Backstory: Saving the planet, one car at a time

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

He spends the morning lining the bottom of the trunk with batteries. They are the key to electric cars and, at this point, something of their Achilles' heel. On the downside, you need a lot of them, which is expensive. They also take hours to recharge, and because the best ones haven't been in cars very long, no one knows just how long they'll last. The upside is that they provide cheap power and produce zero emissions.

1:20 p.m.: Gadget is mounting a metal tray over the motor, where he will place another half-dozen batteries. He is down to his last 2-1/2 hours. "All going smoothly," he says, although I notice he's working with more intensity.

He is also not breaking for lunch. Instead, a tall, slim woman in a denim jacket is feeding him forkfuls of salad. I ask about her link to Gadget. "We're going to be getting married," she says.

This is Charlotte Jackson. She is a painter who specializes in stylized frescos made to look centuries old. She met Gadget two years ago when she rented studio space from him. "It took him two years to convince me, but now I'm madly in love." (She's from London and thus is licensed to use the word "madly.")

2:40 p.m.: Former CIA Chief James Woolsey wanders by (OK, I buttonholed him after he gave a speech at the expo). He is particularly impressed that the job is being done without power tools. "This is a wonderful demonstration of ingenuity," he says.

3:45 p.m.: The batteries are in, Gadget's "box" is in, the car is fully wired, and it's ready for its first test. Gadget slips into the driver's seat. A crowd of 50 leans in. Gadget turns the key. Nothing. Nothing is what would happen in any case: Electric motors are silent when they start. But this nothing means nothing – no power. No juice. Not working. Gadget starts pulling wires.

4:00 p.m.: Electric diagrams lie across the hood. Gadget huddles over his controller. With a toll of a bell, the expo officially ends.

4:10 p.m.: Security people walk through telling everyone who is not an exhibitor to leave. No one huddled around Gadget's car moves.

4:30 p.m.: Gadget is in the trunk. The crowd has thinned to 15 people. Gadget follows the wires. He is still hoping to drive the Triumph out.

"Now it makes perfect sense," he says, tracing wires back to the "go-pedal," the equivalent of a gas pedal. He pulls it out and holds it aloft triumphantly. He says that when he was checking the controller, he should have detached the batteries. By not doing so, he thinks he "fried" the go-pedal. His fiancée offers to go to his shop and get another.

But it's a half-hour round trip. Time has essentially run out. In the end, Gadget winds up loading the Triumph onto his F-350 pickup. It seems an ignominious exit – a failure.

***

I pull up to Gadget's workshop in Culver City, Calif., three days later. Ironically, it lies at the foot of a line of hills that, in the early 20th century, were encrusted with hundreds of rocking-horse oil pumps. The Triumph is parked outside. It's working perfectly now. Gadget explains that, in the end, nothing had been shorted out. He just hadn't properly connected the go-pedal. He attributes the lapse to the rush in the final minutes.

We hop in the car. He turns the key – nothing again. But this time it is a good nothing – the power is on. He steps on the pedal. We take off, burning rubber. The car is fast. Very fast. Gadget explains that it has the equivalent of nearly twice the horsepower of the gas engine.

I ask Gadget if he was disappointed in the way the expo went. "Not at all. I had dozens of e-mails Monday, people who wanted to invest, people who wanted to work for me, people who wanted to volunteer 30 hours a week."

Then he speeds silently past Sony Studios, heading for somewhere in the future.

Part 1 appeared in Monday's Monitor.

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