“A lot of people really like it, and a lot of people think it’s totally poop, but hey, that’s OK,” Velocitech engineer and developer Allen Carpenter said.
Speaking to John W. Ross for an article in the April 1985 issue of Bicycling Magazine, the Colorado bike builder pulled no punches. It could be said he was just as fearless in the way he designed and built this experimental mountain bike, the Mountain Machine.
From a distance, the Mountain Machine looks to be assembled from miscellaneous spare parts. There’s a 20-inch rear wheel, a 24-inch front wheel. It’s fitted with forks from Cook Brothers, and the high-rise handlebars are nearly suitable for BMX as well. Plus, the frame has all manner of curious features — a massive head tube lug, a permanently fixed chain-guide, and a diagonal stay from the bottom bracket to the seat stay where you can find an extra bottle cage.
The purpose behind all of these unorthodox features was to “redefine the term ‘all-terrain bike.’” Ah yes, before we all settled on the mountain bike/MTB nomenclature, there was a time in the ‘80s when these innovative new fat-tire bikes were called ATBs.
Carpenter was completely devoted to the concept of a bike that could go on literally all terrain. And so, the Mountain Machine was born.
“In designing our machine, we did not allow prior and accepted mountain bike design to cloud or influence our thinking,” Carpenter told Ross.
After five years of development, Carpenter unveiled a bike that was built around a philosophy of balancing rider weight evenly between the two wheels — 50/50. At the time, Velocitech claimed that this 50/50 balance had two major benefits: More control by allowing subtle weight shifts to more directly influence handling, and more front wheel traction to prevent wash-outs in corners.
As you might guess, the bike’s overall posture was meant to give it an advantage on climbs too. Velocitech fitted it with extremely low gearing, which was exaggerated by the 20” rear wheel.
But how did it ride? Ross gave the Mountain Machine the benefit of the doubt in his ‘85 article, but even his carefully nuanced ride impressions were not very encouraging:
“The stiffness of the frame is enough to impair its rider’s vision, transmitting vibrations to the rider’s head and shoulders,” Carpenter said in Bicycling. “At some point, safety dictates slowing down to get a clear picture of where you’re going.”
He also took issue with Velocitech’s claim that this bike could carry upwards of 100 pounds of cargo in rear-mounted panniers. The Mountain Machine was supposed to handle camping gear, supplies, even a child carrier on the back rack. That was not the case when the bike was loaded down and the rear end started “whiplashing” on descents.
Even in the eyes of an avid vintage mountain bike collector and restorer like Tasshi Dennis, the Mountain Machine is “a wacky and useless machine.”
Yet perhaps that is what makes this such a wonderful part of our Bike Museum.
While the design never caught on and the engineering principles may have not panned out on the dirt, Carpenter’s open-minded experimentation is refreshing. Today, no bike company would build a bike from the ground up, divorced from all conventional wisdom. But that’s what the early days of mountain bike design were all about. In that magical era of innovation, any idea was fair game, and while the results weren’t always pretty, they were never boring.
Tasshi Dennis and MOMBAT contributed to this story.