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Electric cars in Big Sky country?

Gas-guzzlers rule in Montana, but one salesman is trying to grow a niche market for the environmentally friendly Zenn car.

By Ray SikorskiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2007

Bozeman, Mont.

"So here's a guy in a diesel," says Ron Gompertz, looking over his shoulder at the truck looming next to us. It's not really necessary to look, because the growling diesel engine is nearly drowning him out.

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"You wanna drag?" he asks me.

The question is an interesting one, not so much for its illicit overtones, but because it's being posed by the driver of a tiny, 1,200-pound Zenn electric car, which boasts a top speed of 35 miles per hour. The presumed competitor is a Ford F-250 Super Duty diesel pickup truck, which towers menacingly above us in the left lane.

The light turns, Mr. Gompertz hits the accelerator, and a surge of electrical zeal sends the little car flying down Bozeman, Montana's Main Street and around the next corner just before the next light changes.

"He just ran a red light to chase us," Gompertz says, brimming with glee. "Watch him as he pulls up – he'll probably look down at us and make fun."

Gompertz owns Bozeman's EcoAuto, which sells the two-seater Zenn cars, electric scooters, and gas-powered, Mercedes-built Smart micro-cars. The race seems very amusing to him, but now the gurgling behemoth is hovering just above my shoulder. I take a timid glance up at the driver. He's not making fun – just staring.

"This is the Montana culture," says Gompertz, a native of New York City. "Macho mobiles. This is the contrast. Look, he's got his big bars there [in front] to kill things with. It's Mad Max Road Warrior. ... This is the part of the Montana culture I don't get, the Neanderthal kind of thing."

Gompertz is not your typical car salesman. He's not your typical anything, really. He's dressed in hiking shoes, baggy cargo shorts, and a T-shirt that promotes Corvette racing – a throwback to his childhood fascination with muscle cars.

Cars still fascinate Gompertz, but now he's into brain rather than brawn. "It's got a cool sound, Jetsons-like," he says as he steers the whirring car through Bozeman's downtown. He wonders aloud about the whimsical future cars that were promised in magazines like Popular Mechanics back when he was a kid: flying cars, bubble cars, cars that floated on water.

"And then as an adult, no cars ever came out that looked like that. 2000 was the future. The year 2000. And what are we driving? We're driving things like that," he says, pointing to an SUV. "Who'd ever thought the future of future cars would be big, clunky, square trucks? ... We got gypped. You know? ... Here's as close as we get to the future – electric cars."

A ride with Ron Gompertz can easily be taken as a metaphor for his life: It involves risks and adversity, suffering and amusement, and ultimately, one senses, victory. He doesn't like driving on the same road twice. The same could be said for his train of thought.

In the tiny, solar-powered EcoAuto showroom on Main Street, a simple question – So, why'd you move here? – is deflected.

"Well, that's a long story," Gompertz says.

Prodded, he relents. And it's not simply a long story; it's an odyssey, filled with cul-de-sacs and scenic byways. It begins with his parents fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, moves on to New York and then San Francisco, and then spreads out over the entire country. Highlights include starting the Heyday punk-folk record label, developing a chemical formula that makes new copper look like old copper, and bringing high-quality European mosaic tiles to the malls of America. A variety of ex-girlfriends are mentioned. In 1976, as an assistant buyer for Bloomingdale's in New York, he sold a Cuisinart food processor to John Lennon, his hero. Gompertz is Jewish and his wife, graphic designer Michelle Gantt, is not, so after the birth of their daughter in 2003 they decided to jokingly celebrate "Chrismukkah," and published greeting cards and books promoting the made-up holiday, complete with recipes for "Gefilte Goose" and "Bible Belt Gelt Melt." Gompertz's mother is half-Jewish, and the books describe how, when he was a child, Gompertz's family celebrated its own version of the hybrid holiday, using a six-foot-tall plastic kumquat tree festooned with dreidels and Christmas stockings.