Photo by Jon Anderson
Woodie Comer, 71, takes his Elf for a spin on his street in the Bluff Park neighborhood in Hoover.
Woodie Comer is no celebrity, but it’s not unusual for people to take pictures of him when he’s riding around town.
It’s not the 71-year-old Bluff Park man that’s the focus of their cameras. It’s his vehicle.
The retired pharmacy technician frequently can be seen riding around Bluff Park — and sometimes other parts of Hoover — in an egg-shaped, wasabi green vehicle with three wheels — two in the front and one in the back.
The vehicle, called an Elf, looks a bit like a small car, but it’s legally a three-wheeled bicycle.
It’s powered in multiple ways: good old-fashioned foot pedaling and a battery that can be charged with the roof solar panel or by an electrical outlet. Riders also can use either source or a combination of pedaling and battery power.
The Elf, manufactured by a company in Durham, North Carolina, called Organic Transit, can go about 17 miles before it needs to recharge if only using the battery. Riders who supplement the battery power with pedaling can extend their trip to about 25 miles before the battery needs recharging.
Of course, you can pedal it as far as you can go, but it weighs about 160 pounds, and it helps to have the battery power when going uphill.
Comer first found out about the Elf in June 2014 when he saw a Vestavia Hills man, Marty Robinowich, riding one at the Publix off U.S. 31 in Hoover. He was intrigued, so the next month he met Robinowich for a test drive and decided to get one himself.
Comer found a couple in Guntersville who had bought two of the vehicles. The couple are in their 80s, and the Elf was too much for the husband, so they wanted to sell one, Comer said.
The base price for an Elf is $5,495, but with extras, a typical new one costs $7,000 to $9,000, Robinowich said. Comer said he was able to get his used one for $4,000.
He’s had it since August 2014 and thoroughly enjoys it, he said.
“It’s fun to drive,” he said. “It’s an interesting little gadget. I think it’s very practical … I try to get it out at least once a week.”
He frequently rides his to the Piggy Wiggly and other stores at Shades Mountain Plaza but doesn’t take it out on the main roads, he said.
People often take pictures of it, and some people have followed him home to ask questions about it, Comer said. But he still can’t get his wife, Peggy, interested in riding it.
He likes the exercise and the fact that he doesn’t have to buy gas for it, he said.
Robinowich, a 64-year-old retired telecom engineer and financial adviser, has always been an avid cyclist and competed in bike races in the 1960s and ’70s. Years ago, he rode his bicycle to work at BellSouth on U.S. 280 until he got run off Dolly Ridge Road in 2005 and decided it was too dangerous.
As an engineer, he had been tinkering with the idea of something like the Elf for more than two decades, but “my design wasn’t very practical,” he said. “It would not have worked.”
Then his wife found the Elf on the Internet and showed it to him. They drove to the Elf factory in North Carolina.
“I tested it and said I had to have one,” he said.
It was delivered to Vestavia Hills in February 2014. He’s had it for nearly two years now and has put more than 5,000 miles on it, he said.
When he retired at the end of 2014, he was riding the Elf to his financial advising job at the Colonnade. It was an 8-mile trip from his home in Derby Downs, using the back roads, he said.
He’d pack his tie, work shirt and dress shoes in the Elf’s trunk, change clothes when he got to work and change again before riding home, he said.
The roof protects you from the sun and keeps most rain out as long as the wind is not blowing too much, Robinowich said.
Now that he’s retired, Robinowich uses the Elf to run errands and do most all of his grocery shopping, he said. “It’s got a huge trunk in the back,” he said. He also rides it to an American Red Cross office on Caldwell Mill Road to donate platelets on Saturdays, he said.
Organic Transit advertises that the Elf has a top speed of 30 mph, which means it can’t be driven on interstates. However, Robinowich said he’s gotten his up to 45 mph on Columbiana Road.
“I go really, really fast going downhill because I like it,” he said. “I take the Elf to the absolute limit … I really ride this thing hard.”
The Elf has brake lights, turn signals and headlights, but it doesn’t require a car tag, insurance or license because it’s legally a bicycle, Robinowich said. Hoover police at one point told him he needed a vehicle tag, but when he went to get one, the people at the tag office said he didn’t need one because the Elf doesn’t come with a vehicle identification number, he said.
As an engineer, Robinowich is always tinkering with his Elf. He retrofitted it with front suspension, put a new seat in that’s easier to adjust, put in a more efficient solar panel and a quieter and faster motor, and installed a meter that tells him how much charge is left in the battery.
“Retired engineers have to amuse themselves,” he said.
People are very curious about the Elf when Comer or Robinowich are out driving it, they said. They’ll take pictures and ask a lot of questions about it because most people have never seen one.
Organic Transit has sold more than 500 Elfs, but Robinowich is only aware of six in Alabama, including the ones owned by him and Comer. There also is one in Guntersville, one in Montgomery, one in Mobile and one in Irondale, he said.
Robinowich said he likes the exercise aspect of having an Elf. He has lost 40 pounds since he started riding it, he said. But he’s also an environmentalist.
“I just think it’s great for the environment,” he said. “It’s called saving the planet.”
For more information about the Elf, go to organictransit.com.