged in four hours, and the kits retail for between $1,200 and $1,700.

Europe has been the focus so far, but Magna Marque recently joined up with bicycle maker Trek USA to launch a North American e-bike too. Gingl estimates the company sold 50,000 units in 2009, and he hopes to sell at least twice as many in 2010.