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Life in the slow lane: The electric car, a relic of the 1960s, still offers an alternative.

March 17, 1988|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

Mildred Sellers got fed up with riding the bus. But the retired hotel clerk did not want an automobile either. She found them too big, too hard to park and too expensive to operate and maintain.

So she got a small car. A real small car.

So small, in fact, that it is more akin to a golf cart. Sellers, 79, became the owner of an electric car, a vehicle once popular with Long Beach senior citizens in the age before dial-a-rides and taxicab coupons.

Sellers, an active woman who might otherwise be confined to her Elm Avenue apartment by a bad hip, says her red runabout allows her to make regular rounds to places such as the doctor's office, post office and grocery store. With the electric car, she does not have to walk or fight crowds boarding public buses.

The electric car has become as much a part of her life as her love for baseball, the green onions she grows in a planter garden and her 7-year-old feline named Kitty Cat.

Sellers admits that she has become a bit of an electric car buff who frequently trades in one model for another--five or six in the last seven years. They come and go frequently enough that Sellers says she draws notices from her friends.

"They'll say, 'You've got a new car, Mildred.' I say, 'The other one got dirty so I traded it in,' " she explained.

The sight of an electric car in Long Beach--common 30 years ago when downtown thrived with big department stores that drew heavily from the senior population--is becoming rare.

Long Beach police estimated in 1970 that about 2,000 seniors were driving the streets in electric cars. But today, the city's two remaining dealers say their combined customer list is about 350.

"There are still a lot of electric cars going around but it's just (that) you don't see them," said Hilda Billard, owner of Electric Car Sales & Service on South Street.

Likewise, they are not as noticeable to the police. "In recent times, I don't see hardly any at all," said Police Cmdr. Charles Parks, a 28-year veteran who heads the Traffic Enforcement Division.

The cars always were sturdy, slow, easy to park and dependable. And they took up so little room that they could run right down the sidewalk. For a time, they seemed the perfect mode of transportation. But then problems arose, as when some of the cars brushed against pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Bill Harris, president of the Historical Society of Long Beach, remembers having to jump out of the way of an occasional wayward electric car. Former City Manager John R. Mansell once called them "misguided missiles."

The golden age ended in 1967 when an 80-year-old at the helm of an electric car bumped into a ladder on the sidewalk. A man standing on the ladder fell to his death. The city, prompted by a lawsuit filed against it over the incident, banished electric cars forever from the sidewalks.

Forced to compete on the streets with comparatively monstrous automobiles, the electric cars began to lose their appeal. Along came other transportation alternatives for seniors such as dial-a-ride vans and discount coupons for taxicabs.

Still, electric car dealers keep plugging along. Billard's Electric Car Sales & Service has manufactured its own Electra King model for 25 years. The latest sells for $5,595 and, like others, comes in three-wheel and four-wheel models, has a single bench seat and room enough in the trunk to stand up bags of groceries. It has about a 20-mile range on a single overnight charge. Electricity runs about $5 a month.

Older models go for as little as $500, while the top-of-the-line, all-frills model can push $7,000.

"It's good for around town," said Roger Sharp, who works in the family-owned Sharp & Bigelow Enterprises on Cherry Avenue.

Sellers knows all too well. She said she only putts along at 10 or 15 m.p.h. and avoids main streets, keeping her distance from other cars.

Her little car is about as modest and simple as they come. The plain metal dashboard has none of the fancy switches and dials of a modern car. It is very utilitarian with little more than a gauge that indicates how much power is left in the batteries. A radio, she said, would be too much of a distraction.

Her latest car rides easier than some of the others, she said, comparing some to the "old wagons like when I was a kid. Honest weight, no springs. Just like the old scales. Some of them will beat you to death."

Sellers said she figures she travels about 15 days a month. None of it is on the weekends, when she is glued to her TV set watching ball games.

A self-described "coward," Sellers said she keeps in mind an early lesson of the road: "Consider everyone a pure damn fool."

But on those occasions when she has problems with other cars, Sellers said, she is not afraid to stand her ground.

"I tell them what they can do with their honking," she said. "You have to hold your own."

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