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Vigil an Outlet for EV1 Fans

Times Staff Writer

The vigil in Burbank is now in its fourth week, a period made miserable at times by torrential rains. Twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out, a dedicated group of enthusiasts has been camped out in front of the General Motors’ facility here.

The group includes actors, engineers, automotive consultants and just plain car nuts. To a person, they fret about what fossil fuels do to the environment. Now sleep deprived from pulling night shifts on the curb, the protesters are here to save not whales or some other endangered species but 71 of the last of GM’s legendary electric car, the EV1.

The threatened vehicles sit in a parking lot behind the building, where a GM employee plugs them in from time to time to keep them road-ready.

General Motors made 1,000 of the revolutionary clean cars in the 1990s, leasing most of them. In August, the last lease was up, and GM took back the vehicles. Since then, the Burbank protesters say, the company has been crushing the cars in Mesa, Ariz.

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“We estimate they’ve already destroyed 800 of them,” said Chelsea Sexton, one of the organizers of the protest that began Feb. 16. Dozens of EV1 enthusiasts have offered to buy the remaining vehicles for about $25,000 each.

Dave Barthmuss, a spokesman for GM in Thousand Oaks, said he understood the affection the protesters have for the EV1 but that there wasn’t a big enough market to support the car.

“The loyalists who are gathered in Burbank are very passionate about the vehicle, but there simply weren’t enough of them at any given time to make the EV1 a viable business opportunity for GM to pursue long term,” he said. “Eight hundred leases in a four-year time frame does not a business make.”

He said GM did not plan to sell the remaining cars to the demonstrators. One reason is that the model has 2,000 unique parts, many no longer available, raising safety concerns.

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Before Sexton became an automotive consultant, whose specialty is electric vehicles, she helped market the EV1 for GM. Best of all, she got to drive it.

The battery-powered coupe was easy to pitch, said Sexton, even after she told customers that it had to be plugged in and its batteries recharged every 140 miles. All she had to do was get the customer behind the wheel: “It’s fast and fun, and it will beat a Viper,” she said.

The car was governed so that it couldn’t go faster than 80 mph, but one set a land-speed record for an electric car at 183 mph, she recalled.

As the 29-year-old activist sat shaded by a beach umbrella, a teenager pulled to the curb in his 2005 hybrid Toyota Prius. The 17-year-old Burbank resident said he was attracted by the group’s signs and his concerns about conventional cars and air quality.

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“Why are they crushing the cars?” he asked.

“That’s exactly what we’re asking,” Sexton said.

Sexton said that she and the others trying to save the remaining EV1s (EV stands for electric vehicle) should not be written off as mere enthusiasts, smitten with the car’s cool technology and compact good looks.

GM proved that it could build a viable electric car, and now it has turned its back on its own creation, she said.

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“This is an issue of an American public that deserves the choice to drive clean cars and to be independent from oil and to have clean air,” she said. “The EV1 is a symbol of what’s possible. It’s a betrayal of the American dream for GM to crush these cars.”

With financial incentives from both the state and federal governments, GM was the first major U.S. auto company to develop a truly clean car with the EV1.

In 1990, California’s Air Resources Board announced its zero-emission vehicle mandate, requiring 2% of all cars sold in California to be nonpolluting by 1998. Since then, the mandate has been amended to favor the development of low-emission vehicles. That paved the way for hybrid vehicles and doomed the nonpolluting electric car, Sexton and other EV1 supporters say.

Today, hybrids like the Prius have long waiting lists and demand premium prices, but not a single major supplier offers an electric car to American consumers. Thus, the demand for the few vehicles like the EV1 that remain.

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Barthmuss said GM was recycling the bulk of each EV1, “not simply crushing them and sending them to landfills.” Some are going to museums and universities, where engineering students can dissect them like cadavers.

He said GM was building on what it learned from creating electric cars to produce its new hybrids and the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell models it plans to market within the next few years.

But this is little consolation to EV1 enthusiasts. Actress Alexandra Paul, who starred in TV’s long-running “Baywatch,” is one of dozens who has offered to buy the remaining battery-powered cars. She said she would also release GM from any warranty or liability in connection with the car.

She leased a hunter-green model on Dec. 5, 1996. Hers was the first EV1 made available to the public -- No. 37.

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“It was an incredible machine,” said Paul, who used it as her only car until GM declined to renew her lease in 2001. “It’s the cleanest car in the world, and, not only that, it was incredibly fast and quiet.”

Virtually the only maintenance the car required was rotating the tires and checking the fluids.

Paul said she had been driving electric cars since 1990, the year after the tanker Exxon Valdez went aground and spilled oil off Alaska.

“I realized I was part of the problem,” the Westside resident said. She began driving cars that had been converted to battery operation.

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Paul described herself as an environmentalist, not a car lover: “When I was 7, I wrote to President Nixon and asked him to stop pollution.”

Paul Scott, who sells visual effects to the entertainment industry, also helped organize the vigil. The 52-year-old Santa Monica resident said he was outraged that “the auto industry is ignoring what is the single best solution to get us off oil.”

All six of the major auto companies that developed electric cars have abandoned the technology, he said.

He doesn’t believe GM’s contention that it couldn’t sell enough of the electric cars to make a profit: “If GM had used the marketing budget that they have for the Hummer for the EV1 and vice versa, which car do you think would have sold?”

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The protesters aren’t giving up. They have enlisted the help of state Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). This week, the legislators sent a letter to GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner expressing concern that “you are now destroying the very cars subsidized by taxpayers.” They urged the company to sell the last few EV1s “to people who want to use them to help clean up California’s air.”

Sexton, who met her husband when he was an EV1 technician, said she was proud that their 6-year-old son, Christopher, doesn’t remember a time before electric cars.

“He’s broken-hearted that we can’t drive a red EV1 home” from Burbank, Sexton said. “And I’m going to stay here until he gets his wish.”


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