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.
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In between the detours, one learns that Gompertz set out from San Francisco in a van to promote his record label. After traveling to small college towns throughout the country, he got the itch to leave the big city. He ended up in Montana.Skip to next paragraph
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"Frequently I feel like a stranger in a strange land," he says. "I talk fast, I interrupt people when I talk – it's New York culture."
His driving style may also be an indicator of New York culture. Road work has transformed Bozeman's downtown. "What do you mean, no left turn?" he asks, piloting the Zenn car.
Defying the sign, Gompertz veers left, points the car toward the orange cones at top speed, then frantically flips a U-turn into a parking spot, hopping the curb in the process. Men in hard hats and yellow vests look on, concerned.
Gompertz first laid eyes on the Zenns – which stand for "zero emissions, no noise" – at last year's Sustainability Fair in Livingston, Mont. And he couldn't resist. He'd recently seen "An Inconvenient Truth" – Al Gore's documentary on global warming – and felt moved to do something on behalf of his young daughter. The cars seemed like the way to go. He recalls asking a Zenn representative, "'How can I become a dealer? This would be great for here!' He said, 'You're kidding me. Here? You really think so?' I said, 'I don't know if we're going to sell any, but I gotta do this!' "
Never mind that Bozeman, a college/ski town of about 35,000, isn't Portland or Seattle or San Francisco. Locals say Bozeman is a small town with big highways; the little two-seaters Gompertz sells are largely impractical for the town's families and gear-laden outdoor enthusiasts. He's sold about 35 cars so far, most to people outside the region through his EcoAutoInc.com website. All his sales have been gas-powered Smarts – except for a Zenn that he sold to a high school science teacher in Billings.
So is Gompertz crazy?
"Not at all," says Brian Schweitzer, Montana's ecoconscious governor. "In fact, if he is crazy, then I must be, too, because my wife and I are thinking about buying one of them."
The governor test-drove one of Gompertz's Zenns earlier this year, when he signed a bill raising Montana's speed limit for non-crash-tested electric cars to 35 m.p.h., the nation's highest. Rather than trying to bash his cars' square pegs into Bozeman's round holes, Gompertz is attempting to change the whole game. He plans to convert an all-wheel-drive Subaru, ubiquitous on Bozeman freeways, into an electric car.
"The Suby is so accepted here in Bozeman, it becomes almost a Trojan horse, with little guys inside: it's an electric car, but it looks familiar. It'll sneak in here."
The fact that he's gone the entire day without a single customer doesn't seem to bother him at all. He's more bothered by his self-perceived status as an "ecoposer" because he uses a VW Touareg SUV, with a trailer, to transport the little cars. And he also has trouble accepting that he is, in fact, a car salesman. Of all the hats he's worn, he never aspired to that one. He admits he sometimes has trouble closing the deal.
"There's so many people who come in and go, 'Oh, this is a really great car, yeah!' Then there's an awkward period, sort of like kissing a girl. Who's gonna do what? I can tell they're really interested in buying it, but I really can't, you know ... kiss them."
Yet another challenge, but one senses he'll get the hang of it. After all, he's been around the block a few times.