Backstory: Saving the planet, one car at a time
Switching an old convertible to run on plug-in power is tricky, expecially in front of an expectant crowd. Part 2 of two.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.