Lowtails – The Forgotten Cargo Bikes?

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask me about lowtail cargobikes. I have, after all, blogged about longtails and, more recently, Long Johns. When it comes to lowtails, there are few to be seen and barely any bike makers producing them. Indeed, it is possible that I have seen more home bodged examples than factory made versions.

The flock of lowtails in the picture above are ‘8 Freights’ designed by Mike Burrows. I came across them (and an interloping Bicicapace Compact) a couple of years ago parked outside Bikefix in London.

Mike Burrows 8 Freight

Mike Burrows came to public prominence as the designer of bikes used by Chris Boardman. These included those used in winning the Individual Pursuit gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics (pictured below), and to break the World Hour Record.  

Within the recumbent bike, human powered vehicle and velomobile world; as the designer of the Ratcatcher and Speedy/Windcheetah he needed no introduction. I enjoyed this profile of him published a few months ago, and it has some good pictures of his personal 8 Freight – complete with wicker front basket.

The story goes that, during a visit to Vietnam, Burrows saw a long bicycle that had been used by the Vietcong to move supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Once back home in Norfolk he took the concept and set about creating a versatile utility bike – and the 8 Freight was born.

The 8 Freights below have clearly had a hard days work and are part of the fleet belonging to Pedal & Post Oxford. They kindly supplied pictures and the first thing I noticed was that each of these bikes has a cup holder. I bet the riders appreciate that on a cold morning – sometimes it’s the little things that say the most about a company!

To keep the overall weight of the bike down, the frame is made from aluminium. Being a Burrows bike, naturally the 8 Freight comes with mono blades rather than forks, resulting in an offset rear wheel. I’m not convinced of the benefits of these on a utility vehicle, although it does enable you to mend a puncture without removing the wheel. I suppose this could be of benefit when carrying a load but, given that other cargobikes have not adopted them, its value must be questioned. The only time I’ve ever seen a commercial cargobike with a puncture, the rider fixed it using a gas cannister that filled the tyre with a sealant and then inflated it sufficiently enough to return to base.

Initially these bikes were manufactured in Norfolk with most processes being carried out within a few yards of Burrows’ workshop. I recently telephoned someone who I knew had owned a few of these bikes.  He told me that variable quality in the aluminium tubing meant that most of the Norfolk built examples he’d ever seen, had required frame repairs. To be fair though – some must be nearly 20 years old now.  The later Taiwan built examples seemed to have overcome that flaw through the use of tubing of more consistent quality. In this video Mike Burrows talks about the 8Freight including that issue.

In 2019 I came across someone who commuted about 15 miles into London and used an 8 Freight to carry his tools and materials. He felt that the frame could be a little stiffer, as part of his commute was on tracks and towpath causing the frame to flex. Being seated in front of the load gave him more control over the steering and balance than his previous cargobike had. Also, more confidence when riding out of gateways and side-roads in busy traffic.  Apparently, if there was no load being carried, the rear was light and could lose traction on muddy or loose surfaces. He told me that he was either going to change to front forks so he could fit a hub motor, or change the bike completely for one with e-assist.

Coincidently, a few days later I was able to take the picture above of someone else using an 8 Freight for a similar purpose. The traffic lights changed just before I was able to reach it, so sadly I was unable to speak with the rider.

I’m not sure if the 8 Freight is currently available – the 8freight.com website is down and there does not appear to have been any social media posts for a while. The recent tweet below from Pedal & Post Oxford show that their8 Freights are about and being worked hard.

The following books give a great insight into the mind of the man who built the bikes that…

Maderna

 Very definitely available is the Maderna Truck, and I’m grateful to Maderna Cycle Systems (MCS) for supplying photographs.

The smallest of design details can bring a bike to one’s attention. With the Truck, for me it was the supports on either side of the head tube. These allow tubing, lengths of timber or fishing poles, up to 3 metres in length, to be safely carried. So simple and so useful; one of my run-about bikes may have to visit the local blacksmith for a modification to the headtube!

It is little touches like this that reflect MCS background in the design and prototyping of concept and custom vehicles. Its potential use as a commercial delivery vehicle, or as a tool carrier for a tradesperson, clearly played an important part in the design process.  That said, if you want a custom promotional load box for it – MCS would be the obvious partner to help develop it.

The Truck has a substantial platform area so large load boxes can be fitted. With the deck behind the rider, taller loads can be carried without restricting vision.

Rear suspension comes from a swing arm which protects the load against vibrations, rather than relying exclusively on tyre ‘give’.

I’m still surprised at how often chain length is raised. It seems that whenever there is a bike with a drive train that differs from that found on the diamond frame safety bike, there is a person to question it. The recumbents in the picture higher up in the blog, all had chains as long as those that will be found on a lowtail bike. Unfortunately, the fairings hide the chains but the ICE Full Fat trike below gives an idea of the kind of chain length involved.

Chains are an incredibly efficient way of transferring power and, on bicycles, there are many other areas where greater performance gains can be made. A Full Fat like this one was ridden across the Antarctic ice shelf to the South Pole. So, chains, with routine maintenance, are not an issue.

I’ve not seen a Maderna Truck ‘in the flesh’. For anyone looking for a lowtail cargo bike however, it may be the best, and possibly only, option available. If you know of another manufacturer please let me have the details.

To Be, or Not To Be (a Lowtail) – Convercycle

The Convercycle is a standard bike that folds out into a lowtail. In town mode it is quite compact, and can even be stood on its end to reduce storage needs. In just a few seconds the back wheel can be flipped out and it becomes a lowtail with a load capacity of up to 60kg.  The first minute of this video illustrates the process.

As I live in a first-floor property, I can see that for urban living, where space to store a bike is limited and facilities to secure cargobikes even rarer, a bicycle of this type may be attractive. Indeed, for running around town I could be tempted.

Given the design of this bike and limited load space and capacity, it is likely to have a restricted commercial role. However, as a bike to ride to work, travel between meetings, and then do some shopping on the way home; I really see a place for it.

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