The world’s fastest compressed air motorcycle

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One of the neat things about land speed record racing at Bonneville is that you don’t have to adhere to an existing formula or class. If you’ve got a new technology, just apply for acceptance to race it, then turn up and go fast. That’s what the Saline Airstream will do this summer when it will go for a targeted top speed of 125mph. How will it get there? Compressed air.

Pneumatic engines using compressed air as their power source aren’t new. If you’ve used an impact wrench or other pneumatic workshop tool, then you’ve used a compressed air engine. The technology enjoys particular interest in France, where Victor Tatin conceived an airplane powered by it all the way back in 1879. That’s where Les Triplettes des Bonneville, the team that will run the Airstream and the makers of its engine come from.

The company making the engine is MDI, which is pushing the technology in low-speed, urban vehicles. Like electricity, compressed air is zero emissions (well, technically it’s emitting air…), but unlike electricity, fill ups don’t take hours. You can fill a compressed air tank from a compressor or storage unit in the same time it takes to fill up with gasoline. The downside is that power output and therefore performance are so far somewhat limited, something Les Triplettes are trying to address.

The function of a pneumatic piston engine of the kind employed here is incredibly simple. Air is stored in the Airstream’s three tanks at 3,626psi and fed into the engine at 363psi, where it expands, pushing the piston down. That pistons’s return path exhausts the air through a valve, just like in your gasoline-powered motorcycle.

Les Triplettes have some experience setting land speed records on bonkers machines. On their first visit they packed a 50cc sidecar into their luggage, then set a new, 60mph record on it. The following year they raced a three-wheeled Reliant Robin built by my good friend Andy Saunders.

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Making the Airstream unique beyond just the power source is a reconfigurable chassis that’s low and long for record racing and a bit shorter and steeper for road riding. The bike was actually designed by students at France’s ISD Valenciennes and should help demonstrate the viability of compressed air as an energy source for exciting road vehicles.

Les Triplettes are hard at work assembling the Airstream as we speak. Team member Jean Caillou will race it at Bonneville Speedweek, August 13-19.

Les Triplettes des Bonnevilles

  • Peter

    Air powered or not, that bike is sexy as hell.

    • Felix

      It’s like the bastard offspring of a Tron lightcycle and a cafe racer.

  • the_doctor

    The French are all full of hot air.

    I apologies.

    • Thom


      Uhhhhhm …… that would be compressed air in this case .

      LoL :o)

  • hedrives

    Love the plex exhaust pipes.

  • Thom

    Make mine the road version . Satin black . With say ……… either the BMW parallel twin , or a nice punchy single .

    Oh but kick the handlebars up a bit .

  • Devin

    Going fast on an oddball machine needs no excuses.

    • Thom

      As long as it makes NOISE !!! ( which this one will )

      • Case

        If you don’t think that a machine makes noise when it goes fast, get on it.

  • MERC

    Pull into the gas station, slug a few coins in and fill up on compressed air. Looking forward to seeing what she runs!

  • Travisty

    I remember as a kid having a toy car and motorcycle that I would pump air into. Those were super fun. I asked my dad why real cars didn’t work that way. This is super cool.

  • Glenngineer

    Fucking awesome.

  • stempere

    Actually it’s “Les Triplettes de Bonneville”, a wordplay on Les triplettes de Belleville.

    • Jason

      I’m glad someone else knows about this movie.

  • Taco

    Reliant Robins! I loved that Top Gear episode where Jeremy Clarkson drove around in one and kept flipping over on its side. I laughed so hard watching him hoon around.

  • Brammofan

    Is it only compressed air, or could it possibly be powered by compressed methane? I don’t know beans about these engines but riding one could be good for your heart.


    Slap an Indian badge on it.

  • Emmet

    shinya picture, nice.

  • Your_Mom

    I am surprised no one has asked so here goes: where would you get an air-compressor that produces 3,626 psi (250 bar) to refill the tanks? And yes, beautiful bike….

    • tomwito

      From the steam off a nuclear reactor.

  • Andy Keech

    this is a little nit-picky, but like electrically propelled bikes/whatever compressed air systems are MOTORS not engines. engines generate energy, motors simply transform stored energy into motion.

    • James Dean Meyer

      Engines don’t generate energy any more than motors do. (Law of Conservation of Energy: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The total amount of energy never changes.)

      Engines and motors both transform stored energy into other forms of energy, including motion (kinetic energy). ICE’s convert chemical energy stored in liquid fuels, Electric motors convert electrical energy (often stored as chemical energy in a battery), and air motors convert potential energy stored as compressed air.

      It’s all semantics anyway, the bike is awesome and I wish them luck!

  • tomwito

    3,626 PSI is an insane amount of pressure, if you got hit riding that bike and the tank was punctured the outcome would be very bad.

    • stickfigure

      3600psi is only 600psi higher than the ubiquitous “aluminum 80″ scuba tank used and abused throughout the world. Sure it’s a lot of pressure but people throw tanks like that around every day.

      On the other hand, they’re usually filled very slowly with high-pressure, low-volume pumps. Assuming you have a large reservoir at the station to draw from, are there thermal issues if you equalize the pressure in the tank in just a matter of seconds? Will this cause excessive metal fatigue?