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EARTHWATCH : Making Inroads : An electric Ford gets raves, and a GM center is charged up over a battery-powered car.


According to Sunday's Los Angeles Times, an improvement of seven miles per gallon in this country's fuel efficiency might be enough to eliminate the use of almost 2 million barrels of oil a day--nearly the amount the United States imported daily in 1989 from Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia combined.

Here's what some Ventura County people are doing about fuel efficiency and at the same time air pollution--electric cars. David Zucker is an owner. Terry Henline and his associates are designers.

Zucker, an Ojai environmental activist whose regular job is making films ("Airplane," "Top Secret," "Ruthless People" and "Naked Gun") went electric last year. "I have two cars. My electric (in a Ford Tempo body) has become my automobile of choice. I have been able to greatly increase the energy efficiency of the gas car by keeping it in the garage. I only see it at night when I go in there to plug in the electric one to the wall socket. I started this for air pollution reasons--it's 90% cleaner than gas. Its upkeep is easy. Plus, the electric one costs 3 cents a mile to run and the gas one 8 cents."

Zucker got his electric Ford at Gary Star's Electric Motor Car Co. of America in Santa Rosa. His next picture is characterized by the Paramount Pictures publicity department as a "scenario in which the lead character exposes an underhanded government energy policy." For use in that picture, Zucker has ordered a model called the Destiny, built from a Pontiac Fiero body and equipped with photovoltaic cells so 10% of the power is solar. For years, he's been wanting to do an eco-film with an electric car in it, but he couldn't think of a good title. Now he's got it: "Naked Gun 2 1/2," coming this summer to a theater near you.

Henline, who works just around the corner from the Thousand Oaks City Hall, took over as director of General Motors' Advanced Concepts Center last year. The 8-year-old center's most recent assignment from GM, in response to a California Air Resources Board mandate in November, is "to produce a no-gas car that will be a desirable commodity."

John Schinella, Henline's predecessor, saw the board's regulations coming and had his people working on an electric car well ahead of other Detroit companies. (To date, Ford and Chrysler have no electric passenger car plan. They have announced their intention of meeting their resources board quota by manufacturing zero-emissions minivans, prototypes of which were on display recently at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Volkswagen has made some electric cars to meet German no-emissions standards.)

The GM center contracted with AeroVironment's Paul MacCready, who made the Gossamer Condor, a human-powered airplane. His job was to put together the power chain of the car at his laboratory in the San Gabriel Valley. In Thousand Oaks, the center designed what it calls the "slipperiest" car on the road today. Translation: lower aerodynamic resistance, which means it will require fewer batteries and a smaller electric engine. The result is a car being called the Impact. Henline said that in recent acceleration tests, it beat the Miata and Nissan 300XZ. GM is being coy about the price but said it would be comparable to cars in its category (note the aforementioned Miata and Nissan).

According to Henline, the first time the center crew put the body and the electric guts together and rolled it out, the scene was an alley in an industrial park. Workers from neighboring businesses came over and asked what it was. Henline's assistant chief designer, Ben Salvador, had a quip for the occasion, perhaps rehearsed.

"It's the next Honda."

Call the GM number for pictures and specifications to see if you agree. Before you hustle over to your local dealership looking for one, you had better know that these cars aren't scheduled for the marketplace until just before the California Air Resources Board deadline six years from now. But GM spokesmen told The Times that they hope to get out ahead of the pack.

However, beginning next week, if you want to test-drive a car that utilizes Gary Star's electric retrofit package, here are some "freeway close" places.

There is a peppy VW demo that Don Eaton and Richard Mayer have on offer at their North Hollywood shop. And there's a Dodge Omni and a Grumman van that dealer Mary Jane Eng has in Alhambra. They are taking orders. Prices range from $9,000 to $20,000 depending on the body you choose. A solar rig is extra. If you are married to your classic Mustang, one of these good folks will electrify your baby for you. Call for a quote.


* GM's Impact information: (800) 253-5328.

* Don Eaton and Richard Mayer Electric Cars, (818) 763-7321.

* Mary Jane Eng & Co., (213) 283-3623.

* Gary Star Electric Motor Car Co. of America, (800) 832-1986.

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