Backstory: From gas-powered to electric auto in 36 hours flat
SANTA MONICA, CALIF.
A 1978 Triumph Spitfire convertible is doing a little sunbathing on the Santa Monica pier on a late Friday morning, the kind of day real estate boosters call "sun-splashed."Skip to next paragraph
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But this is not a story about a car. It's about a man called "Gadget," aka Greg Abbott, though no one ever uses his name. Gadget owns this Spitfire, one of some 50 vehicles parked on the pier and the only one that runs purely on gas.
The vehicles are about to line up for a parade that will mark the start of the first Alternative Car and Transportation Expo held in Los Angeles.
It's 10:45 a.m. – indulge me in the recurring time motif because there is, indeed, a loudly ticking clock in this story. Starting at 9 a.m. on the following day, Gadget will have 36 hours to get a difficult job done: convert the Spitfire from its original combustion engine to a fully electric car.
I'm going to amplify this because it's hard to comprehend just what this will entail: He's going to transform an old gas-burning, particulate-spewing car into a completely clean, zero-emissions electric vehicle. He's going to do this by removing the old engine, exhaust, and fuel system and installing a new electric motor with everything it needs.
When he's done, the car will go faster and be more powerful than it was with the old engine, he promises. All of the work will be done on the floor of the expo, in full view of the browsing public, where failure would be a transparent humiliation.
Plus, he's going to perform this task with the assistance of guys who have never done this before – and without using a single power tool.
Because he wants to make the point that, even though this may sound like rocket science, it isn't. He wants to make this point because he is the owner of a company called Left Coast Electric, and it is his plan to mass-produce conversion kits so that just about anyone can transform any car into an electric vehicle.
To carry out this extreme motor makeover, Gadget needs three basic parts – the electric motor (it's about the size of a breadbox, but heavier), lots of car batteries, and something he designed called "the box." It houses a controller, an electric converter, and the rest of the whatnots.
Gadget has just one problem this morning: The electric motor has not yet arrived from his supplier. He seems unruffled. He's confident that it will come today. Confidence, it turns out, is something Gadget has plenty of.
Gadget is middle-aged, trim but solidly built. He sports a Vandyke beard and flashes a mischievous grin that gives him the look of a swashbuckler, though he's more adept with a torque wrench than a rapier.
Gadget is like a lot of backyard tinkerers who are trying to solve the nation's energy crisis one volt at a time. As oil prices have boomed, the new wave energy gurus are trying everything from tapping the power of ocean waves to make electricity to using French fry grease to power cars.
None of these technologies on its own will solve the nation's energy ills, of course. But the impending decline of the fossil-fuel age, coupled with the rise of concern about global warming, is leading to a burst of entrepreneurialism, not unlike the early days of the computer revolution.
"Just as Microsoft and Apple came out of garages, the new cars of the future are being made in the same places," says Edwin Black, author of "Internal Combustion."