An Electric Start : Media, Billboards, Web Site Herald Launch of the EV1

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A century ago, Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Mass., sold the nation's first gasoline buggy to George Morill of nearby Norwood. Not one photographer caught the moment.

Thursday--4,000 manufacturers and 1.8 billion American cars later--General Motors began leasing EV1 electric coupes at coffee-and-muffin showroom parties for carefully screened customers in Southern California and Arizona.

The first, hesitant drive-aways--after equally timid trial runs around dealers' blocks--were filmed by every domestic television network, the British Broadcasting Corp., NHK-TV Tokyo and a crew from Australia. With a satellite feed for any population overlooked. True to Los Angeles' company town status, actor and bay-saver Ed Begley Jr. and "Baywatch" star Alexandra Paul were among the first to put their autographs on GMAC leases.

As part of an $8-million promotional binge, billboards were raised, a World Wide Web site was launched, television commercials appeared during prime-time sitcoms and the EV1 showed up as a celebrity micro-limo at Thursday night's premiere of the movie "Daylight," starring Sylvester Stallone. The only thing missing from the opening day was Santa arriving by EV1.

And although it rained gently on GM's parade--the day was mercifully spared electrical storms--at the end of showroom business, 40 EV1s had been leased through 24 Saturn dealers in the two states. By the end of the year, a GM executive estimated, there would be 100 EV1s whistling along freeways or whirring contentedly at home recharging stations.

Most of the $34,000 vehicles that changed hands Thursday were sought by environmental evangelists, like Begley and Paul, putting money where their visions and preachings are. Paul, who ordered her EV1 in forest green, has owned two Volkswagens converted to electric power. She campaigns to save whales and does not wear leather. Fortunately for her, neither do the seats in the EV1.

"I didn't think about that," said Paul, who picked up her EV1 at Saturn of Airport Marina. "If it did come with leather, I'd just have to suck it up and plead ignorance."

At Saturn of the Valley in North Hills, Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude said he was obtaining an EV1 to reinforce the pollution-cleansing remedies he first suggested in 1988.

"I'll use it to drive the 19 miles from my home in Brentwood to City Hall," Braude said. He'll keep his Ford Taurus for longer hauls. "But I feel a little strange about this. Every car I've bought, I've paid cash. This is the first time I've leased."

At Saturn of Torrance, Mark Selogie, a Los Angeles electrical engineer, took delivery as a souvenir of his work in developing the car--and because his 13-year-old daughter had already driven the two-seater and he wanted it "to be her first car . . . also her generation's first car."

Nobody was surprised that Ed Hassellman of San Diego signed a three-year lease on an EV1. He designed solar panels for Skylab. Another went to Jordan Harris, president of Sony Music and something of an automotive switch-hitter, who said an EV1 might ease his guilt at driving a Ferrari, a Jaguar and assorted race cars.

Through car racing, believes Harris, there could be complete public acceptance of electric vehicles--even a revolution in battery technology to resolve their chronic deficiencies of short range and long recharging periods. After all, he said, most automotive safety systems and technologies, from disc brakes to rearview mirrors, began on racetracks.

"I would love to see a zero-emissions racing series that would certainly force the technologies," he added. "Then there would be no excuse for not driving zero-emission vehicles."

No matter the lessee, all were vividly aware of their minutes of fame and tiny places in history as operators of the world's first modern production electric vehicles--and a milestone introduced just days before the beloved, blasted, exciting, indispensable and fascinating automobile is poised to roll into its second century.

More important than Henry Ford's Model A? Absolutely. As important as the debut of the Duryea? Probably.

"I honestly believe that when they write the history of the second century of automobiles, this [EV1] will be the starting point, the seminal event," said Joe Kennedy, vice president of marketing for Saturn.

He was quite aware of scattered protests against the cost of the vehicle, the century-old technology of lead-acid batteries and abbreviated range. "But how long did it take personal computers to grow from cumbersome Apple 2Es to what we have today? Twenty years.

"Let us not forget that technology starts small and grows slowly before technology improves and costs go down."

Anita Mangels was not at Thursday's celebration. But she was granting interviews as executive director of Californians Against Hidden Taxes, which is funded by the oil industry and is firmly against electric vehicles.

Mangels knows that those who lease the EV1 will be eligible for federal and state tax credits. Other perks, she said, will include certain exemptions from fuel and highway taxes and credits from local air management districts. She said that constitutes government-subsidized motoring for the affluent professional earning $120,000 a year, whom GM has targeted as the typical EV1 buyer.

But no taxpayer, said Mangels, helped the purchase of her 7-year-old, 110,000-mile Jeep Wrangler. And several studies, she said, claim that even if all Americans drove electric cars, it would clean big city air by only 10%.

"But now you have people like the 'Baywatch' babe, or a big earner like the president of Sony Music receiving credits to buy a car for his fleet," Mangels said. "Hell, I want to date him, not subsidize him."

Meanwhile, alone at last with his brand-new EV1, flight attendant Charles McCollister tooled onto the freeway to see what it could do. About 35 miles from the dealership, he found out.

His high-tech, ice-blue teardrop of a ride almost ran out of juice.

The battery gauge fell, and the indicator of distance left dropped. Five miles. Then four. Then three as he topped a hill en route to his Simi Valley home.

McCollister began switching things off to save power. First the defroster, then the fan, then the wipers. The range gauge dwindled to one, then went blank but for three ominous dots.

"BATTERY LIFE," warned the dashboard with a ping. "SERVICE NOW. REDUCED PERFORMANCE."

"Oh God," McCollister said. "This is exactly what I feared, conking out in the middle of the freeway. Can you believe this? I really learned the hard way."

But the car lumbered on and crawled up the steep hill to his house on its last few volts. With a relieved sigh, McCollister plugged in the charger and eyed the control panel with a nervous laugh. Within 90 minutes, the readout's glowing letters read, "50% FULL."

Even though a Saturn crew was coming to tow his gleaming new car straight back to a dealership for a diagnostic checkup, McCollister kept the faith.

"Of course I'm a little bit discouraged right now, but I know it's going to be wonderful," he said. "I still am very enthusiastic. I won't give up."

* EXPERT DRIVERS: A Sherman Oaks couple have had electric cars for years. B2

* IN VENTURA COUNTY: A Simi Valley man finds first trip draining, but fulfilling. (Ventura County Metro, B1)

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