25 years of FLYER: no-sweat speed

Philippe Kohlbrenner, a talented inventor from the Emmental valley, makes the electric bicycle marketable.

The birth of the FLYER e-bike

The first FLYER e-bike was launched onto the market in 1995. With the advertising slogan “Flitzen ohne Schwitzen” (no-sweat speed), an innovative Swiss start-up promoted a “new dimension” for mobility. The team behind the company BKTech consisted of three pioneers who were interested in technology and enthusiastic about bicycles: on one of their first advertising posters the three motivated founders of the predecessor company of today's FLYER AG called themselves the “BKBuben” (BK boys). The first FLYER provided assistance up to 35 km/h with a range of up to 50 km. The e-bike weighed 35 kg, was available from 4450 Swiss francs, and could be ridden with a moped licence.

How it all started

Let us go a little further back in time to the early 1990s when the story of FLYER e-bikes started in the picturesque Emmental valley in Switzerland. A young sales technician called Philippe Kohlbrenner lived at the top of one of the green hills in the region of Central Switzerland best known for the cheese with the holes. Philippe Kohlbrenner worked for an energy technology company in Oberburg in Canton Berne. To keep fit, he decided to cycle to work every day down the hill from his house in the morning and back up the hill in the evening. He had to cover a difference in altitude of 300 metres on his way home every day. After about three months, he had had enough of the daily slog up the mountain. As necessity is the mother of invention, Kohlbrenner – with his technical and electronic skills – mounted a windscreen wiper motor and a car battery to a conventional bicycle, which provided him with the extra boost he needed to be able to cycle home comfortably. 1993 thus saw the birth of the first prototype of a FLYER e-bike, the “Red Buffalo”.

The original FLYER “Red Buffalo” – the creation of a talented inventor

“This first e-bike was cobbled together”, explains its inventor. It clattered and whirred when you rode it and the battery capacity was not sufficient for long tours. Kohlbrenner goes on to say that, in addition to the search for a suitable battery, he found the electronics particularly challenging. Every time he switched the drive on with a simple toggle switch attached to the handlebars, there was a considerable jerk. For this reason, Kohlbrenner turned the handlebars round. This meant that if the bike jolted too much when setting off, he was at least able to grip onto the handles of the handlebars that were now pointing upwards like horns. And this is where the name for the original FLYER with its red diamond frame came from: “Red Buffalo”.

While many of his contemporaries shook their heads, this new type of cycling also gained serious admirers. And, slowly but surely, a business idea began to form in Kohlbrenner's mind. He decided to build and market an electrified bicycle.

The first FLYER is manufactured in series production – innovative solid Swiss technology

Several months of hard work passed before a FLYER e-bike was manufactured in series production. Together with electrical engineer Reto Böhlen and business economist Christian Häuselmann, Kohlbrenner established the company BKTech with its headquarters in Burgdorf in 1995. In the same year, the first electric bikes were exhibited at the 2-Rad-Messe (two-wheel exhibition) in Zurich. In terms of financing their young company, the three pioneers started at zero, so to speak, as the initial hope of finding financially strong investors soon dissipated. Recognition of this new kind of mobility did not extend beyond a pat on the back in this initial period. For this reason, the young company started out by mainly financing itself from advance payments from 50 customers who had come across Kohlbrenner and his colleagues at a roadshow that toured the major Swiss cities. The time had come to start producing a first small series of electric bicycles. The new bicycle was to be called FLYER. The brand, which would later become synonymous with e-bikes in Switzerland, was born.

A box containing two 17 Ah batteries and a 170-watt direct current motor was mounted centrally on a Villager diamond frame. The drive was also “made in Switzerland” by the company. 

In spring 1996, the first FLYER e-bikes were delivered and in the same year, BKTech AG won the De Vigier Award for young entrepreneurs.

by Anja Knaus
31 July 2020