McMinnville man a local motion with velomobile

MCMINNVILLE — Over the past several months, McMinnville residents have stopped in their tracks upon catching sight of a small, three-wheeled vehicle silently driving down Northeast Evans Street. From the front, it appears to be shaped like a bullet or maybe an egg.

Whatever this strange-looking, motive device may be, it sure is quiet.

The sleek pod glides by, emitting little more than a muted whir. Only the head of its occupant is visible through the steeply angled windshield and the narrow windows on each side of the single-person cockpit.

Sweeping yellow stripes adorn both sides from stem to stern, ending at the rear where the body comes together to form a rudder-like tail. The words "Tri-Pod" are lettered on the side.

This attention-getting vehicle is called a velomobile. It's essentially a recumbent trike or bike that can be human- or motor-powered, or a combination of both. This particular unit has an electric motor capable of delivering about a 40-mile range.

It can also be pedaled or pedal-assisted with the motor on to help cruise up steeper hills.

Tri-Pod's owner, driver, designer and builder is Ron Courtney of McMinnville. Constructing the streamlined little machine, essentially from scratch, took him a couple of years. He completed it in early 2009.

In addition to low-cost, environmentally friendly transportation, aerodynamics and protection against the weather are the two most desirable features of a velomobile. Of course, there's also some fun involved.

That aspect did not escape Courtney. Despite being 77 years old and battling Parkinson's disease, he gets a bang out of driving Tri-Pod around town. It will easily do 25 mph on the flat and considerably faster going downhill.

Ready-to-go velomobiles and velomobile bodies can be purchased from several manufacturers here in the United States, as well as in Europe and Asia. Prices range from as little as $1,000 for a basic shell to $4,000 for a machine with a lot of bells and whistles.

Being a retired auto body man, Courtney decided to build his own. Many variations on the design theme were already out there, but he turned Tri-Pod into an original creation, integrating the features he liked best.

The reverse-trike wheel configuration appealed to him — two wheels in front and one in back. He also wanted power assist, so in went the lithium batteries. It's a road-legal unit, of course, with a front headlight, brake lights and turn signals.

Forming the body was probably the most fun for Courtney, outside of actually climbing into the driver's seat. It's made from one-inch plastic foam that is cut and shaped, then filled in and sanded. Sounds like Bodywork 101.

But coming up with and faithfully rendering the design was another matter. This is a handsome vehicle showing nary a ripple or other imperfection. After finishing the bodywork, a layer of fiberglass cloth was applied, followed by an application of epoxy resin.

Last came the high gloss paint and cool accent stripe. Doing all of this was, if you'll pardon the pun, like riding a bike for Courtney, who learned body repair at Eugene Vocational School — now Lane Community College — before being hired by a local car dealer.

He first worked for Bennett Motor Co., the Nash dealer in McMinnville, then was lured away by the Chevrolet dealer, Fredericks Motor Co. at Third and Galloway.

"I was customizing a 1951 Ford coupe at Bennett's when the Fredericks people offered me the job," he said. "I told them I'd come to work for them if I could keep the car there and they'd let me finish it up in my spare time."

They agreed, and he stayed with them for 28 years. When the radically customized Ford, dubbed the "X-51," was completed in 1957, it became such a sensation it was featured in national magazines and appeared on a Portland TV show for teens.

This year's Dragging the Gut Festival participants recalled that Courtney's '51 Ford was by far the coolest car during the '50s and '60s Third Street cruising era.

But he didn't stop with that spectacular piece of work. While at Fredericks and even during the last 10 years of his career, when he worked for McMinnville Auto Body, Courtney did custom body work for clients.

The largest of his do-it-yourself projects, however, involved an entirely different type of transportation. In 1970, he bought a 36-foot sailboat hull in Portland and, over the next four years, did everything else himself.

The decking, rigging, mast, cabin interior, cockpit, steering, instrumentation, engine compartment and power train assembly — you name it, he built or installed it.

In 1974, he and his wife, Donna, quit their jobs, took their two daughters out of school for a year and sailed around the Pacific. "We set sail from the Rose City Yacht Club, went out the Columbia and down the coast to Puerto Vallarta," he said.

"We stayed for a month or so until the winds were right and then sailed to the Tuamotus in the South Pacific," he said. "We ran across a guy there who had been a U.S. car dealer. He asked me what I did and when I told him I was an auto body man, he said, 'I knew I was paying those guys too much.'"

After visiting some other islands, including Tahiti and the Marquesas, they sailed back by way of Hawaii and finally made landfall at Astoria.

As planned, the entire trip took about a year. It was a memorable adventure for the entire family, and, according to Courtney, the girls got into it, steering the boat, taking their turns standing watch and, of course, thoroughly enjoying their island excursions.

Courtney retired in 1994 after 42 years in the auto body repair business. His recent venture into velomobiles followed a few years zapping around in an electric car.

Since completing Tri-Pod, he has attended two Left Coast Velomobile Gatherings, in 2009 and 2010, at Portland International Raceway, where the accolades for his homemade vehicle were effusive.

So what's next on the agenda? Another velomobile in progress stands on the floor of Courtney's well-equipped home workshop. "I'm going to incorporate some different ideas into the design," he said. "There's always room for improvement."

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