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New Buzz in Automobiles : The industry as a Whole Is Beginning to Plug Into Electric Cars

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“We offer everything!” car salesmen Gary Starr exclaims, all shirt sleeves and teeth. “CD players, tinted windows, hands-free cellular phone, even power windows. We’ll lease you a car. We take trade-ins too, as long as they’re electric.”

As the sharp aroma of roasting espresso breezes along the street in downtown Santa Rosa, past the furniture store and the Omelette Express, Starr, president of Solar Electric Engineering Inc., is standing in his showroom, a couple of metered parking spots in front of his own shop, Earth Options. Inside, customers can buy T-shirts, string bags, Tree Life Home Soap, various solar gadgets--or an automobile that runs on electricity.

Without much notice, several thousand electric cars now quietly roll along U.S. streets, most converted from conventional models by hobbyists.

Meanwhile, major U.S. and foreign auto makers--gearing up to meet air pollution standards that force them to offer electric cars in California beginning in 1998--have recently shown off prototypes of future mass-production electric models at trade exhibitions and for the press, particularly in Southern California.

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Between the hobbyists and big car manufacturers lies the market arena of Solar Electric, which for the moment sells more electric cars than any other company in the nation.

Indeed, big auto makers’ designers, engineers and environmental watchdogs are still wrestling with such fundamental questions as whether the power-providing batteries should be recharged, or replaced, at the neighborhood electric “filling station.” Or how dangerous a car stuffed with batteries could be in an accident.

As to the batteries themselves, a practical breakthrough in technology that would extend a car’s range beyond about 60 miles per charge remains elusive. The Energy Department and a U.S. auto makers’ consortium announced in October a joint four-year project to get development of better batteries off the dime.

Solar Electric makes no apologies for offering a car built from current technology.

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The company’s standard, off-the-shelf model is a Ford Escort, converted to electric power and renamed the Electron. Solar Electric buys Escorts from a local dealer then tears out the engine and gas tank and installs 18 lead-acid golf cart batteries and an electric motor similar to one used as a starter engine for jet airplanes.

The transmogrified car sells for $17,400, about twice the cost of a gasoline-driven Escort. But Starr’s cars, as well as models from smaller Electro Automotive of Felton, Calif., just qualified for a $1,000 state tax credit under a California Air Resources Board program to encourage electric car use. As converted electric vehicles, they are also exempt from state sales tax.

Buyers can also expect to see savings in fuel costs and maintenance, Starr says, since his electric cars, recharged at off-peak rates at night, cost about 3 cents a mile to run--compared to more than 5 cents for the gasoline version of the Escort. A special charging rate program for electric vehicles from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power would lower its customers’ rates even further, to about 1 cent a mile.

Maintenance is also less, Starr notes, since the engine has only one moving part, the rotor, compared to as many as 200 in most conventional autos.

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Everyday life with an electric car--at least this one--has other good and bad moments.

One builder and owner reports that in his own electric car, he always carries an extension cord, and that no one yet--friends, the local Sears store, or the high school where he teaches auto shop--has yet refused his request to hook up and charge his batteries while parked.

An unusual benefit is the batteries’ inherent ability to partially recharge themselves. If a driver runs out of juice, he or she might choose to wait for half an hour for enough charge to return to run two or three more miles.

One of the car’s shortcomings is acceleration. While it is peppy enough on city streets, accelerating to freeway speeds takes time--29 seconds from zero to 60 m.p.h., compared to 10 to 11 seconds for a standard gasoline Escort.

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“It’s not a hot-rod,” Starr admits. “It’s like a small, four-cylinder car.”

Solar Electric also builds specialty cars, such as one with photovoltaic cells embedded in the body of a Pontiac Fiero, a $28,000 model that was driven in the movie “Naked Gun 2 1/2.”

Business is good. Sales have leaped from 20 vehicles in 1990 to an expected 75 this year and a goal of 200 in 1992. The 1,200 shareholders of the company, which is traded as an over-the-counter pink sheets stock, have seen their stock double in the past year, to $1.25 a share. Starr owns about one-quarter of the shares.

Most sales so far have been in Southern California, where the tiny firm already has three repair stations and plans to open a showroom in January. Starr’s most recent fleet sale was six vehicles to the city of Vernon.

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But Starr’s window of opportunity as the major alternative-fuel auto-seller is about to close. For one thing, he now has competition.

Electric Car Company of America Inc., for one, in business in North Hollywood since 1988, has done 17 custom conversions of cars ranging from Toyotas to a Mazda RX7--for as little as $10,000 including the car--for customers that include the environmentally careful actor Ed Begley Jr. Owner Richard A. Mayer says that his cars, using a more powerful engine than Starr’s, can reach 60 m.p.h. from a dead stop in just 14 seconds.

In the larger marketplace, the first generation of commercially available hybrids--cars that can use either an alternative fuel or gasoline--is also about to hit the freeways.

Clean Air Transport Svenska, the Swedish company that won a $7-million contract from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build 10,000 electric cars, displayed its prototype in Los Angeles recently. It was designed by a firm that also worked on the highly successful Mazda Miata, and its car is scheduled for sale in Southern California in early 1993.

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General Motors, Ford and Chrysler say they will begin selling thousands of methanol and natural gas vans, trucks and cars even earlier, beginning in the spring of 1992. Chrysler’s natural gas vans could even be available as early as December; 2,000 GMC 3/4-ton Sierra pickups go on sale beginning in April.

The first mass-produced only-electric passenger car is likely to be what General Motors so far calls its Impact. GM says its prototype reaches 60 m.p.h. in eight seconds. GM also declines to be more specific about an arrival date than the “mid-1990s.”

“And not everyone wants an Impact,” Starr says. He and the others see their market niche, even after the big companies begin mass production, as buyers who want particular vehicles converted--Starr calls one conversion his Voltswagon--as well as existing fleets of meter-maid carts and the like.

Starr’s electric cars are not without critics.

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Car magazines have often given Solar Electric’s autos negative performance reviews, and one regulator privately describes them as “bush league.” The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has ordered a car to test, also says delivery of their test model is weeks overdue.

Bill Sessa of the California Air Resources Board puts it more kindly: “It’s today’s car with today’s battery. . . .”

Which is the whole point for many buyers who are impatiently awaiting the first generation of Detroit’s electric cars, years from now.

At a recent Hawaiian auto show, GM and others showed their prototypes and weren’t too firm on sticker price or arrival date, Starr says. When he took his turn, he recalls, he was “happy to be pinned down on the price, (and) people actually cheered.”

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California Alternative Car Firms

Below are some California companies that convert gasoline-powered vehicles to electricity.

Solar Electric Engineering Inc., Santa Rosa, (800) 832-1986: In business since 1976. Now has 23 employees and has converted 87 cars, most of them Ford Escorts or Pontiac Fieros. Basic price for the entire car: $17,400.

Electro Automotive Co., Felton near Santa Cruz, (408) 429-1989: In business since 1979, sells conversion kits for do-it-yourselfers only, $3,500 to $7,000, with one specifically designed for a Volkswagen Rabbit. Has sold more than 200 kits. Four employees.

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Electric Car Co. of America: North Hollywood, (818) 763-7321: Has done 17 custom car conversions, ranging from $10,000 to $16,000, using Toyotas, Hondas, Festivas and Mazda RX7s. In business since 1988, the company now has five employees and has retrofitted a car for actor Ed Begley and serviced electric cars for Alan Alda, Michael Bell and other entertainers.

Eyeball Engineering, Fontana, (714) 829-2011: The two partners have done 30 custom conversions--including a motorcycle--in the past 20 years. Typical conversion: $6,000 to $10,000.

KTA Services, Orange, (714) 639-9799: Designs and sells conversion systems for specific cars, with basic cost of $4,000 to $5,500. Has sold 40 systems since 1990.

Kaylor Energy Products, Stanford, (408) 338-2200: Has sold 680 conversion kits, primarily for Volkswagen vehicles, since 1973. Prices range from $1,995 to $2,995. Six employees.

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