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Couple Generate High-Voltage Enthusiasm for Electric Cars

December 06, 1996|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hershel Rosenbaum and Marijke Bekken are all charged up over this week's arrival of America's first modern-day, mass-produced electric car.

Of course, the Sherman Oaks couple try to stay charged up at all times. They have to: They've been driving electric vehicles for three years.

His-and-her power cables dangle from a large circuit box attached to their garage wall. Each night the lines recharge 24 batteries hidden in clumps in his 1984 Toyota pickup and another 18 in her 1977 Volkswagen Rabbit. Digital gauges fastened to the dashboards flash "116 volts" when they are fully fueled and ready to roll.

The couple admit that their two cars are pretty utilitarian compared with the sleek EV1 electric vehicle that the General Motors Corp. introduced Thursday in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson.

The car is GM's answer to California's mandate that nonpolluting vehicles make up 10% of cars sold in the state by 2003. Other battery-operated vehicles are expected to be introduced next year by Honda and Toyota and in 1998 by Chrysler and Nissan.

But you might want to take the advice of a pair of electric pioneers before driving off the car lot in a new EV1:

* You'd better look carefully before you pull out. Pedestrians can't hear an electric car coming because there is no engine noise.

* Plan your travel carefully. A wrong turn or an unplanned detour can drain your batteries and leave you stranded.

* If you do run out of power, be patient. A phenomenon called "static charging" can bring seemingly dead batteries back to life and get you home.

"Just stop at a store and do some shopping if your batteries run down. If you wait, you can get another three or four miles out of it," Rosenbaum explained.

"It takes about six months of driving to learn what an electric car can, and cannot, do."

Rosenbaum, 33, is a vacuum cleaner repairman who has been intrigued by electric motors all his life. His wife, also 33, develops battery recycling regulations for the state Air Resources Board.

The pair met at a singles dance in 1993. So naturally, sparks flew when he told her he was converting a gasoline-powered car into a battery-powered one in his driveway.

Rosenbaum had paid $215 for the barely drivable VW Rabbit. He sold its engine for $200 and then spent $6,000 for electric motor parts. With a friend helping, it took 50 hours to convert it. He and Bekken decided a few months later to do the same thing to Rosenbaum's Toyota.

Bekken drives the Rabbit 1,000 miles a month commuting to her job in El Monte. Its 80-mile range means she can take it to business meetings as far away as Ventura or Huntington Beach--provided there's a place there to plug in and recharge for the return trip. (She said she drives a 13-year-old gasoline-powered car on trips to San Diego to visit her parents.)

"I generally call ahead to make sure an outlet's available," she said. "Most people will let you plug in. We've even plugged in at gas stations before."

Said Rosenbaum: "They generally make you pay for the electricity by raising the hood and giving them a lecture."

That's a chore he enjoys. There is glee in his voice as he recites the basics of the engine and of the recharging system he has rigged up at home. A specially metered, half-price electric rate lets them do their eight hours of daily recharging at night, during off-peak hours.

The couple save about $500 a year in gas, but much of that is offset by the cost of batteries, which last about three years.

"Adding water to the batteries is the only maintenance to this car," he said. "I tell people I get about 500 miles per gallon of water."

The battery issue, however, has dogged electric vehicles since the first ones were introduced on American roads 100 years ago. Heavy lead-acid batteries give electric cars a short driving range. And experts say advanced lithium ion and nickel metal hydride batteries are still being developed.

For that reason GM plans for now only to lease the $34,000 EV1 cars. That will "minimize any perception" of risk to early purchasers, GM officials say. Still, skeptics have suggested that fewer than 2,000 EV1s will be on the road by this time next year.

But don't tell that to Rosenbaum or Bekken. And don't call electric cars "glorified golf carts," either. "I hear that again and I'll scream," Rosenbaum said.

"Those cars are going to fly out of the showroom," was his electrifying prediction.

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