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Backstory: Saving the planet, one car at a time

By Frank KosaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2007



SANTA MONICA, CALIF.

Greg Abbott's Ford F-350 is parked outside the hangar door Saturday morning at the Santa Monica airport, site of the first Alternative Car and Transportation Expo. It's a large pickup that looks as if it gets about one mile per gallon. Amid all the solar, ethanol, and natural-gas hybrid cars here, the truck doesn't seem to fit the profile of the neighborhood. "What does it run on?" I ask.

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"Biodiesel," says Mr. Abbott, better known as "Gadget," smiling puckishly. I, for one, am not sure what biodiesel is, sounding as it does both clean and unclean. I learn that it is fuel made from vegetable oils or animal fats. These are the kinds of engines that run on soybean and fryolator oil. In other words, where we see a McDonald's, they see a filling station.

The truck delivered an electric motor from Gadget's shop to the expo, where he is converting a 1978 Triumph Spitfire from a combustion engine to fully electric. Yesterday the motor was missing. The one he had ordered sat in a warehouse for a week while the shipper went on vacation. So Gadget pulled a motor out of another Triumph Spitfire he owns, averting a crisis.

9:20 a.m.: A crowd gathers around the Triumph. All weekend, people will filter in and out of the expo, but a group always surrounds Gadget's car. This is a real-time reality show – without the filming and Richard Hatch. Actually, there is filming – a crew is documenting the conversion. I ask Gadget why he is doing this in such a public venue, where failure would be so visible.

"Essentially, I grew up in a circus family," he says. His father was a firefighter. At public demonstrations, he was always the guy who jumped from a rooftop into the safety net. His mother was adventurous, too. Gadget has a photo of her water-skiing, on a disc, backwards – while eight months pregnant with him. "She says it helped her balance," he says.

12:00 noon: The combustion engine is gone. A four-inch pin sticks out of the transmission shaft. Gadget and his crew are behind schedule because when taking out the old engine, they spilled a half-cup of antifreeze. They had to clean it up with absorbent pads and cat litter. It took 90 minutes.

Now they're trying to get the electric motor to mesh with the transmission pin. It won't cooperate. "It looks like they made the pin a little longer in this particular model," says Gadget.

2:15 p.m.: Gadget takes a hacksaw and begins cutting the half-inch-diameter pin. It's maddeningly slow. "I've got a power blade that could buzz this off in 10 seconds," he says.

***

Gadget has performed about a dozen conversions to date. In his shop, he can convert a car in four to five days. He charges about $20,000 a conversion. Batteries are included, which, at $6,000 to $7,000 a set, are considerably more than your average AA purchase, even at Costco. Twenty grand may seem like a big outlay, but just a couple of booths away is a fully electric minivan built by AC Propulsion that is priced at nearly $60,000. One aisle over is a sporty car called the Electrum Spyder, also for $60,000.

Still, the real payoff comes at the pump or, in this case, the outlet. Cars are usually charged at night when electricity is cheapest. The utility cost is equivalent to a 60-cent gallon of gas, aficionados estimate. A final dividend comes in lower maintenance costs. With few moving parts, electric cars rarely break down. "I still stop at gas stations," says Gadget, "but only to get candy."

By the end of the day, Gadget is far behind schedule. Worse, tomorrow he will not have any of his crew to help him.

Sunday, 11:30 a.m.: Gadget has finally solved the pin problem. Here's what remains to be done: install the batteries and his "box" – the brains of the assemblage – and wire everything together.

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