This article was first published in AutoSpeed.
When designing a Human Powered Vehicle, it’s one fight over weight after
another. We’ve already covered in an earlier part of this series how weight of
the machine has increased, seemingly without the addition of any parts! So when
it came to designing the frame, keeping the weight low was an absolute
As with the suspension arms already covered, the frame was built from
thin-wall chrome-moly steel tube, brazed together with nickel-bronze rods. If
you haven’t worked with chrome moly tube before (and I hadn’t), the tubing is
incredibly strong for its weight. And, despite having wall thicknesses of only
0.9mm or 1.2mm, it’s very easy to braze together.
In all vehicles, the frame (or chassis or monocoque, depending on the type of
construction), locates and supports the engine and suspension. (Of course, it
also locates and supports the occupants, but they’re not the items creating the
biggest forces.) To achieve these traditional functions, the frame has to accept
1. input of loads from the suspension - loads which include propulsion, braking
and cornering forces
2. forces generated by the engine – torsional drive forces, and static and
dynamic weight forces
3. vertical weight of the vehicle (normally achieved by supporting the top of
Because of the wide spacing of the suspension chassis attachment points,
spring mounts and engine mounts, the frame usually needs to be quite extensive.
But in the HPV being designed here, the situation, although apparently
similar, is actually very different.
Firstly, the heaviest load that has to be borne is the occupant – the rider
typically weighs four times as much as the unladen vehicle!
Secondly, with the semi-leading front suspension and the rear trailing arm
suspension described earlier in this series, the braking/cornering/propulsion
loads are all being fed into one small area of the frame. Why? Well, the front
semi-leading arms have their chassis pivot points located near the centre of the
machine, while the long rear trailing arm suspension also has its pivot points
located near the centre of the machine. (Furthermore, another high load input –
the anti-roll bar mounts – are located in the same area!)
So to cope with front and rear suspension force inputs, the HPV frame needs
to be little larger than a shoebox – all the suspension
cornering/braking/propulsive forces are being fed into one area. This approach
was deliberate – there was a major weight saving achieved by needing only one
small area of strong frame structure to support the suspension input loads.
But what about the big load – that of the rider’s weight? Before we can
discuss that, we need to talk about the seat. The seat design being used is a
Greenspeed ‘Ergo’ seat. It comprises two parallel 19mm (¾ inch) x 0.9mm tubes
bent into the curved shape of the seat. The two parallels are supported by
tubular cross braces while the synthetic fabric material of the seat is
stretched between the parallels, making a kind of hammock. As the name suggests,
in a recumbent HPV the rider is semi-recumbent, in this case having a reclined
angle of about 35 degrees to the horizontal. (This pic shows a bunch of Ergo
So the seat takes the rider’s weight (and also reacts against the pedalling
pushes!) but what supports the seat? The 19mm (¾ inch) x 0.9mm tubing of which
the seat is made isn’t strong enough to cope on its own with the rider’s weight
– it needs further support. In the Greenspeed designs, this support is provided
by a large diameter main backbone that extends from the pedals to just ahead of
the rear wheel. One support for the seat is near its leading edge; the others
comprise struts that go down to the rear axle (arrowed).
But in a suspension trike, the seat can’t connect to the rear wheel – after
all, the wheel is moving up and down by up to 150mm!
OK, so let’s take stock. We have the front and rear suspension cornering
loads being fed into a small area of the frame under the leading edge of the
seat. That area of the frame needs to be strong, and so, if required, can also
be used to support the front of the seat. Then we need some further support for
the rear of the seat, so a relatively strong framework needs to extend rearwards
of the suspension pivots. For least use of material, this rearwards frame
extension needs to follow the angle of the seat, so to "kick-up".
And since with a low motion ratio rear suspension, the spring needs to be
close to the leading edge of the rear wheel, the rearwards frame kick-up can
also support the top of the spring. Furthermore, because the maximum weight on
the machine is the rider in the seat, this weight force gets transmitted
straight from the seat to the rear seat support to the spring to the suspension
arm to the tyre to the ground.
OK, now let’s move forwards. The front springs have to be positioned out near
the wheels. But it’s a terrible extravagance of material and weight if we put in
frame tubes with the sole function of supporting the top of the springs. So what
else can these spring supports do? Well, if they are angled correctly, they can
also support the front of the seat. That is, the section of frame that supports
the springs can also support the seat. This has another benefit – like the rear
suspension, the weight of the rider gets transmitted straight from the seat to
the front spring supports to the springs to the suspension arms to the tyres to
So now we have the seat supported, the front and rear suspension pivots well
supported, and the front and rear springs well supported. Now what about the
‘engine’? On a HPV this comprises the rider and the pedals. And from our
existing frame design it’s easy enough to extend a tube forwards and upwards to
the pedal shaft to perform this pedal support function.
The above description summarises the approach taken. However, a few
refinements were added.
Firstly, another seat cross-brace was installed. This helps stiffen not only
the seat but also strengthens the rear frame kick-up (the seat then acts more as
a structural member).
Secondly, by putting a small extension piece on the frame kick-up, a carrier
can easily be added. Because the carrier then feeds its loads directly into the
main backbone, it’s very well supported – much more so than in most trike
Finally, to prevent the otherwise unsupported parallels of the seat being
pulled together by the tension in the seat material, a small diameter
cross-brace was placed on the upper back of the seat.
In all recumbent trikes where a steel tubular seat frame is used, the seat
can be said to be a structural component. However, the strength added to the
frame by the seat is aided if two things occur: the seat is welded into place
(or bolted so firmly that absolutely no movement at the bolts can occur) and if
when viewed from the front, the seat plane is vertically well offset from the
backbone. That last idea is hard to picture so let’s look at two simple
Hear is the view from the front. The green line is the seat material
stretched between the two seat tubes which are blue. The red tube is the main
longitudinal backbone tube. The black lines are the tubular struts that support
the seat frame. As can be seen, the green and black lines form a triangulated
structure that is quite stiff in bending.
However, as the seat tubes and the main backbone become closer in plane, the
bending strength of the assembly decreases, even though much the same amount of
material is used.
The approach shown in the first diagram above was adopted. The downside is,
as the seat base is positioned further above the ground, the centre of gravity
The actual weight of the frame depends not only on its design but also on the
tube diameters and wall thicknesses used.
What can be called the main backbone (the tube that extends from the pedals
to under the seat) was made from 44.5mm (1.75 inch) x 0.9mm wall tube. (This had
the added advantage that an off the shelf Greenspeed pedals/adjustable boom
assembly slides straight in the end.)
The angled mounts for the front suspension pivots, rear suspension pivots and
anti-roll bar mounts were made from 35mm (1 3/8 inch) x 1.2mm wall tube.
The rear kick-up was made from 32mm (1¼ inch) x 0.9mm wall tube and the seat
and its supports from 19mm (¾ inch) x 0.9mm tube. The front spring mounts, which
also support the front of the seat, were made from 32mm (1¼ inch) x 0.9mm wall
While it’s an anathema to car designers, these ultra-lightweight human
powered vehicles will always have frame flex. But it’s where the flex occurs
that’s important! If front suspension arm flex occurs laterally when
steering, or torsionally when braking, the results will be poor – the steering
and braking will be sloppy. If torsional flex of the rear suspension arm occurs
in cornering, the chain may come off the sprocket. So flex in these areas would
obviously be bad.
But if the seat frame, spring supports or even suspension arms flex only up
and down, there will be little impact on dynamics. (The effective spring rate
will simply be softened a little.) However, you don’t want the seat flexing
backwards when the rider pushes forwards on the pedals, and you don’t want the
pedal support moving around.
To reduce to a minimum suspension arm deflection, the arms themselves were
made as strongly as I could achieve while still keeping weight low. The area of
the frame that these loads are fed into is very strong: again, there is very
However, the spring supports flex upwards when loaded. To check on this
vertical frame flex, the easiest approach is to firstly remove the suspension
arms and springs. The spring seats are then supported on blocks of wood and the
rider sits in the seat. Any movement closer to the ground of the main backbone
is evidence of frame deflection. When tested in this way, the frame has a front
deflection of 2mm and a rear deflection of 1mm, both for a load of 89kg. (Spot
my mistake? Next week you’ll see the results of it.....)
The bare frame – comprising the seat metalwork, front spring supports, boom,
rear kick-up – weighs 4.0kg.
Light-weight HPV design requires that:
1. structural members are only as strong as required – and therefore, material
strength (eg tube diameter and wall thickness) is matched to the application
2. each section of the frame performs as many functions as possible
3. areas where high loads are experienced are grouped so that the required
amount of strong (and therefore relatively heavy) material is minimised
4. direct, short load paths are used that reduce to a minimum the amount of
material required to cope with the forces
Despite its apparent simplicity (or perhaps because of it?) I found designing
the frame extremely difficult. In a construction where more = less (ie more
tubes = less performance because of higher weight), what looks easy simply
isn’t. But then again, that’s the challenge of building an HPV...
Next: the first test ride. Will the radical front suspension prove to be a
complete flop? Will the frame flex like candy when subjected to real on-road