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Shifting Into Power Drive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fuel gauge in Allen Brown’s car always reads empty. Its batteries weigh 1,300 pounds. And under what used to be the gas cap now lurks an electric socket.

Brown loves the quiet whir that his 1987 Porsche 944 makes scooting along Orange County’s freeways. And when fellow commuters stare with unabashed curiosity at his motorized steed, he just grins and gives it some juice.

“It makes a statement,” he said of the sporty gray car. “It’s attractive, fast and efficient. It shows people what an electric vehicle can be.”

Brown, the 57-year-old dean of natural sciences at Fullerton College, has joined a handful of Orange County residents who have gone electric. Instead of buying or leasing a ready-made vehicle, however, he has spent a considerable amount of time and money converting a car of his own.

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“It has attracted lots of attention,” he said of his electric Porsche, which can travel up to 100 miles per hour.

Indeed, the car--which has no exhaust pipes and sports a sign identifying it as electric--gets lots of looks each morning as he maneuvers it 30 miles from his home in Laguna Beach to his office in Fullerton, via the Santa Ana Freeway.

It gets even more stares, he said, sitting in its special campus parking space plugged into a charger for the ride home.

“You’ve really got to pay attention to your driving,” explained Brown, adding that he hasn’t yet been stranded without a charge.

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Brown bought the car five years ago from a friend for $15,000. It got better gas mileage than the car he was driving at the time, so he began taking it to work. But when his maintenance bills started topping $3,000 a year, Brown decided he had to do something.

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The idea of converting the car to electric power came at an exhibition last year where he got to test drive an electric replica of a Porsche Spider, purportedly the favorite car of legendary actor James Dean. Brown recalls he wasn’t impressed with the car’s pickup.

But both he and his wife--well-known Laguna Beach environmental activist Elisabeth Brown--have long believed in promoting technologies that conserve fossil fuels. So why not, they decided, turn the Porsche into a living example of the practicality of electric travel?

They sent it to a designer and manufacturer of electric vehicles in Northern California. And 4 1/2 months and $28,500 later--viola!--they had their electric car.

Driven at normal freeway speed, Brown said, the car will go about 45 miles on a 3 1/2-hour charge. In addition to the charger at school, he has one in a carport at home to which the Porsche stays plugged at night.

Traffic, Brown said, is the enemy of energy efficiency. The more you stop, the more electricity you use. Consequently, he has developed a new style of driving aimed at maintaining constant speed rather than speeding between stops.

“You try to look ahead and anticipate traffic signals and offramps so you can maintain your speed,” said Brown, whose most closely watched instrument now is the E-meter--mounted where the gear shift used to be--which gauges electrical output. “You become much more aware of traffic signal coordination.”

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Sometimes, he said, he even elicits the unwitting help of an oversized vehicle in front of him.

“Momentum is a terrible thing to lose,” Brown said. “If I can find a truck that will suck me along, I might follow and take advantage of the vacuum.”

He is not the only one learning such driving techniques. About 20 other Orange County residents have leased EV1s, the country’s first commercially produced electric vehicles, since the cars became available in December.

“They are test pilots for the 21st century,” said Rick Ostrov, a spokesman for the Saturn Corp. Electric Vehicle Marketing Services, which distributes the cars.

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One of those so-called test pilots is Eric Luebben, an Irvine engineer who also drove a converted electric Porsche before leasing an EV1 two months ago.

“It performs much better than a gasoline engine,” Luebben said of his new car, which goes slower but farther on a single charge than Brown’s Porsche. “This car will take the route of the personal computer.”

Not everyone agrees.

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Bill Ward, chairman of a group called Drivers for Highway Safety, believes that battery-powered electric cars will never replace gas engines.

“You can’t store enough energy in a battery to compete with gasoline,” he said. “It’s going to be a niche market; electricity is good for golf carts, but most people aren’t going to buy it.”

Brown had his share of setbacks before getting his Porsche settled onto the road. After only a few weeks of operation, a power surge burned out its engine, putting the car in the shop for 3 1/2 months while technicians designed a new surge protector.

And once he accidentally tripped a circuit breaker near the driver’s seat that cut his power by 50%. He coasted off the freeway and had to figure out what had gone wrong.

Now that most of the bugs have been worked out, though, Brown said he couldn’t be happier.

He loves the quiet purr of the electric engine, a humming sound not unlike that of a trolley car. He enjoys paying extra attention to the road and planning his routes carefully.

And he loves having to spend only about $1.75 daily for electricity instead of the $3.15 he used to spend on gas.

“Maintenance is significantly less,” Brown said. “Instead of buying oil, I put 1 1/2 gallons of distilled water in the batteries every two weeks.”

Then, of course, there’s the personal joy he experiences during certain moments of his commute.

“I don’t have to breathe fumes out of so-called gas safety nozzles that never work,” Brown said.

“And I must admit that I get some satisfaction from driving past gas stations with people lined up.”


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