Backstory: From gas-powered to electric auto in 36 hours flat
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Gadget's car odyssey began when he set out to build a go-cart at age 15. He quickly realized that he could get his driver's permit in six months, so instead he decided to build a car. His mother drove him to a metal shop. A few months later, he produced a vehicle that worked – and drove 10,000 miles through 24 states after getting his license. Impressively, the car got 52 miles to the gallon – in 1977.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite this success, his career path into the automobile business would not be linear.
First, he would spend 30 years as a contractor, a butler, a metal fabricator, and dancer. In 2004, while working on a Discovery television show, Gadget converted a BMW motorcycle to electric. It sparked his interest to convert a car – one of his favorites, a Triumph Spitfire.
He found the principles easy but the work arduous because the relays, cables, controller, and converters all came from different manufacturers. He saw a business opportunity.
He created "the box" and began Left Coast Conversions (now, Left Coast Electric), believing that the time was right for a resurgence in the electric car. That's right, a resurgence. Little known and largely forgotten, there was a time when the electric car in America was king.
According to Mr. Black, electric cars have been around for 175 years if you count the crude carriages made by Scotsman Robert Davidson and American Thomas Davenport in the mid-1830s. By the late 19th century, they were taking off in Europe, and in 1899 a Belgian electric car claimed the world land speed record at 65.8 m.p.h.
In the US, electric, steam, and gas all vied for dominance in the nascent automobile industry. For two years, 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all others – a notable achievement even if the number of sales was fewer than 2,000 a year.
Their time at the top was short-lived, though. Several events brought them down, including the discovery of oil in Texas, the building of roadways that demanded greater range, advances in combustion engines, and patent lawsuits – the most famous of which was won by Henry Ford in 1911.
But, according to David Kirsch, who studies nascent industries at the University of Maryland business school, it was the cultural appeal of internal combustion that ultimately made the difference.
"Electric vehicles worked really well in cities, but their range was always limited by the batteries," says Mr. Kirsch. "Internal combustion was a gentleman's toy of conquest, embedded in a culture of high speed, escape from the crowded cities, and a turn-of-the-century Anglo-Saxon fear of the great unwashed. At the end of the day, what killed the electric vehicle was that it couldn't do what people with money really wanted it to – which was go out in the country with your girlfriend."
At 11:30 a.m. the odd and eclectic collection of alternative vehicles begins rolling off the Santa Monica pier, led by a police escort. They proceed along a five-mile parade route through the city to a hangar at the local airport, site of the weekend expo.
"People came out on the streets and cheered," says Gadget upon arrival at the hangar. "But the Triumph kept overheating and smelled terrible. Jeez, I hate gas."
By 1:30 p.m., the Triumph is jacked up at his booth, ready for its makeover. Gadget leaves for his workshop in Culver City, where he expects to find the electric motor that he ordered waiting for him. In fact, it is not there. Without it, his project is dead. Gadget starts calling his supplier. The news is disastrous – the motor will not be coming. Is his project doomed?
• Next: Part 2 – the conversion hits a balky transmission pin.